Doing the Good You Can Do

St. John the Baptist confronted a difficult question. Soldiers came to him (it’s not clear what kind of soldiers these were). We are told:

Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Luke 3:14

The implication of his answer is that extortion and brutality were a common practice. It was certainly common in battles to “plunder” a city and engage in terrible acts of brutality. St. John’s answer is quite simple. Unanswered, and unasked, are the larger questions. What about the role of soldiers and the empire? What about the right relationship of people to an occupying power? Crickets…

Christ seems to side-step the implications of such questions when confronted with the matter of taxes. Rome’s domination of the world came with a price: taxes – lots of them. Those taxes were not used for the public good, building roads, police protection, and the like. They enriched Caesar and supported an ever-expanding military project. Christ famously says, holding a coin with Caesar’s image, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It is an answer that has spawned 20 centuries’ worth of unanswered questions.

The common ground within St. John’s answer and that of Christ is how limited they are in their scope. Neither presents a sweeping theory of history or civic arrangements. They confine themselves to the “thing at hand.”

The mental habits of contemporary culture have been nurtured in abstract theories. A simple matter of unmet medical care is at least as likely to be met with explanations of the public and private sector and economic theory as it is with actual medical help. Indeed, such questions are more than likely to be about someone on the other side of the country rather than your neighbor down the street.

The abstracted life is a torment for the soul.

We are created as incarnate beings, bodies ensouled with taste and touch. God gives Himself to us in very immediate terms: bread, wine, water, oil. Orthodoxy teaches us that an icon is better than the imagination. We cannot kiss imaginations. Our abstract thoughts, no doubt about things that seem to matter, are the equivalent of dreams. We wander through them, acquiring passionate opinions that seek to attach us to these ethereal notions. Pinned with anger and envy, we find ourselves distracted. A day passes and we have done nothing except give our souls over to such attachments.

We turn to Christ and wonder, “What should we do?”

The answer, I think, is simple and immediate: Do the good that lies at hand.

God continually places before us the opportunity to do good. Whether contemplation, work or play, showing mercy or praying, good is always possible. Giving attention to whatever the closer good may be allows us to avoid distraction and ease the torment of our souls.

I have been asked any number of times lately whether I think Christians should vote. I have no thoughts on the matter of “should.” However, I think voting can be a good that is “at hand.” But if it is a good “at hand,” then it should be done when it is “at hand.” That’s about once a year, on average. Period. As people become caught up in the swirl of political passions, they “vote” many times a day to no effect. It is nothing more than a fantasy and a distraction, a conversation that is an exercise in futility.

When Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims first appeared, I was struck by how consistently they pointed towards the immediate, the small, the hidden. Re-reading them, I found a number of them worth considering in this regard:

Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.

Be polite with everyone, first of all, family members.

Be faithful in little things.

Do your work, then forget it.

Be simple, hidden, quiet, and small.

Think and talk about things no more than necessary.

Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.

Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.

Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.

I included the last of these admonitions in token of the fact that such an immediate existence is strangely difficult in our times. I suspect that our distracted life and fantasy existence are not only filled with the passions, but demons as well. How could it not be? It is always sage advice to avoid the haunts of demons. If, in your day, you find it hard to draw yourself away from distractions and back to the good that lies at hand, then know that you have found that day’s spiritual struggle, the frontline of the battle and that single place where your presence and your prayers are most needed.

The angels and the saints will meet you there.

32 comments:

  1. “The abstracted life is a torment for the soul.”

    These themes of yours draw me in like a moth to the light. ThIs fits right into the one storey universe. This is the only way to rightly see but oh how hard it is to maintain and to break free from our habits.

    Bob Marley comes to mind: “ Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but our self can free our minds.”

    Lord have mercy and help us.

  2. This is wonderful, Father. I have found that the only way I can participate on social media, especially Facebook, and remain at peace is by embracing the second and eighth of the maxims you shared here: (2) Be polite with everyone . . . and (8) Don’t try to convince anyone of anything. I have embraced #8 for quite some time and find that it does bring much peace.

  3. Father,

    Thank you for these helpful words!

    Is reading this blog, living these words — what life in an Orthdox parish is like?

  4. This reminds me of a friend’s motto, which I think is drawn from a book, of just doing ‘the next right thing’, rather than spending a lot of time worrying about what you ‘should’ be doing, which is something I definitely do, as I want to make sure I’m living how God wants me to.
    There have seemed to be all sorts of concepts about how God guides us as to what we should do each day, from Charismatic friends who believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding them every second & down to what toothpaste they buy, t o others who talk about ‘sanctified common sense’ & living a normal human life (work/family/leisure etc) but in step with the moral principles we see in the Bible.

