“Lord Jesus Christ, my God, You have said, “Apart from me You can do nothing.” In faith I embrace Your words, Lord, and I entreat Your goodness. Help me to carry out the work I am about to begin, and to bring it to completion. To You I give glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
-Orthodox prayer before beginning any task
My hope for this new year is to finally finish reading the first volume of the Philokalia, a collection of works written between the 4th and 15th centuries by monks. The word itself, Philokalia, meaning the “love of the beautiful, the good.” How can I resist that?
It’s a heady work, though– chewy and delicious but hard for me to digest except in small pieces. So I did the math- if I read one page a day I’ll get through it in a year. Twenty days in, so far, so good. I’m not patting myself on the back too hard just yet. I still have lots of time to lose sight of the goal. I’m still well poised to find other, more interesting things to fill that few minutes I meant to put aside each morning.
Just to add to the challenge, I’m writing a short reflection each day as well and I do that because, like so many other writers, I don’t often know what I think until I write about it.
Consider, a moment, my reaction to a quote from St. Issac the Solitary which states, “Sit in your cell, and concentrate your intellect; remember the day of death, visualize the dying of your body, reflect on this calamity, experience the pain, reject the vanity of this world, its compromises and crazes, so that you may continue in the way of stillness and not weaken.” (pg 36)
Well, that’ll perk you right up, won’t it?
The truth is that I do think about death. I don’t wish for it, but I do think about it. So my knee jerk reaction to an instruction like this is to make a fine checkmark in a box on a list I have somewhere in my psyche. Look at me, all ahead of the curve!
But there’s more to this instruction, and this is the essential thing–
Concentrate your intellect
Reject the vanity of this world
This is the part that escapes me. I’m far more inclined to think about the dying of my body as a means of escape, like a soap opera storyline wherein I am the proud matriarch on her deathbed or the wise and valuable friend who is taken in her prime. Or else I’m Huck and Tom at their own funeral peeking to see who’d mourn their passing.
(Okay, sure, I have a very active imagination. This is why I write.)
But the Philokalia gives me a new way to understand visualizing death. It shows me the beautiful, the good, the true. Who would have thought that pondering the day of my death might be best used to help me focus, to leave aside the temporary cares of the world, to move deeper into some stillness I cannot seem to grasp in the self-made busy-ness of my life?
St. Isaac the Solitary, that’s who. Go figure.
I will say that most of these writings refer to the life of the monk. I’m not sure St. Isaac imagined a modern day, nearly fifty-year-old mother of four would be taking these words to heart. Nor would he know that I’m not reading them in the starkness of a monk’s cell but in the cushy chair near the window that looks over the dirty alley behind my garage.
Even so, I stand by the deep-seated belief that, as my new favorite tee shirt tells me, I don’t have to be a monk to live like one. There are good foundational guidelines here, all based on the pursuit of the love of the beautiful and that is available to us, in small and valuable ways, one page or even one paragraph at a time.
Let’s seek it out. Let’s find it wherever it may be. I’m going to need that beauty. I’ll wager you need it too.