God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.
This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?
In a previous article, I wrote:
Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.
God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.
This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.
The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.
Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).
Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.
But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.
Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…
But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.
Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought:
You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.
The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.
When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me. The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe). And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.
But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach. He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.
Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.
All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.
I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.
There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.
All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”
As I read your wonderful post and your references to the lives of daily vulnerability in Celtic Saints like St. Brendan and St. Cuthbert, I was reminded of St. Patrick’s Breastplate; a prayer which I hope is complimentary to your post.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.
I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.
I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Thank you Father!
I read this quote the other day:
“We have what we seek. We don’t have to rush after it. It was there all the time, and if we give it time it will make itself known to us.” — Thomas Merton
The last part of your post : “All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next.” is a wonderful truth that brings such freedom from the fear of “not doing it right” or “im alone” ect..
I do find it hard most times to consider the joy of the cost, to look beyond the obvious. Or the joy of the seeking, knocking and asking.
I once heard a person talk on the hiding of God in a very basic sense, like hiding easter eggs for your children – you do not hide them to never be found, in fact you encourage and help them to find the eggs, and with that both experience the joy of the hide & seek.
Thank you for this post.
Thank you for this post.
Finding God is also the finding of our true self – in the depths of the soul. That journey is difficult even in the best of lives. The classical description of repentance, illumination, deification, would indicate that what most hides God are the same things that hide the self.
Much of the difficulty surrounding repentance is our tendency to identify ourselves with our failings/sin/etc. The result is that we get stuck in some version of our shame and see the shame as our true self. It is not. Repentance is ultimately about clearing the debris so that we may begin to see the truth of what is there – the mirror of the soul that reflects Christ.
For every bit of darkness we encounter in ourselves we need to see even more the love and light of God. When we go to confession, for example, the absolution and assurance of God’s unfailing love are way more important than the trivialities of our sins. Psychologically, we cling to the sins (and the shame that surrounds them) far too long.
I totally agree with this post, but I will admit that agreement comes from my spirit and not from my rational mind. For those of us in the West this makes no logical sense. Why would God act this way? If you want to be our God, just show up! If you want us to have something, just give it to us! Or better yet, put a price on it and we’ll come shopping for us.
I want to propose an answer to my own question, one that might explain part of the reason. I was listening to a talk by Bp. Robert Barron (RC). He said that play is something one does for no other purpose than to do it, and that work is what we do so that we can get back to playing. Of course in the West we have flipped this around and hold work up as the ultimate good, but that’s another conversation.
Having reflected on that for awhile and now reading this post made me realize that God values play much more than we do. As North American “adults” we ask, why in the world would God play hide-and-seek with us – especially about such important things in my life? But as referenced above I suspect God made us for play, that it is much more central to life than we can currently imagine.
I’m struggling to understand why He would hide when in fact He is teaching me how to play, how to live life the way it was meant to be lived. And that’s a radical thought to me.
Thank you Father Stephen.
It is said that the depth of the soul is endless…and it is there where we find God…past all the noise, the shame, the coverings *we* place on ourselves to “look good” when it is only just a cover. But man, it is as you say, difficult even in the best of lives. But the search, the seeking and the difficulty is worth the cost. I don’t think there is any other way. In the struggle comes joy. It is very hard to explain. I mean, to explain to those who are stuck and do not know they are stuck. God, in the world out there, has become unnecessary. So not only is He hidden, but He remains so. It is the same old quip…”if there were a God, then why all the destruction of innocent lives”. Just recently I was asked such a question. I did my best to answer, and at the end I sent them your post on “The problem of the goodness of God”! What a great way to answer! Take your mind off the evil for a second and look at His utter Goodness! Oh that I would do this all the time!
You mention confession a couple of times. This can be pretty intimidating. I would have to say that I have yet to stand completely “naked” in front of Christ and confess my “true self”. And it is probably like you say, it is because I have not yet come to know my true self. I want to with all my heart, but I haven’t fully arrived there yet.
You say ” Repentance is ultimately about clearing the debris so that we may begin to see the truth of what is there – the mirror of the soul that reflects Christ.” I think what is implied here is that this is a process…we “begin” to see the truth. The “mirror of the soul” becomes less opaque in time. But in this painful process, comes a healing, and even in the midst of the pain, joy. Because you know He is with you. You know that He loves you. Hidden or not, you know this.
