Children today are raised with dreams of greatness. Cultural affirmations of our limitless potential, well-intentioned, have not produced a generation of over-achievers, but have indeed brought forth hordes of great dreams. This is nothing new in American culture. We are the world’s longest sustained pep-talk. Ronald Reagan loved to quote the 1945 Johnny Mercer hit:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
We sing the songs of progress in the gospel of an ever-improving world. Today, this is the purpose that motivates almost every undertaking, both public and private. However, the cult of progress is the repudiation of grace.
Of course, the world of progress and pep-talks seems quite innocent, and may even be credited with inspiring innovation and effort. At its heart, it is rooted in the Christian faith, though in a heretical iteration that came about in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was timed with the great American drive to the West. Together, they created what is today the largest engine of modern culture and the most dominant civilization in the history of the world.
“Progress,” as a word with its present meaning, only goes back to the 19th century. It describes a sort of eschatology, the Christian doctrine of the end of all things. Traditionally, Christianity has espoused that at the end of time, Christ will return and reveal the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Mystically, the Church also affirmed that this Kingdom-which-is-to-come is somehow already present in the sacramental life of the Church. The 19th century notion, however, was that the Kingdom was something given to humanity to build. Guided by the blueprint of justice described in the Scriptures, it was for us to bring forth the Kingdom in this world as we eliminated poverty and injustice. Beyond all theory, the American Christians of the 19th century not only embraced this new idea, they believed they could already see it happening. “From sea to shining sea,” God’s grace was increasingly manifest in the unfolding destiny of the American century.
This initially Christian belief has long since shed its outward religious trappings and assumed the shape of modern secularism. However, we should not underestimate the religious nature of modernity. No religion has ever felt more certain of its correctness nor its applicability for all people everywhere and at all times than the adherents and practitioners of modern progress. Indeed, that progress assumes that all religions everywhere should quietly agree to find their place in the roll call of those who place their shoulder to the wheel in the building of a better world. Within the rules of secular progress, there is room for all.
The adherents of modernity not only feel certain of the correctness of their worldview; they believe that it should be utterly obvious to any reasonable person. Resistance is reactionary, the product of ignorance or evil intent. But from within classical Christianity, this is pure heresy, and perhaps the most dangerous threat that humanity has ever faced.
No one can argue with doing good things and helping people (and I certainly won’t try). But placing the good we do (or attempt to do) into the context of progress or making the world a “better place” is a serious distortion, one that is actually a distraction from our lives.
There are habits of the heart worth pondering in this context. The train of thought geared towards progress and the greatness of our achievements is rooted in discursive reasoning’s efforts to judge, weigh, measure and compare. It becomes a habit that blinds us to many things. Of note, the faculty that judges, weighs, measures and compares is not the same faculty that sees beauty. It is the faculty of utility, made for tools.
This faculty of the heart that sees beauty is also the faculty that sees the small things and the things that “do not signify.” It is not a practical place nor given to usefulness. The Fathers describe it as the nous, and often simply call it the heart. It is that place through which we have communion with God. It is, interestingly, also the place that recognizes Him in the “least of these my brethren.” It is that place which sees personhood in its proper form, in its utter uniqueness and never as “one of many.”
It is worth considering that our real day is almost completely populated with “small things.” Very few of us act on a global stage, or even a stage much greater than a handful of people and things. Our interactions are often repeated many times over, breeding a sort of familiarity that can numb our attention. We are enculturated into the world of “important” things. We read about important things of the past (and call it history); we are exposed to “important” things throughout the day (and call it news). We learn to have very strong opinions about things of which we know little and about people we have never met.
We have imbibed an ethic of the important – a form of valuing sentiment above all else. We are frequently told in various and sundry ways that if we care about certain things, if we like certain people and dislike others, if we understand certain facts – we are good persons. And we are good because we are part of the greater force that is making the world a better place. All of this is largely make-believe, a by-product of the false religion of modernity. For many people, it has even become the content of their Christianity.
The commandments of Christ always point towards the particular and the small. It is not that the aggregate, the “larger picture,” has no standing, but that we do not live in the “larger picture.” That picture is the product of modern practices of surveys, measurements, forecasts and statistics. The assumptions behind that practice are not those of the Christian faith. They offer (or pretend to offer) a “God’s eye-view” of the world and suggest that we can manage the world towards a desired end. It is little wonder that the contemporary world is increasingly “watched.” At present, nearly 1,100 active satellites are monitoring the earth (floating in a sea of over 500,000 bits of man-made debris). CCTV has become increasingly ubiquitous in major cities of the world. Pretty much every action made on your computer is noted and logged. All of this is a drive towards Man/Godhood.
