Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | June 15, 2010

Met. Anthony: Balancing Asceticism and Grace

Orthodoxy seems quite clear that asceticism is part of the journey. For those of us converts, this “news” in its own way is good news ’cause it gives us something to do. Maybe that’s part of its function: If we can just get busy doing “stuff” we won’t have time to get into more serious trouble. And so we seem to step into another self-help program.

But is it really? I mean we’ve all tried 5-day diets, 10-day fitness programs, and 5-minute “lessons” promising that we’ll play Chopin on the piano like a pro. “No problem”. And it never fails to fail. Inevitably, we conclude there are no short cuts… only icons to lost applications… like the message that seems to appear from time-to-time on my computer’s desktop.

Fact is, Orthodoxy isn’t a DIY program but the complete antithesis: the cure for all simple-minded pretense that there is anything that really matters that we can really do ourselves without God, the pretense that we can require something of Him… that He might please us and prove worthy of our love, or that we might do more than repent and give thanks.

It’s like pushing on a sponge… maybe even a wet sponge. Means it’s real, it’s work, and we’re just not sure what it might be about at the start. Only we know there’s something… maybe even a bucket somewhere and a mop, and if we keep working, we just might sponge away all the dirt, or soak up all the black water.

And then… a clean heart would be a welcome. Some might suggest otherwise… that it’s just not all that necessary:

“Come as you are… and we’ll welcome you as we are. “
“Just put out the Welcome mat, wait for the door to ring and see who shows up.”

Yeah… I’m not sure I like the sound of either of those all that much. Might be like the way I hear it goes on “MATCH.COM” where it’s just about coffee… “cause anything else and you might want a bodyguard.” Groucho’s line that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member… yeah… I think that comes in handy in all its varieties.

So we have all this stuff to do… to put our house in order, if we want the invited to actually show up. And if that’s not to far from where we started, then maybe we’re stuck in some sort of endless loop.

Only we know that the journey through this loop ultimately catapults us out one end just as David’s slingshot did the stone that slew Goliath. And maybe we’re like that stone… where with each cycle the view changes, we change… and the acceleration towards an uncertain trajectory becomes more than just something in the mind’s eye. Surely what now seems all preparation, work and sweat is coming to an end faster than we know, but for now it’s true that though many gainsay the effort and uncertain destiny, there’ still something that sparks the adventurous. And we keep at it.

David’s single shot hitting home speaks of years of practice, and his careful timing shows the experience to know the right moment. So too, just as surely as every athlete in a contest of this sort knows prayer, surely David knew the virtues of practice, experience and timing here as well. We could do worse.

So I am thankful that Metropolitan Anthony speaks to this as surely as many others. He also speaks to our objective, and not getting lost in some DIY short-cut to the spiritual life as if we should expect wonders for the little we put into it. Far from it, for it may be that the greater wonder isn’t whether we have “visions” or “visitations”,  but that for all that we have been and known, we have in fact come to a new place in our lives where the invisible world exerts a pull on our hearts as important to us as any other… as if experiencing the presence of this realm might become for us some small vision of the Kingdom.

“These are the main elements of the spiritual discipline. It is a road, a way in which we open ourselves to Christ, to the grace of God. This is all discipline, all we can do. It is God who in response to this ascetical endeavor will give us His grace and fulfill us. We have a tendency to think that what we are to aim at is a high, deep, mystical life. This is not what we should aim at. A mystical life is a gift from God; in itself it is not an achievement of ours and even less is it an expression of our devotion to God. What we must aim at in response to the love of God declared, manifest in Christ, is to become true disciples by bringing ourselves as a sacrifice to God; on our part it is the ascetical endeavor which the summit of our loyalty, allegiance and love. We must offer this to God and He will fulfill all things as He has promised. ‘My child, give me thy heart; I shall fulfill all things.’ “

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