Friday, April 18, 2008

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

The last post, from my mother Colleen. She said she was "a little sad" to see it end, and I agree! I wish you all a blessed Holy Week and a most joyous Pascha.

My spiritual father once described the Church as a hospital where we come for the healing of our souls, and I have also discovered a similar theme as I’ve read words from the Church fathers and mothers. At any given time, any one of the members of Christ’s body may find himself in the role of either doctor or patient in this hospital, and therefore could be either a giver of help, or a recipient. So what’s the big deal with simply asking for help when you need it?

Giving help seems to be much easier for me than receiving it. It may be the Mom in me, who is used to making everything better. (That reason is more or less acceptable in my self-evaluation.) But a more likely motive is the one that has been weaving in and out of the previous forty maxims, preventing them from becoming established in my life, and glaring at me as I learn more about myself through my Lenten journey. When I decide not to seek help because it might alter my reputation as a competent individual, I know that pride is still actively at work in my decision-making process.

God has given us the Church because He knows our needs, and in ministering to one another we become vessels of His grace and mercy. During these forty days I have been humbled to find myself in need of the help and wisdom of others, and have been the recipient of the healing power of their prayers. And this very discussion of Forty Maxims has blessed me through your observations and words: I have felt convicted of sin, comforted in my pain, and blessed by the joy of your faith. You all have given me more help during this season of Great Lent than you will ever know.

God has given us the gift of fellow believers to advise, encourage, inspire, challenge, and bear witness to the Truth. May we in humility seek the help of our spiritual family as an extension of seeking help from our Lord Himself.

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

38. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.

Carla Harris from California has a few thoughts for us today:

It is amazing how fitting this maxim is for me. I have begun the process of launching a new business and have often come face-to-face with how far I fall short of the qualities, abilities, talents, knowledge, and wisdom I need to be a good businesswoman. I begin to wonder if I have made a huge mistake and should just give up.

In my Lenten readings, there has been one particular thing that struck me very deeply and which I have gone back to and thought about much. It is Fr. Schmemann’s discussion in his book Great Lent about the prayer of St. Ephrem that we encounter often in this season.

The part that struck me so sharply was what he said about sloth: It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down” rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.

If we become overly discouraged about ourselves, our faults and our sins, we can move into the place where we see everything in a negative light, where we give up on being transformed by the love and mercy and power of God. When I read this, it startled me and made me shudder. The thoughts of discouragement with myself that I conveniently put in the category of humility, were actually prideful and sinful and very dangerous to my soul. Wow. What a wake-up call.

There is also “other side of the coin” of this reaction which is to defend ourselves, getting angry with whomever might have pointed out our sins to us. (“How could they? Who do they think they are!?”) Again, a response of pride.

Recalling an earlier maxim, it is a temptation to believe that we must be extraordinary. Then when we realize we’re not, we react, either in discouragement or in indignance. If we embrace the maxim “Be an ordinary person, one of the human race,” we can begin to see ourselves as we truly are. And then, serenely enduring our faults and humbly confessing them to God, we receive His forgiveness and can live in the midst of His love and mercy that will transform our lives.

May God help us in this effort.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

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

Happy Tax Day! I just love that today lined up with this maxim about death. Our God does indeed have a sense of humor.

Here is Debra:

Wow. This makes me think of the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. We are constantly climbing the ladder toward Christ, but the devils are constantly trying to pull us off.

Our purpose in life is spiritual salvation -- to live with God forever. On this journey, we will suffer and be tempted. We are not to 'expect' anything except that we will be tempted in this life. But we know that God and Christ are there with us through all these temptations.

Below are various thoughts I gleaned from the talks of Father Michael Duhulich this past weekend at the Antiochian Women of the East Lenten retreat that I think pertain to this maxim.

God is not the author of evil. God is the cause of everything cood. Evil is the withdrawal of good. God wishes all good things, but He permits free choice.

Every step you take either takes you closer to God or further away from Him.

Depend on God. "My strength is made perfect in your weakness." Suffering brings opportunities to have courage. Courage is hope in God's victory. Courage is found in the cross of Christ. I can't do it myself; I need Christ to help me. The Lord is my helper. I will not fail. We do not suffer alone. God is with us. In His love he suffers with us. We are not alone.

In the world there is suffering. But God has overcome the world. God has the power to turn what He permits into what He wishes.

God can use suffering to humble us or to help us grow closer to Him. When we suffer we can either despair or go to God. God will guide us with His Grace. God still loves us even when we fail. His is a steadfast love.

Every day is a gift. Life is a gift. Our goal in life is to live forever with God. It's okay to ask WHY; just find an answer. Scriptures give answers. Saints give answers.

We are to love and to pray.

In summary for today's maxim:

We should not be surprised at the temptations that bombard us daily. We should expect them. But that does not mean we should give in to them. That does not mean we should let go of the ladder. God is with us and He can help us 'hang on' and not fall off. God is with us even if we do fall off. He will catch us and put us back on the ladder. I believe that the stronger our faith becomes, the harder the devil tries to pull us down with temptations. But God is stronger. He HAS overcome the world. He HAS conquered death.

May you have a blessed end to this Great Lent.

Pray for me.

Monday, April 14, 2008

36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.

A blessed Lent to all from Aster:

When I saw first the Maxim Emily gave me, I didn’t know what to write. We Africans really don’t know what hobbies are. But when we were growing up, girls had to learn what women should know, and boys had to learn what men should know. As a child, I loved landscape: trees, flowers and most of all watching the clouds. After school, we used to go and watch a nearby waterfall, where we saw little animals and plants that lived in the surrounding area.