The drive of God Himself, however, is towards the small and the particular, the “insignificant” and the forgotten. In the incarnate work of Christ, God enters our world in weakness and in a constant action of self-emptying. He identifies people by name and engages them as persons. Obviously, Christ could have raised a finger and healed every ailment in Israel in a single moment. He doesn’t. That fact alone should give us pause – for it is the very thing that we would consider “important” (it is also the sort of thing that constituted the Three Temptations in the Wilderness). Everyone would be healed, but no one would be saved. Those healed would only become sick and die later. This is also the reason that we cannot speak in universal terms about salvation. For though Christ has acted on behalf of all and for all, that action can only be manifested and realized in unique and particular ways by each.
This Divine “drive” is also the proper direction for our own lives. Our proper attention is towards the small, the immediate, the particular, and the present. Saying this creates an anxiety for many, a fear that not paying attention to the greater and the “important” will somehow make things worse. We can be sure that our attention does not make things better in the aggregate, while, most assuredly ignoring the particular things at hand is a true failure. Our spiritual life depends on the concrete and the particular – it is there that the heart is engaged and encounters God. In the “greater” matters, our sentiments are engaged rather than our hearts. You cannot love “world peace,” or “social justice.” These are vagaries that allow us to ignore peace with those around us and justice to those at hand. God does not want “noble” souls – He wants real souls, doing real things, loving real people, dying real deaths.
Follow the path of Christ and become small for Christmas.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, in one of his 55 maxims, said: “Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.”
How much truth you speak Father. As I read your post I reviewed in my mind the “history” that I have been alive to see and I can see everything you speak of as things that have occurred in my life time. I remember the Post WW II flush of success and the teaching and preaching of success and building a better world. When we had a bogey man to fear (The Soviet Union and Red China) we could claim to be the force for good standing against the “Evil Empire.” Unnoticed, we were busy doing things to “improve” the world like putting people like Saddam, the Shah of Iran and Qaddafi in power to keep the Evil empires at bay. We combated Communism from spreading by entering into the 2nd Indo China War to keep the dominoes from falling.
I heard the message of improvement and building the Kingdom preached from the pulpit and from the head of the classroom.
What I have noticed is that internationally, we have become worse than a schoolyard bully. We have taken to ourselves the right to smash whatever country does not sign up to our point of view. We are still trying to cling to the bogey man gig by vilifying Russia and China. We constantly rail about their aggressiveness and our troops are on their borders not visa versa.
I agree with you. Our great calling has been an utter failure and the signs are everywhere. My father was taught that if he kept his nose to the grindstone that he could achieve great success in life. He was guided into a life of service in the Army and yet, due to things far beyond his control, he did not reach the top (pesky periods of peace were to blame.) He died a broken man and an alcoholic. I look around at our culture and I see the sign that this great machine of progress is spewing parts and smoke and may very well soon collapse. We are a nation of broken people that have no hope. Addiction has become the number one problem of our people and our system seeks to fix it by every means except the one that works. We are becoming a violent nation in our civil life. We have mass shootings, horrendous gang problems and moral depravity everywhere.
Our way of fixing is to pass laws and it does not work because none of the laws address the real issues. We have told everybody they should be successful and have all they want and yet few ever get the material wealth and fewer are healthy spiritually. I would rather learn to love my neighbor, to share and to have communion then to have all the trinkets and baubles of the world. The only way to do this is to be small and I see I need much work on that.
As our Lady Theotokos said, “He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant…He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.” The Ever-Virgin was the most insignificant and the smallest person in history according to the world.
Your best post ever Father! Enough to chew on for a lifetime. You described Max Weber and his cult of efficiency to a T. I remember watching a documentary on Tony Robbins a few years ago and feeling such sadness. Nicholas, my father was in the Air Force and had to endure a stint in Vietnam. He also died a broken man, an alcoholic. He was agnostic, and oddly, the person he admired the most, his sister, my aunt, was extremely pious.
War destroys as all, some more than others. My father served in the China Burma India Theater in WW II, served in Korea landing in Inchon and surviving the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir and a tour in Vietnam. Yes, I am certain that he was broken by his experience, but he was also broken because he did not achieve what he was told he would if he worked faithfully. Modernity is a lie that chews up people and spits them out as lonely bits who seek numbness as a way out of pain. Some people choose alcohol, some marijuana and some cocaine . Other chose risk taking and some shopping. I could go on with the list of addiction both chemical and behavioral but the point is, modernity is killing us spiritually especially with the ideas of progress. Everyone gets to the point that they recognize that progress is an illusion, pain is real and they have not learned how to cope because they have no communion.