About taking the leap and forsaking all, selling out for the sake of finding this hidden God…do you think that this is a single conscious decision (hard to frame this question, Father), or do you think that it is more part and parcel of a determined drive to find what you do not know exactly what you are looking for? For example, when I left the Protestant church I knew I was utterly missing something that was not present in those churches, but I had no idea what that was. Supposedly, God was present in those places, but I kept on saying to myself ‘this can not be all that there is. It simply can not be…’ . Little did I know, and never would I have imagined, that when I left and when I finally told my “friends” that I turned to the Orthodox faith, that I would loose the friendship of each and every one of them. This was not in my plans at all! Some of the relationships were completely severed and some became a ‘strained distance’. Eventually the strained distance included my family. I was sorrowful, but I never turned back, nor even considered to do so. The most difficult times were when I’d sit and feel sorry for myself. The joy came when I finally got unstuck somewhat and realized God is, and has always been, with me.
So my point is, it is not like I set out to “sell all”, but that is the very thing that happened in the process. I think this is what you allude to in this post, if I am not mistaken.
There comes a point where I find it impossible to fully express my gratitude. I may sound like St Peter here, but I can not fathom ever turning away from Him! Oh God forbid that I should ever deny You!
Your blessing, Father…that He keep us by His grace!
Yes, many converts lose friends, perhaps even family relationships upon becoming Orthodox. But in Matt. 19 Jesus says that if we have left (or they leave us) family members, property, etc., for His name’s sake, we will receive a hundredfold in return. Becoming Orthodox strained some relationships and even severed at least a couple. Yet Jesus’ promise of a hundredfold has come true. We have many wonderful Orthodox brothers and sisters. These relationships are priceless. I have said to my wife more than once that I have much more in common with some of them than with some of my own close blood relatives.
I do not think this unusual.
Drewster and JP,
Your comments about Easter eggs and hide-and-seek, or play, are thoughts I will ponder. I think that much of the West does have it upside down or backwards in their pursuit of God. Hard to escape the straitjacket of consumerism and how it shades our lives in all ways.
Father, Christ is Risen!
I love your line, what most hides God are the same things that hide the self.” Worth a column in the future (I hope!).
You are right, Dean. I may not have “counted the cost” because I did not expect these relationships to dissolve. I think what has dissolved is part of that death we do not ask for, but is rather given for us to carry. I grieve that relationships are lost. I say to myself “it shouldn’t be that way”. I do not want to say that the relationships were “replaced” by the wonderful new ones we have in the Church. Because how can they be replaced?! It is like saying someone is replaceable. Or expendable.
It is doubtless that there exists a common bond between the brothers and sisters. It is wonderful when you can communicate with minds that are in one accord. No explaining, no need to defend.
I think that the hundredfold increase the Lord promises encompasses everything that is meant by “Church”. It is an entirely new life given to us. There is no “east” or “west”, or Gentile or Jew, or “them” and “us”, or even secular vs sacred. All is made new, and all “in Christ”. This has got to be the hundredfold we are promised. We are “in Him”, in heaven and on earth. On earth, not just as a group of representatives, or emissaries, with our Leader left behind. No, He is actively present, and we in Him. How can we possibly count such a cost before we even enter into the Church!
So on the one hand we have been granted new life, and on the other, we still are in this age…in the “already/not yet” of the Kingdom come! It is a tension that I can not seem to escape. Relationships still break, new ones made. There are still schisms in the Church in which we pray will be healed. Lives are still lost not only violently, but in the corruption of our bodies. Indeed Christ has entered into our sufferings (the “already”) and bears our pain, as we are to bear the suffering of this age. We are our brother’s keeper. And He has conquered death, where now we “sleep” in Him, and at the last day will be raised in incorruption. It is truly a joyful sorrow!
I think the hundredfold also includes His Mother whom He has given us, His Saints, our patron Saint, our guardian angel, all the holy bodiless powers…and not least of all, His Body and Blood, that we may be one, by grace, in the Trinity. Like St Paul says,
“Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours : whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s .”
Now I say, only a hundredfold?!
I mean, is God really hidden? Do we expect to see something else, other than what we have been given? Do children suppose that He might be hidden?
Psychologically, we cling to the sins (and the shame that surrounds them) far too long.
Someone once wrote that, when we sin “do a rope” and get back to life. I think it good advice, generally speaking….
Do children suppose that He might be hidden?
I think children may have too much fun seeking; they embrace the joy of it…. Perhaps that is one meaning behind “to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, one must become like a child”.
Is God hidden or am I blind? When I look back at my journey, God is everywhere constantly revealing Himself as I am able to see. Occasionally He has given me a slap up the side of my head and said, “Wake up, open your eyes”.
My looking for God is more about pushing aside the tendrils of my own dross so I can see.
I have known people for whom God does not seem hidden at all. Not that they are sinless and know Him perfectly, but no matter what, even in horrible times they never lose contact with Him.
Byron…that’s exactly what I had in mind re: the children. Adults’ baggage blocks the view and weighs us down. “Take my yolk…”. Yes, Lord. Yes yes and yes!
