Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have perfected praise,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger. (Psalm 8:2)
There are many things about the “elder” years of my life that I prefer to my youth. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps the statement would not be true. Nonetheless, the providence of God has preserved me and brought me to a place of peace. Reviews are now appearing for the movie, Hillbilly Elegy. I have not seen the film, though I read the book when it first came out. It is the not-so-unusual account of an Appalachian life that managed to escape the cycle of dysfunction and poverty that mark this area of the world. I have known many versions of that story, not all with happy endings. It is also a version of the story written by a man who is still young. I wonder about how it continues to play in his head.
As a child, the versions of the dysfunctional cycle around me seemed normal. Everybody’s parents beat them. Alcohol was the drug of choice. Tobacco was omnipresent (we had a designated “smoking area” in High School). In hindsight, my neighborhood was better than some. Parents were employed.
Like Hillbilly’s author, J.D. Vance, some of us escaped the cycle and managed to “move up” in the world (that is, enter some version of the American middle class). But, in general, we still carried that world around in our heads and always felt some version of it looking over our shoulder. Some are still living the elegy, while others live with its ghosts.
I am older now and a more stable peace has settled in. I have learned to breathe. As I breathe, though, I watch the children of our present time. I have four adult children and five grands. My church is inundated (happily) with children who represent almost half of the parish. I delight in spending time with them (as circumstances permit). One thing that I have seen about children is that they constitute a “fresh start.” Regardless of the baggage garnered by a family’s many dysfunctional generations, our children do not enter the world with that weight. Epigenetics suggest that there is some minimal skewing of our inner world by what has come before. On the whole, we do not stand on the shoulders of our ancestors: we have to be placed there.
It is this “freshness” that I want to consider in particular. For though each child born bears, in some manner, the image of the parents who engendered them, they still enter as a relatively unencumbered version of ourselves. I have been spending some extended time with my four-year-old grandson as his mom settles in with his new-born brother. To go hiking through the woods (a common activity) is to see the world through his eyes of wonder. “Is this the largest tree in the world?” was asked several times earlier this week. His explosions of excitement mark every hundred yards of trail. My joy is to stop and look at everything myself, and to borrow his excitement as my own.
There are many things each child will likely bring into the world with them. The strange post-modern world with its imaginary landscape that bears so little resemblance to reality has not yet touched a new mind. Despite all the rhetoric of the universities, children think in “binary” terms: girl, boy, and so forth. For though cultures do “enculturate,” they have traditionally done so in a manner that supports procreation and the family. I use this single example to stand for so much more. I have written many times that we almost always lose our arguments with gravity. When we fall down, gravity speaks persuasively. By the same token, that which tradition describes as “natural” has gained such an honor through our many centuries of experience. Not every fall is as quick to reveal itself as those governed by gravity – but all of nature carries a “gravity” about it. Every child born must learn to walk, and is designed for a world whose gravity equals that of Earth. Regardless of how some seek to “re-imagine” nature, each child born comes with a pre-disposition to favor nature as traditionally known.
No doubt, there will be many who would want to argue this point with me, suggesting that each child is tabla rasa, and only culture shapes them. My answer is simple: wait and see. Gravity always wins.
This point of view is rooted in the Scriptures as well. There are two limits which God has given us that act as a form of gravity within the human project. The first is death.
“My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (Gen. 6:3).
No matter how ignorant and contrary to nature we might choose to be, no matter how stubbornly we might strive against God, we will die. The sod will close our struggle with a finality against which there is no argument. Modernity continues to imagine ways to lengthen our days, or, perversely, how to transfer our humanity into machines (and vice-versa), but we should remain confident in death’s service to humanity. The Towers of Babel we seek to build crumble. Gravity wins.
The second limit is that of children. Children do not begin where their fathers left off. They get a fresh start, or, enough of a fresh start that the race is preserved. Cain killed Abel, but not every brother kills his brother. The argument for gravity (and all that it symbolizes) begins with every generation. It is a relentless form of salvation interwoven into the natural order.
St. Gregory of Nyssa famously said, “Man is mud who is commanded to become a god.” That same frightening freedom is birthed with every child. And though the child is not aware of its meaning, it is born with a burning desire for God that will never be extinguished. This is the true “gravity” that guides the soul. Culture and nurture may fail and offer some tawdry substitute for God in which case the gravity of the soul will create misery. Regardless, every soul is capable of salvation, capable of giving thanks to its Creator who first shaped the mud into human form.
Though the pendulum of civilization swings in a frightening arc, its pivot point remains grounded in the providence of God.
Spend time with young children if the circumstances of your life permit. Listen to their normalcy (before someone distorts it). It is the sound of a gravity that reaches through time and will extend beyond. The universe declares the glory of God, including the fresh voices of children. Their sound, for a time, silences the noise of the enemies and the avenger.
