Saturday, April 12, 2008

34. Be merciful with yourself and others.

From the lovely Melanie:

For me, this message is something that has been touched upon in other maxims. Creating a balance between two things. My mom, every since I can remember, has always told me about making sure I have a balance. Even though I am twenty-five years old, my mom is still giving me the same steady and true advice. "Just make sure you are balanced about it." Mom, I want to find a new job. . . Well, you can't spend every minute of every day working towards that; just make sure you have a balance of "fun time" and "trying to find a job time."

In yesterday's maxim, we read that we are to be strict with ourselves. We are to rely on a strict daily schedule. We are to accomplish all of our goals for the day and for each day thereafter. It is so hard for me to hear "Be strict with yourself," and then also hear, "Be merciful with yourself and others." Sometimes I feel that being merciful gives me an excuse to goof off, be lazy and procrastinate on the things that I want to do for my life, both spiritual and physical.

Now, I think I see what my mom was trying to really tell me. That it's not just keeping the balance for a while and then letting one thing rule your life. It is about being strict with your time (something I was never good at) so as to include all things that are necessary and important to you but all the while maintaining a balance in your life. If you are not able to accomplish that, then you should be merciful with yourself.

When Emily gave me this maxim, she knew, just as I knew, that this maxim really hits home for me. I think she and I were discussing my various frustrations: my dislike for my job and the difficulties of having a husband that is not Orthodox. I must be honest in saying that much of the time I feel like all the bad things that happen in my life are of my own doing, my own fault.

These two maxims do not cancel each other out. They work together to make each of us better examples of Christ's love. My being merciful with myself should not shadow the fact that I still need to be strict with myself. Just as my strictness should not overpower me so much that I fall out of faith or into the depths of despair to where I cannot see the mercy which Christ has bestowed upon us.

We are called to be merciful, but that mercy does not just end with ourselves. We are called to be merciful with others as well. How can we see when people need us to be merciful? Is it one set time or is it all the time? We are called to have mercy on all, just as we ask God to have mercy on us every time we attend church or pray to Him. Our job is to provide boundless mercy, because it is our endless outpouring of mercy that creates balance in this world that is cold, mean and cruel towards others.

Sisters, I ask that you pray for me as I try to not only be strict with myself, but to also be merciful with my mistakes and not to judge others but to be merciful towards all who are around me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

33. Be strict with yourself.

Dear Sisters,

This is my last post -- I have commenters lined up for the remaining week of the fast -- so I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for blessing me throughout this Lent with your thoughts, ideas and struggles.

This maxim is so difficult for me to live out. Our society constantly exhorts us to be easy on ourselves: have another cookie, go get your nails done, watch some TV and put your feet up. And I have to confess that often, I listen to that voice. My schedule is very flexible, and I'm a star procrastinator, so often I'll look back at the end of the day and think, "What did I *do* today?" Nothing! This is the result of being too easy on yourself: wasted time that you'll never get back.

The irony is that on days when I don't have time for messing around, like if we're preparing for dinner guests or I have a big project to work on for school, I end up feeling much more productive at the end of the day, and that productivity makes me happy -- even if I haven't "relaxed" at all. I can see why just about every monastic tradition relies on a strict daily schedule and constant labor -- even at something menial, like picking olives or scrubbing floors -- the work is good for your mind and your body, and it gives you a sense of your vocation and place in the world.

In Fr. Hopko's commentary on the Maxims, he includes another one about having a daily schedule of activities -- not leaving your schedule up to whim or caprice. As a piano teacher, I'm constantly exhorting my students to build practicing into their daily routine; once the schedule becomes expected, it will be easier and more rewarding to follow. It's the same with any activity: housework, exercise, or even prayer.

I'm sure tomorrow's poster will have something to say about this, but I can't help but notice that while that maxim mentions "others," this one emphatically doesn't. I guess it goes without saying that while we are called to hold ourselves to a strict standard, it's not fair to expect the same of others. We don't know what burdens they bear or what unseen standards they've already imposed on themselves.

