I Can See Clearly Now

God is in charge of the outcome of history.

This simple statement is one way of expressing the Christian doctrine of divine Providence. Perhaps an even more profound way would be a statement that affirms “all things work together for good.” However, no matter how this is said, it is often the least obvious of all Christian doctrines. It is also, I think, among the most necessary of Christian doctrines when it comes to rightly living the life of grace. Those who do not understand this, are confronted with the constant temptation to assume the position of God themselves. That – is idolatry.

I taught each of my four children how to drive a car. Before I began with the first, I made a quiet promise to myself that I would only yell in order to prevent an immediate accident. The reason was quite simple: the experience of being a passenger with an unskilled driver provokes anxiety in the extreme, usually accompanied by frequent yelling. It is also true that no driver likes to drive with passengers who are yelling, least of all someone who is themselves uncertain of their skills. Among the most essential things to learn in driving, is what to do with your eyes. There is of course a need to monitor the mirrors, both the rearview mirror and the sideview mirror, in order to be aware of the context in which you are driving. There is also the need to be aware of the side of the road as well as the oncoming traffic. And then, there is the road as it stretches into the distance. So where do we focus our attention?

The answer, it seems to me, is that our focus is somewhere in the distance. If one’s focus is too close, then the actions required to respond will be happening at a rate that is far too fast for a timely response. The result will be a very “jerky” ride. The essential visual posture is a focus towards a more distant point down the road, while we steer and respond largely with our peripheral vision.

Learning that you have peripheral vision is something that requires paying attention. It’s quite easy to assume that we only see what we are focused on. Such a form of vision would be dangerous in the extreme. Instead, focus is only a small fraction of what we see. The larger part of our vision occurs in the “periphery,” that area that surrounds the point of focus. If you focus and stay focused on a single point, such as a single word in a paragraph, and then begin moving your hand about (while maintaining the same focus), you will quickly discover that you can see a range of nearly 180 degrees. Focus is a narrow thing, a single point. Periphery is broad, the whole range through roughly half a sphere.  Driving a car is an exercise in hand-eye coordination in a world that is primarily seen in the periphery.

I had to re-learn this the first time I rented a car and began to drive in England. I knew there was going to be trouble when I was told that the available car had a manual transmission. Like every self-respecting male, I announced, “No problem!” So, seated on the right, with the gear shift on my left, and the pedals in the same order as in America (left-to-right: clutch, brake, accelerator), I began my first effort at navigation in England. Peripheral vision is actually only a fraction of what your body “sees.” There is another vast amount of cubic space which the rest of your body feels and “sees” by extension. We “feel” the automobile itself.

Nothing makes this clearer than sitting on the “wrong” side and trying to drive. The entire left side of the car felt like I had just left a dental office: numb. I curbed the tires on the left side of the car three times before getting out of the parking lot. That the trip did not involve a major crash is a testimony to the faithfulness of God and some risky interventions on the part of my guardian angel.

So, what has this to do with Divine Providence? It is, in short, an example of how to see and think in the context of Providence. The outcome of history is in the hands of God. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the end of history. It all works together for good. The question in our daily lives, however, has to do with where we focus our attention. By and large, we tend to live like young, new drivers. We focus on things around us. When we worry about the future, it’s really only about a car-length ahead of us. As such, our lives are jerked around, dashing to and from perceived problems, wiggling our way down the road, surprised by rumble strips, and occasionally winding up in the ditch.

Hebrews gives us this:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1–2)

Christ Himself “fixed His eyes” on the joy set out for Him, the cause for which He came into the world. We rarely see Providence by focusing on all of the immediate distractions of the moment. It is best seen in the divine distance. The bulk of our immediate lives are best lived and seen in the “peripheral vision” of Providence. This is a spiritual habit that requires practice in order to attain (like learning to drive a car).

I anticipate an objection to all of this in the form of “but what about living in the moment?” The true “moment” in which we live cannot be rightly perceived apart from the light of Providence. The up-close detail and what is immediately at hand, when isolated from its place within Providence as a whole, can appear to be something that it is not. Such a false focus can be one of many formulas for an anxious existence. The “truth” of our existence is only revealed in the fullness of the truth which is made known to us in Christ’s Pascha.

The vision of life in which our eyes are “fixed” on the End made known in Christ, yet encompassing the whole periphery of our on-going lives, is a place of peace and assurance. When we are living in “strange” times, it is important to note that a wrong focus tends to exacerbate the strangeness. We only see clearly when our vision is made whole.