    Do the Orthdox have a normative way they decide these things, for example which career to take, or where to go on holiday?

    I’ve changed an initial in my name as I’ve had my divorce come through in recent weeks.

  5. The beauty of simplicity amidst the overweening complexity of our times…God grant us the humility to embrace such a “lifestyle” (groan…for lack of a better way of putting it) and become small yet strangely significant.

    Thank you Father!

  6. Beaker,
    Interesting question, viz. an Orthodox way of deciding things. In short, the answer is “no”. Some will take difficulty matters to their confessor for input – and, (I think of this as an abuse), others will expect their confessor, or spiritual father, to tell them what to do. This is a distortion of the tradition, for the most part.

    The assumption that many have, it seems to me, is that we have a right and wrong path in life. In America, the right path always seems to be one of less suffering and greater success. In truth, that mindset is of a piece with the prosperity teachers – they are only more honest and up-front about an ideology that has been a hallmark of most modern thought. If “progress” is good – then my individual progress is the right path. That is both heresy and nonsense.

    Our vocation is found in keeping the commandments of Christ and doing the good that is at hand. For the most part, it makes no difference what we do for work, etc. We are being saved in all circumstances, not just some. If “all things work together for good for those who love God” – then what matters is to love God. He will take care of “all things.”

  7. James,
    When I’m out for a walk, I frequently like to stop and focus on some details: a flower, a plant, a rock, etc. Simply to marvel at it. All things are significant (they are a “sign”). The “large” things that are seen as significant are mostly just imaginary – narratives promoted by various media for the purpose of driving the passions. It fits Shakespeare’s description: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    What matters and signifies is what is most at hand and immediate. All of the sacraments have this quality. They should be the model of our lives.

  8. All,
    It occurred to me, in thinking about these basic things-at-hand, how similar politics is to pornography. Both of them are largely fantasy-driven, and are only interesting in the sense that they arouse the passions. Different passions, but the same basic mechanisms.

    Sex is right and proper in the right context, with the right person, at the right time. Pornography is none of those things. Politics belongs in the voting booth. Everything else is probably the wrong context, wrong person, wrong time. If you vote, do it right. Do not turn your “politics” into pornography.

  9. Amen amen amen

    Easy to fall in these traps without attending to such edifying words in your article and comments.

    Thank you Father!

  10. Beaker, I would add to what Father says on decision making. Take everything into prayer. A big part of loving God is trusting Him in all things. Challenges and difficulties and sinfulness will arise. Cry out to God in those moments for mercy,

    I was received into the Church in 1987. The longer I am in the Church, the more I gravitate to the icon/Gospel story of Jesus saving St. Peter when St. Peter started to sink after walking on the water.

    Peter stepped out of the boat, he was doing fine until he put more focus on the “world” than Jesus Christ and Peter began to sink like a rock. Still, he cried out and Jesus took hold of him and brought him back to the boat. But chastising him too.

    Perhaps the biggest fallacy of the modern project is that life is and should be linear. “Everyday in every way getting better and better” Life, even in Christ, is falling down and getting up. With Christ, He helps you up and brings abundant blessings in the little things. The personal everyday decisions we make.

    I was just out in my small garden (two garden boxes with tomatoes and one lone cucumber). Earlier in the year we fought a pitched battle with tomato horn worms and cucumber beetles. We beat back the horn worms and the tomato plants are thriving. We lost most of our cucumber plants to the beetles but one survived, sending out tendrils, one establishing new roots as the original root stem was all eaten up by the beetles. It is thriving and seems to be taking refuge in the tomato plants as well. Cucumbers are beginning to mature. We had one in our dinner last night about 8 inches long and quite fat — very firm inside. Delicious. More to come.

    We planted them, prayed, implored the plants themselves to hang in. Now we just have to water and fertilize and maintain vigilance. The Lord gives the increase.

  11. Sidebar to Michael B (and anyone else who gardens):

    Next year plant marigolds around each tomato plant. Marigolds have a compound that is distilled to make a “natural” pesticide, and so the worms avoid them. When I was growing tomatoes I did this and never had tomato worms.