I have thought much recently about the enduring popularity of Dolly Parton. She is definitely a gifted musician and song writer, but her Appalachian story resonates with so many of us.
Being a grandfather has been one of the most joyous experiences of my life (the photo of you and grandchild is precious and hilarious!). You mention children as fresh. Oh yes! Fresh, innocent, raucous, jubilant, and on-and-on with the adjectives. What a wondrous creation of God, each bringing a new beginning into the world, with all the promise that may hold. Thank you for the reminder about gravity, also. In our culture that grows crazier with each day, the force of gravity may take several generations to do its rectifying work. But, as you note, gravity always has the final word. (Interesting that the fear of death, to which man is held in bondage, is also the great rectifier).
A pastor I used to listen to often would use the analogy of orbiting the sun. The gravity that pulls the planets into orbit, and keeps them from crashing into each other, is analogous to the heart. Fighting gravity puts you out of proper orbit. In many ways real freedom is allowing the pull to pull you back into orbit.
I’ve often wondered if that strange verse about women being saved through childbearing has Genesis 6 and other passages in mind. Satan seemed to have thought that if man would sin the human project would be over. But through childbearing, the project continues, and the plan of Satan is thwarted. Strategically, abortion and other devices that eliminate fresh starts, seem to be part of the reaction. Eliminating, either literally, or by failing to wonder with the new ‘wonderer’, eliminates salvific power endowed in new life.
I’m often frustrated at the elevation of pets to the detriment of a Christian view of children. Dogs are fascinating, are to be appreciated, but the lack of wonder, of fresh starts and the replacement with dogs, is tied to the lack of children, or the lack of ability to wonder with a child, or by removing/blinding the child from wonder itself. You can’t wonder with someone who is forced to pacify itself with television and an iPhone and cannot stand to go outside. I’m not trying to turn this negative, but to say, that protecting the wonder, and encouraging the wonder of a child’s mind as it relates to God and nature, should be way up there in terms of priorities. I’m thinking right now of how I need to reengage that effort with more intentionality myself. The picture was encouraging! Was the picture on your previous post with the child and the icon of Jesus yours? I’m tempted to print it out on our photo printer and frame it.
Thank you for this post,
I’m often frustrated at the elevation of pets to the detriment of a Christian view of children.
Matthew, I share you frustration. Our culture has moved strongly toward defining everything in life in the most generic way possible. Hence, pets are equated with children because people are “parenting” them. It’s insanity on a cultural level and it is part of the (now widely accepted) generic use of “family” for almost anything and anyone in any situation. That there is a larger purpose to these things, a necessary focus that defines them, is repulsive to the modern world.
We have moved far from a Christian understanding of life, but to be honest this movement has been taking place over many decades. It’s just that no one has paid any attention to it.
As to why dogs and other animals are elevated over children:
1. They do not require us to change(in fact just the opposite);
2. We can get rid of them when we want.
Gardening can be similar as a song from the musical Fantastiks says:
Plant a radish.
Get a radish.
Never any doubt.
That’s why I love vegetables;
You know what you’re about!
Plant a turnip.
Get a turnip.
Maybe you’ll get two.
That’s why I love vegetables;
You know that they’ll come through!
They’re the best pal a parent’s ever known!
While with children,
You don’t know until the seed is nearly grown
Just what you’ve sown.
The picture of the child with the icon is not mine – but I love it. The picture with this article is of me with my newborn grandson, Aiden.
I think a dog is a poor substitute for a child – but dogs are inherently wonderful and great companions. They should not be contrasted with a child, but enjoyed for the wonder and the gift that they are. I had to “rehome” my dog last year for a number of reasons – and I miss him.
Matthew and Byron,
We were created for children and all that goes with it. I think we were also created for dogs and cats and other animals as well. That the “gravity” of our heart cannot be silenced – only misdirected – we should see in the misdirection, at least an echo of the gravity that is being ignored. But, please, do not disparage pets. They are a benefit and have a role in humanizing us – only a role that is insufficient.
A sign that our culture/civilization is crumbling and in great trouble can be found in the crisis surrounding sex/children/etc. It is the single place where modernity has made its deepest inroads in our minds and caused a divorce between us and our humanity.
I take heart, though, at how many children I see in many of the Churches I visit. Not everywhere (demographics are interesting that way), but in many places. In our parish, we not only have children – we want them. Many families have more than two (which requires breaking through a strange barrier in our culture, I think). Russia offers medals to families who have many children and the State, together with the Church, is trying to reverse the childless trend of the former Soviet state.
When I was studying with Stanley Hauerwas, I recall him saying, “Because the outcome of history has been determined in the death and resurrection of Christ, Christians have nothing better to do in this world than to have children and to tell them about Jesus.”
