St. Theophan the Recluse is today one of the most popular spiritual writers of 19th century Russia. In many ways his great gift is that he was able to summarize the whole Orthodox teaching on inner growth and spiritual life and apply it to the very specific context of 19th century Russia, especially 19th century Russian monasticism. Like his near contemporary, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, St. Theophan recognized that the monastic institutions of his time were broken in many ways but were nonetheless
“springs of sweetness…by which the soul is filled!—the Word of God, and daily church services, and the reading, and the fasting, and the guidance of the elders, and God’s enlightenments, both secret and open warnings, the ceaseless state of prayer from which come all goodness and [spiritual] gain.”
And while all of this is what is wonderful, or potentially wonderful, about a monastic life, about a life intensely focused on the inner life with God, while it is this that draws us to the monastery or to a disciplined ascetic life in the world, the reality of our lived experience, whether in the monastery or as a pious Orthodox Christian in the world, the reality of our experience is that much of the time, most of the time, the “springs of sweetness,” as St. Theophan calls them, seem to be hard to find and separated by long dry stretches.
The book, Kindling the Divine Spark: Teaching on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal, is a collection of talks, letters mostly, given by St. Theophan to women monastics. In one of his talks, in the talk that I quote above, St. Theophan speaks of the glories of life in a monastery and then he makes a the following statement:
“Of course, many inconsistencies occur here, too…”
Ah, there’s the rub. There’s the bit that throws us off, “many inconsistencies occur here, too.” And the saint says, “of course,” as though we should have never expected things to be consistent. But we do. We do expect things to be consistent and we are offended when they are not.
Part of the spiritual journey of our life with God is the work of uniting the mind and the heart. This is a dominant theme in St. Theophan’s various writings. This is an aspect or teaching of the spiritual life that I have found is relatively popular. People like to talk about bringing their mind into their heart. It’s an inner spiritual practice that takes a certain amount of attention and discipline, but with a little practice it often quickly brings peace, and (more to the point I want to talk about today) it is something I can do by myself, in my own private, little inner world. However, another aspect of the spiritual life, an aspect we touched on a little while ago when we spoke of Abbess Thasia’s struggles at the beginning of her monastic journey, another essential aspect of spiritual life is inner crucifixion, or as St. Isaac put it, the unseen martyrdom.
We each of us want to have a certain amount of control over our life and circumstances. We want to understand what is happening to us. We want to see how what we are experiencing right now fits into what we call God’s plan for our lives, but what often turns out to be our own version or vision of what we think or want God’s plan for our lives to be. And we know this is so, we know that it really isn’t God’s plan for our life that we are concerned about by the very fact that we are so disturbed by the inconsistencies—or as St. Theophan puts it, “Of course, [the] many inconsistencies.”
We all in various ways and at various seasons of our life fall prey to the temptation to think that we know how our life is supposed to go, how important people in our life are going to behave, how we are going to, or how we are supposed to, feel when certain things happen or don’t happen in our life. We think we know, and then we are so surprised, often scandalized, sometimes even offended to the point of turning away from God in some small or large ways, when our life is inconsistent, when spiritual leaders, church leaders, holy elders of the monastery, when men and women we trusted in and hoped in, when the people and institutions we trusted in are inconsistent. But inconsistency, many inconsistencies, St. Theophan tells us, are “of course” an essential part of our spiritual journey.
Why is that? Why must people disappoint us? Why must institutions (churches, monasteries, hierarchies of various sorts and orders) why must they “of course” be inconsistent? Why is this an essential part of our growth in Christ? Well, the first and most important answer to this question is that I do not know. I do not know why it has to be this way, but I do know that it is this way. I don’t know why people fail. I don’t know why I fail. I don’t know why sometimes I can say a word that sets someone free, and two days later say a word that offends and deeply wounds someone I love and want to help. I don’t know why I can do the right thing in one situation (and be praised unworthily for it, for I really didn’t know what I was doing); and in another situation do the wrong thing and be despised or even reviled for it (though I really didn’t realize I was doing the wrong thing at the time). I don’t know why I am so inconsistent—except for the fact that I am a sinner and that I am, at a deep level, very seriously broken.
