Friday, April 10, 2009

40. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

A stirring conclusion to this collection of meditations, from Allison in DC. Many thanks to all of you who have posted, commented, read and absorbed these words!

When I learned that this last Maxim had fallen to me, I had to smile at the appropriateness of the match. (Not an uncommon occurrence, as I’ve noticed from previous posts!) Having recently emerged from the most intense experience of my life – a complicated labor, c-section and the incredible gift of my baby girl – I was still keenly aware of what it feels like to need help, and to need it desperately. In a society that grasps clutchingly at youth, that veritably worships vigor, mobility, and – above all – independence, finding oneself suddenly and absolutely dependent on others can be like a slap of cold water in the face. It was for me.

That experience taught me many, many things, but the one most pertinent to this Maxim is that the Lord tenderly cares for His children, and He desires us to tenderly care for one another. When we ask for help, both from our gracious God and from those around us, we should do so without fear or shame. This begs two questions: Why do we fear? Why do we feel shame? In meditating on my own journey, I believe that fear is the result of lack of trust, trust being the basis of any loving relationship: “Perfect love drives out fear.” If I perfectly and completely trust the one whom I have called to my aid, I will not fear abandonment. At the same time, complete trust often doesn’t manifest until we have come to the “end of our rope”, so to speak. It is when we finally realize that, “No, I can’t do this on my own. In fact, I can’t do this at all.”

And shame – in this context – is the offspring of that many-headed monster, pride. Why should I feel shame when relying on someone to help me walk, bathe, get out of bed? Because my pride is shouting that I should be able to do this on my own. I shouldn’t need help. Help is for the weak.

But the consistent message of the Gospel is the audacious blessedness of the weak and lowly. Jesus points to a little child and tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. He is the Good Shepherd, and in the icon on my shelf, He has a fragile, snowy lamb draped over His shoulders, its spindly legs grasped gently in His nail-scarred hands. We are the lamb.

A lamb doesn’t fear, because he knows that his only hope is in the Shepherd. A lamb has no shameA lamb has no shame, because humility, not pride, reigns within.

At the same time, we are to imitate the Shepherd, and help carry our fellow believers. During the season of my recovery, I felt a special kinship with the elderly and infirm. For a few brief weeks, I tasted what for many is a daily reality. The Lord convicted me of my breezy indifference to others’ suffering, and I now strive to show much more compassion and deference to those whom our society has marginalized. May God help me.

May He help each of us, as we close our Lenten journey and enter into the joy of His Holy Pascha.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

39. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.

From Colleen in Baltimore:

The story goes that a monk was once asked, "What do you do all day at the monastery?" He replied, "We fall, and we get up. We fall, and we get up." His simple description of ascetic struggle gives great insight into monastic life, and really, to all of us who would follow Christ.

As I approach the end of the Great Fast, I must fight discouragement over my numerous falls. I was so sure I could maintain a certain level of spiritual discipline, but daily was reminded of how futile my efforts are without complete submission to Christ. Humbled and grateful for the healing that the Church offers us through the sacrament of Confession, I have to try very hard not to dwell on what I said in the presence of my priest, but rather what was forgiven. Everything.

My prayer book contains a prayer to the Theotokos that helps me to pray the words that I am constantly thinking: "No matter how often I repent, I appear a liar before God, and repent with trembling. Can God shake me and I do those same things again an hour later?...You know...that I abhor my evil deeds and love the Law of my God with all my mind. But, most pure Lady, I do not know how I can love what I abhor and turn away from what is good..." This, I think, is why the word "immediately" is part of this maxim; I should not allow myself to be crushed by the fall; I should instead, with God’s help, get up at once.

I must not succumb to the paralysis of despondency over my sin, for it will always be with me, as long as I am on this earth. Only one day remains of the spiritual retreat that is Lent: but there is still time to get up!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

37. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.

From Carla in Southern California:

When I learned that I'd been assigned this maxim, I shuddered. "Oh, no," I thought, "what terrible temptations are going to come to me during Lent?!"

