Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Strategy Against My Lazy Self

Below is a question based on the post, "Standing Outside the Kingdom."
Hello Fr. Michael, Can you clarify a bit on your meaning of: "At times like this, regardless of my dogmatic understanding of theology, I know at some level I have left the Kingdom of Heaven. I must beg for mercy. I must hear again the gentle tapping of my Saviour to find my way back. Only this will save me."

Dear ------,
In the "Standing Outside the Kingdom" post I am trying to discuss an appropriate attitude in prayer, especially as we experience that attitude.  In my human weakness, I often cannot hold the "already and not yet" realities of our relationship with God together in my mind and heart at the same time.  I know from my readings in the Fathers that a peaceful rest is possible, that it is possible in the spiritually mature to be completely absorbed in the Love of God and at the same time fully aware of human weakness and God's judgement.  Saints such as St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Silouan of Athos and even Fr. George Calciu of Romania reveal this maturity.  I believe it was Fr. George (or it may have been St. Silouan) who said that if he goes to hell he will be happy because that is were the Love of God put him.  Of course, Fr. George had already been to hell in the communist prisons--and there he found the Love of God.

However for beginners, it is a struggle to hold together the Love of God and the feeling of abandonment, or of outsiderness, or that God is far away.  I know theologically, dogmatically, that God loves me and will never abandon me.  I know dogmatically that I eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ and thus I am incorporated into Christ's Body (and "No man ever hated his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it").  Nevertheless, if I approach God with a sense of certainty, with a sense that I am already righteous, already saved (or as saved as I need to be), if I approach God in prayer this way (if I bother to pray at all), I find myself mouthing the words of the Pharisee: "I thank you God that I am not like other men..."

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom suggests that there are levels of being in and out of the Kingdom, so every spiritual breakthrough leads to a new door.  I don't find that metaphor very helpful, that's why I didn't include it in the last post.  Perhaps I should have because it is probably helpful to many--which is why Metropolitan Anthony included it in his book.  Nevertheless, that metaphor doesn't work for me because I am lazy.  "If I'm already in a relatively safe place," I figure, "why get out of bed to pray?"  At some level, something akin to fear has to be at work to motivate me to pray earnestly, to pray fervently, to pray when I don't feel like it.  And for me, the metaphor of being outside, of turning my back on God, of grieving the Holy Spirit, these work.  It gets me out of bed in the morning to pray.

I do sometimes feel the Love of God.  Occasionally I have a sense of longing for God, a desire to pray.  But that's not very often.  I'm just a beginner, I'm still very sick with the disease of sin.  And so it seems I play a game with myself.  In my mind I know that God loves me and has included me in His beloved, but emotionally I am listless, apathetic, self indulgent.  But when I think that I could turn my back on God--and God will let me do it!  When I think that the Grace of God (as I perceive it) could be withdrawn from me, from the Holy Nativity Church community , from those I love and pray for, when I think this, something like fear rises in me, a fear that motivates me to pray, a fear that motivates me to get out of bed, a fear that motivates me to work to find my heart and to place my mind in my heart (to use the language of St. Theophan the Recluse) and to offer to God all that I find there.  In my heart is where I can hear the "gentle tapping" of Christ on the door.  

This is what I mean by approaching God in prayer as though I am standing outside the Kingdom.  Perhaps it is nothing but a mind game, a crutch for a beginner, a crutch that will be abandoned as I grow in my relationship with God.  Nevertheless, it is a crutch that I have found useful.  You may need a different crutch (if you need one at all) depending on the weaknesses you struggle with as you seek to pray. I just thought, perhaps, in sharing my strategy to motivate me in prayer, I might help someone else who is working out their own.

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