Everywhere Present

Everything you do, all your work, can contribute towards your salvation. It depends on you, on the way you do it. History is replete with monks who became great saints while working in the kitchen or washing sheets. The way of salvation consists in working without passion, in prayer….

May God give you the strength to keep your spirit, your mind, and your heart in the spirit of Christ. Then everything that happens to you can very quickly be radically transformed. What was tiresome and discouraging will disappear, transfigured by your desire to be there where Christ your God is….

Elder Sophrony of Essex

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The wise elder’s words are not only good for our salvation (which is always at hand) but also remind us that we should not divide our lives into two worlds. Even monks have to wash dishes…

If we concede that some of our life is drudgery, mindless, but needful, while other parts of our life are interesting and of value to God, then we have ourselves created a two-storey universe of our inner world. “This part of my life is of no value – while this part is of great value.” This, of course, is nonsense. Even service in the Holy Altar frequently includes washing dishes.

The words of the elder teach us that the problem of the two-storey universe is to be found primarily in our own heart – not in the culture around us nor in the tasks we find at hand. God is everywhere present and filling all things. He is even present and filling the various tasks of “drudgery” we undertake. No task is beneath us. The Mother of God changed the diapers of the God of heaven. Our love for those around us should be no less. We are moved when we read in John that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of Lazarus, His friend. The Theotokos had long before heard Him weap and wail as all children do. Nor should any mother (or father) give less value to the weeping of their own children. God has invested everything with His love, transforming the world into the stage of our salvation. Glory to God for all things and in all things – always and everywhere.

39 comments:

  1. When in Seminary, I read a book by Brother Lawrence called “Practicing the Presence of God.” The words of Elder Sophrony echo what Brother Lawrence said. Your post is the third such reminder, it must mean it is important to remember. It takes work to accomplish but it is well worth it. Thank you Father.

  2. Of all things, I needed to ‘hear’ this just now. Glory to God. Today I’m mired in a lot of “grunt” work and here I was thinking it had no value. Now I meet with God’s Grace and I’m very thankful to Christ, and to you Fr Stephen and to all who are engaged in this blog.

  3. I second that, Dee. I have, for quite some time, considered my work “drudge work” and of little value. How easy it is to forget that God is in all things! Glory to God!

  4. I think that Father Stephen noetically senses the state of the souls of his readers and this is how he can tell we needed this reminder on a Friday afternoon… 🙂

    Father, is this a photo from the old kitchen in Essex?!

    Actually, doing dishes in any monastery is one of the best jobs in the world, to do and to watch being done….

    I hope Dino does not mind if I quote a post he offered a few years back. I have it printed and posted at my desk at work, for the days and times when the work begins to feel unbearable:

    Dino says
    October 17, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Work’s salvific possibilities are the same as those contained in any circumstance. Since there are no circumstances that must ever make us blind to God ministering to our salvation (through them), circumstance is the locus of our salvation. We must obviously choose wisely when we deal with ‘the world’. Indeed. However, it is inevitable that, no matter what the choices, the more one becomes immersed in God’s Grace, the more marginal EVERYTHING becomes to his heart of heart’s, that place that he is constantly drawn towards all the more stronger.

    Any battle between the demands of the world and the demands of Grace is ultimately, potentially fruitful and provides wisdom- problematic as it may at first seem. May we allow ourselves to be lead closer and closer to Him through any circumstance, by keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the ‘guiding star’ (Christ) before us, in the midst of cities and wilderness, jobs and family, passions, tribulations and benefactions.

  5. Thank you, Father for this gentle reminder. I say “gentle” because whenever I complained or otherwise felt sorry for myself, my spiritual father would always ask, with just a touch of annoyance, “Who do you think you are?” Whenever I slip into self-pity, I can hear Otche saying those words and they never fail to save me. I dearly love that man.
    I’m going to supplement Otche’s saving words with yours. Again, thank you.

  6. Fr. Stephen, you were led to this timely message!! Just earlier today I was helping my 88 yr old mother, who is supposed to be doing more for herself but is acting helpless and needy, to do things to help her get back to my car. I had a moment of frustration with the whole situation and that she is not trying to help herself, and it was as if I heard a gentle chide from Christ and the Theotokos – saying you would do this for ME, and with joy in your heart. Do that same for your earthly mother. I am sure it was just that inner voice that tells us when we are doing less than what is expected of us as the children of God.

