Thursday, May 24, 2012

Work Not Leading To Joy: Not Good

Some brothers asked Abba Macarius the Great, "Are feelings of pity more important than works?"
     He said to them, "Yes."

In the first part of his explanation of this "yes," Abba Macarius likens works to customers to whom God, the Merchant, gives good deals.  The Merchant even adds, out of His compassion, His own works to our works so that our works, likened to customers getting a good deal, may "leave with joy and rejoicing and gladness."

Then Abba Macarius said to the brothers "with joy: A small quantity of oil gladdens a person's face in the presence of [a] king of this world; in the same way, may a little virtue gladden the soul in the presence of the King of those who dwell in heaven and those who dwell on earth, our Lord Jesus Christ, who possesses numerous treasuries of mercy, for it is written, 'From the days of John the Baptist up to now, the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force and some who are violent seize it' [Mt. 11:12].  So then, let us too use a little force in exchange for the Kingdom of Heaven; we will seize for ourselves Him who is King forever, our Lord Jesus Christ."

There are times, seasons even, in the Christian life when the warfare, the intense struggle to do right, seems to overwhelm us with its difficulty. However, this should not be our on-going, regular, daily experience. I would like to suggest that if it is, then we may be struggling to attain an imagined ideal, we may be struggling to please, not our Lord Jesus Christ, but some imagined task master. I say this because this has been my experience. I have gone without joy for long periods of struggle, imagining that the drudgery of my striving was somehow pleasing God--only to realize that a joyless offering is not really an offering at all, at least not one that pleases God. I say this also because it is the testimony of the saints like Abba Macarius.

Unfortunately, many contemporary lives of saints are not very helpful in this regard. The saints are helpful, but the biographers, sometimes, are not. I mentioned to someone yesterday that I noticed this in a certain biography I am reading (not the biography of Abba Macarius). I noticed that when what the saint did or said is described, one is aware of an overwhelming joy; but when the biographer comments on it, the biographer stresses the fierceness of the struggle or the extremity of the asceticism. My friend commented back that he had noticed that same tendency in another biography he was reading. It is as if the biographer's agenda is to push the saint into some preconceived mold of sanctity. It's as if, in the mind of the biographer, too much joy, too much gentleness, too much simple reveling in the mercy of God cannot be let go without adding how many prostrations the saint "must have" done or how severe he was in his fasting. 

I do know some monks who fast severely and keep a pretty strict prayer rule, but they are also the most joyful, compassionate and peaceful people I know. Furthermore, when I read the words of the saints themselves, I read the words of a person who is overwhelmed with the mercy and love of God. I read the words of a person full of joy and compassion. Like St. Macarius quoted above, I read that feelings of pity are more important than works. I read that God adds His works to my works. I read that by using "a little" force we can seize for ourselves our Lord Jesus Christ.

My brothers and sisters, God is ready to add His works to our works. Let's just push a little; let's offer to God some small prayer or act of kindness; and let's experience the joy of customers who have gotten a really good deal, of servants who have a very kind and generous master, and of children who know they are loved.


Ostensive Lyme said...

"The saints are helpful, but the biographers, sometimes, are not."


As I have matured a bit in my reading of the Saints, it has dawned on me that while the Saints are holy, those who are attracted to them and reporting on them, are not (necessarily).
How they see them and what they see in them, has to do with the kinds of obstructions in their eyes as much as the light shining in the saints themselves.
This is *also* true with regard to my own vision of the saints, my own interpretation of them.
I have come to hold my interpretations lightly. I am willing to take what warms, pricks, or brings peace to my heart, but anything I'm unsure about I leave it be (without trying to understand, interpret, *or* discredit).

I have been remembering Fr Gregory's advice to me to "detach from all images of holiness", and just work on the tiny bit of exercise God has clearly set before me.

-Mark Basil

Fr. Michael said...

I have found Fr. Gregory's advice always to be both freeing and useful.

Daniel Peterson said...

What exactly does it mean to 'detach from all images of holiness'?

Ostensive Lyme said...

Hi Daniel;
for me, Fr Gregory recognized that I had a preconceived idea of what a holy person "must be like"- a level of severe ascesis, constant vigilance, etc.
The trouble is that I was sort of... comparing myself to the saints, and it caused imbalance in my life (misguided ups and unhealthy downs).
Instead now I take from the saints what they seem to give me as clearly good- and as for my own life which is very pitiful in contrast to their great feats, I only say "Lord have mercy- How much I want you Christ! But Your will be done, and I trust You."
I will try my best- but wont worry about what that "looks like" in comparison to those I know are great in faith.
God is at work in me; I am pitiful and yet God is at work in me.

-Mark Basil