Thank you Fr. Stephen for reminding us that God sees the small, the particular.
Wal-Mart is big, the neighborhood market small.
A flock of starlings great, the sparrow that falls to the ground, small.
A mega-church is what the name implies, the storefront mission small.
The ocean is vast, the cool cup of water small.
Seven billion people is huge, our neighbor’s disabled child small.
All the people of Israel was large, the Virgin’s heart small (though her womb vast)!
The corpus of Scripture is large, the word spoken in season, small.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir enormous, the lilting voice of the nun flying heavenward small.
The whirlwind’s sound piercing to the
ear, the still small voice peace to the heart.
*First, I want to say, I really like your comment, Nicholas. And, you’re right about passing laws – I often work with the substance addicted population I can confirm, it doesn’t and won’t work for them.
As an accused and, at times even self-proclaimed social justice warrior, this was a painful article to read. I am, however, slowly learning the lesson, that I’m far too broken, small, and stupid, to be one of the people who creates or even helps create societal change. There are folks who can, perhaps, or at least appear to – those mighty figures born at the right time and place to surf on the crest of historical tidal waves … but, what wreckage do they cause when their tsunami crashes on the shore? I’ve been reading about the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther and I’ve begun to suspect the cost Europe paid for that change was far greater than any prize that was won. I sometimes feel my macro social-worker acquaintances who are focused on policy-level work can accomplish something beneficial, but they are generally at the mercy of the politicians (and, wasn’t Luther?). I think about the marches I’ve been in, the petitions I’ve signed. What have they accomplished? Once I thought the 99% movement simply needed to be more disruptive to be successful, then I read a little more protest history (ex: Kent State massacre or the labor massacres) and realized we’re all at the mercy of the powerful, of history, and of God. Sometimes I feel the only way to find peace will be through the small things, through helping my clients in crisis, through prayer, and through wrestling my way through my time as a catechumen. 😊
On the other hand, I grow sad when I think of the folks who tried to silence MLK not because they were “bad people,” but because they thought he was pushing for racial equality too hard or too quickly. I worry that maybe some folks were too small. Even today, under-represented racial groups, for example, suffer oppression and are ignored by the privileged.
I wonder if it’s sinful to think we can participate in change or if, at times, God demands it? Or, perhaps, it’s sinful and prideful for me to ponder these things at all? I’m reading a book by Fr. Thomas Hopko and in it he writes, “…the root of actual personal sin is not in making bad choices. It is rather in the presumption that we human beings have choices at all, and in thinking and acting as if we do.” Maybe God will simply use each of us as he sees fit? The tide of history will come in and go out as it always has… We’re all just drops in the ocean, hence your advice to be small?
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
May we all learn to be small, insignificant, and without reputation except that we belong to Christ by His immense grace. So happy to have read this before I make my New Years resolutions!!!!
The dream of social change, “making a difference,” is, strangely, one of the myths that keep people enthralled to the powers that be. We become their tools, almost inevitably. The change that MLK was part of, in whatever measure it succeeded, did so because of a thousand thousand small decisions and actions of a thousand thousand people. Civil Rights legislation was important (and mind you, a seriously documented racist pushed it through), but legislation doesn’t fix people (just as laws don’t make us sober).
Social justice (or Alt-Right) concerns do not make the world better, regardless of how much those enlisted as footsoldiers in those movements may think they do. One bit of evidence is that they are simply easy. They cost little more than a petition, a Facebook post, showing up at a rally, voting, holding an opinion. Being “small” is very hard – being small and faithful to the commandments of Christ is exceedingly difficult. It is the way of the Cross. For me, the question every day is, “Do I believe that the Cross is the true weapon of peace?” If so, then I need to take it up, carry it all the way to the self-emptying smallness of God.
“The tongue is a small member of the body and boasts of great things…” Js.3:5.
The 1,000 yearThird Reich of Hitler, of which he boasted, fell only 989 years short!
The Greek monastery I attend has about 27 nuns. Some have their masters degree. A couple are RNs. One graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley at 19. Many are bi-lingual. Almost all of our beautiful iconography has been accomplished by their skilled hands. Their voices can lift one into the heavens. Some are superb cooks. They make candles, beautifully decorated, as well as prayer ropes, lotion, vinegar, wine, soap; they are architects, technicians, farmers, gardeners, etc. Yet in 14 years I have never heard even one of them boast of what they have done or can do. They would have reason to…. If I ask if they have done so and so (I shouldn’t ) they will respond, “Glory to God!” Nuns of whom the world would have loved to mold into its fashion. But they have made themselves small for the sake of the kingdom. Glory to God, indeed!
