Doing the Good You Can Do

I re-publish articles from the past from time-to-time. Usually, they are from years back. This post is from last August. However, in light of recent conversations, it seemed worth re-posting much sooner…

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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.

45 comments:

  1. I suspect the temptation to wander out and away into (the passion inducing futility of) what is not at hand, will be acquiring more force as our culture “progresses”… First and foremost this obviously occurs when our own faith in God’s unfathomable providence wanes, but it also occurs due to the nature of a world – a globalist “Rome” – that continuously moves towards global ‘abstraction’ which does, however, touch very heavily upon what is at hand for each individual. So even greater faith is needed when immediate, personal matters at hand become effected.

  2. The abstracted life is a torment for the soul.

    What an amazing and keenly apt observation this is. This posting is a treasure, thank you Father.

  3. I liked this the first time I read it and have “re-read” it several times. Thanks so much for re-posting. I’m going t share with some friends and family who will be blessed by your words here, Fr Stephen.

  4. I needed this in these tumultuous times. It seems to me that social media and the 24 hour news cycle have created a completely unnatural state of affairs whereby we’re made aware of every event, crisis, tragedy, injustice or act of human depravity across the face of the earth and made to feel like we have to carry it all and have an opinion on every issue deemed of critical importance today (or this hour!) “Get involved!”, “Speak out!”, “Denounce!”, “Protest!” etc. etc. And it’s increasingly becoming the case that to not do so is itself a great offense that makes one guilty of complicity. I can’t believe we were created with the capacity to carry all of this.

    In watching the Disney movie “Frozen 2” with my kids, there’s a scene (and an accompanying song, of course!) where one of the protagonists is feeling utterly lost and uncertain of what to do next in the face of a tragedy. In recalling an earlier lesson from a wise old stone troll, the answer came back to her, “just do the next right thing”.

  5. Roman taxes were used for the common good. How else would the roads, acqueducts, bridges, ports, etc,. Be built and maintained?
    There is wisdom in much of what is said here. However, in a country where the people are the rulers, and not the ruled, the people have a God given responsibility to do exactly that. Being involved in politics is one of the many ways to work out the implications of loving ones neighbor as oneself. If the Christians aren’t the ones writing the laws, the anti Christians will be. The same applies to all areas of the culture. The whole idea of love requires an active on going assertion of the truth in all things.

  6. James,
    A more careful study of Roman history would clarify the use of taxes. The Empire was a profit-making enterprise – why bother to have one if not?Also, you are confusing government with politics. The two are not the same. “Christians will make the laws.” At present, we have been governed by majority Christian-professing people for a very long time. Obviously, some Christians make bad laws as well as any non-believer. The plan is not working very well.

  7. What do you see as Orthodoxy’s role in a society that is culturally and politically divided? Is intentional community necessary or even possible?

  8. However, in a country where the people are the rulers, and not the ruled, the people have a God given responsibility to do exactly that. Being involved in politics is one of the many ways to work out the implications of loving ones neighbor as oneself.

    James, the people here in the U.S. have bought into the lie that they rule and have power. We have only the power the State allows. The State is not run by us, for all our voting and marching and prideful proclamations. Our “God given responsibilities” do not include “rule”. Politics has nothing to do with love; it is an exercise in power.

    I offer this article, which brings excellent perspective to our often troubled times.
    https://jessicahootenwilson.com/what-the-lord-of-the-rings-can-teach-us-about-u-s-politics-christianity-and-power/

  9. Laurie,
    The call and role of the Church is, first and foremost, “to be the Church.” Obviously, this should rightly entail a great deal of “community.” We have failed, to a great extent, to “be the Church,” so that we’re discussing Church in its most “thin” version. We need to “thicken” up our faithfulness. We’re not really even close to being able to discuss our “role.” We will, in God’s own mystery, be leaven and salt in the Eucharistic offering of the world. I would suggest that American Christians, of all stripes, tend, more often than not, to think as American Protestants, with its own unique heretical history displayed as a nation state.

    I’ve said this before – we all imagine ourselves to be in management. We need to accept our role as unpaid workers and get on with our lives.

  10. I’ve said this before – we all imagine ourselves to be in management. We need to accept our role as unpaid workers and get on with our lives.

    Father I suspect that one of my prior comments in the other thread might have been misunderstood.

    In order to clarify more what I have attempted to say, I will add that I wholeheartedly agree with this statement.