51 comments:

  1. Thank you Fr. It is nice to read this article today, it gives me hope and peace of mind.

  2. Thank you Father! My favorite translation of Romans 8:28 as a Protestant was “God transforms everything into good” but perhaps not as accurate as the Orthodox translation. Hope you will also share your perspective on the rest of the verse: “to” or “for” them who are called…

  3. When I was obtaining my motorcycle license, we were told that our eyes should always be looking “12 seconds ahead”. When you think about how far that is, in riding time, it is rather astounding! But, in practice, it is very true that one cannot perceive the actual conditions of the road, the other vehicles, pedestrians, and everything else without that “long vision”. Thanks for this, Father.

  4. “I made a quiet promise to myself that I would only yell in order to prevent an immediate accident.”
    Father, you yell ?!! I can’t believe it! 😀

    My father taught me how to drive. Let’s just say I learned out of fear!
    I was told once that he told my mother she didn’t need to drive. That he would take her where she wanted to go. And he did…and sat on the bench, you know, the bench where all the men sit waiting for their wives to finish shopping. And he never complained. Neither did mom.
    These memories are sweet…and I laugh out loud thinking of them!
    Why he decided to teach me, I don’t know. But looking back I see it as a condescension, much like our Heavenly Father does with us in an effort to communicate.
    All that to say I can now ‘see’ the in periphery, along with a somewhat frightful focus, the well-meant intentions of my father.

    Your analogy is a great one Father Stephen. Brings much delight too.
    Thank you!

  5. Paula,
    There is a book that I’m reading in the middle of the night. I tend to wake up about 4 am and I read a little to go back to sleep. The book is The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Clement). It’s shot through with patristic passages. Last night it was passages from St. Dionysius, Origen, and St. Clement of Alexandria, all on certain aspects of natural contemplation – how the natural world reflects the celestial. It often times passes into the sublime. I find, night after night, that this is my best time for such reading, such contemplation, as well as prayer.

    I chose the Milky Way picture for this article with that in mind. When you start with something as messy as the Big Bang, and it unfolds to sentient existence giving the voice of thanks to God – it’s about as profound a natural contemplation of Divine Providence as I can imagine. It’s not only working out – it worked out bringing me into existence and to this moment (together with every sparrow that falls). The things that seem so close (and even so threatening) are nothing compared to this wonder.

    I understand that with the human activity somewhat abated, the skies are beginning to clear, and the Milky Way can be seen from so many more places. Sadly, too many people are not looking up.

  6. Providence, the milky way, mystics, periferal and long-range driving vision– all connected: so much to take with me down the road and into the night. Thank you, dear Father Stephen. Also to the commenters. Exchanges often inspire.

  7. At any rate, Father, thank you for this post. It helped me better understand the anxiety I’ve been dealing with and putting it into perspective. My problem ever since the pandemic started in the US is that I can’t stop looking backward. I keep getting anxious because of thoughts about personal (moreso than spiritual) regrets–unmet goals, worries about aging (I’m 38), generally feeling like time slipped away. I didn’t say these thoughts and feelings were rational, of course. I guess with life so shaken up from what it was before, it’s hard for me to tell what’s ahead to look at.

    Incidentally, a few days ago I found one of your older posts on anxiety, and ordered Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives based on a recommendation in that post. It just arrived today. I’m looking forward to it.

  8. Father…I can sure see how the stillness of the mid night lends to such contemplation. The book you mention sounds like a perfect ‘friend’, so to speak, to accompany the wonder brought forth at this special time.
    Dino…you have mentioned many times the benefits of drawing close to God in the night.
    This natural contemplation you speak about Father… in the post you say that to see the peripheral vision of God’s providence is a spiritual discipline that needs to be practiced. For us moderns, I think this is very much the case. But for our ancestors, the ancients far back in time who were far removed in time from a secular/modern worldview, there was no division, no separation between spiritual and earthly realms. Neither is there a separation now, but we need the practice to redevelop our senses.
    What our ancestors knew as enlivening the world all around, above and below, they knew as coming from the unseen, and the unseen embodied the seen.

    I like your vision afforded through such contemplation of at once having come into existence and to this very moment, together with all the wonders of nature at hand. So very inspiring!
    Another book!, you mention, that I’d like to read…in the mid night!
    Again, thank you!

  9. History! Such a loaded word full of all sorts of temptations in even using the word. Yet, my encounter with Jesus led me to a brief formal study of it and a life long avocation and fascination with it.

    Historical theories abound, all of them flawed some of them profoundly dangerous. Yet at it’s heart it is the study of the unfolding of human experience in all it’s complexity. Good, bad and ugly.

    It is not necessarily bound by time although we tend to think so.

    My late father grew up on the high plains of eastern New Mexico before concrete/asphalt roads, cards and electric lights. At night there was not much but one’s immediate surroundings and the sky broken only by the silloettes of distant mountains. I believe the Sangre De Christa mountains.
    A Coleman lantern or two and maybe some candles if necessary.
    Eternity was close at hand. One lived with the rhythm of the land and sky or one died. My grandfather almost died one time when his horse got loose out cutting wood at the distant “breaks” where there were trees. He got home over the snowy landscape but was snow blind for days afterward.

