Pilgrims from Paradise:
This week, I received an email from a most gracious listener, one who has just recently become Orthodox. He thanked me for my book and for this podcast and declared his love and devotion for our holy faith. But then, he opened his heart to me and shared some concerns he has for living this Orthodox life. He wrote:
The goal of Orthodox salvation, that is unification with Christ, is so lofty as to be intimidating. I’m a married man, who works a lot and has three little kids to raise. My wife and I struggle to complete our Evening Prayers everyday and are really struggling trying to just stay afloat.
It seems like only the monastics pull off anything like what you teach about salvation looking like. How do we, married guys, find time and attention to develop the Holy Spirit in our lives? It seems like every great Orthodox writer, from the Holy Fathers to The Way of a Pilgrim rely on vast stretches of solitude and silence to develop the spiritual life. I have very little of either, to be honest.
When I’m at home, I’m helping my wife with the kids or trying to give them some time, since they don’t get to see me often enough as it is. I have many besetting sins that I struggle with. I know that the cure is to die to the old man and to live in Christ, but I just can’t imagine myself becoming that person.
I want to be, but I am pretty lost as to how to get there. I want to die to my passions. I want to be a holier person, but I find that just dealing with the various issues of life is so much to handle that I feel a little overwhelmed.
If I’m not mistaken, I think that’s a resounding chorus of Amens that I hear, rising up from Orthodox men and women all over America. Really. This is a lament I hear all the time. I, myself, am no stranger to this frustrated feeling.
So let’s consider these things honestly. There’s no getting around it. Orthodox Christianity is a demanding life. Theosis is our objective—participation in the life of God; becoming so surrendered to God that our lives literally become his.
How do we, who live in the secular realm, ever pull off something so unattainable? Must we all become monastics? God doesn’t expect that, the Church tells us. But if theosis is a struggle, even for monastics, what chance do the rest of us possibly have?
Do we call it a lost cause and just throw up our hands and surrender? Is the very best we can hope for is some shabby and dismal corner of Heaven that lies just short of Hell, reserved for us wretches who wanted to be holy, but whose demanding secular lives didn’t afford us the time or solitude to pull it off? How do we come to grips with all of this?
First of all, it seems to me, we must believe that the God of love, who desires that we all become one with Him as we read in John 17:20-23, would not consign the vast majority of us to a manner of life, which makes that oneness unattainable. Within the parameters of our ordinary lives, there must be the opportunity for theosis. God would not call us to it, if the calling were impossible.
Perhaps the first thing some of us need to face is that we have more time for solitude and prayer than we’d like to admit. How much time do we spend in front of our televisions, listening to music, playing golf, or going shopping?
For many of us, it’s not a matter of creating time for spiritual activities; it’s the more difficult matter of making them a priority. Some of us then may actually have the time, we say we don’t have, but others truly may not have “stretches of solitude and silence” as my listener put it. What is the answer for them?
To get to that, let’s recognize that there’s more to theosis than having lots of time for silence and hesychastic contemplation. Let’s remember, the solitude in prayers are not ends in themselves. They have a purpose to make us one with God and one with each other.
These practices are meant to transform our hearts; to make us as self-denying and other-directing as the persons of the Trinity. They should produce in us, a love for others that allows us to intimately experience their lives from within their hearts. By this intimacy, we bring the grace of God to their lives.
When I think about that, I have hope for myself and my journey toward theosis. For in the midst of my busy secular life, there are a multitude of opportunities for this sort of transformation. My world, the world of husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors, co-workers, people we love, and people who rub us the wrong way, this busy life is as effective a crucible for oneness as the quiet world of the monastic.
For many of us, recognizing all this and finding transformation in the midst of a secular life requires an adjustment of perception. For instance, as a father and husband, I am mistaken if I believe that the only way I can move forward spiritually is to separate myself from my wife and children, hide in my den or bedroom, and say the Jesus Prayer for long periods of time.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t seek times of solitude. On the contrary, these are important. What I am saying is that the path to theosis also runs through the time-demanding relationships in our lives. Some of the most important and dramatic steps toward holiness, toward participation in the life of God, toward discovering Christ’s heart beating in our breasts occur within our interactions with others.
To understand how this works, however, may require a further adjustment in our perceptions. Within this Western Christian culture, in which we’ve all been raised, there is a definite tendency to define our relationships in terms of objective responsibilities we must carry out with respect to others. In other words, we operate according to relational job descriptions.