Excellent article, Father Stephen. Much to think about here.
One interesting thing about NOT being a convert is that, understandably, our parents and teachers wanted to give us the Faith. But it is (or was) too often presented as though it were an object rather than as a search. Having gone to Catholic schools, I remember clearly the nun writing on the blackboard “sanctifying grace”. I don’t recall my age but I was quite young at the time and had no idea what this meant. However, I had my Baltimore Catechism and it had all the answers to questions I wasn’t old enough to have even considered.
– Who made you?
– God made me.
– Why did God make you?
– To know Him and love Him and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.
(And so on. These are my memorized answers and may not be perfect quotes.)
One saving grace for me, among many, was attending a high school (Catholic) for two years where I was encouraged to think and to question, something that had been virtually forbidden in Catholic education up until that time. My family then moved to another region of the country where my new school was much more traditional. But it was too late – my mind, now seeking, wouldn’t be stopped. There was no turning back. In a religion class where I had to give a presentation in front of the class, I chose the topic of “Christian existentialism” and new firsthand what “the human predicament” was.
These were not easy times by any means. I felt largely alone in a school where many of the kids had dismissed the “object-faith” that had been given to them and had turned to other objects (ranging from football to drugs) to fill or avoid the emptiness. I was just learning to express myself and could stir up a good political discussion but with whom could I share my questions about the meaning of life and whether God truly existed? Ironically and amazingly, I could only share them with God. My prayers were sometimes qualified by the phrase, “if You exist…”.
Thus began a lifelong process of asking and receiving, seeking and finding… until, of course, I became too comfortable with what I received and found. Then God hid Himself again so that I would keep asking and seeking. Sometimes this process repeated itself only occasionally, other times several times a day. But I am so grateful for that process, for both the anguish and the delight. The anguish keeps me wanting God (in that “eros” sort of way) so that our relationship stays alive. It doesn’t become a thing, a mere part of my life. It is my life.
Still, it is so easy to slip into the traps and distractions. The life of faith, especially when lived in the world, necessarily contains many objects – church buildings, committees, activities; religious icons, books, sacred art and music. And certainly there is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves – just that I can so easily start having desires and preferences that are more related to the objects than to God Himself. Not infrequently, I have to stop myself and ask, “Am I really praying? Do I even know how to pray?”
Humbled by these questions, I see once again what has happened, how I have wandered yet again.
Forgive me. I’m not sure whether to hit “post” or “delete”. I will hit post, only with the hope that perhaps God moved me to write all of this for reasons of His own.
Thanks for hitting “post”, Mary!
Father, thank you.
I was lost, but now I’m found. I was blind, but now I see.
I sought to achieve, but now I seek to participate.
It hurts more, but it’s living. Achieving freezes things, puts them on my shelf, and I am numb.
I participate, and I am small. I seem less significant than I thought I was/am, but I’ve never felt bigger.
It’s fluid, it’s unpredictable, it’s out of control. It’s out of control. It’s out of control. Of course it is. It’s not mine. And the control that was perceived, was only that, a veneer, a shiny veneer of perception that I burnished day and night. I grew tired and despondent, constantly waxing this nothing. But many were doing it, so I complied. It was “the way.”
Until one day I didn’t. Until the day I tasted, instead of “percepted.” The light was dazzling, but yet I saw everything. And now I’m constantly thirsting and constantly drinking, my thirst being quenched even as I thirst.
And I can’t go back to waxing and burnishing the trophies on my shelf. I try, and the others encourage me as I join them, but then I can’t. I can’t stay.
Because now I’ve tasted, now I’ve seen.
It is the Lord.
I am afraid.
I am free.
I tremble, for I am lost.
I am lost in His arms.
I am home.
Excellent, Mary! Thank you.
Jeff Pauls…wow! Gets better each time I read it…
Paula AZ, thank you for your kindness.
My father confessor has scolded me a lot lately because of my lack of patience. Just sit still, he says, and trust Him. But then I find myself quickly getting all desperate when I encounter what I perceive as distance. “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him”. So father, I understand what you are saying, but what do I do about the heartache? How is one patient when waiting for the groom?
Obviously I’m not Father Stephen but I can relate to your comment. I tend to be quite impatient in my spiritual life. But I sense that God is trying to teach me to wait, to slow down, to savor the journey. It is in the journey that He reveals Himself (see Emmaus story) but I always want to rush ahead to arrive at the destination (which, ironically, is where He disappears)..
