Tuesday, November 3, 2009

When is an activity appropriate for a spiritual life?


Saint Theophan the Recluse addressed this question in a series of letters sent to him by a young woman who wanted to live a spiritual life but felt bothered by the rush and distraction of he life. She saw the world as a place where “everyone rushes around in a huff, in pursuit of something which no one ever manages to catch.” She related, “I could not see anything that could be from the soul. There are empty caresses, a readiness to do things for each other, and also mutual admiration. Everything is superficial... Beneath the outward appearance is concealed an entirely different spirit…. what comedy. ...They bind, constrain and tyrannize each other; no one has his own will or any freedom.”

Saint Theophan affirmed her observations about the nature of this life and answered by quoting Saint Macarius the Great.
“The children of this age have become like wheat poured into the sieve of this earth, and then scattered among the inconstant dreams of this world, in the presence of unending turmoil of earthly cares, desires and maze of material concepts. Satan shakes the souls, and with a sieve, that is, the earthly cares, scatters the entire sinful human race. 
Saint Macarius uses an agricultural image of a sieve where the grain is tossed about to show us how our earthly cares, dreams and desires do the same to us, toss us randomly about. We are being thrown about by our physical desires and our scattered thoughts, just like the grains of wheat are tossed about in a sieve. We find ourselves in constant movement, always involved in uncertain turmoil. All this busyness we experience is an unending quest to satisfy earthly desires that can never be fully satisfied. Underlying all this is our pride. Saint Theophan says,
“no matter how one conceals his desires, behind them stands egoism, which desires to twist you to its needs, or to use you as its means. The goal is one of deception… everyone shuts himself up in his own shell and unable to produce any warmth.” 
Such is the nature of life on earth. It is constantly challenging us, drawing us into the next drama of life. We often feel like a lonesome seed, without true friends or relationships to comfort us. Occasionally we find earthly comfort but soon it turns into a disappointment. If its not our relationships we find it in our physical well being through sickness or an accident. What is this all about, we exclaim! What are we to do?

Saint Theophan says,
“for you to shun everyone is, of course, impossible; but refuse as much as possible to enter into this circle of worldly life. When it does pull you against your will, act as if you were not there; look but do not see; listen but do not hear…. Outwardly behave like everyone else, be straightforward and sincere; but guard your heart form sympathies and attractions.”

We can evaluate our activities by recognizing that we are made up of several aspects and that all of these must be in motion at the same time. We have all the bodily needs that need to be fulfilled; also there are the actions of the soul with its intellect continuously analyzing, our will freely choosing, and heart seeking harmony; and we have the spirit with its desire for what is good and beautiful.

All these must be in motion together to live as intended, Saint Theophan says,
“Only when all of our powers are in motion and all of our needs are satisfied does a man live. But when only one small portion of his powers is in motion, and only a small number of his needs are satisfied, this life is not life. Everything works together as a unit.”
All aspects of your being must be considered in worldly activities. Examine your activities and evaluate how body, soul and spirit are engaged. Does the activity assure that your physical needs are being appropriately considered, not in excess, but only to a degree necessary for its well being. Is your intellect focused, clear, controlling your thoughts so they are reasoned and seeking the highest level of understanding. Is your will engaged in providing self-constraint on excessive desires, and your heart sensing calm and harmony. Finally, is your spirit involved, monitoring all you do so that in the activity you are uplifted to what is good in the eyes of God. If any aspect of your being is out of balance, then you can say this activity is not good for you spiritually.

Quotes from The Spiritual Life, Letter 4, pp 39-42, Saint Theophan the Recluse

1 comment:

  1. Deacon Charles, the final paragraph is a wonderful summary and such helpful guidance, but I am thinking that it particularly applies to the activities we choose. I'm wondering if you might also share something from the Fathers' teachings sometime about the correct response to activities we don't choose of our own accord but are a necessary part of our state of life or vocation (i.e., not activities that are bad, but in which this harmony of body, soul and spirit doesn't exist for us). If you can, or if you have already done so elsewhere on your site, could you leave a quick comment at my site to let me know. Thank you very much.

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