The laws fail primarily because they are focused on the supply side of the equation. The “War on Drugs” is a perfect example. They try to shut down supply but they never address demand. Its the Demand of addiction that creates the problem, not the Supply. We see a great deal of chatter about Opioids. Yes they are physically addictive if used long term, but the real problem is people abusing them to numb out their feelings. I had to take Opioid pain killers three times in the last few years as a result of should, back and leg surgery. I still have almost a full bottle of the junk in my medicine cabinet. I don;t want to take it and I stopped taking it three days after each surgery when I could handle the pain with Motrin. The difference is that I have no desire to numb myself mentally. I only still have the pills because I have no way to dispose of them properly. I don’t want to flush them and make them part of the water supply.
I was also taught in Seminary that a Christian is a social warrior. I had to hold my tongue until I graduated. The Lord never told us to fix the world. He told us to make disciples. He also told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked etc but not on a global scale. I am convinced He meant those who are your neighbors, in other words on the small and personal scale. The best I can do for the world is to work with Grace to make myself less of a problem to others and to introduce them to He who can fix their hearts. It is His task to fix the real evil of the world which is Death and He did that.
Thank you, Father, for consistently reminding us of what is most important in our lives as Christians. And thank you everyone for all the great comments so far.
“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.”
+Elder Epiphanios, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 75.
You’re right, Father. Being small is hard (even when we’re unimportant – how strange). I can’t even keep the commandments as it is. Not. At. All. Sometimes I think I’m too sinful to even be a catechumen! And, it’s weird how it’s easier to love an idea like “social justice” than it is to love some difficult acquaintance. Smh. I think this may be what my orthodox friend meant about him being careful not to make idols of his liberal ideals.
Yeah, Nicholas! Your personal experience matches up closely with recent research! Some folks, like you, can take opiates and never seem to get addicted and some folks who are addicted suddenly quit in their thirties or forties. So, it turns out the “disease” model wasn’t as accurate as was originally thought… And, maybe you’re right. “Fixing” the world is an awfully big job. Most of us would have our hands full helping out our hometown.
I think one of the reasons this might have seemed so obvious and clear to the Elder Epiphanios was the fact that he was not an American (and because he was a saint). Americans a nurtured in the same nonsense that drives the nation as a whole – that we can change the world (as individuals) and fix everything and everybody in it (American policy). Greece is small and has largely been bossed around for centuries. Their proudest moment in recent history was the day they said “No!” ( όχι) to Mussolini who demanding that they allow fascist forces to occupy their country or face war. They were the mouse that roared. There is a national holiday in honor of that brave event.
We could all do with saying “no” a lot more to the demands of the mighty. “No, I’ll be small.”
Father, bless..your last statement about” saying no to the demands of the mighty…” uh, does that include our children and grandchildren?
Sometimes, I suspect it does. Then, again, sometimes they assist us in becoming small. We can, however, answer some demands, “I’m not big enough to do that.”
Or, I’m too old to do that! 🙂
Yes, together hopefully we can be a symphony, whether head violin or lowly piccolo…your answer to Karen.
As I approach 50, I wonder if more traditional cultures face the middle age crisis Americans face when we realize that we have actually been small all along…
Good question. I wonder as well if many of our various crisis points in life are not driven by the cognitive dissonance of discovering that the American Dream (in its myriad versions) hasn’t quite worked out for us…and we mistakenly think that it’s just us.
Right now, I’m feeling that I’m not nearly small enough – but God is doing His part to help me get there. It’s scary.
Oh Father Stephen,
Please, please make sure all your writings are preserved (in book form?) for posterity.
Thank God and you for your work.
Thank you Fr. Steven alot to chew on here, getting very near 50 and being Orthodox for about half that time, I see that indeed the American Dream has alluded me and my physical and mental faculties are diminishing, my dreams not fulffiled, just a broken, simple Joe is all I have ever been. Thanks to your article I see that I must continue to decrease and by God’s grace go lower and love each as much as I will and hopefully I can find Grace in the small things!! Great article and comments!!
Yes, it is scary.
God has been working on me too. Its amazing how small you can feel, and yet find that yes, smaller is possible. It takes much work to find and experience the grace at such times, and yet not give up. Sometimes that seems the miracle.
Having spent a major portion of my life overseas in other cultures I rather think these crises points are the result of our culture and individualism. In other cultures success and achievement are nt the central focus of life. People take pride in their families and in their communities.
Only in Western Culture are we so tied t material possessions and the drive to consume and possess. I am convinced that our drive for this is the underlying cause of addiction and other social destructive behavior. When I saw beggars in other countries they literally had only the clothes they were wearing. If they got anything to eat it was likely from the garbage others threw out. In the US I see them with smart phones and Air Jordans and many very fat. Perhaps we are too focused on “success” and stress ourselves into crises.