I want to playfully respond to Michael’s comment— I’m not sure the person who wrote the words were familiar with farming/gardening. The response of nature in growing vegetables isn’t always so predictable. There is yet mystery and unexpected beauty.
And we still haven’t figured out gravity.
Father, forgive! I did not mean to disparage pets, only to point out the “misdirection” of our culture. I have two French Bulldogs that I love greatly and learn quite a bit from (dogs are enormously forgiving).
I’ve dearly wanted to have a dog, and French Bulldogs have been an interest of mine. But my husband had to give up his dog when he was a child, breaking his heart, and he hasn’t want to have another ever since. We have had a parakeet, and when it died, that too broke his heart and now he doesn’t want another bird either. We’ve talked about cats, but unfortunately I’m very allergic to cats. We’ve had goldfish, and I’ve had a name for each one, who amazingly demonstrated personalities to me.
Perhaps this is selfish, but I pray that we might one day have a dog, God willing. (Otherwise I might be eyeballing fish tanks again! : ) )
Dear Fr Stephen, Thank you for reminding us of the wonder of children. It is one of the sweetest times of my life that I was able to stay home with my children. Once my youngest daughter was sitting on the couch looking at a book. She might have been 3 years old (I can not remember). The sun was shining so brightly through the window, it really was blinding at that time of the morning. She looked at me and said, “mom, can you move the sun. It’s in my eyes and I am trying to read.” To this day it makes me smile and almost cry – because I honestly think she thought I could move the sun. It is also such a great gift for grandparents to be involved in their grandkids lives as are you. My in-laws saw my kids practically every day when they were young, and at least once a week for many years. It gave our kids such a wonderful foundation of being loved and belonging in a way much different than a parent offers. It’s a great stability (as long as the relationships are good) and sense of belonging for kids – especially in a world where it can be hard to fit in sometimes- and relationships made ever more complicated by social media. I am glad you shared your story!
Lately, I have really enjoyed reading “Fertile Ground”, an Orthodox Christian book about the theology and journey of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. I highly recommend this book to all new mothers, and mothers many times over. It expresses the mystery and salvific nature of this journey in so many profound theological ways, and is very deep and touching to the heart. I found a parallel in this blog post, and wanted to share this book that embraces life’s true sanctity in motherhood, life, and raising children.
Your reference happily reminds me of a hymn in the Episcopal Church; perhaps you remember it, Father:
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife clothed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing,
The marvelous peace of God.
The reference was intentional.
It comes from a 1960 musical written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the one from England). The Fantasticks. It was at one time the longest running off Broadway show ever. Tom Jones was the lyricist.
It was whimsical so your whimsical comment is right in line.
We certainly have not figured out children. Both though concern the art of husbandry which can only be practiced successfully in harmony with God.
Children’s children are the crown of old men; and the glory of children are their fathers.
Thanks again Father for yet another beautifully written piece and for the yawns.
That picture forces me to yawn each time I look at it!
It wasn’t my intention to disparage pets, not in the least. I could go on a quite lengthy digression on the confusion of pets with children but I will not. Our unity with creation is real and I have been more convinced of it over the last few years than ever. Gravity cannot be undone, but you can deny it. The orbit is never truly undone because you would have to move/alter the sun, but you can jump off cliffs. It is suicidal in the end. When I first watched the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock I constantly had the thought, this is what life is when we venture off/out of the space we’re intended to occupy. We aren’t meant to live in space or on the moon or on Mars. The Space Between Us showcased a boy who grew up on Mars and had growth defects because of it. I do like my Sci-Fi but I think it’s because the genre is very prophetic. The analogy of gravity is one to use over and over again.
Mathew I liked the movie Gravity too. Another sci-fi movie I liked was the American version (haven’t seen the others) of Solaris, written originally as a book by a Polish author.
In my youth I mainly read science fiction for entertainment. But I’m not sure exactly how or why, but I think there is some parallel, the further/deeper I went into science the less interested I became or perhaps the more selective I became of science fiction. Perhaps it was because I had discovered the real world was more interesting and fantastic than the fantasies of some of the sci-fi writers. But I honestly don’t know if this is the reason or not.
Returning to Father’s article, I believe it was my children who taught me to love. In them love abounds in their unencumbered heart-felt freedom.