If we do the things we’re supposed to do, vis-à-vis the other, then we are fulfilling our role in the relationship. As a husband, I’m supposed to love my wife. For most Christian men, that means being attentive to her needs. It means doing the things she asks. It means providing her and protecting her to the point of sacrificing my own wants, needs, and desires.
What about children? As a father, I need to protect them, care for them. I must teach them what acceptable Christian behavior is. I must make sure that they get a good education and motivate them to become responsible adults. When they get to be teenagers, I need to do whatever I can to ensure that they keep themselves sexually pure.
In our Western Christian culture, this is the way we see our relationship responsibilities. But my question is, does any of that necessarily transform me? Does any of that necessarily create genuine divine oneness with my wife and kids?
The trap we fall into is that we measure ourselves as good husbands and fathers or good wives and mothers by how well we fulfill our job descriptions. But that’s not really a measure of self-denying love and intimate oneness. It’s just a measure of me, an analysis of me in the face of my responsibilities and requirements.
This becomes even more evident when I feel like I’m failing, that is, when I feel like my relationships aren’t of the quality they ought to be. In those cases, I believe the answer is to learn how to do my job better. I turn to the Christian self-help books for someone to give me a better list to follow.
I may try to solve some interpersonal issues with my spouse and children. I may try hard to listen better and communicate better. Yet, it’s all done for the purpose of carrying out my duties more efficiently, in hopes that this will make my relationships into what I would like them to be. In other words, growth and change is all about me becoming a better functioning me.
But that’s not the goal of theosis at all. To pursue union with God is to become less and less me. My heart needs to become God’s heart. And so, I need to do more than just treat my wife correctly. I need to become one with my wife’s heart. Somehow, I need to join in the life of her soul. I must seek to live in her heart; to perceive her as she perceives herself. Then, I can minister to who she is and not merely to a list of duties I must fulfill regarding her.
The same is true with my children. They’re not a project God has given me, with a list of goals I need to accomplish in their lives. I need to experience their hearts, their personalities, their needs, their sins, their struggles, and their dreams.
Well, how does this all relate to theosis? It’s simple. To know my spouse and my children this way, I have to deny myself. I have to give up the agendas I have for them. I have to give up the duty lists. My judgments about them must be set aside. The expectations, I hold, must be shelved. The ever-present me, to whom all and everyone must measure up, gets silenced and divested of its supreme authority. And this is a most crucial step on the path to genuine union with God.
How does this work in practical terms? Well, let me give just one example—one having to do with children. A number of years ago, I was at a teen retreat in California. A group of kids had engaged me in a very frank discussion about sexuality. I was getting some feedback from them on the popular Christian books and ministries that focus on matters of abstinence and purity.
One very candid young man raised his hand and observed:
You know, they all say the same thing. You’re pure now. You want to remain pure. And if you abstain from sex, you’ll be happy. Your parents will be happy, and God will be happy. Those are the assumptions everyone operates on, including my parents. But you know what? Even though I’ve never had sex, I don’t feel pure. I don’t even know if I want to remain pure.
Sometimes I feel like nothing would make me happier than to have sex. Everyone expects me to walk this pure path, but what if I don’t? Will everyone just reject me? My parents? God? I don’t feel like I’d find any understanding at all, if I happened to fall.
If I’m this young man’s father, and I just go on operating on the agenda I have for him and upon the assumptions I make about good, Christian kids and their sexuality, will I ever know his heart? Will I ever become one with him, the way God desires I become one with him? No.
To be intimately joined at this child will require a lot of self-emptying; a setting aside of my personal pride, my expectations, and my fears. Instead, I will need to embrace him with an unconditional and understanding love, just like that which pours from the Divine Heart. To do this, is to pursue theosis.
Silence and contemplation are not the bottom line when it comes to union with God. It is deep, other-centered love. When we decide to walk this path, within our marriages and families, we will experience transformation and growth. We will find ourselves entering into the process of theosis.
As busy people in a secular world, we must embrace the path we’re on, rather than lament the one we can’t walk. But if we’ll look closely, we’ll see just how holy it is. We’ll see just how many and great are the possibilities for growing in oneness with God and with our loved ones—the ultimate goal of theosis.