  7. Thank you Fr. Stephen. Not only is this wise and good counsel, but comes at exactly the time when it can be a sign of validation for a recent decision to approach things this way. Thank you so much again, and for all of your blog

  8. I must confess I have a life long conundrum concerning work. Some work, especially in our world, is simply participation in madness, yet it is what is available to support myself and my family.

    Washing dishes is life affirming as is tending a child, etc.

    It has longed seemed to me that the less life is in a task, the less humanity, the more money one can obtain and the more it is valued by our society. Good work is difficult to find, even more difficult to do with integrity.

    It is a confusion I have never gotten out of. Maybe I am just slothful.

    Lord have mercy.

  9. I cannot remember where I came across this, but someone somewhere has a sign hanging above their sink that reads: “Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.”

  10. I have to say, I am in agreement with Michael. I’m a cashier in a large retail store. There are a lot of senseless things we are told to do or there will be negative consequences. My least favorite is selling products that nobody wants, and are a waste of money in many cases, just to boost profits that could have been sustained if the company hadn’t undersold all it’s smaller local competitors and then bought them out. Ironically, the world undervalues quality and integrity because cheap and easy is more profitable. How can I serve God dispassionately when my spirits allergic to the motives and methods of my workplace?

  11. One thing I’ve noticed while pilgrimaging at monasteries is the way in which monks transition between work and prayer. Not much seems to change, at least in the way they present themselves, between sweeping the floor outside the church building and singing a troparia inside the church building. Their faces look the same. It’s as everything is sacred, everything is holy. Great post, Father!

  12. “One thing I’ve noticed while pilgrimaging at monasteries is the way in which monks transition between work and prayer. Not much seems to change, at least in the way they present themselves, between sweeping the floor outside the church building and singing a troparia inside the church building. Their faces look the same. It’s as everything is sacred, everything is holy.” How true! It had never really occurred to me that precisely put and I spend quite a lot of time while pilgrimaging at monasteries! Thank you for the post and for all the comments.

  13. “One thing I’ve noticed while pilgrimaging at monasteries is the way in which monks transition between work and prayer. Not much seems to change, at least in the way they present themselves, between sweeping the floor outside the church building and singing a troparia inside the church building. Their faces look the same. It’s as everything is sacred, everything is holy.”

    I wonder if there is not a connection between this attitude and focus and the amount of things we accumulate during our lives. Just thinking out loud here, but I think the material focus of our lives, in consumption and “ownership”, is a huge distraction to us in our everyday routines. We work to maintain our “standard of living” and not lose what we have! How much freer I would be if I did not have a mortgage to pay, collect the items I collect (whether books, art, clothing, etc…), hold on to family heirlooms, etc…. It occurs to me that monks have given all of these things up and so can more easily focus their lives, and all things in them–even their work, on constant prayer and thanksgiving. Just my thoughts. Blessings to all!

  14. Byron, well said. Monks also practice obedience which is also freeing. I rarely have such peace as when someone asks me for something unexpected, something that takes my “own” time and effort. Knowing God’s will in such situations is easy and the reward is great.

  15. Does this mean that you can serve God through all the facets of a human life: for instance I’ve just been off sick & am back to work part-time. Does this mean I can do the extra rest sessions I need in a way that means they are an offering to God? What would that look like?

  16. Renewal, certainly. Especially by being thankful for both the work and the rest, and patient where there is boredom or discouragement, or exercising what faith you have by praying and doing what you can (such as resisting the temptation to be irritable with yourself or those close to you, or complaining overmuch) even where depression, doubt and suffering persist. I suggest looking up Fr. Stephen’s post, “It is But a Small Thing.” It’s one of my favorites.

  17. Byron,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I often feel like a slave of my possessions.

    Sometimes I look at everything in my house and marvel at how few things I actually use. Half of my free time is spent on just moving stuff, from one place/pile to another (sometimes it is an attempt to get rid of it) …

    My favorite metaphor/example of how I could live minimally is a content of a fairly small suitcase I have learnt to pack for monastery visits (compared to the closet full of clothes that I hardly ever wear).