I had a wonderfully difficult experience with this lately. I was asked to paint an icon – something no one has ever asked me to do – and I was both frightened and excited. I was afraid that I would be unable to do it satisfactorily but I was excited because I knew that I had to do it. So I wanted to jump right in. But I had heard of how important it is understand what one is called to paint in this sacred task – so I made myself slow down and read a book. I began and then started reading yet another book about my subject. I had thought I already knew enough but what I learned amazed me beyond anything I would have anticipated. I learned in my heart and soul – but also significantly about what certain elements in the image meant, making it much more obvious to me how I ought to represent them. I cringe to think how many errors I would have made by rushing in. (And how many errors I have made doing as much in other areas of my life.)
It is not God who needs to learn my pace but I who need to learn His. This is where my trust needs to grow, to be fully convinced that He knows better than I do how everything needs to unfold in my life. I can only pray for this trust because it so often eludes me, despite my intellectual understanding of my need for it. As Jeff Pauls so aptly put it in his comment above, “It’s fluid, it’s unpredictable, it’s out of control. It’s out of control. It’s out of control. Of course it is. It’s not mine.”
Yes, we must pray to surrender our illusion of control so that, resting in Him, we will not care how long the journey takes…
Thank you, Father Stephen, for this and so many other teachings. I too was the most surprised of all when I discovered myself to be Orthodox – not from all the reading I had been doing, but from the physical beingness in our little church . The actual kneeling before icons, the singing as a part of the whole, and then the longing for the entire experience of Communion. These were baby steps for me that I don’t think I could have made on just the ‘theory’ alone, though that did answer many of my lifelong questions. It is how I came to my first Communion late, like Saint Thomas, who hadn’t been satisfied with word of mouth resurrection tales – he had to experience directly that this indeed was his Lord who had suffered so grievously. The very same.
I have been helped since then in reading and re-reading Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. As poetry, I think it almost can’t be beat. I was reminded of this by your observations about object relatedness in this post.
But also, thank you so much for your meditations on self-emptying and facing inadequacies in present day Church conflicts. This Holy Week I was struck by the last commandment of Christ as he prepares his disciples for what is to come – that they love one another as he has loved them. So, later, they still have Peter in the boat with them – Peter who had denied him! And then our Lord asks him three times “Do you love me?” As the rising Christ he asks this. It’s the reverse of the two OT commandments – first, love one another, then love God. His compassionate self-emptying (which you describe so beautifully in the earlier post you linked to recently) enables man to take baby steps to reach him.
Which love included Saint Thomas, and “those who have not seen and yet believe.” Hide and seek!
I loved this article. Thank you.
Thank you for the reflection. Very helpful.
Just as we never avoid the need to clear our own internal debris clouding our perception of God, there is an external practice we cannot do much without, what ascetically used to be called the ‘liturgy’ (but does not mean the Divine Liturgy), the (night-time) prayer rule (including reading/invocation) in solitude and stillness before God. No matter how hard such minutes and hours might be, THIS is the time of one’s personal appropriation of the hitherto ‘unknown God’ (acts 17:23). When we fight to know Him and especially to be known by Him like Jacob.
This 20 min. talk by Fr. Seraphim Aldea really compliments what you have said about Saint Cuthbert.
Dino – Every saint I have ever read about has engaged in regular night vigil, like Saint Cuthbert mentioned in this post and Fr. Seraphim’s talk that I linked above. Elder Aimilianos went so far as to say that progress in the spiritual life is impossible without solitary nighttime prayer. Something for us to really hear and try to act on.
I’ll play the devil’s advocate. Someone above mentioned a monk who only prays while walking through a forest. Others, because of ADHD or other afflictions cannot sit still for long or find it very difficult to stay focused. Some, if they sit, fall asleep. I find it fairly easy to rise early and to pray because I am retired. This same routine would have been very difficult when I was working fulltime. I think of single moms working a fulltime job and trying to raise children at the same time, falling into bed each night completely exhausted by the day’s demands. Anyway, what may be fairly easy for a monk on a regular schedule of prayers, services, work, etc., may not at all be the same for a lay mom or dad. Do all of us fight against the world, the flesh and the devil? Of course we do. Yet that fight takes place on different terrain and battle conditions for all of us. I simply do not want to see a guilt trip placed on one who is doing the very best he/she can, with sometimes barely the energy to come up for a breath of air, due to the very real exigencies of life. Sometimes a quick “Lord have mercy” is about all they can manage.
By becoming fixed upon that classic excuse we do ourselves a great injustice. The response of all saints to that grievance, regarding ‘finding the time’ when you’re gasping for air, is that you can always get creative, it is what God gave us creativity for…
If one can find time to go to the toilet, they can find time. It is enough in time-restricted situations to just say the prayer as you splash your face with water or to extend the solitary time while you go to the very early morning toilet, to say the invocation in earnest for five minutes, even if kids might sometimes (not always) disrupt even that.
