It wasn’t until I moved into my brand new husband’s basement apartment in Chicago that we were properly introduced to one another’s quirky compulsions. Mine included leaving half-drunk mugs of cold coffee in every room, and his involved reusing the same brown paper lunch bag for weeks at a time until it was soft and misshapen. Troy was also surprised by my knack for transforming random household objects into containers for potpourri (“Is that potpourri in my beer stein?” I remember him asking, with just the slightest hint of annoyance).
The empty aluminum juice can he inexplicably kept next to the faucet of our kitchen sink I found equally as perplexing. “What is that for?” I wanted to know, and it turned out Troy himself wasn’t exactly sure either. “Well,” he admitted, “Growing up, my mom always had a juice can on our kitchen sink, so I’ve kept one on my sink out of habit.”
Later we found out from my amused mother-in-law that the empty juice can in their kitchen was used for grease drippings. Troy, being a vegetarian at the time, did not ever deal with grease, making the need for a grease receptacle nonexistent. We laugh about it now. It’s an endearing memory that speaks to the importance of knowing the “why” behind our choices, lest our efforts be made in vain.
This blog post is about work, the never-ending, often grueling heart, mind and soul transforming work of salvation. St. Paul’s exhortation to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12)” took on a whole new meaning to me when I converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998. It was through the Orthodox Church I first became acquainted with salvation as a lifelong process linked inexorably to spiritual tools such as prayer, fasting, the Eucharist, almsgiving, and confession, just to name a few.
As a child, I had “named and claimed” my belief in Christ, but the concept of digging deeper through humble obedience and daily exertion, though ancient in practice, was new to me. In the past, yes, I had tried to be “good,” but now, suddenly, my eyes were opened to a call to holiness that transcended justice, rationality and self-preservation. Awakened to a view of discipleship more profound and mystical than any I’d encountered before, I set off on a journey that would strike me down and raise me up an infinite number of times in an infinite number of ways. I’ve been at it nearly twenty years now, but I feel like I’ve just begun.
What I have to guard myself against most of all is going through the motions for the sake of going through the motions (reciting morning prayers and refraining from pouring cream in my coffee during fasting periods, etc.) because “I’m Orthodox!” Reducing asceticism to a checklist for verifying my identity as an Orthodox Christian keeps me tethered to a surface-level faith plagued by pride and despair. Knowing the “why” behind my choices is imperative for growth and death– death to my passions and self-obsession.
Recently, before a road trip, I randomly grabbed a book from my parents’ bookshelf titled The Struggle For Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society. Published by Holy Trinity Publications, this collection of teachings from the late Archbishop Averky (Taushev) of Russia was shoved in my purse, along with my knitting and Lara bars, as one of a few options for passing the time in the passenger seat of our minivan while cruising down the interstate.
After one row of knitting (I’m a lousy knitter), I pulled the book from my bag. “Do you want me to read to you?” I asked my husband hopefully (I enjoy reading out loud). “Sure,” he said, turning down the radio like he always does because he’s sweet like that. Clearing my throat and throwing my feet on the dash, I settled in and began with the introduction: “The Essence and Meaning of Asceticism.”
“What is asceticism?” That’s how it started, with a question so basic and pivotal I was sucked in from the get-go. Very few people, including Christians, have a correct view of asceticism, the author asserted. And I read on intently because I was pretty confused myself. I am certainly no stranger to spiritual ruts, wearing my faith like an accessory I take off and put on intermittently, thus making me susceptible to being tossed about like tumbleweed by earthly cares.
“Why can’t I overcome these vices? This selfishness? My worries? Why can’t I feel unconditional love for my hard to love neighbor?” I often lament, berating myself for not successfully reasoning my way out of bitterness and anxiety, putting the proverbial cart before the horse, so to speak, by assuming that fruitfulness precedes rootedness.
So if not through sheer will and desire, how does one access the “peace that passes all understanding” referred to in Phillipians 4:7? And here we arrive at the crux of this reflection: Where and how is true abiding peace to be found in this modern, tumultuous culture? Well, according to “The Struggle for Virtue” we must turn inward:
For happiness, as life experience demonstrates, is not outside man, where he mistakenly looks for it, but inside him: happiness is the peaceful arrangement of the soul, in the serene inner peace that is the consequence of the deep inner satisfaction that comes as a result of conquering evil after uprooting the evil habits that tyrannize the soul. No one can ever be happy when sinful passions and evil and depraved habits, which will always bring about confusion and chaos, reign in the soul. The only way to pacify the soul is to suppress and uproot evil habits– that is, through asceticism, the ascetic way of life. (page xxii)
OK, so standing frozen in place staring dumbfounded at the pandemonium wreaking havoc on this world, and losing sleep by speculating on all that could go tragically wrong for us tomorrow, are not effective coping mechanisms after all. It seems here that work is the key– strenuous, all consuming, minute-to-minute prayerful efforts to overcome minute-to-minute temptations designed to keep us agitated, bitter, and distracted.
The greater our good works, and the more often we perform them, the easier it becomes to overcome evil habits; they are weakened by the increased frequency of our good works and are less able to counteract our good will– which, to the contrary, is increasingly strengthened by good works. An obvious conclusion can be drawn from this: he who desires success in the spiritual life must by all possible means force himself to perform good works as often and as varied as possible. He must constantly practice the performance of good works– that is, works of love for God and works of love for one’s neighbor, or such works as would demonstrate that we are indeed striving to love God and neighbor with true evangelical love.
This constant practice of performing good works bears the name of “asceticism,” and one who practices the performance of good works by forcing himself is called an “ascetic.” [emphasis in the original](page xii)
Why do I, a simple layperson, work (albeit imperfectly) at fasting, praying, and participating in the life of the Church? Why should I force myself to serve others even when, especially when, I don’t feel like it? I see now! To loosen the grip of persistent passions and vices on my soul that I might grow in love for God and my neighbor, thereby tapping into a bottomless well of serene eternal peace.
Asceticism is for everyone, not for monks alone, for it is by no means in opposition to nature, as some think, or a kind of coercion thrust upon man. The opposite is the case: it is a natural requirement of the human spirit– which strives to free itself from the oppressing power of evil and to soar toward its First Cause, God– to find in Him the fullest satisfaction of all his inner strivings and needs and to obtain the happiness, peace, joy, and eternal rest so longed for by everyone. [emphasis in the original] (page xxi)
Right here is the place and right now is the time for choosing all over again to work and work and work at pursuing Christ and His perfect peace, through the performance of good and loving works in the present moment.