    One friend recently commented that stuff we own (and keep despite not really needing it) “is a bit like sin: if you don’t cleanse yourself from it, it will cost you very dearly in the long run.”

  18. Some years ago I read a short article discussing this subject, the accumulation of things. The man who wrote the article gave some very sound advice despite the fact he was talking about living aboard a sail boat. He counselled his readers to look at their possessions and see which ones they used at least once a week for six months. He said, keep them, you need them. For the rest, he said, you don’t need them, sell them or give them away.
    When I was getting ready to move to Seminary I took his advice. I had been living in a 2400 Sq Ft house and had plenty of “stuff.” I divided everything into three piles. Pile one was the stuff I needed and would need in my 700 Sq Ft apartment I was moving to. Pile two was the stuff I did not need. Pile three was a subset of two and it was basically family heirlooms and things I valued as treasures such as my HS Letter Jacket. Pile two became the garage sale pile. Pile three got boxed up and sent to my children who were all adults. Pile one got packed in boxes and loaded into the U Haul for the trip cross country to my new to me apartment.
    I graduated and eventually came to where I am now and bought a house. I am accumulating stuff again. I think it is time to make piles once more. There are Rules of Stuff. The first Rule of Stuff is that you will collect Stuff over time. The second Rule of Stuff is that it will expand to over fill where it is kept. The third rule of Stuff is that if you ever remove it from where it is kept, it will expand exponentially and you will never be able to put it back into its assigned space (think of suitcase on vacation with this rule). The last Rule of Stuff is that if you ever get it into your head to dispose of Stuff you will be possessed with an insane desire to re-accumulate Stuff until you have more than you did before.

  19. Byron and Agata,

    I also think it is just so… Ownership is a potentially huge distraction, a most dangerous eternal attachment even, a false god to our wretched hearts… But that total renunciation of possessions, [the one of the three monastic vows] that St Isaac the Syrian seems to consistently make the most of by making his readers consider it as purely an alternative term for complete trust (and a prerequisite of the perfect and “inebriating, all-embracing hope”) in God alone, cannot sustainably by experienced in our ‘worldly’ life contexts to those dizzying extents he portrays. However, we ought to incessantly attempt to reignite our ardor to not be internally engrossed, to not permit our hearts to become attached; so that we deal with all the things of this world as if we have no dealings with this world, knowing that the present form of this world will soon pass away. (1 Corinthians 7:31)

  20. Please forgive me and tell me how to deal with a wife and stepdaughter who constantly are buying things. There is no more room in our house or my stepdaughters house to store the things they buy! How many dishes and shoes and rings and earrings and purses and kitchens things can two people buy? and that’s not the half of it! They constantly buy gifts for friends and relatives too and why is it all needed!? It can’t all be worn or used. I’m at a loss and about to go live on a deserted island or monastery! Am I wrong here and couldn’t the money be used for more important things than just Accumulation! Lord have mercy and please forgive my impatience!

  21. Anonymous, I feel your pain! This sort of addiction and accumulation is an oppressive burden and very common, unfortunately, in our relatively affluent materialistic society. (Have you ever watched the “Hoarders” reality TV series? Truly frightening!) When I was younger, though I was too poor as a single girl to accumulate much, shopping for “bargains” I mostly didn’t need was my mood altering substance of choice, so I understand the drive and the insecurity and emptiness inside that fuels it. In our culture especially, women struggle with body image, so clothes and accessories are a very common way to try to fix that and feel pretty and stylish. I’ve found the only solution is a heart changed (and filled) by Christ’s love, and the only way to participate in that change occurring in another is to continue to pursue that transformation in one’s own heart! There’s a reason the first rung on St. John’s Ladder of ascent to God is renunciation. May the Lord have mercy on you (and all of us)!