    That is history as much as the 1912 statehood of New Mexico that came later and the litany of kings, queens, wars, pestilence, plague, floods, wars and dying — the rise and fall of nation’s.

    We try to order things for good or ill–entropy tends to frustrate our designs because it is all ‘flesh’ subject to futility.

    There are only two possible outcomes: life or death. Life comes by Christ Jesus. There is no “outcome” as history is not linear even though we tend to think that it is which leads to all sorts of mischief. History is the unfolding of life in oneself and ones community which, due to sin, is combined with death as well.

    We have the God given freedom to live or die. Death will pass away at some point. We can experience that now in this instant or not.

    Seems a simple choice but is not as we approach it because we see darkly.

    May the Light of Christ illumine our souls that we may see and be free.

  10. Felt like I made the right decision about saving the Killdeer eggs from the mower on the farm tractor, until the next day when two black snakes came and ate them. The reason for saying the Jesus prayer was made crystal clear to me by this simple act of nature.

  11. Paula
    The encounter of the deep soul and of God in the stillness of the night can be like a sudden entering into some holy of holies in the Kingdom Come, while still having a great deal of this life to live here.
    The stifling secular/modern worldview, its bombardment from all sides with relentless anti-sacramental rationalisations (and ‘separation between spiritual and earthly realms’) can sure suck you in itself, and quickly take you away from that Living presence.
    Even the effort to discuss elements of this worldview in order to show them for what they are and without speaking too much of an ‘otherworldly’ language (for the sake of a discussion that doesn’t sound as if it is lacking in all awareness of secular categories in its spiritual-ness) , sadly, I find, can easily lead us far away from the warmth of that true and eternal encounter. And no words take you back as well as stillness under the stars does.

  12. Dino,
    Yes, even “for the sake of a discussion” where our responses may be confusing or misunderstood, as if we were not quite standing on solid ground, if this occurs day after day, without time given to stillness and contemplation, we can find ourselves with a sense of a most unwelcome emptiness.
    So God gives us, in time, in the hours of a day, the nighttime where all seems to sleep but still ‘awake’ is the energy of the living stars, trees, grass, foliage, the smell of the air, the touch of a breeze…and even indoors, in the quietness of contemplation, in prayer, or in the company of a good book, where the mind can wander…even ascend…toward that which you call ‘the holy of holies’. And maybe, with practice! these times of stillness will slowly begin to brighten what may have faded when we converse a certain way ‘for the sake of discussion’.
    I think this pressing past the veil of modernity which dampens our vision is very much what draws people to Father’s work here at the blog. We are starved for such a life, and yearn for it to come alive once again. To be among those who envision the world as such makes it all the more evident for us who may not quite be there yet.

  13. Genesis 15:2 But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’

    Genesis 15:5-6 : {The Lord] brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’

    There’s the pattern. We get caught up in our own narratives. It is the Lord who takes us out of our heads and shows – the stars. (Sorry, triggered by all those stellar comments :-))

  14. There is a verse in Job also about the stars – when Job wishes to question God and realizes this is to great and marvelous a thing for him, and God asks him

    “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
    5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
    6 On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
    7 while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

  15. Thank you for your writings.

    You talking about attention ( focused and peripheral ) sounds a bit like what psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist is talking about in his book “The Master and his Emissary”. It is a book about the relationship between the two brain hemispheres. The left half, controlling the right side of the body, tries only ever focus on one thing at a time, disregarding everything else. The right half on the other hand is trying to see everything at once, with a lower accuracy of course. McGilchrist proposes that the right half should be the director of your actions and the left half should be the doer of your actions, like a master and his emissary.

  16. Father Stephen,
    I’ve been thinking about some things you have said in the past regarding the immanence of the unseen among us, alongside us, and even within us as well as in all of creation.
    You spoke of the way in which Orthodoxy expresses reality. There is a basic assumption which presupposes, or takes as a given, a reality that consists of material and immaterial substance; that these substances are created and given life by the One and same Creator Who is outside of all being, yet created in such a way that participates in divinity without changing its createdness; and that both the material and immaterial exist in immediacy. So no matter what has changed over time, where now with the spirit of this age, there is a denial of any sense of sacred, the unity in the difference between seen and unseen still exists. It has not, nor can not, change. This reality is what Orthodoxy speaks of, assumes, and lives.

    You had mentioned also that us moderns, unable to see what our ancestors saw, speak of instances of the miraculous as if it were something spectacular, when in reality it is rather quite normal. You were referring to a particular place you visited, a monastic community where it was routine that the souls of those who have departed from there were ‘regular visitors’. And the monastics were rather surprised that we would be surprised at such a thing!

