|Tea At The Clayburn Store|
This morning my wife and I took one of our occasional half-day vacations. It’s a warmish 19 degree day (68 Fahrenheit) with the sun poking through the clouds. We walked a mile or so up a trail in the hills and then afterward stopped by a country tea and scone place for a bite and a chat and just some quite time together, Bonnie working on her knitting project and I reading a book (what else would I be doing?). Bonnie asked me what I was reading, so I read her a little quote from from Archimandrite Aimilianos.
What does it mean to be dispassionate? It means turning exclusively to God, with all your strength, energy, power, and love. There is no turning aside to anything else whatsoever….
Bonnie’s response to this little word was to say, well I guess you can’t experience dispassion outside a monastery and certainly not if you read novels in the evening (as she likes to do).
I told Bonnie that I didn’t know if novels were absolutely detrimental to dispassion. A lot would depend on what kind of novels one was reading and why one read them and what was happening in one’s heart and mind while reading the novel. I have had moments reading, for example, the earlier George Elliot novels and some of Thomas Hardy and bits of Dickens and much of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, moments when what I was reading launched me into prayer, when the insight of the author expressed in a comment or action or reaction of a character gave me a sudden glimps into myself, into human nature, into the human condition in such a way that my only response was to stop reading because I was praying—or even to be praying at some level even while I was still reading. And as for monastic life being requisite in order to experience dispassion, I am almost certain it is not (though some monastic settings may be much more conducive to developing dispassion than most settings in the world). Nevertheless, there are saints in the world who have attained a high degree of holiness working, for example, in a bakery (here, Crazy John of Athens comes to mind) or as mothers and fathers (here the father of St. Siluan comes to mind).
Of course, a sustained experience of dispassion is different from a moment, a brief encounter with dispassion. For Archimandrite Aimilianos, dispassion, or a “dispassionate capacity” is synonymous with “a state of union or intimacy [with God],” or “a state of prayer.” That is, a state of prayer “not [as] merely an address of words to God, but as an ascent to Him.” And we all, if we are willing, if we will offer ourselves, ascend to God from where we are, in our own octave, from our own place on the key board (to pick up again the metaphor I used last time). Even the beginner, even the prostitute soaked in sin can touch the feet of Jesus, shed tears and for a moment experience an ascent towards God. For a moment, she and even a religious hypocrite like myself, can experience dispassion—or if not dispassion proper (I guess a lot depends on how one defines it), if not dispassion proper then something like dispassion. For a moment. For a moment as the tears fall and as “all of our strength, energy, power, and love” is turned exclusively to God we experience ascent, we experience intimacy, union, prayer, dispassion. For a moment. And then the moment passes.
And I am certain that those who have trained themselves, either in a monastery or in the world to spend hours in quiet through night-time vigils or perhaps through hours of kneading dough all alone in the early morning hours at the bakery, those who have trained themselves to let go of the world even while in the world, these are able to sustain that experience of ascent longer, they are able (as St. John puts it in the Gospel) to abide in Christ and Christ abide in them.
As many of you know, Bonnie is an iconographer. She often laments her supposed spiritual poverty because she is not a bookish, teacherly person like Yours Truly. She thinks that that just because she doesn’t do what I do, she doesn’t write or speak or read books by Greek authors whose names she can’t pronounce, she thinks that because “all she can do” for God is paint icons and sew Altar covers, she thinks that she may never experience the prayer or ascent to God that I (Oh too easily) talk and write about. She will complain that sometimes she can waste a whole day painting and not even remembering to pray, only to have to scrape off a face and start over again the next day. But what she forgets, is that at other times she does pray, she prays so that she almost forgets that she is painting: it is as though the icon is painting itself. And this experience, in my opinion is, or certainly seems to be, that state of prayer, that ascent to God that Archimandrite Aimilianos is speaking about.
You know, to use the parable of the Land Owner entrusting his goods to His servants as it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel, whether one doubles one mina or ten minas, to work with and increase what you have been given is just that: to work with and increase what you have been given. Most people I know are one or two mina types. What I mean is that they really only seem to have one or two ways they feel that they are able to connect with God, to turn exclusively to God with all their strength, energy, power and love. I have a parishioner who is a professional house painter. Not only does he absolutely refuse to be paid for work that he does on the Church, he actually prefers to be left alone at the church while he works, so that he is there alone with God. Taking one of the minas God has given him, he offers his attention exclusively to God with all of his strength, energy, power, and love. I wonder what kinds of ascents to God he experiences as he is there alone on a ladder, with a roller in his hand, offering back to God what God has given him?
God has given all of us something that we can give back to Him, something by which we can ascend with all of our strength, energy, power and love. Do you wake up in the middle of the night? Offer that to God. Turn necessity into an offering—as the Church hymns say of the martyrs who reasoned: since we all have to die anyway, why not turn a necessity to our advantage and offer our lives to God? If you can’t sleep, chant akathist hymns. Turn necessity to your advantage. Is your work monotonous? Say the Jesus Prayer. Focus your inner attention exclusively to God. Take the one thing you have and bring it to God with all of your attention, all of your strength, energy, power and love.
“God is with us,” Archimandrite Aimilianos say, “at every stage in our progression.” No matter where we begin, no matter if we only have the strength to show up and stand at the back of the Church beating our breast and saying inwardly, “have mercy on me a sinner,” no matter if all we have to offer are two copper coins or the tears of our brokenness, no matter what the little bit of near nothingness we feel we have to offer to God, if we offer it with full attention, with all of our strength and energy and power and love, if we do this then no matter where we are, God is with us and we are beginning to experience prayer, beginning to experience in some small way and for at least a brief moment union and intimacy and dispassion before God.
And even though I am writing about this right now, I must confess that I often forget this. I often get bogged down in sadness because I seem so inadequate, so ungifted, so completely lacking in any gift from God that I might offer back to Him that I am tempted to cave in on myself. I am tempted to not offer God the little bit I have, the laundry, for example, I have to fold, the floor that needs to be cleaned, the peas that need to be picked in the garden. These I can offer to God. I can fold laundry with my attention on God, certainly not with the kind of attention that a holy person might. But I can fold laundry attending to God with all of the strength I do have (which isn’t much), with all of the energy I have (which is even less), with all of the power and love I do have. With what I do have to give God, I can enter the garden and pick peas, I can get down on my knees and clean the kitchen floor, alone, just me and God. With what I have, my work can be an offering, my words of prayer can, perhaps—even if only for a moment—my words of prayer can transform into a state of prayer, a brief, a little ascent to God.
And when I do offer what I do have instead of lamenting what I don’t have, then, as Archimandrite Aimilianos says, “God is with us at every stage in our progression.” Then even in the mundane and the boring, even in the frustration of trying to put in words thoughts I barely grasp, even when I can’t seem to do any more than keep my mouth shut praying that I do not hurt someone by speaking the unkind words that are coming to my mind, even when I know that there is something I should be doing, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is and so I wander around the house saying, “Lord have mercy.” Even then, God is with me. And that, I think, is the beginning of heaven even while I am still on a sometimes hellish earth.