Blessings for a fruitful conclusion to the Fast! Please pray for me.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

32. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.

Jocelyn's thoughts today:

As with many of the maxims, we encounter a call to strike a delicate balance.

To me, the easier part of this maxim is to give advice only when asked. Just keep your mouth shut until someone asks you a question, I suppose. (Of course, when you're absolutely itching to speak up, this can prove difficult!) Like the other maxims, it encourages us to choose our words carefully and precisely, to speak only as necessary.

But giving when necessary is tougher when looking at the second half of the maxim. We have a duty to give advice! Can you believe that? This means that it's something we can fail at if we don't give advice. (Not to make y'all paranoid or anything.) Your knowledge, experience, and wisdom can be invaluable to someone; we must be on the alert for loving ways that we can be giving to others.

I know that for me, it's easier to look at the things that I have said and see where I was wrong to give advice or failed miserably at it. Seeing missed opportunities is a little harder. What's difficult for me is creating an attentive mind, looking for those opportunities where I could give advice (or help of some sort). It's not always obvious or easy, and many times I'm so wrapped up in my own needs that I don't even see the greater needs of others.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

31. "Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully."

A word from Stephanie:

What a hard thing to do – accept criticism, yet it is such a necessary experience for our growth. Without feedback from others, we humans tend to develop distorted ways of seeing ourselves and the world, and those distortions eventually lead to unhealthy behaviors (sins, missing our mark). We are pack animals by nature, and we were created to function within our society, not as fully independent beings but as an interdependent system bound in love. As one form of communication among elements within the Body of Christ, critical feedback from others is a source of blood flow that keeps us functioning in a healthy manner.

Scientists call this concept of interdependent systems “Field Theory” or “Systems Theory,” and reading more about it has led me to see how awesome is the balance (homeostasis) God has set in place in our universe! When one criticizes in love, and the other accepts it gracefully, there is no unnecessary tension or strife – the Body functions as it should. Criticism serves its function to set things back in order to the benefit of all, like the forces each of the stars and planets exerts on the others. If one organ in a body is sick, all the others suffer, and health is maintained only to the extent that each is willing to offer its feedback to the rest, keeping the blood flow steady and rich.

Testing criticism carefully is an important step and requires discernment. Sometimes criticism is valid from one person’s perspective but not another’s, and only God knows which perspective is right, yet the process still provides important information about the state of two individuals. It could be that someone criticizes another more from one’s own distorted lens than from reality. If we live within Christ at all times, we can regain our true state of humility, and discerning the important message of the communication becomes clearer. Either way, when criticized, we may consider it a blessing, as it provides us information either about how we might productively change ourselves, understand the needs of our brother, or both. Either way, it provides communication, the blood flow among the organs of the Body, and if we are functioning in a healthy manner, we will thrive on it.

A nun once told me that when we receive criticism, we should say, “God bless it!” I’m far from achieving the humility I need to gracefully accept criticism, and I know my lens of discernment is darkened, but I trust that with God’s blessings, I might at least perceive some small bit of understanding that I might begin to undertake the task of true healing. Please pray for me, and forgive me for all the times I have offered criticism without love and taken criticism without humility.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

30. Be defined and bound by God, not people.

Good evening, sisters,

This is the second-to-last "empty" day, so I'll leave it to you to discuss this Maxim. I think it's so interesting the way they are connected -- this one reminds me of the one about comparing yourself to others, and the one about avoiding unnecessary attention. Once again, we are reminded to put our focus on God, not others, and certainly not on ourselves.

Monday, April 7, 2008

29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.

Greetings! No poster today, so you get to hear my thoughts . . .

The first part of this Maxim, "Don't defend," seems to evoke Christ's advice to "turn the other cheek." In a world where identity and individuality matter a great deal, it's difficult to heed that, especially in situations where you know you're right.

But . . . what is "right"? My teacher trainer once told us that if we had a disagreement with a student, we should always apologize, even if we knew we were right. If the student claimed we hadn't taught them something, even if we had, we should say, "I'm sorry, I must be mistaken." If they insisted they hadn't made a mistake, we should respond, "Oh, I'm sorry -- I didn't teach you the right way! It's my fault."