    In another place I asked the question, why do we not experience life as it is described in Scripture…where the stars are at once living beings and luminaries, where sticks were transformed into snakes, where the sea parts for people to walk through and escape slavery . I am not talking about believing these things happened. We do believe. But seeing these things in front of our face, things which we’d call miracles, spectacular, supernatural, where our ancestors had no such descriptive. They were a regular occurrence to those ‘knowing’ full well the unseen.
    As you may already suspect, the answer I received is something we already know, but maybe not to the full extent. The answer was because we are ‘out of practice’ … the ability to see lies dormant in the midst of the age of secular modernity. I think what you are saying here, Father, is that contemplation, stillness, as is spoken by the hesychasts, is a practice that would begin to open our eyes. I also think you have showed us how we can “do” this practice…as I frequently ask the question “what does it look like to ____”. Begin at a quiet time, when the stillness is all around, still but alive. I do not think stillness means absolute nothingness, a complete silence, even of thought. But through the stillness, the still small voice, the power that sustains all, the energy of The One Who Is, begins to reappear, but this time in the place of the heart that once lied dormant.
    Just start there with your heart toward God. After all, He is right here among us.

    The picture of the Milky Way, Father… that we can see it more clearly now that our activity of moving about is curtailed (inviting stillness), clearing the ozone, that we may see the ‘periphery’ … and there is much to be seen! Thank you for mentioning that. I did check out the picture at first read, but was unable to make the connection.

  17. Thank you Father. I really needed d to hear this.
    I have many attention issues. This helped to calm my soul (as well as my mind and body.) It’s a daily struggle. I suppose it will always be. I remember a phrase I heard recently, Follow, Focus, Flow. It has helped me a bit. The peripheral perspective you speak of, gives just enough space to allow for the rhythm of God, and hopefully His daily intention for me, I think.

  18. I just read this little story this morning and it seems relevant to the topic of this post. This story is about two young men who made a pilgrimage to the Sukhumi ascetics who lived hidden in the mountain crevices and caves of the Caucuses during communist times. The year was 1962 and these young men brought basic necessities to offer to the ascetics they went to visit in thanksgiving for their prayer. One of the ascetics they met was Hierodeacon Habakkuk, a recluse. In their words,

    “He knew the whole Psalter by heart, the way we know ‘Our Father.’ He was clairvoyant… came up to us, bowed to the ground, called both of us by name, and said, ‘Follow me!’ He led us up to his cell. He knelt and began to thank the Lord, and recited the Psalter from memory. We also knelt, and then fell asleep while he continued reciting. When we sat down to eat, he continued reciting in order not to forget the Lord God. He told us that he didn’t ask anyone for anything or about anything, and that he was not in need of anything. If you were to take the shirt off his back, he’d continue reciting the Psalter. But we saw he was all covered in sweat, so we washed him as best we could and dressed him in clean new clothes, new boots, new underwear, and new pants. He didn’t object, but just kept reciting the Psalter the whole time.”

    Source: Archpriest Valentin Biryukov, On Earth We’re Just Learning How yo Live, p. 84-85.

  19. Thank you very much Esmee.
    Since reading your comment I have been browsing online info on our ‘kin’ you mention on the other side of the globe. My mind starts to wander, thinking how it would be to visit with them. Though a place far from us, I can well imagine when meeting them there would be a warm familiarity, as if we’ve known each other for a long long time.
    Again, thank you. And for the source of the quote as well.

  20. Father,
    your constant efforts towards the re-orientation of our attention towards God’s providence was appreciated deeply again today as I was reading the Gospel’s words regarding Christ’s efforts towards re-orientation of His disciples towards God’s providence rather than ‘who to blame’ regarding the man’s blindness…
    I first thought of complaining/blaming whoever might blasphemously express the thought of contagiousness via the saliva involved in the sacraments etc. by mentioning that the same would surely mock Jesus using saliva to heal – and the same might possibly be pointing out the ‘dangers of contagion’ in faithlessness if the Jesus was to perform the miracle today in the midst of a world of prioritisation of secular, rational fear over traditional faith.
    However, our Lord’s words clearly point us elsewhere al together, as you insightfully do Father: He tells us not to ask who or what is to blame, but to ask: How are the works of God manifest? (Our human tendency, when things go wrong -as these days for instance-, is to seek for someone to blame.) But, instead of looking for some kind of determinism of the past towards the future – as the disciples sought- we are clearly directed towards what overcomes all determinism of that sort: repentance and trust in God’s providence.
    A complete re-orientation towards God being in charge of the outcome of history, and an aligning of our being to that outcome.
    Thank you.

