Evangelism According To St. Isaac The Syrian

When you wish to exhort someone toward the good, at first give comfort to his body and honour him with words of love.  For nothing so persuades a man to feel shame, and causes him to exchange his evils for what is better, as the bodily benefactions and the honour which he receives from you.  And a second means of persuasion is a man’s diligent effort to make himself a laudable example.  He who has succeeded in taking hold of himself by prayer and vigilance will easily be able to draw his neighbor to life, even without the toil of speaking and audible exhortation.  Negligence and laxity, however, harm not only those who yield to them, but also those who observe them.  No words can express how greatly that man is blessed who by diligent solicitude over himself can instil zeal in his neighbours for beautiful deeds and make the slothful feel shame by the very sight of him.  The silent deed has more power to reform other men than solicitous words of rebuke conjoined with a lax way of life.  For when you set yourself aright, you will help your neighbor to no small degree.

St. Isaac the Syrian, homily 48

One does not generally look to hermits for advice on evangelism.  However, I think in this case St. Isaac sums up pretty well the commonly held Orthodox Christian understanding on the most effective means of evangelism.  He offers two strategies for evangelism.  The second is more effective, but more difficult than the first; but even the first form of evangelism is not easy.  The first form of evangelism is to care for the physical needs of those you wish to “exhort…toward the good.”  And along with this, you must honour them.  That, I think, is the hard part for most of us.  Many of us can understand the idea of caring for the poor—it’s hard to convert someone who is shivering in the cold.  But the honouring part, honouring “with words of love,” that’s the hard part.  It’s hard to honour someone when you think you are better than they are, when you think they have screwed up their life, and you think that if they had only tried a litter harder, they wouldn’t be in so much need.  That’s the hard part for me.

I was raised in a culture that believes the myth that people pretty much get what they deserve.  Those who work hard, succeed; those who don’t, fail: success or failure are our own fault.  This is what our culture teaches us.  In my mind, I know it’s not true. The facts, the evidence makes clear that the reality is much more complicated than that, that some people work very hard and can’t succeed in society while others hardly work at all and experience great success.  But myths have power.  So long as at some deep level I really think I am better than some others, that I have done what others could have also  done if they had push themselves a little harder, so long as I think that someone else’s spiritual or moral or economic state is basically their fault, then it’s pretty hard to truly honour them.  But St. Isaac says that if we want someone “to exchange his evils for what is better,” then we must care for their bodily needs and lovingly honour them.

This honouring of those whose “evil” behaviour we want to change is particularly difficult in a time of cultural war.  Too often we say that we love the sinner but hate the sin; however in practice, I don’t think the sinners can tell the difference. I’m not sure how to correct this apart from radical repentance on the part of every Christian, myself first.  It’s clear to me that the political route is only making things worse—at least the political route as it is being largely pursued today, pursued as a war of good agains evil.  I am not saying that Christians can or should not be politically active, but what I am saying is that the way many Christians are acting politically nowadays isn’t working very well, isn’t convincing many people to exchange what is evil for what is better.  I wonder, what would things look like if we actually did honour and love those we disagree with politically? I must only wonder because I can’t imagine it. I cannot imagine it because I too struggle to honour and love those who seem to have committed themselves to a lifestyle and agenda that I consider to be destructive to society.

No wonder so few people are attracted to the Church.  If the world sees us fight as the world fights, what do people the world see that would draw them to Christ?

St. Isaac’s second bit of advice on how to evangelize, on how to “instal zeal in [one’s] neighbours for beautiful deeds,” is to be the example.  “Negligence and laxity,” St. Isaac tells us, “harm not only those who yield to them, but also those who observe them.”  The laxity and negligence St. Isaac is speaking of is laxity in personal ascetic discipline and negligence in prayer, in spiritual attention.  So long as what I really want is the same things that my neighbour wants, there will be conflict.  So long as my attention is outside of me, on stuff, on things that can be seen and felt, things that bring pleasure, things that represent position, power and prestige, so long as through negligence I let my attention focus on these things, I am no better off than my neighbour, even if his practice of evil is a little more blatant than mine.  It is only as I discipline myself in godliness (1 Tim. 4: 7), it is only as I practice myself in prayer, as I train myself to set my mind on things above, not things of the earth (Col. 3: 2), that I begin to become the kind of person whose mere presence influences others, influences others even without words.

It is famously reported that St. Seraphim of Sarov said that if you acquire the Holy Spirit, or the Peace of the Holy Spirit, a thousand around you will be saved.  He seems to be saying pretty much the same thing St. Isaac is saying.  St. Isaac tells us, “The silent deed has more power to reform other men than solicitous words of rebuke conjoined with a lax way of life.”  Deeds, when they proceed from a life of stillness and prayer, speak much more loudly than “words of rebuke” that proceed from someone who is lax in his or her own prayer and ascetic discipline.  Truly, who you are speaks much more loudly than what you say.