There has to be a regular time (even if it’s just such a secret steeling of privacy because we’re being persecuted in our own house as it happens to some crypto-Christians in certain parts of the world) which is a person’s ‘redez-vouz’, their tet-a-tet, private time with God. Clearly, no erotic/loving relationship can exist between two persons without those times.
And when we do what we can, showing that we want more such time with our – sometimes disrupted – ‘creative’ solutions, God will take it into account (as any lover in an erotic scenario of young love would appreciate our seeking privacy where we can whisper or make love in obligatorily odd places when we have no time or place of our own) and take our intentions into account and make things so that we can eventually get more of that time.
Dean and Dino,
Thank you both for your comments.
I’m one of those who sincerely appreciate and admire those who pray the midnight vigil, but have yet to do that, myself. For various reasons I’m not able to do this for now physically. But on occasion, if I’ve woken up for some reason I will pray, but it is mostly a short prayer of thanksgiving or the Jesus prayer.
And as you describe, Dean, I imagine it would be quite difficult for mothers of young children, among others.
Nevertheless, I don’t doubt the benefit. This last Paschal Vigil I came into our parish church quite early. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone at that hour, but one person was there softly reading the Psalms in the dim light. The presence of the Lord was incredibly palpable. I am and was so grateful to have been there.
Thanks Dino and Dee,
I have always appreciated and gained, been stretched by your comments. Again, I am not excusing myself. I need this arising early in prayer. I love the quiet, the peace of very early morning. So, yes, five minutes of heartfelt prayer each day for the beleaguered mom of little ones. Creativity in prayer through bleary, tired eyes. I am glad you mentioned creativity, Dino. We are all so different in temperament, age, health, (as you, Dee,
commented). So, our coming to Christ each day, with the Saints help, will very widely. I think I was aiming at this….That we cannot all be placed into the same mold. God in Christ give us all the strength and love we need in meeting with Him daily and in serving others.
Thanks you all.
Man, I swore I wasn’t going to comment on the ‘solitary nighttime prayer’ and ‘vigil’. I am so glad you said something Dean, and Dee.
I mean, why put an extra unneeded burden on those already struggling and doing the best we can in our daily lives. You could easily come away with the thought that the Lord gives no quarter…that our efforts are never good enough. Let’s let Him do His gracious work with each and every one of us.
There are, in the past and now, many good and helpful teachings in the Church. There is variety, because we are a diverse people. What is good and helpful for one is not necessarily good for the other.
Well anyway, thanks…
(boy, this topic comes up a lot here, doesn’t it…)
Thank you, Mary. You are right of course. Not my timing, but His. Just like you said… I understand and accept it with my mind, but the rest of my being doesn’t seem to get it. Then again, maybe yearning is necessary. I don’t really know.
Paula, Dean, Esmee, etc.
I agree with Paula. I’m at a speaking engagement in Seattle this weekend – and so I’m out of my time zone (in many, many ways). I think of the many conversations I had last night with people whose lives have been touched at some time by the blog and its community of comments.
No one encouraging greater striving in prayer intends to bruise a reed or make burdens heavier…but it is easily done. The night vigil, preparing for the morning’s Liturgy, was and is the common practice in Elder Aimilianos’ monastery. And it is a great thing. But its practicality for so many in the world, particularly the bruised and broken, could be overwhelming.
My suggestion to each of us is to always bear in mind the burdens that others carry. Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green shared her experience of prayer in the night (when she would wake up in the night). I found it helpful and was encouraged by her story to try the same – and I found it of benefit. That means of sharing – talking about her actual experience – is a much more helpful way to speak of such possibilities than quoting a great elder’s saying that without it, progress in the spiritual life is not possible.
I don’t mean this as a rebuke – but a reminder. When we comment – we are writing for thousands as well. Remember the poor and the weak.
Re: THE NIGHTTIME VIGIL
I agree with Father Stephen – we have to be gentle – and yet I would caution every one that when we hear a lofty goal – a holy word or way – we can be inspired rather than downtrodden – perhaps our first reaction is negative or guilt ridden – I’ve done that too – and some of my reaction depends on the delivery of a message – but I think those quotes – those high aspirations also can keep us from tripping.
For me – Elder Aimilanos’ words are uplifting – filling my heart – it I think the whole context of a quote can helpful. He speaks from the fruit of his own experience / struggle and when I read his words I feel like my dad is talking to me.
MoNastics give lofty goals – but so do parents. I am a mother. I set the bar at high standards for my kids – they do not always reach the high bar. But they know I love them unconditionally even in their failed attempts – even in their average-ness. Most of us are average. But if I set the bar low for my kids – They stop paying attention – they stop trying.
They end up looking down at a low bar of expectation rather than up at high one.