  21. At the risk of seeming strident and picky: The phrase “outcome of history” is a really bad phrase. It drips of the dialectic approach to time and being that is fundamentally wrong and tremendously destructive. In our time and world it is difficult to overcome because that approach has been dominant for centuries. However there is no doubt in my heart that said approach is demonic in origin.

    The more I study history and live it, the less comfortable I am with the dialectic in even subtle ways. History is, until it isn’t. God’s Incarnational Providence is the substance. The only “outcome” of His Providence is union with HIm in mercy.

    History as we know it is intimately tied up with our perception of time and death. The only true “outcome” of history is the trampling down of death by death. IMO any other way of looking at history is simply buying into the dialectic monstrosity of mechanistic doom that is modernity where everything is stripped of meaning, life and beauty.

    Christ is Risen!

  22. Dino,
    Christ makes a simple point with Pilate: “If my Kingdom were of this world, my disciples would fight.” If the Kingdom of God were simply one of many competing forces within the world of cause-and-effect (which is a secular narrative), then Christians would need to worry, plot, plan, argue, lobby, wrestle, etc. However, it is not. Cause-and-effect did its best: it killed the God/Man. His disciples despaired (their minds yet to be renewed). But not only did Christ triumph over death and hell – His very dying became the means of our redemption. It’s not just that a bad thing was defeated, but the “bad thing” itself became God’s own good thing.

    We do not live in a universe of “good versus evil.” We live in a universe in which nothing overcomes the Good – there’s not really any contest.

  23. Michael,
    Preaching the gospel involves paradox. The phrase “outcome of history” is not mine. I borrowed from Stanley Hauerwas. However, as it is used, it has a paradox – that the “outcome” of history has already occurred in the death and resurrection of Christ (that’s the full phrase). As such, it turns the word “history” upside down (or some such thing). I’ve been comfortable with the phrase for well over 30 years, and find no reason to abandon it.

    If we begin to hold our theories in a too precious manner (such that we fear using even the common speech) then we will soon be having a conversation only with ourselves. Instead, when the gospel is being effectively preached, it has taken whatever the culture has given it, and, where necessary, captured the common speech for its own use. Obviously “outcome of history” is inappropriate for describing the death and resurrection of Christ, for they are not the result of a historical process. But, speaking of it in this manner injects precisely the same thing into speech that the death and resurrection of Christ injected into the events of that day.

    And, as Christians, we know that the death and resurrection of Christ continue at all times and everywhere, “subverting” what secularists and naturalists imagine to be a deterministic process of cause-and-effect. Perhaps it would be correct to describe the world as something of cause-and-effect, if, as Christians, we understand that the Cause of all things is the death and resurrection of Christ.

    As we confess Christ as “Logos,” we recognize that the appearances of things are, at most, mere appearances that hide the truth of all things in a mystery. In the death and resurrection of Christ, the veil has been torn and we see the truth of things. The world is not literal (and, sometimes, neither is my writing).

  24. “human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality.
    Time past and time future
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.”
    T.S. Eliot ‘Burnt Norton’

  25. As was commented earlier, motorcycling (and cycling) make it very clear that you will go where you look, as those of us who were looking down at the ground out of fear discovered.
    The title of this post started the ear worm- the song with the same title. Some theology in those lyrics 😉
    Finally, when my focus is right, it seems my prayer is simple: grace and wisdom to keep this focus and supplication for all of us to do so. Thank you Father for your writing.

  26. Father makes sense. I did not know the full context but I think in my own way I arrived there. The dialectic model is so pervasive that explaining more context for not dialectical approaches is more necessary perhaps. Jesus Christ ruptures it but some still try to imprison Him in it. Thank you.

  27. Ahhh…good conversation is a healing balm .
    I was reading in the Road to Emmaus Journal a story about American friends visiting friends in Russia (this is a great Journal, btw!). The article describes little tidbits of Russian ‘habit’, one of them being after a ‘feast’ at table, they sit long into the night and talk…tell stories and laugh. It said “as all Russians like to do”.
    Between their undying loyalty to the Orthodox Church…their Vespers are 5 hours long! Can you imagine?! That’s just Vespers…and dedication to each other (you can see the love on their faces. It is incredible!) you can understand where their strength to persevere comes from.
    I love good conversation.

    Thanks Father, and all!

  28. Paula, I have never gone 5 hours in a prayer service or anywhere close but I have noted that the longer one prays, the easier it gets. At some point it becomes difficult to stop.

    It is a bit like being basted.

  29. From the essay:

    “Christ Himself “fixed His eyes” on the joy set out for Him, the cause for which He came into the world. We rarely see Providence by focusing on all of the immediate distractions of the moment. It is best seen in the divine distance. The bulk of our immediate lives are best lived and seen in the “peripheral vision” of Providence. This is a spiritual habit that requires practice in order to attain (like learning to drive a car).”

