Watch out for big words

A weary priest, after listening to a college student share in rapture all that he has learned from the latest Life of an elder on the Holy Mountain: “Prayer of the heart? Theosis? These are big words. Do me and yourself a favor. Don’t speak those words again until you have either (A) spent a least fifteen years in a monastery under obedience; or (B) you have raised at least five children to love Christ and His Church. Once you have done either of these, then, maybe, you will be able to begin to say these words. For right now the words for you are patience, kindness, faithfulness, and self-control. These words will keep you busy for the next twenty years. Learn to say these little words, then you may come to know how to pronounce bigger words.”
One of the stumbling blocks I find in parish life is that single adults are reading spiritual material written to challenge and stir-up the spiritual life of experienced monastics, and thinking that they understand it! As a pastor, I find that the a young person can carry on happily in his or her delusion—reading more spiritual books, visiting monasteries, and “explaining” Orthodox spirituality to their non-Orthodox acquaintances–until their delusion of spiritual knowledge is shattered by the realities of marriage and family life. I cannot tell how many times I have sat with a weeping young married man or woman who was afraid that he or she had lost Grace.
“By the time I have gotten up two or three times during the night because of the baby,” a young mother says, “I can’t keep my eyes open to say even one prayer from my Rule. Then once I’ve cleaned up breakfast, started the laundry and picked up the house, it’s time to start making dinner. My heart feels so far from God. I can’t even pray in Church. I spend the whole time taking the baby in and out. My spiritual life doesn’t exist anymore.”
A similar tale is told by a young father, working 50 to 60 hours a week at his first real job, trying to make it up the initial rungs of a corporate ladder, barely making rent and car payments. “I try to say the Jesus Prayer as I drive to and from work, but my mind is buzzing with things I have to remember for work or things I have to do at home. I have no peace. When I get home, it is all I can do not to yell at the kids and be angry with my wife. I have not read a spiritual book in years. I am depressed because I seem to have fallen so far spiritually from where I was before the children came along.”
These are not unusual tales, as any parish priest can tell you. Somehow the responsibility of family life throws young parents into a spiritual crisis for which the Church and our culture has not prepared them. While there may be many causes for this lack of preparation, one that seems to be functioning in the church is what Alexander Schmemann called a “monastic trend.” That is, so much emphasis is placed on individual piety, spirituality and asceticism, that young Orthodox Christian adults do not recognize the spirituality of self sacrificial love when the circumstances of life finally force them to practice it.
To a certain extent, this monastic trend (or as a friend of mine called it, “anchoritization”) of popular Orthodox piety is unavoidable. In all western cultures, including many traditionally Orthodox countries (Greece and Russia, specifically), the individual is king. Almost no one lives in an extended family. Technology has made dependence on local community, on the neighbor (whether you loved him or not) a thing of the past. It is really easy to convince myself that I love my neighbor when I don’t even know his name. I succeed if I work hard and am lucky. I fail if I’m lazy and foolish. If I’m spiritually inclined, I grow in my relationship with God through my spiritual activities. Even alms giving is a disembodied act: IOCC conveniently accepts credit card donations and distributes aid to people I will never meet. And of course, all of this success or failure, spiritual growth or not, is at my own pace. No one tells me what to do. I choose my own books, I choose my own spiritual exercises, and if I’m so inclined, I choose my own spiritual father, whom I can ignore if I choose.
Those who actually enter real monastic life discover the communal nature of Christianity right away—they choose nothing. Those who follow the path of marriage often are not confronted with genuine community life until the children come along. For many, this is the first time in their adult life that someone else is telling them what to do. This is the first time they are compelled by love to lay down their life for another. The problem is that no where along the line of their Orthodox Christian experience has it been made clear to them that such self sacrifice is what Christianity is all about. Consequently, young parents are confused: how can losing my “spiritual” life be gaining it?
Books like Mountain of Silence provide a mixed blessing. On the one hand they introduce the Orthodox Church and spirituality to a world hungry for real spiritual life; on the other hand, they do not, they cannot, make evident that the apparently individual spiritual struggle that they describe takes place in a community of self denial and obedience.


  1. Bravo, Fr. Michael!

    I think it is so telling that the Orthodox marriage service references the martyrs, in particular the forty martyrs of Sebaste. Christian life is martyrdom, death to self, not in splendid isolation but within the martyric community (fancy words there) of the Church, and in particular in the ‘little church’ of the family.

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