  11. Dee,
    I knew that you did.

    I grew up among blue-collar people – my father was an auto mechanic, my grandfather was a share-cropper, the other had a small farm. Many aunts and uncles worked in the textile mills. Politics was not much of a topic. Life centered largely on the immediate things – because they were the most interesting. It is interesting that in the history of modern revolutions, the hardest thing to do is to get the poor energized. Revolutions, even of the Marxist sort, are always led by the intellectual class (an elite) and their armies made up of the bourgeoise (or their off-spring). In a manner of speaking, nothing is more bourgeois than imagining oneself to be a manager and having a voice in the running of the world. The American constitution originally only planned for property-owners to have the right to vote. “We the people” needed to have an asterisk.

    I could go on and on with such an analysis. My own take on things is to counsel Christians to quit paying attention to the rhetoric and mythology of the political class and to get back to the simple business of being the Church. Let God run the world. I do not suggest that we refrain from voting – just that we should refrain from “believing” in it.

    Christianity, at its most profound level, is incredibly subversive because it proclaims that Christ is King. When we live fully into that, the world is powerless. We should live as though the world had no power over us. Only in that manner are we truly free.

  12. Father, correct me if I’m wrong – I believe what you are saying is to do the good that is at hand, and do it well, so to speak, before thinking about organization, politics – the bigger picture in general. Not that the bigger picture is unimportant or that we shouldn’t participate in politics, but that we should be able to do the good at hand very well before thinking about the bigger picture. Otherwise we will really mess us and things up.

    Perhaps it is similar to everything else in Orthodoxy. Acquire the Holy Spirit… be a good example before you preach. And don’t work on being a good example with a view to preaching! And if you must preach do so with the utmost humility. Etc.

  13. Salaam,
    Generally, I’m not saying much about the bigger picture at all. Do the good that is at hand.

    The “bigger picture” is a television commercial provided for your distraction.

  14. Father, am I right that to do any good, especially the good right at hand, we have to do our best not to be ruled by fear? Especially fear of the events and people whom are out of our control?

    At the same time focusing on tje good we cam do, no matter how small helps keep fear at bay?

  15. Michael,
    “Ruled by fear.” The operative word is “ruled.” Any of the passions, when they rule us, lead us away from our proper path. Focusing on the good that is at hand is part of a healthy spiritual regimen. That said, at any given moment, each of us could be overwhelmed with fear is we were attacked from an unexpected source and unexpected direction, etc., because we are all vulnerable. Therefore we pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (the “time of trial”).

  16. Dear Father Stephen,
    The passions do indeed involve a kind blindness and most often pride is at the center and source of them. It appears to be the hardest passion to recognize in ourselves. And it is our pride in our hearts that need to be our ‘concern’ because of our insensitivity to its presence. This is what I’ve been taught by my Orthodox teachers. And shame appears to be yet the next layer beneath pride. And this is what I have learned reading this blog.

    Thank you for your ministry dear Father.

  17. Providence is a beautiful thing. This morning, a beloved relative posted a picture that he labeled, “Barad-dur” (Dark Tower in Lord of the Rings), which was actually a steel chimney within a refinery belching fire. He passes it every morning on his way to the school where he teaches. He grew up in a Christian family and environment but for very good reasons maintains a safe distance from Christianity. But he loves Tolkien’s trilogy. His post have me another opportunity to communicate: my reply was in his context.

    Then i “happened” to read Fr Stephen’s blog this morning. As usual, I read through the comments. Now you can see why I followed Byron’s link! Truly, this link was a Godsend that I will pass along to my intelligence and ruminatonal relative.

    Glory to God for all Things!

  18. BTW I don’t think ‘these times’ however they may be depicted in the media are especially prone to conspiracy than any other previous time. There has always been a conspiracy among those who hold power. The adversary has been hell bent to conspire to our demise from the beginning and will do so to the end of our lives and unto the end of time.

    As for thoughts and fears about the ‘Antichrist’ —remember that is a battle within the heart, first and foremost. We should always have our focus on God rather than what is ‘other than God’.

    Father as I’m pushing to focus on Christ, I beg for forgiveness, as that too may reflect my heart’s condition. I’m weary of politics I suppose.

  19. Dee, et al
    I’ve been accused by some of being a cynic regarding politics, and by others as being a “Quietist.” Mostly, I think that the exaltation of politics and government is one of the delusions of modernity – and that most of the population (Orthodox included) are enthralled by it. So, I mean to be a contrary voice that says, “This is delusional – it is not as important as they tell you.” And, of course, governments can an will do terrible things. We will suffer through terrible things. I am adamantly saying, “So what?” How is this any different than any other time?