    But Christ was always True God and True Man, and so he could fix His eyes on the joy set out for Him. whereas I, to use the words of Chesterton, “can see human sin (especially mine) in the street and cannot see divine sinlesness even in my dreams!” So this is difficult for me.

    Are there any specific ways to develop the “muscle” of trust in Divine Providence?

    -NSP

  30. NSP
    Understandably, times of internal turmoil require an established, previous ‘counterbalance’ of long cultivation towards this ‘trust in Divine Providence’, as in “I prepared myself, and was not terrified” [Psalm 119/118-60 Septuagint]).
    However, I find that, in times of relative quietude, it is quite apt to describe it as something that is “easy to achieve and easy to loose”.
    Like the needle on the groove of a record, which we used to place easily, but it remained a fine balance upon the tiny vinyl groove (likewise, we can easily place ourselves upon the groove of totally trusting in Divine Providence as we have been commanded [Matthew 6:34] and just as easily jump out of the groove, and lose this trust, as Peter did upon taking his focus towards the waves [Matthew 29-30] – although, truth be told, Peter saw great turmoil distraction him, whereas, we often lose the trust in Divine Providence, even just due to self-willed distraction from a forgetfulness we could label “self-secularisation” (as well as the distraction that assaults us and then finds welcome “conduction” inside of us), rather than from great turmoil…

  31. NSP,
    2Cor. 5:21 “God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God.”

    Even when all you can see is human sin all around you, know that Christ is at work, even there, to bring all things together for good. To develop the “muscle” as you say, just concentrate (a little at a time) on Christ’ goodness working thing together for good – use a story like the 3 Young Men in the Fiery furnace, or Joseph in Egypt. In both cases, much sin was present, great evil, and yet God was working through and in those terrible things to make all things well. And then take a rest. Like building muscles – exercise that meditation a number of times a day.

  32. NSP, I sympathize with your plight. It’s one I suffer from too.

    One thing I find helpful when I get too caught up in the self obsessing about flaws, future, whatever is just to remember that little Abram story from Genesis 15 I mentioned earlier. Although Abram had been promised an amazing future he couldn’t help obsessing on his current circumstances and imagined future – and it was not even completely unreasonable, just obsessive and immediate future focused (Eliezer of Damscaus will be my heir – really? is that what you’re thinking about??) I kind of imagine him tossing and turning in his tent at night worrying about this stuff. But in his dream the Lord takes him outside (which I take to be symbolic as well, out of his own proliferating mind) and simply shows him the stars, and links those to his future. That’s what the proliferating mind sometimes needs, just to be reminded of wonder and the bigger picture, and that while a healthy interest is good, we really don’t have to worry too much about whether or notGod will keep his promises in the way we think He should, or indeed whether Eliezer of Damascus is or is not going to inherit … 🙂

    I think Father’s article is spot on about all of this, and it is interesting that the subsequent discussion went straight to that image of the stars which is also completely appropriate, and helpful.

    I have been pondering the final line of the story in which Abram is told that because he believes – which I take to be he finally relaxes into his faith and accepts that God really is in control and he does not need to obsess – this is counted to him as righteousness. I have been thinking that maybe one reason such a thing is righteousness is because (a) it is maybe not always that easy to do, (b) wonder at the stars, and providence is inherently a good thing, and (c) faith is a kind of art, sort of like good driving, and when it is done well, it is, well, righteous.

    So, yes, watch, but relax and wonder! And contemplative prayer – which in addition to just being a good thing also functions as a way of taking the attention off ourselves and our obsessions, and may, by grace, lead to our being taken out of our little obsessive tents into the magnificent darkness of wonder.

  33. An interesting quote from Pastor Wurmbrand, on loving Communists, even amid the evils of Communism.

    The Jews have a legend that, when their forefathers were saved from Egypt and the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, the angels joined the songs of triumph sung by the Israelites. And God said to the angels, “The Jews are men and can rejoice about their escape. But from you I expect more understanding. Are the Egyptians not also my creatures? Do I not love them too? How do you fail to feel my sorrow about their tragic fate?”.

    Joshua 5:13 says, “And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His Sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” …But the Being whom Joshua met was sent from the Lord and, therefore, when asked whether He was for or against Israel, gave an answer that is most unexpected and difficult to understand: “No.”

    …He came from a place where beings are not for or against, but where everyone and everything are understood, looked upon with pity and compassion, and loved with fire.”

    Perhaps a good start is to simply say “No” and not divide the world and all in it into sinfulness and goodness. Perhaps thanksgiving will come after that? It’s worth pondering, at least to me.