As I pondered this, I realized that I am already being fiercely tempted every day of my life...

It's just that I don't see it most of the time. I walk through life thinking that I am a pretty nice person, a "good Christian" who tries very hard to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason. Something is wrong here. If I am not recognizing the temptations, I easily fall prey to them. Just the mere recognition of these temptations each day is helpful in overcoming them--not so that I can "do the right thing", but so I can draw near to God and humbly cry out to Him to help me.

The real problem is that I am making all of this effort pretty much "on my own" apart from the true humility of realizing that I cannot "be good" and "do the right thing" on my own, without the mercy and grace of God working in me. In fact, if I am not abiding in Him and if He is not abiding in me, I cannot bear any good fruit whatsoever. It's all sour fruit, or rotten fruit, not worth the effort to even harvest.

I am being tempted fiercely every be prideful, self-righteous, selfish, lazy, depressed, judging, unkind, greedy and idolatrous (yes, I desire things of this world and personal satisfaction more than God). As I pray the St Ephriam Prayer each day during Lent, I am identifying with all of the things he asks God to take away. I consider the fact that I can finally see this as progress, and it feels good to my soul. I always knew somewhere deep inside that all the outward veneer of "goodness" was not the truth, and it is satisfying to be able to finally see a glimpse of "the real me" so that I can avail myself of confession, forgiveness, and transformation by the love and mercy of Christ.

Another way in which I am continually being fiercely tempted every day is to fill my heart and mind (nous) with clutter and all manner of thoughts--ranging from great ideas, things to do, to worries over this and that and the other thing...and yes, unfortunately, judgments, proud thoughts, and covetous thoughts.

I'm thankful that this Maxim came to me. I have spent most of my life unaware that this has been such a lifetime habit. I let all manner of things crowd out the presence of God, thankfulness and worship. Even as I was praying this morning, I realized how quickly these thoughts come to me -- before I can even say one Jesus prayer the thoughts come barging in...even before I finish one small prayer the thoughts interrupt my concentration. What I realized this morning is that this temptation is incessant and continual, not just in my prayer time, but throughout the day and even in my sleep!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if instead of the cares of this world and prideful and judging thoughts, our hearts and minds were continually filled with thanksgiving, praise and the simple quiet presence of Christ? What if that kind of prayer "interrupted" my other thoughts, overtaking them? I 'm sure I will not be able to attain to this in my lifetime, but that is what I desire. I feel tempted now to say to myself, "Okay, Carla, you can do this. Just try real hard." But that would be just giving in to the temptation to trust in myself -- I already have figured out that that is a fruitless effort. So, I cast myself on my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, asking for His help and mercy. Pray for me.

Monday, April 6, 2009

36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.

From Colleen in Baltimore:

The first time I read through these 40 Maxims, I found myself smiling when I got to this one. Nearly all of the others contained very specific spiritual guidance, but this one at first seemed a little out of place. How could an activity, pursued primarily for one's own pleasure and fulfillment, be on equal footing with "practice silence, inner and outer" or "cultivate communion with the saints"? What was this doing on the list?

Monastics, I understand, are encouraged to have something to do with their hands even when they are in "recreation." Handwork serves as a way to focus both one's eyes and one's thoughts, deflecting those that are detrimental and helping to create an atmosphere conducive to prayer. A friend of mine who spent many years in a convent reminded me of a quote which she often heard there: "Idle hands are the devil's handiwork." But it seems that a wholesome hobby offers more than simply preventing bad behavior by occupying our minds.

I have a multitude of "theoretical" hobbies, things that I would be doing if I could find more time in my life. Music and gardening have found a permanent place in my heart, though, so I began to think about these two, and how they related to this maxim. I realize that they provide balance in my life, often pulling me out of the mire of despair and self-pity. Gardening gets me outside, rejuvenating me with physical labor and the stirrings of Creation. Vigen Guroian describes this in Inheriting Paradise, a touching collection of meditations on gardening; his thinking is that "gardening is nearer to godliness than theology." We battle weeds and diseases, we feed and nurture the growing plants, and we hope in the seeds that we plant, seeing parallels to our path to salvation in nearly every task. And music, both in its text and melody, offers me a voice when I cannot express myself, and something to practice and perfect, as there will always be room for improvement. These are also valuable insights into my spiritual growth.