Let me end this blog with a word of caution.  Hearing St. Isaac’s exhortation to holiness for the sake of the salvation of our neighbour, one can easily begin to condemn oneself for laziness and negligence.  And although a certain amount of self condemnation for most people is probably a good thing, too much self condemnation usually comes from the arrogant heart of a person who thinks they should be able to do much more than they actually can do. St. Isaac points out earlier in this same homily that “If you compel your body when it is weak to labours that exceed its strength, you will heap darkness upon darkness on your soul and bring greater confusion upon her.”  We each have a level of spiritual discipline and ascetical life that is appropriate for us.  This level varies throughout our life as we grow spiritually and as our life circumstances change.  A spiritual father or mother can often help us find what practices and disciplines are appropriate for us.  Negligence and laxity are enemies on the one hand, but so too are over exertion and compelling ourselves when our bodies are weak.

We acquire the Grace, the Peace of the Holy Spirit not by working harder and harder.  Rather, we learn to attend to what is eternal, to what is life-giving, to what is beautiful and true and lovely not by destroying our bodies or forcing ourselves beyond our strength.  All growth in Christ in a gift.  It is freely bestowed.  Ours is merely to want such a gift.  Attention and discipline in the spiritual and ascetic life is how we express that we want such a gift.  The Grace of the Holy Spirit does not come as a reward for hard work—as our cultural myth of hard work seems to suggest.  No.  The Grace of the Holy Spirit comes as a gift to those who ask, to those who want to be transformed, to be changed, to experience the heavenly life even while still on this earth.  And the way we ask is by doing what we can, disciplining ourselves a little, praying a little, striving a little in prayer beseeching God to grant to us freely and graciously that spiritual life we could never earn, could never work hard enough to deserve.

May God help us to care for the bodily needs and to lovingly honour our neighbours, especially those we disagree with, and let us strive in appropriate measure to be diligent in our life of prayer and in our ascetic disciplines so that even without a word we may influence our neighbour to turn from what is evil to what is beautiful.

5 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed this post. Thank you! We have a large homeless population where I live and it IS easy to see these folks as not trying hard enough, or ending up where they are because of some vice. I had a lovely conversation yesterday with a homeless gentleman. 47 years old. Loves dogs. (I have a dog and that is what started our conversation.) He wants to be a dog trainer. He applied and was accepted into a well-respected school in our area for training dog to help the disabled. He arranged for housing before coming to the area. The landlord rented the unit to someone else before he arrived. He had no place to go and not enough money to find another place, as we have a 90% occupancy rate here. So, he ended up in a local homeless shelter (fortunately Catholic Charities has a big presence here). His parents are deceased and he had no one to fall back on for help. He has been homeless now for 8 months. He has applied for many jobs with animal-oriented businesses in the area. No one has hired him. He has a BA in social work. He has financial aid lined up for the dog training school, but cannot go to school until he has a place to live. He is smart and has so much to offer, but he cannot use his talents under the present conditions. He has not had a dog for 4 years because none of his living situations allowed it and I suspect having a dog would be very therapeutic for a man like him. There is nothing this man did that was “wrong” which could justify his current homelessness.

  2. Very helpful for me as I’m just learning about Orthodox spirituality, & it can look like all the spiritual disciplines are to be ‘the more the better’, rather than what is proportionate & healthy to the one doing them. Does Orthodoxy follow the kind of ‘Sabbath is made for man, not the man for the Sabbath’ principle with these things?

    1. Dear Renewal,
      Yes, certainly. All that the Church has is given to us for our growth in Christ, not for its own sake. However, spiritual guidance and a certain degree of obedience are also important. We cannot very well discern for ourselves what we need. That doesn’t mean that our personal discernment is irrelevant. Rather, it means that our personal discernment is unreliable because it is easily deceived, and nearsighted. Together with our spiritual father or mother and others we trust, we discern what level of asceticism is appropriate for us.

      1. It should probably be noted for the sake of those with no experience in this regard yet, that sometimes the discernment and guidance from one’s spiritual father is that one is trying to take on more strict discipline than is appropriate in one’s situation. If others are like me, they probably tend to expect it’s going to be the other way around, but perfectionists (I confess I’m a recovering perfectionist) and those trying to heal from legalistic and performance-oriented religious backgrounds–who are accustomed to being required to prove the sincerity of their faith by mounting some sort of spiritual treadmill–may be given the advice to not worry about fasting from certain foods, but rather endeavor to fast from unhealthy self-recrimination or excessive self-focus and scrupulosity during a fasting season, for example.

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