  22. anonymous,

    If I discerned genuine fervour in me to truly do something in order to become of use to God as His agent for the transformation of those I love (who are addicted to extreme ‘retail-therapy’), I’d probably ask my Spiritual Father for a blessing for a supplementary, sustained fast, it is tremendously powerful in such cases. If nothing else, it would enable me to “rejoice in my sufferings for them, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body” (Colossians 1:24)

  23. However, even something much smaller and more easy along the same path would be of benefit. A quite well known story demonstrating this is that of a distraught Father whose son had severe problems and Saint Paisios advised him to quit smoking to help his son. The remarkable effect of this is that everytime he quit his son took a turn for the better and was cured as well as the reverse whenever he ‘relapsed’…
    We are marvelously connected.

  24. Thank you Karen and Dino, very helpful words. Yes it is amazing how we are connected, every time I read Father Stephen (which is very often) his insights coincide with things going on in my life, such as this one! God is truly everywhere present. Lord have mercy.

  25. I like this (rather famous) poem by John Donne.

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

  26. Anonymous,

    I agree wholeheartedly about how “Father Stephen’s insights coincide with things going on in my life”. And the resulting conversations help so much…

    Karen and Dino,

    Thank you for the wonderful words of advice and encouragement to Anonymous.

    Karen, I tried to write something similar (even used exactly the same words you did in the first sentence), but could not put together any worthwhile words of advice. I admit having gone through similar phase of “accumulation”, mine was more focused on my children (we could have opened a Legoland store with all the Legos that were bought for my three boys over the years – now they sit in boxes, maybe waiting for grandchildren – but that is only an excuse to keep them and not deal with that particular “possession”).

    Thank you Dino for the reminder about how powerful fasting is, and in general any ascetic effort on our part. Thank God for contemporary Greek Saints who interacted with ordinary people like us and transmitted/renewed the knowledge of that wisdom for us.
    But it’s not enough to know/think about it, we have to actually practice it. It’s that truth that we cannot really change anybody, we can only change ourselves. And we can only truly change ourselves when we turn to Christ and ask Him for His Grace to work in and through us.

    (Karen, could you please see my question to you at the end of the post on the Council. I posted it there a few days ago, hoping you are the right person.)

  27. I find it amazing that sometimes the most simplest of messages can be the most powerful. This was really wonderful and one of those reminders we need often. I am stunned at how forgetful I am.

  28. Dear Anonymous

    We went through this with our oldest teenage daughter and it was mostly about self image – as was said here. Also we live in an affluent area and many of my girls friends have parents who will buy them pretty much anything and can afford to do so.

    There was a lot of prayer for our daughter but also some practical conversation. Made possible because I had struggled with the same problem – keeping up with the Jones’. It’s addictive.

    These companies spend a lot of time marketing to our basic desires (to fit in) which has nothing to do with what is “needful”. Most people respond without even thinking they are being taken advantage of – but there are some who will have buyers remorse.

    I can remember as a kid, we got a. Couple of big thick merchandise catalogues a year (for clothing stores) and Sears and generally speaking the daily mail box was not that full.

    As an adult my daily mailbox is full of mini catalogues for many stores and lots and lots of. Coupons everyday of every week. How many pottery barn and Williams Sonoma catalogues does one person need??

    To top it off my email inbox always has a coupon for a 20% of limited time deal from some store and I get multiple reminders that the deal is about to expire or that it has been extended – especially for “special” customers like me.

    It’s a bombardment. My teenage girls get these too and it affects them. My husband and I are now trying to teach our middle daughter the same lessons about needlessly buying needless merchandise.

    Aside from going to the Saints we found a practical way to teach then was to make a calendar of purchases that they claim they absolutely “need ” and with our oldest and now middke child we also encourage them to discuss how they are feeling at that moment when they have that coupon in hand and are telling us they absolutely “must buy” another pair of shoes. To hear them talk one would think they are literally in distress about it.

    We also talk about donating something to GoodWill with each new purchase (we have the benefit of living in an older house with small closets. )

    At some point we go back and look at the calendar and have them make the connection. How often does one absolutely direly “need” something.

    Buying something new is an endorphine release. Having a calm dialogue about it is important. Better not to talk about it when they are arriving home with bags of new things, but rather at another time. Ask God to present an opportunity for a calm fruitful conversation.

    be patient. He will.

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