I remember asking my neighbors for roots from their flower gardens; I used to plant them on my front porch and gave them a lot of care. Usually my flowers looked better than theirs, and they use to come and say, “What did you put in your flowers? They look more beautiful than ours!” So flowers became my “thing.” (This doesn’t mean I knew anything about them!)

Then I got older and left home, traveling to Europe and North America. There I saw beautiful manmade gardens. I started again with single potted plant, given to me by a friend; I started to take care of it, and then I couldn’t stop.

I think everyone has a hobby; it is an extra gift given by God. If you can dedicate time to a certain thing, and become good at it, and share it, it becomes a hobby.

Hobbies always bring us closer to someone and involve someone else. How? A friend of mine was told that she had cancer. I went to see her, and I gave her a tropical plant to take care of. A couple of years later, she wrote: “That flower gave me hope every day; I was eager to wake up and see if it would give one more flower today, and another one tomorrow.” Glory to God, she is still alive!

A hobby is anything that involves spending time with someone without planning or thinking; we do it because it is what we love to do, whether it is gardening, playing a sport or going to art shows. By sharing it with someone else, it also becomes an act of kindness, and it becomes part of our life.

The “Prayer Before Beginning a Task” (from our red prayer book) says “. . . so that it may be profitable to myself and others.” This reminds us that whatever we do affects someone else, too. For me, it something to do with gardening; when I am in the garden, any garden, I am with God. Even in the morning, looking at the trees, looking at people’s gardens as I do every morning on the way to work, it brightens up my day, and I praise God for all the beautiful things I see.

God is an amazing artist; He designed the first garden, and He put His first children, Adam and Eve, in it. (Genesis 2:7-8) I don’t know why, but we always visualize Heaven as a beautiful garden. When I work in the earth, I admire all of the beautiful, colorful things that come out of it, and I praise God: “This God, the God of my fathers, is so big, and I am so small. The God who created all of us and gave us everything, how wonderful, how wise, how patient, how amazing He is! I have no words in my sinful tongue to describe how kind He is to us.”

When we work in the garden, we learn humility, hope and patience. Humility – because there are such small beautiful creatures living on the earth, and that makes us understand that we too are very small in God’s eyes. Patience – because whatever we are working on in the garden, we are waiting for a harvest or result. Hope – because whatever we planted, if it didn’t come out well this time, we can try again next year.

In our Lord Jesus’ time of prayer before His Passion, He went to the Garden of Mount Olive, by Gethsemane. (Matthew 22:39) Many people imitate that when they need to walk alone with God. Whether in our own yard or a public park, a garden can be our escape from the world.

When I garden, then, only then, I find peace. I am so silent, as if I am listening to God. Sometimes I say the Jesus prayer, and sometimes I just smell the earth and the morning dew. I think my gift from God is gardening, and that is my healthy and wholesome hobby.

May our Lord plant His garden in our hearts. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

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

Happy Sunday! Here is Monica:

This maxim elicits a flashback to the distant past when I used to wait for one or another of my three sons to tie his own shoes with tiny fingers or to come up with an answer to “What color is the elephant (or apple or car) in this picture?” – although it would have been expedient simply to resolve the situation myself. I realize, however, that I am involved in a similar task nowadays as I stand beside my frail, nonagenarian mother with arms outstretched to catch her in case she falls as she struggles doggedly to move from wheelchair to bed by her own power.

These situations are the unambiguous ones, in which it is easy to discern the best course of action -- or rather, inaction. In other cases a certain amount of agonizing occurs. If I offer money to a needy relative or friend, will this person develop a dependency on me and thus lose the motivation to discover his or her own survival strategies? Will our relationship be irrevocably altered? More importantly, will I diminish this person’s sense of dignity? Of course, these questions are echoed in the public arena by debates about charitable giving or tax-funded assistance. Sometimes the arguments in favor of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency can serve merely to disguise a lack of generosity, but sometimes they do not.

On the emotional level, it is natural -- especially for women, I think -- to feel an urge to “be there” for others who need a listening ear. We respond to another person’s pain with a reflexive impulse to do whatever it takes to alleviate that pain. But this kind of assistance, too, has the potential for transformation into a relationship that harms more than it helps, especially by tempting one or the other of the two participants to exert some form of control over the other, often in subtle ways.

In light of the pitfalls involved in helping another, it is a serious challenge to decide what to do. I think that each situation is unique and requires prayerful discernment. One guideline that persists in my mind is based on the blessed Augustine’s thoughts about friendship, which appear most explicitly in his book ON CHRISTIAN TEACHING. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) makes a distinction between “use” and “enjoyment”: that is, we are to “enjoy” God alone, because to enjoy anyone or anything else would amount to idolatry. Everything else that we experience should serve as something that we “use,” or that we offer to be used by another, in the journey toward complete communion with God.

Even friendship comes under this latter category. According to Augustine, a Christian friendship is a relationship that contributes to the spiritual progress of the partners. Two streams flow together in a common current channeled towards God. Attachment to another person for the satisfaction of one’s human desires for comfort or praise leads only to a dead end and therefore must be abandoned. In applying this thought to today’s maxim, I can resolve never to encourage another person to develop such a fruitless attachment to me, but instead to nurture a friendship that facilitates his or her growth in the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23), whether it feels comfortable or not.

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.