The main thing is – we are all in our own journey and station and season of life. Be where ever you are but don’t miss the opportunity to be inspired. If you feel the urge to pray at night – do it.
We don’t need to compare ourselves to monastics. But they can be an inspiration and that is a big difference. And I gotta admit that I am very inspired by monastics.
Speaking from my own experience – Can I turn my night time into a vigil – even if not every night? I believe the answer is yes.
As a mother I have woken for years – many a night to nurse a baby, tend to an ill child, calm the fears of a child after a bad dream – take care of a husband after an operation etc. I have sat with a dying brother for a week in a hospital – a vigil in which I did not sleep. I found that I could stay awake and pray and drift off only moments to sleep for a week. A week which was one long night vigil and also strangely mourningly beautiful.
I have stayed nights with dying family members – taking shifts with other family members to pray and keep vigil.
I’ve had insomnia after a car accident.
Can my night be a vigil every night – no. But in those seasons or nights when i find I am awake I can pray while nursing my child – I can pray over a sick child – I can pray when I can not sleep.
But those nights when I willingly was up out of love for a child a brother a husband a dying family member – I can view that through the lens of doing it for Christ. It can inspire me and open my heart to do it for Christ – or to try.
Saint Theophan says God rewards the effort. I believe that.
As Orthodox Christians our very lives are called to be a vigil a constant remembrance and turning to the Lord. Every moment is an opportunity for this – if only we remember to Seize the opportunity – Day or night.
And look – if I am commenting on blogs at 2am in the morning – well I’m probably able to keep some sort of a nighttime vigil. I know a lot of people who go in social media at midnight hours – I know people who play video games at midnight hours. (Not taking about anyone here in this forum – thinking of my own family !!!). Then it’s a matter of choices .
for most of it is seasons of life. – and to to me the question of vigil in my everyday life is how do I keep the Lord in my heart -simply the vigil to remember Him, the vigil to give thanks even in negative situations – the vigil to be kind – the vigil to forgive – the vigil to see Christ in those I meet.
We can all do that.
If we can’t say that the command to ‘avoid’ the Tree [of knowledge of good and evil if we didnt wish to abandon God’s life] was a burden, then how much more should the prompt to ‘eat’ of the Tree [of Life as much as we like if we want to partake of life] not be a burden?
t is a real shame that we have the tendency to interpret such advise of Elder Aimilianos’ (on having exclusive time – ideally at night – with God) as a ‘burden’ for the weak or for anyone.
It is not that. The elder never coerced. He never condoned guilt-tripping either. He inspired and consoled with an air of total liberty and healthy optimism.
This is one very good reason why the relationship of youthful, ardent eros, of latent (or palpable) inner yearning (rather than the lukewarmness of obligation that can never inspire) is a useful metaphor here.
God is not a tyrant that requires these things from us. Our soul is the one that yearns for it.
The elder used to say that even the healthy frustration of those who have a situation that does not allow for much of this tet-a-tet, private time with God, is more than enough to make Him console us. But, just as any erotic relationship without private erotic times is frustrating for the lovers, so too, when we have no time for this 1-2-1 with God discussed here would result in a healthy frustration for our souls .
We cannot abandon such knowledge to appease its possible misinterpretation but we must simultaneously accept situations (like certain lillnesses) that make such daily time with God alone impossible. Without the burden of any guilt.
Young lovers would understand this with ease, having experienced how their searching for a private time and place to make love is often disrupted, and so should we.
The key in the earlier comment was that we have great creativity. Not that we don’t…. As lovers might seek out odd places and bizarre times to express their lust so too can we with our spiritual yearning for God.
The more we want the unknown-to-us-“God-of-our-Fathers” to become personally ‘appropriated’ by us ourselves, the more we have this counsel there for the taking, not for the burdening, available to us.
Victoria – I could not possible have said it better. Thank you!
“God is not a tyrant that requires these things from us. Our soul is the one that yearns for it.”
Dino —-> Yes and amen.
Also I would say that for those with illness – who have difficulty keeping a private prayer devotion time – I think the lament is enough to have God console them. Often with an illness one actually begins to pray more – internally internationally – and so bypass the is this danger of rigid formalities – what one might have seen as an obligation (like not being able to fast) which is replaced by a fluid fervent deep soul turn to Christ. That one remembers how deeply their life is dependent on the Lord the Giver of Life. And that is a blessing – one to be embraced.
Dino – Your comments appeared after I posted. Thank you also.