Your comments are very appreciated . Much of our anxiety comes from looking up the ladder at those who have more, instead of looking down and seeing how much we do possess. I may not remember these numbers exactly right, but I think they’re in the ballpark. If we have a net worth of $65,000 we are in the top 10% worldwide. If we have net worth of $750,000 we are in the top 1 % of people worldwide. Puts things in perspective. “How hard it is for those with riches to enter the kingdom of God.”
Seraphim 1969! I’m Paula 1954! I sure do understand what you are saying! You know the saying “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”? This thing about coming to the realization of our smallness is actually a blessing…the impact of the fall hurts, as it should, but He does not leave us like Humpty Dumpty, a lifeless mass of rubble. And despite the fact that our brokenness will always remain visible by the “cracks”, as does Christ’s wounds, the Church is the glue the King Himself uses to put us “back together again”! Getting old is all it is cracked up to be and our only strength is in Him.
I think if we stood between the Rich Man and Lazarus, we would fear wealth above all things.
I really appreciate the sentiments articulated in this article. They make me want to get to know you personally, Father Stephen.
That said, I think the posture that it advocates vis a vis the “big things” is incomplete. It implies the appropriateness, ultimately, of a sort of complete quietism on the part of Christians towards the bigger sociopolitical concerns of the time and space they Providentially inhabit.
I actually think that political quietism is a respectable option for mature Christians to embrace. But it is not the only option. If it were, then pro-life activism, for example, would be off-limits for serious Christians. Maybe, in fact, it is off-limits, but I am more inclined to regard pro-life activism as something that demonstrates that political involvement of the right kind is not a bad thing for Christians.
So what is the “right kind” of political involvement? I submit that it involves engagement on behalf of all the forms of genuine injustice traditionally identified by the secular left, though in the context of a recognition that such engagement will ultimately be inefficacious in bringing about its stated aims. Such engagement will nevertheless have value, however, as a prophetic witness to the Truth in human social and political affairs.
It is an abiding tragedy that it has been predominantly left to secularists who hold Christianity in contempt t sustain such a moral witness, and that fervent Christians reject the validity of this moral witness more often than they embrace it. This ongoing state of affairs is a great source of scandal, and I believe that it continues to prevent many who thirst for Christ from finding him.
Your concerns have been articulated by others as well. My own thoughts are more along the line that we continue to have these larger concerns because we’re in American and are constantly deluged with the message of modernity about building a better world and making a difference. The belief in the smallness of our lives is not quietism, it’s believing in the reality of the Kingdom of God and of God’s work in our midst. After, what, 50 years of pro-life work, we’ve hardly had any impact at all on the laws. On the other hand, the “small” work done by many thousands of faithful Christians in pro-life pregnancy centers and adoptions have saved many lives. Large actions are cheap and easy, I think. The costly ones are quite small, personal, etc. It is not quietism to actually serve in small ways. Our culture is filled with “big” examples. They are almost all empty actions of hypocrisy. I would have no concern about how we look to unbelievers. If we would live with integrity – God will do what He’s promised to do. And, of course, sometimes their just going to kill us anyway.
Paula 1954, yes indeed! The Church is for me my only refuge and I am very blessed to have humble priest who reminds me to be small and that feeling broken is the norm, with hope of course. I meant to say that I couldn’t be more grateful for this growing knowledge, as St John the forunner said, ” He must increase and I must decrease”. The consolation that we have is that in the way down, “Christ is in our midst, and He is and ever shall be”. What a beautiful greeting we share! What living words. I am extremely grateful for All that is taking place as the “I” diminishes and the “we” becomes more of a living reality, that we are all one body in Christ and the whole understanding of Personhood and being communion. I so much am enriched by these articles and comments!! Keep em coming!!
At our church, there are two young men that have come from Uganda. They have been here for about a year. Their dad is an a Orthodox priest. They have shown us the mud church hut they have built, the iconostasis. They have a special quality within their heart that I cannot put my finger on. Having completed university at home with a major in business, I ask them what they would like to do here, and they reply that they have come here to work and be able to go home and help in some way. Followed by the statement, ” Since we are only here for a short time (meaning here on earth), we will try to help make life a bit more comfortable for others who are here.
He said this in such a way that I have not hear others speak. In a humble way. A servants way. It is something I will never forget. I think it should be written in the introduction of every business book.
Recently, after the liturgy of St Nicholas, I asked how they were getting along. One of the young men responded how different life is here, and the other had nothing to say, although I could see something so sad yet beautiful in his eyes. A sort of sad knowing, a saintly knowing.