    We cannot make bad people good by passing laws. We have “bad” laws because we are not “good” people. That is plain and simple. The heart is the problem. And, American Christians somehow seem to ignore the fact that the “bad hearts” that have produced “bad laws” did not happen because we were invaded or because of some sort of conspiracy did this to us. We did this to ourselves. Even those whom we think of as having the worst and darkest hearts are often the children or grandchildren of believers. The fault is with us. Nobody is doing this to us – we are doing it to ourselves.

    And yet, we persist in looking outside ourselves for the dangers and the enemies and the solutions – calling someone who consistently points us back to our own hearts a “Quietist.” I’m not a Quietist – I’m a preacher, and I’m speaking the truth as God has given it to me to speak.

    What is wrong with our nation is not a conspiracy – it’s called “consequences.” In the face of consequences, we should repent, and begin to address the passions that have enthralled our hearts to the madness of modernity.

    It is good to be weary of politics – they consist almost entirely of sin.

  20. Dear Father I’m very grateful for your comment and the sobriety and humility it encourages.

  21. Father, I am old enough to remember the Polio epidemic before the Salk vaccine in the early 50’s especially since my dad was head of the local city-county health department. He tested my brother and me regularly for signs and symptoms. Then we got the shots. I was also a volunteer for distributing the oral Sabin vaccine in the middle 60s.
    Fear was prevalent in the 50’s but nothing like it is now. Everything has been politicized, polarized. Fear is exacerbated. We are all encouraged to concentrate on the “big picture” and the concentration is on treating the disease not people-a clear reversal of my Dad’s principle: treat the people, not the disease. Treating people reduces fear and allows us to be local. Treating the disease only exacerbates the fear and makes it global. People become immaterial.
    Not good public health.
    God help us.

  22. Michael,
    I remember polio as well. The difference is not in “them” but in us. If people want to do their medical thinking by watching television, googling, and being enthralled by Youtube medicine, then they’ll get what they’ve asked for: anxiety and fear and confusion.

    Being of an age with a few chronic health conditions, I see my doctor and his staff very regularly. They are reasonable and offer good, sound, and reasonable approaches to managing risk, etc. I never leave the office with a sense of fear, nor of false hope. Medicine is not politics – but we have reduced almost everything to that ephemeral nonsense, including much of theology.

    Pray. Do the good that is at hand. Renounce the “big picture.”

  23. I second Dee’s comment! I’ve said it before, but your comments, Father, are like a compass that help point me to the spiritual north. I’ve had to turn off watching any national news because of the turmoil it provokes in me. I even hit the mute button often during the local news. I can only endure so many stabbings and shootings. As you’ve said before, millions of important things occur every day. But the “news” is massaged down to a few sound bites that will hopefully raise ratings (and fears). Even the tenor of voices is raised in network broadcasts, as if what is to follow is of the greatest urgency. ” Better is a handful of quietness than…a striving after wind.”

  24. Father, I am finding that it is easy to simply push through all this. I’ve always been of the mind that I can get through most anything and, generally speaking, I always have done so.

    My challenge is to care during it. So much of the distractions I/we deal with are a part of the world around us. We are affected by them even if we try to ignore them. I’m finding that I am tired of caring about others, so much of my energy is directed to “getting by”. I am even too tired to pray much. I’m getting into that “I want to be by myself on a desert island” mood and I don’t think it’s healthy.

  25. Dean,
    One of the smartest things I ever did was to simply get rid of my TV about 20 years ago. Great gobs of time freed up, my own thoughts returned to me, and as a special bonus, probably reduced my blood pressure 20 points! I can count the number of times I’ve missed in on the fingers of no hands 🙂

  26. So simple but yet so difficult to follow those maxims. Several of them really seem to about fleeing passions and acquiring a sober spirit.

    Byron I think having spiritual, emotional, mental and physical healthy boundaries is the answer to better spent time and energy. Working on my boundaries has been one of the hardest but most valuable things I have done, so I thought I would share that with you.

  27. God’s mercy is always personal and local. Indeed closer than hands and feet. As Shakespeare points out our “prayer for mercy teaches us to render the deeds of mercy” which are also local and at hand.
    My Dad’s first principle of community health (since all life is interconnected) was that if he was able to improve the health of one person, the one in front of him, the health of the community improved. “Doing the good at hand.”

    If you want a graphic and dramatic example of the torture of thinking globally https://youtu.be/IXlDmAzrPi8
    Peter O’Toole in Lion in Winter as Henry II of England. The “My Life” monolog.

  28. There is a proverb about this.

    Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”– when you already have it with you.

  29. A note to all:
    I’m pulling comments with references, oblique or otherwise, to personalities witin the clergy. I should have done so earlier. It keeps our conversation within healthier boundaries.

