Where do we begin in the spiritual life? Is it best to focus on one or a few virtues and spiritual disciplines? Should we start with the Jesus Prayer or with the reading of spiritual classics like the Philakalia? St. John the Dwarf, one of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, compares building the spiritual life with building a house and offers very insightful comments about how this is to be done.
I didn’t notice St. John’s advice myself, but stumbled across it reading St. Dorotheos of Gaza who lived about two hundred years later. St. Dorotheos likens the growth in the virtues to the building of a house. And while we might say that he gets this from St. John since he quotes him directly, still it goes back to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1Cor. 3:12), “If anyone builds on the foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble.”
What St. Dorotheos does for us, however, is he fleshes out what the gold, silver and precious stones are, namely the virtues. The virtues are the bricks (or stones) we lay on the foundation of faith. But which virtues do we develop? How do we know what virtues to build into the spiritual house of our soul? This spiritual house is nothing less than our life. We are building who we are.
In this context of explaining that the virtues are the stones with which we build our spiritual house, St. Dorotheos quotes St. John almost directly. St. Dorotheos says, “This is what Abba John means when he says, ‘I would rather that a man acquire a little of each one of the virtues than master one virtue as some have done, persisting in it and practicing only that but neglecting the rest’.”
Now I need to make a confession at this point. I am a priest and I know and have met many priests and a few monastics. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the manifest piety and holiness of these men; but at the same time, I am aware of a glaring lack of a certain virtue or group of virtues. I told you this was a confession. What am I doing judging anyone? And yet there it is: I notice amazing mastery of certain virtues in some holy men, but at the same time glaring lapses where certain virtues seem to be completely absent. Wretched man that I am.
This torments me. I want to emulate a certain set of virtues I see exhibited in a particular holy man, but my mind fights me because the same holy man seems to have neglected (almost certainly unintentionally and unknowingly) certain other virtues. Then I admire a holy man who seems to master the virtues neglected by the first, only to discover that he too is negligent in some areas.
I think it’s important, now that I’ve let you in on my confession, to say that I do realize that what I see of someone else’s life is only very partial and completely biased by my prejudices and ignorance. Therefore, the flaw or lack that I seem to see in someone else is very likely due to my own blindness and biased perception. In other words, it’s my problem, not theirs.
However, that’s just it: it’s my problem. I don’t know what to do when I desire to emulate the godly virtues of a certain holy person, or group of holy people, or sometimes even a certain style of holiness; yet at the same time I see (with my sin-blurred eyes) glaring gaps of certain other virtues among these people that they seem to have neglected? What’s a beginner in the spiritual life to do?
One way I have handled this experience in the past is to condemn the apparently holy person (or group or tradition [with a small ‘t’]) because of the glaring lack of certain virtues it manifests. Experience has taught me that this way of handling my perception of others is satanic. Only God sees the whole picture. Rather, I find it better just to condemn my own ignorance and blindness. It’s better to assume that others really are better than me–which is something Jesus tells us to do, but I find extremely difficult to actually put into practice.
But still, I haven’t solved my problem: how do I know what to emulate? Here is where St. John the Dwarf and St. Dorotheos of Gaza have helped me. Instead of seeking to emulate someone who is a master of virtue, I seek only to acquire a little of the virtue I see in them. That is, I seek to acquire a little virtue from everyone, accepting that (at least according to these two saints) acquiring a little of all the virtues is better than being very proficient in just a few of them.
This strategy helps me because I don’t despair that I’m never as holy as the holy people I seek to emulate: I don’t pray enough or give enough or fast enough or have enough compassion or work enough or even care enough about the salvation of my own soul. Yet, what I can do–or what I seem to be able to do– is to pray a little, give a little, fast a little, care a little, work a little and attend a little to the salvation of my soul.
Saint Dorotheos tells us that whatever virtue is necessary at any given moment is the one virtue we have a chance to add as a stone to our spiritual house if we will practice it a little in that moment: “Is there occasion for obedience? A stone must be laid, obedience. Does a disagreement arise among the brethren? The stone of patience must be laid. Is there a need for self control? That stone too must be laid. So whatever the virtue required, that stone must be laid in the building, and in this way the perimeter of the building rises up. One stone for forbearance, another for mortifying self-will, one for meekness, and so on.”
This is how we know which virtue is required in any given moment. St. John the Dwarf further says that we must begin at the foundation and work up. For St. John, “The foundation is our neighbour, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin. All of the commandments of Christ depend on this one.” Spiritual virtues are built on the love of neighbour, according to St. John. When I’m not sure which virtue is the right one to focus on at a given moment, I ask myself how can I love the person in front of me right now; or as St. John put it, “how can I win my neighbour?”
This is what I have found that works pretty well for me, but I admit I am just a beginner. I am exactly the kind of beginner that Sts. John and Dorotheos are writing for: ignorant, judgmental, and confused most of the time. For those who have gotten beyond the foundation stage in building their spiritual house, I sure there are other strategies that work better. I wouldn’t know. But then, because I don’t know, I can’t judge. What seem to me to be imbalanced or glaringly lopsided spiritual practices may indeed be just what is needed for those who are further along on their spiritual journey.
But for beginners, for those of us who are still working on getting that first few rows of stones around the foundation of faith, focusing on acquiring a little bit of every virtue helps us to keep picking up the stone (of virtue) that is needed at a given moment and putting it down at the correct place in our spiritual house. Baby steps for baby Christians. May God grant that we are all found to be children in His Kingdom.