Those men sound like sweet souls.
If this is their first Christmas in America, I can understand the sadness. The materialism/consumerism would be difficult on any given visit, but so much more so during the hustle bustle of Christmas.
It’s nice you met them and took the opportunity for conversation. I hope their prayers be answered.
I have a young secular relative who seems very much caught up in the belief being involved in big ways and large movements is what makes us matter as human beings. She started an activist club in her high school and was awarded a scholarship to a convention in a South American country (I forgot which one) for young people from the first world seeking to “make a difference” in the developing world. She went hoping to help by interacting and getting to rub shoulders with the citizens of that country and from other parts of the world, but confessed to me with some sheepish embarrassment and disappointment that the convention was confined to meetings and activities in a luxery hotel with a group of “privileged rich kids”–all talk and no real action. I couldn’t help contrasting that with the hands on, personal help and experience that routinely takes place when Christians from churches here in the first world partner with their counterparts in impoverished parts of the world in acts of service and mission to impoverished communities, where emmissaries of the helping church get to actually visit, stay and work with indigenous members of a local church and be totally immersed from the start. The personal communion with others within even non-Orthodox Christian churches because of Christ is palpable in light of its contrast with so much of the secular activism the world offers in its place.
I have seen more than one eager American who traveled to the Third World in order to help change it – but came back changed themselves.
It is their first Christmas here, now that I think about it. They were here for Pascha, and were asked to speak about their life at home, following one of the Presantified liturgies. They marvel at our fellowship hour after liturgy with food and donuts. Say they have nothing like it at home. They are fluent in Greek, English , Swahili. Just try and help out in any capacity, wherever there is a need.
If I had to, I would rather sacrifice my own peace, then see them lose their peace. That’s how beautiful it seems to me.
Just so. I thought later to add, these Christians went bearing material resources to offer along with themselves for a short period and returned with spiritual riches from their “impoverished” brethren that transformed them–demonstration of the reality of “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom…. ” (Luke 6:38).
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this blog post and for your following comment: “I wonder as well if many of our various crisis points in life are not driven by the cognitive dissonance of discovering that the American Dream (in its myriad versions) hasn’t quite worked out for us…and we mistakenly think that it’s just us.” Over the last four years, I have experienced a series of such crisis points. It is good to read that I am not alone in seeing in them as the failure of the American Dream manifesting in my life in different ways. It is also good and even comforting to see Christ contrasted with modernity and its hymns of progress, especially in your parallel of what we see as “important” and The Three Temptations in the Wilderness.
Looking back over these last four years, it is hard not to hear God calling to my family and me through each of these crisis points. It is even harder to think that God wasn’t calling us to see what was and is “real” versus “important” in our lives of faith. And to that end, we attended our first Divine Liturgy a few months ago. It has been and, I hope, will continue to be a path away from the ‘sentimental’ towards the ‘real.’
Thanks to God for His abiding presence in all things!
An inquiry only Father
Why is it on your Facebook page the comment option is not available to all?
I’ve noticed this on a some of the other Fathers’ pages.
Please don’t let it because only views that agree are permitted and any other whether dissenting, doubtful, confused or just simply seeking are excluded.
I don’t know the answer to that. It’s certainly not because dissenting, etc., are not allowed. I would hardly think it worth writing if those who dissent, doubt, are confused or just seeking were excluded. I’ll look closer at the Facebook thing. I would say that the comments on Facebook are not something that I pay much attention to – because they really cannot be handled as well as they are here on the blogsite. I prefer that people click through to the blog and place comments here.
There are “rules” for commenting on the blog. They can be found here: Groundrules for this Blog
You’ll note that disagreement, etc. is not a problem.
I am reminded of several characters from Charles Dickens.
Daniel Peggoty from David Copperfield. When tragedy befell his niece, he didn’t try to close the brothels and reform the society. Instead, he single-mindedly sought her, haunting the alleys and ramshackle buildings, doggedly pursuing her. And when he found her, he covered her shame with his love, with no reproach, no judgment.
We are not commanded to give to charities, but to the person who asks, the hungry person, the naked person, the sick person, the suffering person. I do not intend to malign charities per se, but another Dicken’s novel comes to mind. In Bleak House Mrs. Pardiggle sees the family in squalor and thinks of them as objects to bludgeon with her moral religiosity. Ester and Ada see the family, especially Jenny, and reach out as persons to persons, in love.
Nestorian, activism and activity are two very different things. Activism is always a power based ideology and should be avoided. Activity out of love for Christ is a wholly different thing indeed.