I have followed the theme of selfless love acquisition for the last few years–I mean, regularly thinking about it day in and out, in contrast with Augustinian notions of salvation–and I have come to see that children are selfishness killers, they should be at least. I’ll never forget, my wife and I had decided while dating that we were fine with never having children. Our Christian formation was not very mature to say the least, but eventually it changed for her. We were on a road trip and the conversation became awkward and emotional. I actually did get a dog in between us having children to buy time. But I said to her to ease the conversation, “How about this… If we have a boy we’ll name him some obscure OT name like Enoch.” Two days later she tells me, “There’s a new guy at work, guess what his name is..” It was Enoch. The next day, I opened the Bible randomly and Enoch was on the page. I thought little of it. The next day same thing in a different place. So, I looked at a concordance and Enoch is only mentioned two or three times in the Bible. The name kept popping up. So eventually we decided on the name Enoch. My wife got a lot of flack for this to the point she decided she wanted it to be his middle name. The next day, literally, my job required me to host events for customers. They were always a waste of time but it was a requirement. Two people showed up that day and just before I was going to go get coffee and take a break, a woman approached me and gave me her business card and her last name was Enoch. He, with my other two boys, teach me everyday not to be selfish. I still am, but I don’t want to be. But I think, our dog, who I loved in a much different way, could never have come close to replacing them. Coming into Orthodoxy for me had a lot, a whole lot, to do with the Book of Enoch and it’s influence on Eastern Christianity. Fr. Stephen De Young chronicles a lot of what I was exposed to before coming into the Church. All very interesting and Providential for me. Selfishness is suicidal in the end because freedom in “gravity” is never attained.
The events surrounding your son and his name have, for me, unmistakeable signs of his guardian angel’s intervention. Glad he’s in the world!
I do like my Sci-Fi but I think it’s because the genre is very prophetic.
I actually enjoy it because large, alien monsters tend to do a lot of gratuitous damage and destruction. But I was raised watching late-night TV, to a large extent.
Matthew, ditto what Fr Stephen said.
Glory be to God for His wondrous works! May little Enoch live a joyous life in the Lord!
That photo provoke a sympatric yawn me. Precious!
The freedom in “gravity” metaphor strikes me as potentially imaginatively better than the idea of being vs non-being.
What I find refreshing about Orthodoxy is that they ‘preach the light’ as Fr. Evan Armatas likes to say. I am reflecting now that there is value to be had in confronting the false, evil and ugly but the human being is only invigorated and truly nourished by dwelling on the true, good and beautiful. One of my desktop backgrounds has this quote by William Hazlitt :”The contemplation of truth and beauty is the proper object for which we were created, which calls forth the most intense desires of the soul,and of which it never tires.”
I hope to never lose my inner child again! I am worried about where are culture and society is and where it is going with respect to children. Quote by Nelson Mandela, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Thank you for your beautiful reflections Anonymo, I especially like the quotes from William Hazlitt and Nelson Mandela. They are so true!
Indeed it’s so easy to let our minds be entrapped in the mud. For me there is almost a virtual vortex swinging me around into the mire of current politics in the US, whenever I go to my computer to conduct my work.
But while I remain aware and grounded in our reality, I work and struggle to keep my gaze on God and hold on to hope in God without despair.
Thank you so much for your participation here!
I am a big fan of Simone Weil’s little book of thoughts “Gravity and Grace” many of which merit pondering as just lines. Opening lines :
“All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception.
We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity unless there is supernatural intervention.
Two forces rule the universe: light and gravity.
Gravity: Generally what we expect of others depends on the effect of gravity upon ourselves, what we receive from them depends on the effect of gravity upon them. Sometimes (by chance) the two coincide, often they do not.”
Dee: I too am allergic to cats and share the disappointment that entails. BTW the real Solaris movie is the Andrei Tarkovsky (Russian) classic. The closest thing to spiritual in the SciFi genre IMO and something even atheist friends watch. And as always with Tarkovsky the emotional depth and content of the imagery is incredible.
Allen – I am a big Dolly Parton (as a person, as well as much of the music) fan too. She just ended up (as far as I can tell) being such a generous and kind soul as well. Remarkable given everything.
A couple here have mentioned Dolly Parton. Yes, she has used her considerable wealth to help thousands of others, especially in literacy programs for children. It is heartwarming to read about her philanthropy, especially considering her humble beginnings. On a lighter side I have chuckled at some of her quotes. They revolve around her many plastic surgeries. Here’s one…”If I see something sagging, bagging, or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked, or sucked!” She’s one of 12, hailing from a small town of Appalachia in Eastern Tennessee, not far from your neck of the woods, Father.
Just last week I was reading my children Dolly Parton’s book “Coat of Many Colors” where she tells about a tale from her childhood when her mother made her a patchwork coat of many pieces of fabric because she needed a new coat for the winter. She recalls her mother pouring so much love into her coat and telling her the Biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors given to him by his father. When Dolly went to school, she was teased and laughed at by the other children, but she told them her Momma had made her coat with so much love. Afterwards, I discussed with my kids what being rich in love meant, way more important than any riches.
Thanks for the information on the Russian version of Solaris, Ziton! I’m going to watch it!
