Soulish Flux

I was reading more of His Life is Mine by Elder Sophrony — a very good book — and came upon an interesting quote:

Of all ascetic practices the striving for prayer is the most arduous. Our spirit will be in constant flux. At times prayer flows like a strong current; at other times our heart will feel withered and dry. But the spells when we lose fervor should get briefer. (p 82)

I know a little what he means, but was struck by something that he may not have meant, but which I have notices a good deal these past few years — that “constant flux.” Apparently I had always supposed that for the most part people learn what kind of people they are, what their interests are, and where they most want to direct their energy fairly early in life, and then work out the living of those things through time. I’m not sure why I had supposed that, but I suspect a few different sources. This is the way careers are traditionally arranged, and education is traditionally arranged to focus a lot upon career prospects — so the structure of a broad high school experience, followed by a somewhat narrower first few years of undergraduate study, followed by an ever narrowing and deepening field of study as one progresses through higher education is often implied as an expectation by colleges and the workforce. Church offered a similar perspective: one chooses to become a Christian, to commit one’s life to Christ, and then… well, then they simply are and have; then they simply try to, and perhaps become better at, living as they ought. Chuck Smith was in town a few months ago — I was too tired to write well on it, but I was struck by this pattern to his message; it’s the most effective evangelistic pattern, I suppose — clear and certain. He remembered being in college, when he was something of a Christian, but perhaps not very serious. One day he was sitting under a tree, and found himself confronted by a choice: live as he had been planning, with a football scholarship at a good university, or follow God. So he chose God and became a very influential pastor. I’m sure he has other stories, but that seems to be the central one — a testimony — the one that everything hinges upon.

It makes sense that he would tell that story in that venue, but I was a bit disappointed, as I have been at a number of similar evangelistic venues. The people I have known have almost always been engaged in a more complex relationship with God than that — have almost always been applying themselves to being Christian already, imperfectly, but with attention, sometimes intensity; and while it’s always a good time to restore enthusiasm and obedience toward God, it’s an encouragement to have people acknowledge the possibility of the ongoing conversation between the Christian soul and God that constitutes so much of the substance of our being.

In any event, I had heard a lot of speakers who presented their lives like that: like at some point in their teens or twenties they had decided something, and then… well, then takes place outside of time, off the map, and is hardly important; they got degrees in something, married and worked at jobs, and then — who knows. Perhaps another story showed up later, but that is another story, with a gap in it, like the gap left by Byzantium when it’s taken out of the history of the church: puzzling when you think about it, but not often thought about… in the uncertainty of anything having taken place I tend to suppose that nothing did.

That, of course, is not how I’ve actually encountered life, which is a constant source of cognitive dissonance for me. I don’t often encounter life as decision, though it is that as well. I’ve also heard the structure of simplicity, and complexity, and simplicity on the other side of complexity — which sounds a good deal more plausible.

In response to the complaints and difficulties of my students, I’ve been thinking this year about my relationship with things that I “like” — with art, reading, and writing. I suppose that at some point I simply liked these things, though I am by no means certain of this. It is certain that by the time I had studied them formally for several years I no longer liked them simply, but stuck with them anyway, because there were still things to be learned, and then because I was putting a lot of energy into other things, and wanted something stable in my studies, and then because it would be too difficult to switch majors as a senior, and then because I had a degree in them, and then because I could get a job in doing these things.

This afternoon I began writing a blog post to try to figure out what it is I have been encountering in this complexity of relationship, even with hobbies, through the lens of The Dip, a little book by marketing expert Seth Godin. The premise is that in almost any pursuit there’s a trajectory where at the beginning it is exciting a fun, and we have a high return on our effort. Then, as we progress, it becomes less fun and more difficult, until at some point it seems to be very difficult and no fun at all. That’s the point where we have to look as carefully as we can at this pursuit we’re engaged in, to see if we ought to continue, through a lot of difficult work, or else give up and reinvest our time elsewhere. The part that Mr Godin seemed the most insistent upon was that there is no one answer for all activities: sometimes we ought to press on, and sometimes to press on, but with a different intention and focus, and sometimes we ought to give up and start something new; the correct answer depends on us, what we’re doing, and what we hope to gain from it.

That’s all very well when we know what we want from things, but the whole trick lies in clarifying what exactly it is we hope for from an activity — and sometimes we cannot know until we have it. That’s very often true in education: I had no idea what I was looking for in Tolstoy until I was 200 pages in and began stumbling upon bright, brilliant passages. I would never have expected from Timaeus a beautiful myth about the founding of the cosmos as a thing composed of musical finite proportions and soul. That’s the great advantage of institutional education when rightly done: because we are so much more likely to find that for which we would not have known to look.

That’s not just a quandary in school, however, but in life — and especially for those of us who believe our lives to be governed by a God who takes a great deal of interest in us and often wills things for us that are contrary to what we might have planned for ourselves. So we try to attend as well as we can, and do as we may.

Getting back to spiritual flux and testimonies — I had, as I said, supposed that we are in this state of searching, looking, questioning, attending for a fairly short time: by different accounts perhaps even days or weeks, but at most a few years. But experience suggests otherwise: my own and that of my friends, as well as by people I admire like Elder Sophrony and Father John — now I suppose that it lasts for an indeterminate length of time that may be measured more in decades than months, and which involves a near constant state of revision and flux, usually at a fairly low to moderate intensity.



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