    Dana

  12. Thank you for these words, Fr Stephen
    They reminded me of a church council when the ‘issue’ of poverty was on the agenda. The motion before us called for petition to government. It struck me as odd then, and I was taken back to the Forerunner’s words about dealing with what was in front of you. I spoke in those terms, to bemused response . . . the motion passed almost unopposed.

    our language seems to have been inverted, we say ‘the Real World’ meaning the mediated abstractions of economy and politics. We seem to have little idea of neighbour in flesh and blood terms . . .

    As Wendell Berry, who knows a thing or too about the Good which is ‘at hand’ said ‘abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found’

  13. BeakerN:
    Your friend’s motto “do the next right thing” is drawn from the Disney Kid’s cartoon “Frozen.” Yes, the very one which bequeathed to the world the “Let It Go” song.j

  14. Elder Aimilianos makes an apt point of our key need to become able to glorify God in all contrary situations – which can powerfully lead us to worrisome distraction away from Him (often in the name of faith).
    {I think this particular talk of the Elder just became published in the Greek but I remember it well.}
    He has a nuanced reading of Job in it that has stayed with me (which only works with the Septuagint version).
    In 35:14 he claims that the verse “whether or not you can glorify Him as is” is the point when Job understands that the issue is not whether we ask, analyse, become informed, interested, write, question, answer, or communicate about any matter concerning us, whether it is the sickness He allows, the death, the worldly turmoil, or any inwards or outwards form of God’s apparent foresakeness etc.
    The issue is whether we want to glorify Him however God seems to us, without any desire, objective or goal of betterment. Nothing matters once I can glorify Him in trust, like this.

  15. He goes on to say that this is a joy which I shape from my affirmation of everything by the renunciation of my own selfish being.

  16. It is a very long homily directed towards monastics who have ought to have a very specialised luxury regarding ‘cares’ compared to the rest, however I find there is much applicability to all others. The Elder uses multiple examples to show how the victorious joy is he talks of is that ‘vivifying peace’ created by the affirmation of all situations (because “there is a God” , even when I have the feeling of the opposite), without any desire to change them, no matter how difficult they are. The happiness of such true joy is shaped by the genuine renunciation of the ego, however he seems to put the most emphasis on the renunciation of all the little ephemeral things that everyday life (especially politics) elevate to an entitled significance that captivates away the mind.

  17. Thanks and glory to God for these words. They are, in the words of Fr Thomas (Hopko) of blessed memory — “true, kind, and necessary”.

  18. Thank You Father! Your words ,are once again, a blessing!! May the Lord grant you His choicest blessings!

  19. For all who have been inspired by Father Stephen’s article here and his comments, I recommend a talk he presented, entitled, “The modern challenge”.

    The description given about this conference is the following:
    From May 2019 Shared Inheritance conference, “Growing in the Likeness of God: Eastern Spirituality in the modern world”.

    There are unique problems within modern culture for the Eastern Christian tradition. Thinking through those problems creates a deeper understanding of the task of our faith.

  20. This is something that keeps coming back to my mind. Much needed at this time. It is something I need to think back to again and again, I think.

  21. Your comparison of politics to pornography really made me pause, Father. It made me realize I am wrestling with the same old demon, he just has a new disguise. Thank you.

  22. Part of the original attractiveness of Facebook, in limited availability to certain colleges and students, was the opportunity to create a tabloid about yourself filled with photographs that were stylized like the young celebrities at the time (circa 2005 to 2007). Myspace was the more available venue back then, Gacebook was rare and coveted by some. Then Facebook opened itself more to the public and a stamped ensued. It is tough for me to think about how it manages to be proud of itself. I have never had an account because I remember distinctly noticing the embarrassment of people who did not have it when seated with those who did. I am just not interested in it.

    I think the phrase information cocoon is so interesting. It now seems like it allows people to operate in a political wonderland often fueled by contempt.

    I share this just to agree with the sense of politics being like pornography. On Politico cartoons last week there was one of an older person’s head being filled with a garbage truck labeled social media.

    One other small note. On Politico last summer there was an article about how google maps does not include railroad crossings and other potential danger points, though they have been encouraged to. It took me too long to figure out that the restaurants on those maps likely pay to be on the map. So what do you do when the map is a form of advertisement? What do you do when it does not show you what would cause the most risk and potential harm? Sounds like a summary the way America is.

    I reflect on that story of St. Silouan saying you needn’t read the newspapers to know the suffering and pain of the people. It seems like it is ok for us not to know what is happening elsewhere. I hope so. I am going to try to take a 2 week break from it. Similar to the Berenstain Bears ‘Too Much TV’ but the online version.

  23. Thank you Nicole for your comment. I use FB for my husband’s business, but completely agree with your assessment.

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