And if I am deeply broken and that is why I am so inconsistent, perhaps that is also the reason why the men and women and the institutions that I look up to and depend on often seem to hurt and disappoint me. Maybe it’s because we are all human and for some unexplainable reason God has chosen to put His Glory in such jars of clay. Always in jars of clay, earthen vessels. There is no Glory of God in this world not hidden in a jar of clay.
In my experience I have found the question, “why do bad things happen,” in all of its various forms, is not a very helpful question. It is not helpful because it keeps our focus outside us, as though the bad things that happen are “out there,” as though the thing God really cared about was outside me, what happens to me, rather than God caring mostly—and I might even say entirely—about what my response is, what my response to what happens outside me is. That’s what God cares about—at least as far as I am concerned. Yes, God’s providential care is over all that He has created, but in as much as God’s calling for me (and for every Christian believer) is to be formed into His image, I can confidently assert that how I respond to what happens around me, how I turn to God for help in times of need, how I repent when I see my own sin (not the sins of others—that’s their business), these are the only things God cares about as far as I’m concerned.
And once we shift our focus inward, then everything changes. Once I see the darkness inside myself, then instead of asking why bad things happen to me, I begin to wonder why it is that anything good happens to me. Because I am so inconsistent, it is amazing to me that anyone shows any consistency at all. Because I am so easily confused, so self-obsessed and so tormented by passions, it is a bonafide miracle that I experience any Grace, any comfort, any love from those around me at all. If those around me are experiencing only one quarter of the inner conflict with depression, lust, selfishness, confusion and self-exulting pride that I do, it is truly a miracle of the Grace of God that I experience any good, any blessing, any encouragement of Grace through the people and institutions God has placed in my life.
In fact, we might even say that one of the reasons why there must, “of course [be] many inconsistencies” is because it is the very inconsistency of the world around us that forces us to go deeper into ourselves. When everything is going pretty much according to plan, when everyone is behaving pretty much as I expected, then it is very easy to stay stranded in a very shallow spiritual experience, a very shallow knowledge of God and of myself. So long as our spiritual life can be managed with nothing more than the rational aspect of our minds—as though progress in the spiritual life were somewhat like progress in mathematics or progress in the management of a construction project—so long as the spiritual life is mostly about just figuring things out, so long as this is the case, we will never grow to know God or ourselves very well. As many of the Church Fathers have pointed out, and as St. Theophan himself summarizes for us very neatly in the Book The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned To It, our true knowledge of God and of ourselves takes place at a deeper level of knowing than that which can be processed rationally.
If it weren’t for the inconsistencies of our experience, we might never learn to lay aside (or put in its place) the rational aspect of our mind to go deeper and come to know God and ourselves at that deeper level, the level that the Fathers of the Philokalia call noetic (which is sometimes misleadingly translated as “intellect”). This movement to a deeper knowledge of God seldom comes to us without our first coming to the end of our rational systems and expectations. It seems that it is only through disappointments, often experiences that seem death-like to us, experiences that seem like inner crucifixions, like a martyrdom that no one sees, it is experiences like these that create in us a crisis, a crises that forces us to become aware of something deeper in ourselves, a knowledge of God that transcends even death, even the death of disappointment, betrayal and failure. The outer pain we discover functions as birth pangs within us giving birth to a deeper, more secure, more profound relationship with God.
However, all births in this fallen world are dangerous. Death is real, but so too is the Life that can come from death. Isn’t that what the Resurrection teaches us? Three days in the tomb can seem like an eternity to the one in the tomb, to the one in the belly of a Great Fish. But like Jonah, we cry out to God from the belly of the Great Fish, like Peter we cry out as we sink, “Help, Lord!” And in our distress we let go of our rational expectations, all that we had figured we could depend on, all of that is let go and in a kind of terror, all that is left is only God and me, only His help and my death.
And God does help, in various ways at various times, almost always unpredictably. God lets us suffer, lets us stew, lets us wallow in the mire for a while, and when the time is right, when we are ready, when we have come to our senses, when we have come to the end of ourselves, then God makes a way of escape, opens a door or provides us with another opportunity. This is the way of salvation, the narrow way, the way that few find, for it is the way of crucifixion, it is the way of transformation from the old to the new, from earth to heaven. This way of inconsistency is also a necessary part of our salvation.