Some of us balked at this, spouting the usual defenses -- they wouldn't be held accountable for their own actions, they needed to learn responsibility -- but she just said, "Who cares? Your job is to teach them, and the best way to do that is to make them feel comfortable and good about themselves. Being right doesn't matter."

I have tried (tried, and failed, but I try still) to live this philosophy in all areas of my life. Pride is such an ugly, evil thing. In the end, if it's hurt or compromised in some way, truly, who cares? We will have saved another person from feeling hurt, embarrassed, or stupid. We will have done them good.

Regarding the second part, "justify yourself," I am again reminded of the Scriptures -- this time of the lawyer who questioned Christ. When Christ said that the second greatest commandment was to "love your neighbor as yourself," the man immediately responded, "And who is my neighbor?" The Scriptures say that the man said this "desiring to justify himself." He wanted to know exactly what he had to do, so that he could do that -- and not a bit more. In answer, of course, Christ gave him the parable of the Good Samaritan -- the ultimate example of sacrifice and love.

Sisters, what a perfect lesson this is for Lent. How much have we justified ourselves regarding small exceptions -- eating "allowed" foods but eating too much, or eating "prohibited" foods while making some excuse or another, or being public instead of secret about our fasting, as our Lord admonished us? Always, we seek to justify ourselves, instead of acknowledging our sinfulness and begging for Christ's mercy.

Pray for me, a sinner, as I pray for each of you.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

28. Don't try to convince anyone of anything.

Here is Susan with a wonderful meditation to close out our weekend:

When I first received this particular Maxim from Emily I thought, "Yes, this is a good one for me." When I am passionate about a topic, I definitely can become aggressive in conversation with those who disagree.

The second thing I thought of was a conversation I had with a Protestant co-worker who said that she had heard a story about Mother Teresa that made her respect her less. Now I have not verified this story, but as per my co-worker, Mother Teresa was caring for a Hindu woman. This woman wanted a husband and Mother Teresa introduced her to a Hindu Man whom she later married. My co-worker was concerned as to why Mother Teresa had not converted this woman to Christianity and why she hadn't introduced her to a Christian man. My response was that I felt it was better to try to convert someone by living a Christian life -- setting a good example, which in this case included treating this woman with respect for who she was. . .

In pondering this more, I realized that even the Orthodox organization IOCC helps people of all religious backgrounds who are experiencing difficulty around the world without overtly trying to convert them to Orthodox Christianity. From the IOCC website:

"Every day, IOCC helps people move from desperate circumstances to hope and economic self-sufficiency. In Russia, Romania, the Republic of Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, IOCC provides loans for small businesses, tractors and seeds for farmers, and empowering communities through capacity building with local organizations. In the Holy Land, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Ethiopia, IOCC provides job skills training and job creation, school building and repair, child nutrition programs, educational training, and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention." I know that IOCC is also active in the areas of the US struck by Hurricane Katrina.

About a week ago I was out with a friend (another co-worker.) She was talking about some discussions she had with people of other faiths. One of her comments was that sometimes the conversations would get heated, but in the end they realized they were really talking about the same or similar things, just using different words.

This struck me as another reason to keep strong opinions to myself. Sometimes I am so passionate about what I am saying that I do not really listen to what the other person is saying. Maybe they have been saying the same thing or similar things, but using different words. . . and regardless, I have not been respecting them for who they are and what they think.

As Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35) In this Jesus is asking us to love as Christ has loved us, laying down His life not only for His friends, but even for His enemies. Many times I believe I treat people who do not agree with me on an issue or concept as my enemy. I need to learn to love them, respect them, listen to them.

In examining this maxim I gained a growing awareness that I should be more concerned with the state of my soul than with potential faults in others.

I am interested in reading your comments on this maxim, since in reading many of your posts, I have been humbled by the depth of your postings and comments.

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.