But this past week I had a small revelation about what draws me to these two interests, and why they are significant spiritually. One of my piano students had just begun her lesson, playing Chopin's Raindrop Prelude, which we had been working on for months. But that day it was different. Her hands moved gracefully along the keys and the sound was exquisite...I quietly walked over and propped the grand piano's lid all the way open to hear every treble note. For the first time in more than twenty years of teaching I was moved to tears. And it occurred to me that the things that we love (music is both vocation and hobby for me...) allow us to see the God-given beauty in His creation. That day, hearing that piece was a direct gift from God, and I instinctively recognized it as such. So too are the shoots poking up under the leaves that I raked yesterday and the Lenten Rose that is blooming, right on time. Whatever our wholesome hobby may be, it is the one that restores balance to our lives, gives us a chance to create something, stirs in us an appreciation of the God-given beauty around us, and sometimes, causes us to weep with joy.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.

From Debbie in San Francisco:

This is also a canon of "How Not to Be Codependent," and I certainly do not follow this well at all. Thank you, Father, for making sure this particular maxim was assigned to me. Grrrr. I'm learning, a bit at a time, sometimes so slowly it seems.

As I struggle with this maxim, I learn why it is that I am so reluctant to let go of doing other people's work for them. Some of the ugly reasons that I find, as I unravel this are:

- I think I can do a better job than them
- I guess this means I don't really respect their individuality and free choice
- If they don't do it the way I would want it, it might end up as a problem for me.
- I get some sense of superiority by accomplishing it
- They have come to expect or rely on me doing something they can do themselves
- I don't want to disappoint them by refusing
- I don't want to experience their displeasure when I've refused
- I'm dreadfully afraid that if I don't exist to come to the rescue or to be needed by another I'll have no other solid reason to be. Who would I be?

What makes me think that I can take care of my own responsibilities as well as another's? I can barely keep myself going in the right direction. In fact, what has Lent illuminated so clearly about my inability?

Sometimes I think it's hard to draw the line between our own responsibility and another's free choice. But God can give us wisdom in this area.

As I've asked God to show me his truth in this area, I've noticed a few things:

- We all learn by practice. Parents know this. We would never want to deprive our child of the opportunity of falling down as they learn to walk. But why do we so quickly step in when they cry out for help at 11 PM on their school project that's due the next day? Why do we so quickly offer advice on how to choose roommates, friends, or an apartment, even when they haven't asked? All of us need the opportunity to hit obstacles. We can trust God to love that person as much as he loves us, and be there for them in their difficulty, as he has been for us. Do we really think we can do a better job than God?
- I must avail myself of His offer to cast my anxieties and fears upon Him. I can trust Him to love those that I feel inclined to take undue responsibility for.
- I can use the time and energy to listen to God and follow the path that He's putting in front of me. This is my responsibility to Him.

What are some of your thoughts?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Forty Maxims

  • 1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  • 2. Pray, fast and do acts of mercy.
  • 3. Read the Scriptures regularly.
  • 4. Read good books, a little at a time.
  • 5. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  • 6. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  • 7. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  • 8. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  • 9. Be honest, first of all with yourself.
  • 10. Be faithful in little things.
  • 11. Do your work, then forget it.
  • 12. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  • 13. Face reality.
  • 14. Be grateful.
  • 15. Be cheerful.
  • 16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  • 17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.
  • 18. Listen when people talk to you.
  • 19. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  • 20. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  • 21. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  • 22. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis.
  • 23. Flee carnal things at their first appearance.
  • 24. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  • 25. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  • 26. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  • 27. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  • 28. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  • 29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  • 30. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  • 31. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  • 32. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  • 33. Be strict with yourself.
  • 34. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  • 35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.
  • 36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  • 37. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  • 38. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  • 39. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  • 40. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.