  34. Thank you all for the replies!

    Dino,

    What you say makes sense: “In times of peace, prepare for war!” But what is one to do when one faces a long period of inner turmoil? Does one run the risk of “spiritual burnout?”

    Also, it almost makes me despair when I think of how easily the “needle can slip out of the groove” and, from my personal experience, how much damage one slip can cause, and how much time can elapse before one recovers one’s previous poise.
    Then who can be saved? Perhaps only a few monks & nuns in their cells (and a few laymen like the cobbler in St. Antony’s story) who have cultivated perfect watchfulness and recollection. Well, I suppose for the rest of us there is always the consolation of the “Where I find you there I will judge you,” but given the facts of life it seems much more probable that He will find us (me, at any rate), fallen rather than standing.

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for the suggestion. I will practice this exercise.
    It’s interesting that you mention the story of the Three Young Men in the furnace. I’ve always been drawn to that story because of what the three youths answer back to Nebuchadnezzar: “For behold our God, whom we worship, is able to save us…. but if He will not, be it known to thee, O king,…”
    Ananias, Azarias and Mizael were very realistic in their expectations!

    Ziton,

    You make some good points about what “counted to him as righteousness” means. On similar lines, I have often wondered what exactly it meant when the Publican “Went down to his house justified.” Did he receive the grace to stop being a tax collector? Did he ever experience satisfaction in this life, or did he repeat the same prayer every time he went up to the temple to pray, for the rest of his life?

    Also, your earlier comments about Abraham bring up something that I’ve noticed. It seems to me that holy men and women who have a deep trust in Providence have either (i) experienced a miraculous intervention from God or (ii) been permitted by God to “have something going for them,” usually in their professional life. Some saints have both.

    I have noticed this pattern in the lives of holy people and canonised saints, both Catholic & Orthodox.

    Examples in the first category:
    Abraham as shown in your story above
    St. Silouan the Athonite (Our Lady appeard to him after his brawl)
    St. Therese of Lisieux (cured of neurosis by a vision of the Blessed Virgin, “grew up” emotionally in an instant in the “Christmas Miracle”)

    Examples in the second category:
    St. Ignatius Brianchininoff: Distinguished himself as an Army Engineer so much that he came to the notice of Czar Nicholas I
    St. Ignatius of Loyola: accomplished courtier and soldier befor his conversion. (actually he should be in both categories because of his visions)
    Fr. Arseny – was a reputed art historian.
    Met. Antony Bloom – was an accomplished surgeon.
    St. Alphonsus Liguori – was a successful lawyer
    St. Theophan the Recluse – was professor and dean of a seminary.

    If you have experienced a miraculous event, or if you’ve got something going for you, I suppose it’s somewhat easier to find meaning in your life (as Viktor Frankl would say, “one with a why can endure any how”). What of the rest of us?

    What I would really like, is to “get into the head” – and heart – of someone like St. Benedict Joseph Labre, or one of the Holy Fools in the Russian tradition (perhaps like the monk in the film Ostrov) and find out how exactly they live as they do. Unfortunately such people are not much given to writing books! 🙂 I have started reading Laurus (by Eugene Vodolazkin) though, hoping to find something useful.

    Byron,

    That is a beautiful set of passages you’ve quoted, because the stories of the Exodus and of the settling of the Promised Land have always caused me anxiety.

    What if, in the plan of God, I’m nothing more than an Egyptian or a Canaanite – a bit-player whose only function is to be a foil for the true heroes of the spiritual life?

    But the passages you quoted give me hope. They are a sort of a “talking back to the Devil” who whispers suggestions of despair. Could you let me know which book they are from?

    -NSP

    P.S. Dino, while we’re on these topics, could you please let me know the source of the quote I’ve requested here in an older thread?

  35. What if, in the plan of God, I’m nothing more than an Egyptian or a Canaanite – a bit-player whose only function is to be a foil for the true heroes of the spiritual life?

    NSP, my immediate thoughts about the Egyptians (or Canaanites) centers around the “Harrowing of Hell”. Christ did not abandon them, but preached to them even in Hades! There is yet hope; “as long as one soul resides in Hell, Christ will be there with him”.

    The book is Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand. His observations towards his torturers and others are surprisingly Orthodox, at least as I see them.

  36. NSP,
    “Then who can be saved? ”
    Well, there’s this thing called ‘grace’. I’m sort of banking on that…

  37. NSP, “In Him we live and move and have our being”. Neither visions nor ability guarantee sanctity. In fact both can be distractions and digressions from true sanctity. Still some people are set apart. I find it more useful to acknowledge that. By doing that, I begin to see a bit of the countless moments of grace daily in my own life even in the midst of both my mediocrity and sinfulness. It is not so much that I should be like them but rather, they are like me despite my sin.