Michael, I’ll observe that just about everything to which we are attached that ends with “ism” betrays/reveals our idolatries!
Raphael – excellent observations about Dickens, thank you!
From today’s Evening Prayer (Roman Catholic), to be read after Psalm 127 (“If the Lord does not build the house/In vain do its builders labor . . .”)
“You command the seed to rise, Lord God, though the farmer is unaware. Grant that those who labor for you trust not in their own work but in your help. Remembering that the land is brought to flower not with human tears but with those of your Son, may the Church rely only upon your gifts,”
Your thought process and ideas have, I believe, deeply blessed me over the last few months as I began to read your blog. This is a wonderful post. Thank you so very much.
Thank you Father for this outstanding post.
As I’ve gotten further into adulthood, I’ve come to believe that the greatest person I’ve ever met is my wife’s now reposed grandmother. A very simple and quiet woman who lived her entire life in the same small town. Most would say she didn’t accomplish much in life. “All” she did was remain married to the same man for 60 years, raise three kids, and faithfully and joyfully look after and care for others every day of her life.
Once on this blog, Dino shared something that I have long loved. He said: “As Orthodox, we’re hesychasts, not activists.”
Thanks again Dino!
that was one of many such typical expressions of Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra.
Karen, yes indeed.
Thank you Father for continuing to expose the naked ugliness of the Modern philosophy of progress. It is a bold a and difficult project to make palatable to those of us so steeped in it. Originally, I chaffed a bit at your writing thinking it overstated (also believing I understood the evils of modern progress from the Southern Agrarians and Richard Weaver). Good as they are, I’ve come to see in your writings far more clearly its evils…and better yet its solution in the small, the beautiful, a true piety in nurturing of the nous I only faintly grasp. Keep writing. I’m learning. Lord have mercy.
Alan and Dino,
Thank you for that reminder… Do I remember it right Dino, is the “hesychasm” actually an opposite of “activism” in Greek? 🙂
I love how Fr. Andrew Tkachev talks about The Mother of God as the ultimate hesychast, a person who by being quiet, influences the whole world… and how we also should not run to participate in demonstrations, but pray in quietness because “the stars light up and go out when we read the holy words and think of them…”
Blessed Nativity to all here. Thank you Father for your faithful guiding and teaching us.
In today’s Royal Hours service there was a reading from the Prophecy of Baruch, which included this beautiful line:
“How happy we are, O people of Israel, for we have the advantage of knowing what is pleasing to God”.
Glory to God for not forsaking us …
“Hesychasm” is certainly presented as polar opposite of “activism” by Elder Aimilianos.
It’s easy to present them so in Greek – “activism” is a foreign word and “hesychasm” a native one–, but someone could always contest these understandings too.
Hello, Father Stephen!
I hope you are well. (I visited your church for Nativity services with my family last week.)
This is my first time commenting on your blog, so I’m not sure you’ll see a comment on an old post like this, but this article really struck a chord with me and I wanted to share my thoughts/ask for advice.
In a sense your article was very relieving to read – I sometimes get caught in the trap of thinking that
(Whoops – I accidentally posted before I finished writing.)
Hello, Father Stephen!
I hope you are well. (I visited your church for Nativity services with my family last week.)
This is my first time commenting on your blog, so I’m not sure you’ll see a comment on an old post like this, but this article really struck a chord with me and I wanted to share my thoughts/ask for advice.
In a sense your article was very relieving to read – I sometimes get caught in the trap of idolizing progress, and maybe even thinking that is the end goal of the Church at times.
I may have have a bit of a hero complex. I grew up enthralled by Lord of the Rings, the Redwall book series, and legends of St Patrick. A longing to be some kind of hero is planted deep within me, and I feel it has inspired me in my life in Christ – I’m hesitant to believe that longing was entirely misplaced.
But the other day my brother said something to me that your article reminded me of – that we will never be able to change the world, and that there is value in not taking ourselves too seriously.
Maybe this is a bit muddled, but do you think there is a reconciliation possible between the ideal of a hero and the ideal of being a small, “ordinary person” (as Fr. Tom expresses it)? Aren’t the saints heroes in a “big” and “extraordinary” way? What place does heroic inspiration have in the church?
Perhaps the saints are heroes in the sense that they have totally embraced their smallness through humility, and through this they have saved “a thousand souls” around them.
What are your thoughts?
I think saints are often described in heroic and extraordinary ways – though I think that is more an afterthought than a description. Most saints are not revealed as such until after they have gone. I really think that when we focus on what we are doing (the heroic stuff) rather than on God Himself, we never actually become saints. The heroics of the saints are collateral blessings (to coin a phrase). Your concluding thought said it well – to embrace their smallness (which is humility) and through this have saved a thousand souls, etc.