I’m captivated by Simone Wiel’s depiction of gravity and grace and then gravity and light. It’s interesting, in my first forays into science as a young adult, my curiosity was piqued by the interactions between light and matter. Such were the fleeting glances between the folds of the veil of this world, into the enchanting and mysterious world beyond our understandings. I believe there has been an ongoing perspective among poets, seeing matter, the ‘stuff’ of this world, to be ‘kissed’ through light and grace. Such thoughts remind me of the icons of the baby Jesus Christ, embracing His mother, the Theotokos.
Talk about interactions between light and matter… most of my scientific work involved photosynthesis . Photosynthesis is the ultimate interaction between light and matter – it is the way Life relates to its Star. Every breath of oxygen, every morsel of food… photosynthesis.
Glory to God!
Dee – great that you’re going to find that classic movie. I think it’s been remastered on bluray which is the way to go. I should warn you though that to western conditioning it is SLOW, and relatively silent. But that is part of the point, as you will see. Tarkovsky made Solaris partly as a response to Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, which he seemed to think was limited.
For that reason, it might pay to get a sense of what Tarkovsky’s approach to film making. There are number of interesting reflections on that on YouTube. This one is good start : https://youtu.be/ak6rI-j07QU . These are also interesting in their own terms of reflecting on Fr Stephen’s reflections on art and how it works in terms of meaning.
FYI Tarkovsky also did a famous and interesting film on the life of Andre Rublev (who wrote the definitive Hospitality of Abraham icon) during the late Soviet era, which is pretty impressive. He’s been pretty influential on some others like Terrence Mallick who created “A Hidden Life” on which Father did an excellent article a few months ago.
Anyway, happy viewing!
Actually, this sustained reflection on Tarkovsky and things spiritual (and entitled “praying through cinema”) is a worthwhile thing to watch in its own right https://youtu.be/gNezdOlS-aw (pity about the jarring ad at the end).
Thank you P.Stephen for reminding the children ! And forgive me for talking a little about myself … with not very good English …
Having lived a really broken childhood, I took refuge in literature only for adults because I was looking for who I was, by that means … I was once offered a job in literature but only that for children , if not, I could go elsewhere to look for something else … First of all, I refused internally, clinging to my adult “knowledge” … But having need to work, I ended up accepting …. And by divine providence, I can say that it has changed my life ! The Lord pulled me out of my quagmire ! Through children’s books, the stories that I started to tell children, a whole world opened up in me, I discovered in myself a completely forgotten place, of freshness, poetry, spontaneity ! How I liked this contact with the children through the stories and also their own stories that they told me. I discovered an inner joy, brand new and light. I can tell it was like new fertility. Children are fertile at the best of times, and their contact can be wonderful for living in the moment. Childhood is an interior place, of spontaneous, creative and joyful life, and I think that it is this place, this life with which we must stay in contact … it is a space in itself. which almost joins eternity …
The Lord said that it is to those who are like “little children” that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs … I hear it more deeply now …
I just read this sentence of Saint Ambrose of Optino “We must live on earth like a spinning wheel: one point touches the earth and all the rest is turned towards the sky.” That this point of “gravity” is partly charged with death, certainly, but also with the beginnings of eternal life …
In the life of the soul repentance is a bit like gravity. The further we are from the Son the weaker it is. As we get closer its pull on us grains strength pulling at us. By grace, I think, our resistance to the pull of repentance is weakened. The gravity well is seen for what it really is and we joyfully enter it. But also by grace we ate not sucked immediately into the Son and can even apply power through our will to go further out but the pull never leaves entirely except for those in outer darkness.
Helene, how kind of God to restore your childhood years in that way!
Yes, Dana, the Lord saves ! in a thousand ways … visible and invisible …
Twenty years after this period, Faith came, and immediately into Orthodoxy, and the “work” began …. other sufferings, illuminated by a whole another light, to accompany repentance and surrender to the will of God … But the joyfully rustling source is mysteriously present …
Thankyou Dee, for your kind words. I lack a nurturing feminine presence in my life at the moment but I think I sense that from you through your comments on the blog. I recently started what I hope to be a deep friendship with beautiful feminine lady my age, now I am thinking I must surrender to God’s will as to whether I should choose the joy of monasticism or marriage. Over and over God has opened my mind to let go of my own narrowly envisioned path. I am finding that life does truly “shrink or expand in proportion to ones courage,” Anais Nin. There was I time I used to swing between the poles of anxiety from too much chaos, to depression from stultifying order, now by the wisdom of Jordan Peterson I have one foot in order and one foot in chaos as I learn to set on a path then course correct as I go along. JP has provided a much needed masculine presence in my life, now I am thinking that I likewise could benefit from a feminine presence in my life. In any case I am quite far along the self-parenting journey so I am sure that engaging in the spiritual life of the Church will be most helpful.
Helene that is great that Lord worked like through literature for your healing. I myself feel so fortunate to live in the information age, whereby many resources are made available through the internet. I hear of many who in their 40’s, 50’s, even 60’s discover and confront the trauma they have experienced on the places I have visited online.