    It is tough, really tough, for me not to wish and hope, in the midst of my struggles for the “angel” Bill Cosby described to his mother after faking being sick to stay home from school. “Mom, a little angel came down and said “You’re well, go out and play!” God is not a magician though.

    One of the stories I love from the book, “Everyday Saints” is the one about the small monastery which was well known for its slovenliness, laxity and even debauchery. The Communists came anyway, demanding that the monks deny both God and the Church and disband. They thought it over and then the Abbott exhorted his fellow monks that even if they had not lived like monks or Christians, they could die like monks and Christians. God granted them that.

    I live like the monks most of the time. Yet God is merciful even more often even though I am not a saint. That is why I love the Russian word Podvig. Life is a struggle. We all die in this world suddenly or after a long decline. We each have our Podvigs. They are unique. Made especially for us and our salvation. We are blessed that each unique, intimate and crafted Podvig is united to each other one through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We are never alone. Neither are we autonomous. Someone, somewhere is helping us bear our unique burden whether we know it or not. Our Podvigs impact and interact with those of everyone else.
    That is life in and under the Cross.
    Christ is Risen!

  38. NSP,
    Sometimes I think of faith as loyalty. When I fall, I get up – I don’t change sides and I don’t quit fighting. But, I’m a terrible warrior and know that I add very little if anything to the overall victory. But, I have chosen sides. Christ does not abandon his soldiers or toss us away. I understand that you are troubled about how well or not well you are doing. Just do what you can – and trust God without trying to figure out whether you’re doing well or not. If you mess up, just keep getting back up.

  39. Father…yes, “loyalty”.
    Christ is “loyal” to us too, in a different way, in that He will never abandon us.
    I look to Him. Like a Rock, He is.
    His love is true.
    He even makes a way for us to share in the Divine life…what we once had, and did not.
    When He looks upon us, He sees just that…He sees our ‘new name’.
    I don’t see it, but He does. What He sees matters more than what I see…

  40. NSP – I suffer from many of the same thoughts, about being disqualified because of how my life has gone so far and the essential thing that others have that I don’t. They are really a drag. There’s no reasoning with them. Somehow over my life they’ve been a source of (false) solace, and they still provide it. I am trying to learn to be comforted by God.

  41. Perhaps just ‘the resolution ‘ instead of ‘the outcome of history’

    I have realized I think of God as a micromanager who will ask me how I resolved things, fixed things, instead of as a Father whi has adopted me and loves me as a child. I once said during Confession, ‘I just assumed I was going to hell and wanted to try to help other people get to heaven’ and my Confessor’s astonished ‘Who do you think God is?’ has stuck with me to this day.
    Met. Kallistos saw his childhood nanny pass away in her old age when he was a young man. He said he was very close to her as a child. He said her last words were ‘The Blood of Christ covers a multitude of sins’ and then he looked up and smiled (at me) and said not a bad way to die.

    We constantly think, how am I going to resolve this situation? But it just leads to other situations. I love the theme from previous articles, we have good years and bad years and we don’t actually know which are better for our salvation.

    When people said ‘why is this man blind, is it his sins or his parents?’ that is just the transactional worldview I see in Hinduism. I think clarifying how Orthodoxy is not Hinduism is a key task

    I see people walking around the block, trying to run again, riding bikes and I really believe this virus situation is better and more profitable for remembering our shared humanity than the game plan for spring / summer that our culture had before: shouting at political rallies and packed stadiums

    St. Stephan the Great built Orthodox Churches in a circle around Romania. Wish I could do the same around the dc area. Nothing is coming out of politics and I largely turned the tv off after Obama’s 2nd inauguration speech.

    The Orthodox Church remembers what it means to be a Human, the gift and the goodness of it, the political machinery not at all.

    I have been trying to learn about de-escalation for about a year now. Both my husband and I have overactive startle reflexes and many years of weather extreme sorrows. I have been using the phrase ‘broad, open surveillance’ rather than hyper focus on a single thing. The book ‘the emotional life of the brain’ talks about attentional blink and how noticing one error leads to a fixation that leads to missing the next one.

    Peg Streep cites ‘the invisible gorilla’s experiments. Psychologists had people watch a recording of a basketball game. The participants were told to count either the number of dribbles or the number of passes, so they were focused on a task. During the video a person dressed as a gorilla walked out onto the court. About half the study subjects who were counting passes or dribbles didn’t even see it….

  42. As always, Nicole, I enjoy your reflections…and having an image in my mind of that gorilla going unnoticed, while making a very good point about focus, I still laughed out loud.
    Thanks!
    I hope you are not offended by my sense of humor!

  43. NSP,
    I just notice here again this question of yours, today, missed it originally!
    It is from a book of the Elder that still only exists in Greek. Its title is “Festive Mystagogical Homilies” p174 (homily on martyr Aimilianos)

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