I, personally, do not ever feel guilty or burdened or like a failure when I read the Lives of the Saints of the counsels of our modern holy Elders. I see them as the bright shining stars lighting up the path for us and guiding is along the way. They are the reason I became Orthodox. They show me what is possible. They have acquired, received, manifested, been granted, attained something that I truly desire. And they demonstrate how I, too, can have what they have. I don’t think it was easy for any single one of them. They all made huge sacrifices – dying to themselves in order to live solely for Christ. Am I capable of doing this? I believe I am. But I must want it badly enough to put in the effort required. Have I done this in my life? No. Do I want to do this in my life? Yes? Am I going to feel bad about myself because I haven’t done this? No. Am I going to continue to read the words of Elders and Saints that inspire me not to give up? Yes. If I sincerely want it and I make whatever effort I am capable of in this moment, I believe that God will see that and send me His grace which will then give me the strength to increase my efforts further. We are where we are, but that doesn’t mean we cannot be inspired to reach higher. When I find myself awake at night and unable to sleep, instead of tossing and turning and being tormented by thoughts, I try to get up and read from The Psalter until I just can’t read anymore and invariably I will quickly fall asleep when I go back to bed. I’m no worse for the wear in the morning than I would be had I continued to lay awake in bed for the same length of time. So even if I cannot make myself get out of bed every single night, I can seize the opportunities that present themselves to me and use them for time with God.
Fr Stephen and Paula,
I’m grateful for your comments. Frequently I feel shame if I do not ‘attempt’ or ‘attain’ some Orthodox model of piety. For this reason I’m grateful for the guidance of my parish priest who knows me well and asks me questions about my ‘goals’. Seeking honor and wisdom are certainly endorsed in our culture. But holding these goals as an end in themselves also misses the mark. The lesson I have learned here and from my parish priest is that using a personal, self-prescribed formula for piety is often (in my personal case anyway) an indication of pride or a temptation of pride. For this reason, I will ask my priest for his suggestions in my prayer rule. And then do my very best to follow it. He always asks for feedback on what happens, for the sake of discernment and appropriate support.
Thanks for your understanding and your compassion toward the suffering and downtrodden. You couldn’t have picked a better phrase than “a broken reed”. It is one thing to suffer. It is another thing to be a broken, barely smoking, almost to be extinguished, flax. There are many out there that are so beaten down you never hear from them. They are not big enough to be heard, and small enough to be easily passed by unseen. But like you said, they read this blessed blog. Thank the Lord above.
Funny you should bring up counsel with your priest. I was thinking along the same lines as well. Our priest has been with us for just about one year. In my first meeting with him he asked about my prayer rule. I told him and he was fine with it. That is good enough for me. I will add…thank God that I can trust the man. I can confess without being shamed. As I face Christ Himself, He/he forgives. He is a good, kind and compassionate pastor. Exudes the love of Christ. It seems to me that he well understands the brokenness and pain of the downtrodden. That is something to be treasured in our clergy. He doesn’t have a harsh bone in his body and I could never imagine him playing the blame and shame game. I thank God, because that makes for a very dysfunctional parish.
This conversation has been played out in the past. There are some than lean in different directions, who misunderstand and misinterpret the comments of the others. Perhaps that is what I have done. But I will tell you what my lean is. It is undeniably for the “broken reeds”. I will go the extra mile to stand up for one who is being beat down and shamed. You’d have to beat me down to get me out of the way. And that won’t be easy. I am no pious one. But as a broken reed myself, I know what the Lord has done. His hand is upon the broken. Yeah, for other people too. But He does not forget the forgotten, shamed, and the ones brought low.
God is good. So very good…
Please forgive me Paula, but I fail to see how my appreciation and sharing of the words of a holy Elder means that I am not for the bruised, broken, and downtrodden. I myself am very much in that category. Nor do I see the Elder’s words as being intended to beat down and shame such people. There is no judgment in his words or in my sharing of them. I apologize if I have offended you.
There is nothing to forgive!
I have not said that anyone here is not bruised and broken. How would I know that except it be disclosed. Neither did I say that the Elder and his teachings aim to beat down people in shame, although some do not do well with the strictness of monastic teachings. There are good reasons for that.
There is obviously some disagreement here as to the needfulness and the necessity to know and understand the Elders’ teachings, to the point of saying it is a shame that some may think it a burden. I say it is not necessary to know his works, as helpful and “right” as they may be, and do not deny that it could be a burden to some who are on the edge, and, that this is not a shame! Given the multiplicity of sound teachings in Orthodoxy over hundreds of years , there is much choose from…and we are free choose, as best fits our needs. And even better, with recommendations from people that we know and trust.
I do hope we can come to an understanding about this. Even to agree to disagree would be nice!