That makes sense – thank you.
For Christmas someone gave me a copy of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking.’ Does this book reflect more of the modern heresy than anything else? If anyone has a chance please let me know. It doesn’t seem to have a sense of being small….
I have read it and it is all about self and getting what the self wants. It might be an interesting read for you to explore what Father Stephen is referring to in the Modern Project. As long as you read it with the thought in mind of exploring what the world thinking but not absorbing their thoughts then it should be OK.
When I was in Seminary I was exposed to secular philosophy and was repulsed by it. It was dragging me back to a previous mindset I had until I realized how to read it. In my career in the service I studied the Enemy Order of Battle. I knew their equipment as good as I did my own. I studied their tactics and I studied their leaders to see how they thought and how they might react. I realized I was reading the Enemy’s works in secular philosophy so I fixed my mind on my faith and read the stuff to see how their thinking worked and to learn counter arguments to it.
“The Power of Positive Thinking” is part of secular philosophy even though it is not an outright philosophical work. Read it to learn the thought process and how to counter it (its focus is how to be self reliant) and thank God that He is the real power. Learn to recognize its message in the various urgings of our culture and you will be well armed to reject its point of view.
The Power of Positive Thinking as well as the various New Age schools of thought, Word of Faith (Name It, Claim It), The Secret, A Course in Miracles, etc., are all variations of a 19th century American born occult philosophy called New Thought. These are all not just heresies. They are 180 degrees antithetical to the Truth.
Use the book as Nicholas suggests, or destroy it. Better still, read a sound critique of the whole philosophy. Depending on your relationship with the gift giver, maybe use it to open a conversation about the gospel?
How can one differentiate between the “power of positive thinking” verses rejoicing always?
“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus”
(1 Thess 5:16-18)
But is the power of positive thinking just a trap of reliance on self whereas biblical rejoicing / giving thanks is reliance on God?
The “power of positive thinking” doesn’t really need a God at all and has given rise to all kinds of nonsense. Giving thanks always and for all things is something we render to God because He is worthy and He is good – and not because it might bring about some desired effect.
Indeed, engaging in a “spiritual” activity in order to bring about a desired effect, is, in essence, idolatry or witchcraft. When we pray, we do so and leave the outcome in God’s hands. There is, sadly, a lot of Christians who have adapted a very false mind in this respect.
I remember hearing Fr. Meletios Webber a few years ago say in one of his talks that “very little progress has been made in psychology since the days of those early Desert Fathers….”. They observed (and applied to their ascetic practices) the idea that “feelings are body’s reaction to thought…”. That how we feel is mostly dependent on what we think… I like to think of this “positive thinking” in terms of “watchfulness and joy”, the two main components of repentance (as explained here on your blog in past discussions, by you and probably Dino, interpreting Elder Aimilianos for us :-)….
Watching and guarding our thoughts can truly have a profound effect on everything in our life.. Even the smallest effort at “giving thanks continually” (as you remind us) is truly life transforming, when we try it.
Years ago I read an article by a researcher I respect. She commented that aspects of the Health Insurance system were like a tissue paper air bag, it is nice to know it is there but in a crash it will not do anything to help. Metropolitan Tikhon brought this theme to his Nativity Pastoral Letter for 2017, “There is no philosophy or ideology that can overcome the irrationality of the world. It is only the transfiguring light of Christ – His divine and sacrificial love – that can accomplish this.”
I was raised with the notion that what is expected of those who are given much is output in the work world, fixing things and making things better. I am grateful for the themes I have learned here. Thank you for these comments. The truly help me understand better both how I should approach this gift and the gift giver.
“collateral blessings”: great phrase! The title of your next book, Father?
The best way to make a difference is small indeed, make a difference in our own neighborhoods, communities, towns and cities. It is like throwing a stone in a pond and watching the ripples go out. Start doing the work of God around us and let Him give the increase to fix broken lives. This time we live in where we know everyone’s business all over the world, and get bent out of shape, worried or depressed about, though we cannot do anything about it, is the work of the evil one.
Many local charities in our city are invaluable in helping the desperate in ways that we as individuals cannot. We can give money or gift cards to those panhandling and who perhaps are really homeless (unfortunately, some people scam) that will care for them for maybe a day. Conversely many local programs, both Christian and secular, have the trained people and volunteers, facilities and means to help beyond just a day – with shelter, clothes, meals, counseling, training, job interviews, legal assistance, drug rehabilitation, etc. We must be discerning in choosing charities, of course, but they are beneficial. And we are beneficial as we watch and help those right around us. Blessings.