Anonymo, may our Good Lord and His Immaculate Mother guide you and bless you.
The choice between monasticism and marriage is a choice between two equally blessed vocations. Many say that monasticism is the better choice but, especially in today’s world, I am skeptical of that.
Father Stephen, by God’s grace, provides a place of peace, sanity and refuge here. His reflections on marriage and family in Christ shows a depth to that calling that is easy to miss.
The key to discernment and healing lies in taking the final step of the radical responsibility that Jordon Petersen and Solzhenitsyn before him preach. The thirteenth step : repentance. https://theartoforthodoxy.com/10-great-quotes-about-the-jesus-prayer-3/#:~:text='Lord%20Jesus%20Christ%2C%20Son%20of,lips%20and%20in%20thy%20heart.&text=Keep%20saying%20the%20prayer!
Only repentance for my sins gives me clarity and strength and direction and joy.
I like very much these words you quoted, that life will “shrink or expand in proportion to ones courage” but I would add these words, “in proportion to one’s courage to love”.
One might think that after 31 years with my husband that I might have some sage wisdom to share. But I just don’t know if I do. Love is a mystery. I believed I loved him when I married him. But I know I love him now more than ever. And yet there is no way to quantify love. Rather, it seems that our reality is just that our reality, our life, one flesh. He knows when something has disturbed me sometimes before I know I have been disturbed. One time when we were young and dating, walking in the evening darkness holding hands, an elderly couple walking arm in arm toward and then passed us. My future husband turned to me and asked me whether ‘that will be us one day’? It was a playful question but it was so early in our relationship, I didn’t know what to say. Thank God the young man that he was, was patient with me. I was not an easy person to love, because I feared to get involved and I feared intimacy.
Indeed courage to love, a self-emptying love, is an amazing grace of God. If I should have any good advice it is perhaps go slow, have patience and look to God for His direction. He is always with you, dear Anonymo.
Thankyou Michael and Dee for your blessed words. Interesting that you say marriage is preferable in today’s world I was thinking the exact opposite. Would certainly appreciate hearing your perspective though.
I love quotes if you couldn’t already tell. It’s the short snippets of wisdom similar to that found in Proverbs and Wisdom of Sirach, the second of which was the first book deemed apocryphal that I read deeply. I found great wisdom for a broad range of situations that I had not heard of explicitly in my the protestant bible.
Another quote: Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. But the one who has love, courage and wisdom moves the world.
Found a brilliant piece from He Leadeth Me a story of a Christian man who spend 23 years in a Soviet prisons and labor camps of Siberia. This part is about surrendering to God’s will in your life and what that means. Really spoke to me, I think it is really important for us to reach the place of Paul in Phil 4:12: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
Note it is a long passage.
Suddenly, I was consoled by thoughts of our Lord and his agony in the garden. “Father,” he had said, “if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.” In the Garden of Olives, he, too, knew the feeling of fear and weakness in his human nature as he faced suffering and death. Not once but three times did he ask to have his ordeal removed or somehow modified. Yet each time he concluded with an act of total abandonment and submission to the Father’s will. “Not as I will, but as thou wilt.” It was not just conformity to the will of God; it was total self-surrender, a stripping away of all human fears, of all doubts about his own abilities to withstand the passion, of every last shred of self including self-doubt.
What a wonderful treasure and source of strength and consolation our Lord’s agony in the garden became for me from that moment on. I saw clearly exactly what I must do. I can only call it a conversion experience, and I can only tell you frankly that my life was changed from that moment on. If my moment of despair had been a moment of total blackness, then this was an experience of blinding light. I knew immediately what I must do, what I would do, and somehow I knew that I could do it. I knew that I must abandon myself entirely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God. And I did it. I can only describe the experience as a sense of “letting go,” giving over totally my last effort or even any will to guide the reins of my own life. It is all too simply said, yet that one decision has affected every subsequent moment of my life. I have to call it a conversion.
I had always trusted in God. I had always tried to find his will, to see his providence at work. I had always seen my life and my destiny as guided by his will. At some moments more consciously than at others, I had been aware of his promptings, his call, his promises, his grace. At times of crisis, especially, I had tried to discover his will and to follow it to the best of my ability. But this was a new vision, a totally new understanding, something more than just a matter of emphasis. Up until now, I had always seen my role—man’s role—in the divine economy as an active one. Up to this time, I had retained in my own hands the reins of all decisions, actions, and endeavors; I saw it now as my task to “cooperate” with his grace, to be involved to the end in the working out of salvation. God’s will was “out there” somewhere, hidden, yet clear and unmistakable. It was my role—man’s role—to discover what it was and then conform my will to that, and so work at achieving the ends of his divine providence. I remained—man remained—in essence the master of my own destiny. Perfection consisted simply in learning to discover God’s will in every situation and then in bending every effort to do what must be done.