All is well. No worries. 🙏💗
Thanks Esmee! (I can’t do the heart icons…but I would give three to you 🙂 )
Thank you all for this wonderful discussion. I find that I often need to remind myself that we do not all have the same vocation. I barely know my own so I’m hardly in the position to judge anyone else’s. Yet I find myself doing it anyway at times, e.g. thinking that some holy person took their practices a little too far. While I am inspired by many of the holy, sometimes I find myself wondering whether God truly wanted them to ruin themselves physically – depriving themselves of food, sleep, cleanliness, etc. But perhaps that is what they were called to do. I am to imitate then in spirit, in yearning, but not necessarily in every specific action.
My spiritual director once indicated to me that I should not fast too harshly (probably because I am underweight). I also know that if I sleep- deprive myself too much, I cannot function so well at work. However, the last time I had to have a colonoscopy (one of my least favorite things to do), I became excited – I get to fast AND stay up all night! As someone mentioned above, we can be creative with our opportunities. ☺
I think the focus on possible interpretations of strictness or the bar being set too high misses the point. (Despite Victoria making a good point on the setting of the bar with children.)
When I say ‘it’s a shame to miss’ this knowledge this has nothing to do with ‘shame’. The expression here means that we do ourselves a disservice by negatively disposing ourselves towards it or ignoring it, especially when there’s infinite lea-way in how we personally find it fit to implement it.
It’s like a someone gives me a key to a drawer with a treasure which i can use however i see fit and despite being in need I protest and throw it out the window. I really needn’t.
Dino, Esmee, et al
Oddly, it’s the middle of the night as I write…I’m “sleepless in Seattle.” I’ve been in Seattle the last few days speaking at a conference, which has given me very little time to think or comment on the blog. It has given me too much time amid the scattered thoughts of my own mind and its torments of distractions (some days are noisier than others).
Mostly I want to apologize. We need to be encouraged – which is all that you have done – and it would indeed be a misinterpretation to make it a discussion about the strictness of matters. In fact, given the history of our conversations, I think there is ample agreement on the need for mercy and economy when called for – as well as our own desperate need for the medicines given to us in the Tradition.
I covet your prayers as I travel early this morning (arriving home this evening – going East “loses” hours). I also covet your prayers for this work we share. When I travel and speak, I have ever so many conversations that center on simple gratitude for something that was read here – either in an article or in the comments. Your share in it is so much greater than you might imagine.
Christ is risen!
On strictness – it’s good to read about loving and wise holy elders – who themselves were very strict – it applies their strictness with care – in the sense of their wisdom – I’m reading Wounded by Love and as a young monastic Saint Porphyrios became very gravely ill.
His elders sent him off of the Holy Mountain – to go to his family where he could eat meat, eggs and butter. Meat eggs and butter! 😊 His elders – whom he lived dearly – loved him like a mother. They cared for his soul and his body. Not of our asceticism is meant to make us ill – ever.
Our prayers, Father, are with you as you travel. Is not our God a good God? I like St. Paul’s sage advice in 1 Cor. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” We simply cannot judge anyone else when it comes to asceticism. We need to “look to our own selves” and stop the gaze there. I am so pleased that there is a spirit of love, acceptance and forgiveness among this community.
And Mary…yes, you are very thin. Maybe you need more meat, eggs and butter!😉
Our prayers Father.
We love you!
Godspeed on your travels…
Dear Father Stephen,
We are also grateful for your comments and there is nothing to apologize for.
Interestingly I had insomnia last night. And so I prayed!
May God speed your return home, safe and sound and with more opportunity to sleep!
We are so grateful for this blog. Thank you so much for this ministry!
Dean – eggs, sure. Butter, maybe. No, not meat!!!
I’ve been a vegetarian for quite a while and so has my brother. As we age, we sometimes comment (only half jokingly) that we fear being forced to eat meat if our bodies or minds fail us so that we cannot live independently anymore.
Victoria’s comment about St. Porphyrios reminded me of something similar from the life of St. Paisios. Though he did not eat meat normally, when he was ill and in the hospital, he ate the meat they prescribed without a word of protest – out of obedience. I forget more and more as I get older but I pray that I never forget this lesson. May I learn the obedience and humility to let always accept God’s plans for me over my own.
Fr. Stephen, please allow yourself a good rest – thank you for all you do for us…
I have enjoyed your description of prayer as a rendezvous between lovers. This is a very poignant description and reminds me very much of the Song of Songs. Thank you for this edifying description.
I often think it’s a pity that –in practice– we forget that all erotic love is nothing but an imitation of the ‘first love’, between the soul and God, Christ and the Church.
However it is a greater catastrophe when –in practice– we take out this ‘fire’ from the religion of Christianity – it makes for an unattractive statue in the place of a magnificent real person.
As St Isaac the Syrian would say: ‘without wine one cannot get drunk”.
So well put! Should we all say, “I’ll drink to that?”
This is one of the best theology writings i read so far you have no idea how much it helped me thank you thank you god bless you father