    I think of St. Paul’s letters to conflicted Churches. Even with his apostolic authority, it was difficult. None of us are immune to the various forces at work around us, and they tear at our souls. As much as possible, God give us grace to keep peace with one another and within the Church at large. Pray for priest and bishops.

  30. Father, I no longer see the post of St. Sophrony. If it is gone because of problematic discussion, I simply hope I did not contribute something problematic.

  31. I keep coming back to “The abstracted life is a torment for the soul.” Aside from the context above, this totally resonates with my journey towards Orthodoxy. It was primarily books and the internet, but far less prayer, fasting, attending the services – living the Orthodox life. It was indeed a ‘torment for the soul’ and I’m convinced made the whole process significantly longer than it needed to be (nearly a decade!). Being in the Church now for several years I’ve come to learn that ‘the knowing is in the doing’. It’s something that I wish I could impress on all the inquirers out there. Books, research and ‘thinking’, while they certainly have their place, will only get one so far. And that’s a hard word for Western ears.

  32. Andrew,
    When I’ve thought about the “abstracted life,” I sort of have in mind what happens when a Tolkien character wears the Ring too long – he becomes “thin” in an ontological manner – a very rich image, indeed. We are not angels – but human beings – created for good works. When we begin walking around too long in the rarefied world of abstractions, we become “thin” and “stretched” and slowly find it difficult to return to the heart. Monks, even great contemplatives, still largely work with their hands, and, at the very least, keep a prayer rope in one hand to keep them tied to the earth, as it were.

  33. Fr. Freeman,

    Have you read “Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew Crawford (alternate title for the UK edition: “The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good”)? The author’s thesis in that book seems very much aligned with what you say here.

    -NSP

  34. Preach it Andrew. Better late than never, but I do feel pity for those who take so long to dip their feet into the waters. Father Freeman helped me to move away from the internet into a an orthodox community and I am very grateful for that. I am now receiving regular guidance from my priest in person, but I do want to thank Father Freeman for his aid to me in my transition period.

    Father thanks for sharing that image from LOTR! I have experienced that thinning multiple times often to the neglect of my spiritual life; it is now a temptation I am careful to avoid. I also spent many years in a greater or lesser state of dissociation. Not a heathy way to live but it was my coping mechanism since childhood. That is one primary reason I love orthodoxy so much is the focus on integration of mind, heart and body. Truly healing to the human person and Jesus prayer in particular is so simple but so potent. I wish every Christian across all denominations would be introduced and taught the Jesus prayer.

  35. NSP,
    I have not, though I am not surprised that someone has written such a book.

    A bit of personal history: I encountered the “Jesus Movement” in my senior year of high school. I announced to my parents that I was not going to go to college but was going to do “street ministry.” My Dad said fine and politely told me to move out and get a job. I did. I worked in a factory, then as a carpenter’s helper, then as an office boy in an engineering firm, then in an optical lab. I ran a coffee shop at night where I did folk music and ministry. The guy that I lived with an I started a religious commune that was also part of our lives. It was all pretty intense.

    I never found work with my hands that was truly satisfactory, but I think that it widened my soul. I eventually started college (worked odd jobs during that time). Time passed – after seminary I continued to do some carpentry as a hobby. My work with hands experience through the years has been on and off (more off than on).

    My observations about the effect of life of abstraction comes out of years of experience – plenty of it bad. I’ve shared in my writings that I suffered from an anxiety/panic disorder from age 19 to age 58. Sadly, that disorder easily pushes people into the life of abstraction thinking that the problem is wrong thinking. There are a few simple ideas that are helpful – but the “way out” if probably more physical than mental. Panic attacks are quite physical – they are “adrenalin storms.” Your body has, unwittingly been flooded with adrenalin. It sends a cascade of thoughts – but the cause of the thoughts is quite physical. My healing (I’ve not had a panic episode now in 9 years) has largely been physical and that has manifested itself in healthier thoughts and such.

    We are far too abstracted. We should use the mind – but not “be” the mind. The ancient Romans defined leisure (otium) as something required for thinking. But they would have been quite concerned at the concept of a “life of leisure.” A good balance is a good thing.

  36. I have never responded well to abstract theology, even the good stuff. Even before the Church it was that way. Still, I make it a point to check experience against the wisdom of the Church and tell my priest. When I do that, I often get an ego check and a reminder that while Jesus is always with us, strengthening us, the struggle still goes on..
    The other thing is that the mind and the heart are brought together in balance and harmony. Then I am able to put into practice what I know.

    God is gentle, kind and merciful. His mercy endures forever.

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