Now, with sudden and almost blinding clarity and simplicity, I realized I had been trying to do something with my own will and intellect that was at once too much and mostly all wrong. God’s will was not hidden somewhere “out there” in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal. He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate. He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute faith: faith in God’s existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me, and in his love protecting me. It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God would not be there to bear you up. It was something like that awful eternity between anxiety and belief when a child first leans back and lets go of all support whatever—only to find that the water truly holds him up and he can float motionless and totally relaxed.
Once understood, it seemed so simple. I was amazed it had taken me so long in terms of time and of suffering to learn this truth. Of course we believe that we depend on God, that his will sustains us in every moment of our life. But we are afraid to put it to the test. There remains deep down in each of us a little nagging doubt, a little knot of fear that we refuse to face or admit even to ourselves, that says, “Suppose it isn’t so.” We are afraid to abandon ourselves totally into God’s hands for fear he will not catch us as we fall. It is the ultimate criterion, the final test of all faith and all belief, and it is present in each of us, lurking unvoiced in a closet of our mind we are afraid to open. It is not really a question of trust in God at all, for we want very much to trust him; it is really a question of our ultimate belief in his existence and his providence, and it demands the purest act of faith.
For my part, I was brought to make this perfect act of faith, this act of complete self-abandonment to his will, of total trust in his love and concern for me and his desire to sustain and protect me, by the experience of a complete despair of my own powers and abilities that had preceded it. I knew I could no longer trust myself, and it seemed only sensible then to trust totally in God. It was the grace God had been offering me all my life, but which I had never really had the courage to accept in full. I had talked of finding and doing his will, but never in the sense of totally giving up my own will. I had talked of trusting him, indeed I truly had trusted him, but never in the sense of abandoning all other sources of support and relying on his grace alone. I could never find it in me, before, to give up self completely. There were always boundaries beyond which I would not go, little hedges marking out what I knew in the depths of my being was a point of no return. God in his providence had been constant in his grace, always providing opportunities for this act of perfect faith and trust in him, always urging me to let go the reins and trust in him alone. I had trusted him, I had cooperated with his grace—but only up to a point. Only when I had reached a point of total bankruptcy of my own powers had I at last surrendered.
That moment, that experience, completely changed me. I can say it now in all sincerity, without false modesty, without a sense either of exaggeration or of embarrassment. I have to call it a conversion experience; it was at once a death and a resurrection. It was not something I sought after or wanted or worked for or merited. Like every grace, it was a free gift of God. That it should have been offered to me when I had reached the limits of my own powers is simply part of the great mystery of salvation. I did not question it then; I cannot question it now. Nor can I explain how that one experience could have such an immediate and lasting effect upon my soul and upon my habitual actions from that moment on, especially when so many other experiences, so many other graces, had had no such effect. It was, however, a deliberate act of choice on my part. I know it was a choice I never could have made, and never had made before, without the inspiration of God’s grace. But it was a deliberate choice. I chose, consciously and willingly, to abandon myself to God’s will, to let go completely of every last reservation. I knew I was crossing a boundary I had always hesitated and feared to cross before. Yet this time I chose to cross it—and the result was a feeling not of fear but of liberation, not of danger or of despair but a fresh new wave of confidence and of happiness.
Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple. There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God’s will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see his will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from him, because he was in all things. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of him.
The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in his will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring. The past, with all its failures, was not forgotten; it remained to remind me of the weakness of human nature and the folly of putting any faith in self. But it no longer depressed me. I looked no longer to self to guide me, relied on it no longer in any way, so it could not again fail me. By renouncing, finally and completely, all control of my life and future destiny, I was relieved as a consequence of all responsibility. I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.
Anonymo, I say marriage is preferable today because a good match makes one stronger. I am thinking in particular of Richard and Sabrina Wurmbrand the founders of Voice of the Martyrs. When the Romanian Communist Party called the the pastors and priests together and told them they could save themselves by accepting Communism Sabrina turned to Richard and told him: “If you do that, you are no husband of mine!”
I was also thinking of the way in which my wife keeps me on the straight and narrow. She agreed to marry me on one condition that I had to be the spiritual head of our home . We married only 11 years ago and we are not young but her love and kindness have been so wonderful. God brought us together.
But that is my experience and you may be called differently. Pray and listen. Understand that most recommendations come with a lot of bias.
Marriage and Monasticism are not abstractions – which makes it impossible to compare them. Each is utterly unique. We never “marry in general.” You marry one person, and one person only – they are never a generic “fill-in-the-blank.” The same is true of monasticism. In Orthodoxy, you enter a monastery, a monastic brotherhood, not monasticism in general. Ideally, a monk is only at one monastery for all of his life. No two monasteries are alike.
