A couple of weeks ago Fr. John was telling us all at lunch about some advice from his bishop; the mauled version is that we should look at ourselves and our sinfulness, get as close to the edge looking down into the pits of our own wretchedness as we can bear, and then step back and have a cup of tea. Fr. John stressed that the stepping back and having some tea part was just as important as the gazing on our wretchedness part. Some of the saints stayed there in the wretchedness for a very long time, perhaps continually – but that’s not something most of us modern folks can handle without going over the edge, as it were. We’d probably end up in despair or psychologizing our faults away altogether – neither of those being helpful places to be.
So here’s the first thing I thought was nice in the Schmemann quote: we’re pretty much all spiritual babies, for all our show of piety, prayer ropes, quoting canons, reading Fathers, and all the rest (and if we weren’t we wouldn’t need to be asking him for advice on what to do with ourselves). You want to become a monk and give up your will entirely? Try being a clerk at a bank for a while without complaining or growing impatient, and see how well that goes. Like Mother Melania at the OCF retreat: you want to give up your will entirely? Good – try giving up your will to eat dessert after each meal, and see how that goes.
The part that I found most interesting, most frequently asserted, and most perplexing was that what most of us ought to be trying to do most of the time is to be actively unambitious and not put too much stock in matching our skills, talents, proclivities, work habits, and so on to our situation in life so that our work is exciting and fulfilling. In fact, quite the opposite: go get a mildly dreary but helpful job, do dreary but helpful tasks, and try not to flaunt your intelligence (real or imagined). Schmemann, the teacher and lecturer, advising: do not teach! When I was reading it, in my mind stood up the more usual advice (though not necessarily from Orthodox folks) that the most important thing is to do something I love, that is fulfilling and uses my talents as fully as possible.
There’s something important there: humility. Perhaps we neglect too often the virtues of humility and moderation. Modern people are focusing a bit more on moderation – though without trusting the good intentions we are tempted to want to federally legislate moderation in whatever area happens to catch our attention at the moment. Humility is even more neglected – I don’t think we really have a grasp on it. The other day someone mentioned that he found the hysteria over how we’re destroying the planet to be arrogant: we may well be making things uncomfortable for ourselves – perhaps even miserable for ourselves; that’s certainly within our power. But we flatter ourselves to say that our cars and power plants and other somewhat immoderate uses of energy have the power to destroy the environment. I hadn’t thought about things that way before, but it makes a good deal of sense. What are our conviences compared to volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis?
While a “good” job, possessions, nice food, convenience, and so on are not bad in themselves, perhaps it’s good – and especially for those who admire monasticism – to go to some trouble to remind themselves of moderation and humility to as great a degree as possible – in work, possessions, food, social functions, studies, giving advice, and so on. Have a cup of tea, keep a little garden, get a job, go for a hike, have some coffee with a friend… you’re not that big a deal (and neither am I) – but the God of the universe died for us! And wants us to talk to Him; and be silent before Him.