Do you ever have one of those days in which you have so much work to do that you simply sit down and do nothing? Like, because you’re so overwhelmed, instead of chipping away at the work, you just deny that all of it exists?
Welcome to college.
In the worst solution ever contrived by young men and women–and that’s really saying something–we remove the burden of work from shoulders by denying its immediacy. We delay it, pretending as if we have all the time of the world. We crash, watch Netflix, eat a cookie (okay, several cookies), and feel better.
I think we can do the same things with our spiritual life–with our life in general, really.
And it’s understandable, easier to understand I think–because the time period is longer. The comeuppance of our spiritual life comes when we die, and when we arrive at the final judgment. Remembering the stakes of that eventual judgment is what gives us perspective on our daily lives; understanding that what we do today affects where we end up for eternity.
Isn’t that terrifying? Like, isn’t that draw-droppingly scary? I enter shutdown mode when I just have a lot of papers and assignments to do; when faced with the Final Judgment there’s no wonder, I think, that I want to curl up in a little ball and hide in the comfort of willing ignorance.
When we forget about that ultimate moment–the moment in which our actions are measured against our purpose; what we did against what we were made to do–we are seemingly freed from the responsibility to align with our purpose. We feel, perhaps a little synthetically, the freedom that we didn’t experience when fulfilling our purpose. Without a sense of finiteness, consequence, actions, decisions–these all exist in a vacuum. They do not matter, because we can inevitably rectify them on the ever-arriving tomorrow.
Lent, I think, helps remind us of our temporality. The Lenten process is a big countdown–among other things, of course–to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. By carving out this chunk of the year to remember the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, we’re not only reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and what that means for our salvation, but we also encounter an experience of a man–Jesus Christ–understanding his daily actions, choices, and moments all within the context of his death.
We always talk about Lent as a period of preparation, and a key aspect of that period is that we know when it ends: we have work to do; and we know when the work is due and the period ends. We can shirk it like we might our schoolwork at times, but there is an ultimate end, and that finiteness is what motivates us to be the way that we should, and not crumble to our vices in the moment.
It’s important to experience, every day, our end. To know that we do not have unlimited time and unlimited tries. That’s what instills our life with meaning, drives us beyond temptations. Experiencing temporality can be hard and scary, certainly–but it’s important that we do it, else we eternally attempt to avoid who we were meant to become.
As an Orthodox Christian I have learned many difficult lessons in my life, the first and foremost being that, in the words of John Green, “The Universe” or God “is not a wish granting factory”. I have struggled my entire life with severe mental illnesses namely: depression, anxiety, and anorexia nervosa. I have spent my fair share of nights praying with honest tears streaming down my cheeks to be healed but have never woken up to be so. I have had uncomfortable occasions where various Christians have insisted upon laying hands on me and trying to heal me with the power of Christ. As you may have guessed, this is not a story about how I prayed and God took away my mental illness. This is a story of how I am living, as a person of faith, with mental illness.
Last spring, I was in a rough spot. I became antisocial and depressed, I never wanted to get out of my bed, and the eating disorder I had developed in high school reared its ugly head. During this period I decided to start saying the Paraklesis every night before bed. I was inspired by the miracle-working icon I had seen at College Conference that year and I wanted more than anything to have this burden of depression taken away. I planned on doing the prayer service for forty days straight, and I expected to watch my life slowly improve until everything became “normal”. Instead, I watched everything fall apart. Plans fell through, fellow classmates in college died, and I was drowning in an ocean of sadness that I no longer wanted to swim in. It was dark, and by God’s grace I am still here.
If you had asked me then why I was bothering to pray the Paraklesis when clearly the Theotokos wasn’t helping me out, I couldn’t have given you an answer. Now, after months of looking back at this period with anger in my heart towards God and the Theotokos I realized how much the Paraklesis saved me. Every night I prayed. Despite what had happened during the day and despite how much I wanted to disappear, I still prayed. I wanted the Theotokos to save me from the things going wrong in my life, ignoring that she was already saving me from myself. I didn’t see that the church was helping me, and in the following months I distanced myself from God and stopped praying all together. Unsurprisingly, these past few months of my life have been marked by some of the worst depressive episodes I have ever had. Things were dark, but what made this period far worse than last spring was my separation from the church and community.
I can’t tell you I’m a perfect person now, nor can I tell you that my struggles with mental illness have turned me into a pious individual. But I can tell you that my darkest days were spent away from the church. The easiest way to hurt yourself is to separate yourself from God. If you are not running towards God, then you are running towards death. Please, run with me into the light. Do not let the Devil convince you that solitude will bring you anything but misery. Let us learn to praise God in the darkness as we wait for the sunrise.
From the morning watch until night, from the morning watch, let Israel hope in the Lord
In the latest episode of the OCF podcast, Media Student Leader Matthew Monos continues his conversation with Fr. Brendan Pelphrey about sharing Orthodoxy with others. In this episode, they talk about how to respond to the question, “Are you saved?”.
If marriage is a journey to salvation, what happens to people who stay single and don’t become monks/nuns? What is their journey to salvation?
Many people like to point out that the Church has blessed two “ways of life”: marriage and monasticism. These are the two ways, if you will, that have a definitive beginning through a sacramental initiation and for which the Church prepares us.
But are they the journey of salvation? When we look at the grand story of salvation and the message of the Gospel, is the answer to, “What must I do to be saved?” “Go, get married or join a monastery,” or is it, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. If you love Me, you will keep my commandments. Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself”?
I think the answer is pretty clear. The way of salvation is the way of the Cross, the journey of self-offering out of love for God and neighbor, of repentance when we fail, and of trust and faith in the grace of the Father which is given to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me. John 14:6
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:24
If anything, then, I think the claim that there are two “blessed” ways in the Church must mean that these are the two ways that are laid before us as obvious crosses which can lead to the crucifixion of our passions and selfish desires. We enter into them sacramentally as the Church recognizes the blessing of the struggle that is to come. But in of themselves, they are not salvific.
And just as fasting or prayer or almsgiving can be outward acts that do not penetrate our hearts and actually help us in the struggle against the flesh (and often become a foundation for pride and judgment of others who do not do as we do), simply being married or tonsured is no guarantee for holiness.
We can have faithless, selfish marriages where we seek only to have our desires met that are no more a blessing to us than adultery and harlotry. We can be prideful, arrogant monastics that look down upon lay people as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God and no more gain salvation than if we were the Pharisee exalting himself on the steps of the temple.
And it can’t possibly be the case that there is no spiritual life outside of marriage and monasticism–that would negate the entire Eucharistic life of a Christian from baptism until deciding to be married or join a monastery. Would we say that every communion, every confession, every prayer, every act of kindness or devotion to God was meaningless in the life of a child simply because they were not married or tonsured? Of course not.
So why do we say it once someone hits the age of 25? Perhaps there is a sense in which as one is no longer under a rule of obedience to one’s parents and has more autonomy, the temptation to live a selfish and passionate life can increase. When the demands of siblings and family obligations diminish, certainly there is more opportunity for the demons to turn our lives inward and less obvious opportunities for acts of self-sacrificial love. But it is important to remember that every season of life has its particular temptations–that doesn’t make the single life devoid of spiritual value; it simply offers the single person an opportunity to recognize his particular temptations and repent when he falls prey to them.
I think talking about single life and also the decision to marry or join a monastery deserve their own posts, so I’ll save the practical advice for later, but for now, let’s set the record straight: the only “way of life” the Church blesses is a life in which we unite ourselves to Christ with self-sacrificial love. There is no other way.