How do we know what to follow? How do we know what to choose? In some manner, it really doesn’t matter. If you marry, God will bless it. If you are a monk, God will bless it. If you make a mistake and mess it up – God will still bless us – using all things for our salvation. And both paths come with a host of troubles. Salvation is only through the Cross. We crown a man and a woman in the wedding ceremony – they are crowns of martyrs. A monk is given a Cross at his tonsure. Same thing.
Anonymo, the reason I say that marriage is preferable is because God gave me an incredible mate when I asked through the Theotokos. It sounds to me that you are in a position to discern God’s will for you. I am biased in favor of marriage because that is His will for me. Monasticism and me are not a fit.
Thank you again Anonymo, for the passage in “He Leadeth Me”. Across the years of my life, I remember and in hindsight see, how pivotal certain moments were, but they seemed at the time almost mundane. One of the most significant turning points in my life involved a ‘chance’ meeting of a friend of a friend. This was my future husband. Our common friend left us alone momentarily to do some window shopping. Having just met, he and I stood together not really having anything (and on my part not wanting) to say to each other. It was an awkward moment that in all these years later, I remember with tender love. Seeing God’s providence in our lives, and further, to surrender to God’s providence, is indeed an act of faith.
I have long loved the electron transport chain and the life of the mighty mitochondria, too! Both photosynthesis through chlorophyll in the chloroplast and the transport of electrons in the heme of cytochrome c oxidase, have a common “pedigree”. Apparently light can activate the function in the membranes of mitochondria, but it’s been a long time since I’ve worked in that research, so my info is likely very dated. But I’m exploring that possibility, again, God willing, that I might conduct more work in the area of photochemistry.
What I have loved so much in such work is the opportunity to prayerfully observe and enter into the icon of God’s hand in nature. I am so grateful to Orthodox theology to reveal this reality evermore fully.
We talk about the two paths of monasticism or marriage, but where would a young person begin to explore monastic options in the US? There seem to be so few and those that exist seem to be so tiny. I think that possibly a lot of young people would find such a life a bright alternative to life “in this world.” What would you suggest they do?
We are, indeed, but a tiny Church in America (even when all the jurisdictions are counted as one). On the one hand, whereas in the 60’s there were only two or three monastic institutions in America, today there are more than 50 (can’t remember the exact number), even though they are small. Some of the best monastic communities are small, however, and I suspect that such a model might fight the American scene best. But, there are films that can be found of the Orthodox life (whether in America or elsewhere) that are inspiring. I particularly like the material that is coming out of St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk – it seems like an amazing work that is taking place there.
But, having young people meet monastics (have a monastic visit the parish and speak), or a family that makes a point of visiting a monastery, is a good thing.
This is the time we live in – with many, many temptations that make our life difficult. There are too few examples of healthy marriages, as well, I think. We should pray for vocations – and for God to give us men and women with monastic hearts.
Then, be generous. They need our financial help. I know of several monasteries who have waiting lists simply because they’ve run out of room!
Also, families need to nurture the prayer life of the family in the home.
I love the St. Elizabeth Convent work as well! Have ordered several Christmas gifts from their catalog as it seems they are such a vibrant community with wonderful ministries/workshops/blogs, etc. Is there any place in the US for men that has such a vision?
Father, thanks for your grounding words. Sometimes I can get me head lost in the clouds so to speak. I forgot that life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived. Interesting that you say it is ideal to be at one monastery your whole life. The monastery near me had 4 people leave so now there is only one monk there, I suppose this is because monasticism is just getting started in my country.
When I leave the abstractions and look at the reality of my life, and the options before me they seem to point to moving towards that woman in my life. I don’t believe in the soulmate myth, but I do have a strong connection to this person. I am starting to realise the impact trauma had on my sexuality, my fear of intimacy and my vision for a life-time partner, and now I feel like I am in a better place to make a good decision. Hard to believe God would open me up to friendship and more with the person I have been most attracted to in my life, and expect me to choose monasticism instead. I keep pursuing certainty by intellectual analysis only to find not much later that a new circumstance or piece of information shatters my paradigm to create a new one. It really humbles me, and I am inspired to yet further trust in God’s providence instead of myself.
I suspect monasticism will play a significant role in my life whether it by numerous pilgrimages or the possibility of ‘retiring’ there.
The St. Elisabeth Convent is quite unusual in its work and vision. I pray that the model spreads. There are a number of men’s monasteries that are good in the US. The monastery in Wayne, WV, which is under ROCOR, is quite healthy and growing. St. Tikhon’s in PA, the oldest Orthodox monastery in the US, is becoming increasingly healthy, I am told. I have visited a liked the men’s monastery in northern NM, St. Michael’s.
There are Athonite-style monasteries in many places, though most of them use Greek in their services, I believe.