St. Barnabas Orthodox Church (AOC) in Costa Mesa, California, presents a new once-monthly continuing education and catechism based on the practical, spiritual, and theological principles of the Orthodox Church. The classes began on June 7, 2014, and will continue through December 6, 2014. Speakers include Fr. Michael Reagan, Dr. Jeannie Constantinou, Abbess Mother Victoria, Fr. Josiah Trenham, Fr. Wayne Wilson, Scot Larsen, and Kevin Allen.
Fr. Michael Reagan: I guess it’s time to start, eh? First of all, a great big thank-you to all of you who gave up your Saturday morning to come here and join us. I mean, that’s like Saturday morning, Sunday morning: you’re dedicating it to God. What a wonderful thing; it brings a tear to my eye! [Laughter]
What we’re talking about this morning, on this first of our several sessions on acquiring the mind of the Church, is something that is smack-dab right in the middle of that subject. This is not something that I wrote. This is something that comes from several patristic sources, including many of the writings of the saints that are collected in the Philokalia and some of the Desert Fathers and so forth, and it’s been put together in this general form. There [are] a couple different variations, and there’s different terminology used, but it’s essentially the same teaching because it reflects the exact same truth. This is how ideas become sins in our lives.
The pursuit of purity is our biggest, I guess you’d say, offering to God, because this is what God loves. God loves to dwell in a pure heart. He loves to dwell in a place where he is welcomed, you know, where people have made the effort to clean the habitation that God can dwell [in]. The Holy Spirit dwells everywhere, is everywhere present and fillest all things, but everywhere else is his workshop. A pure heart is his home; this is where he abides, this is where he… “Home sweet home” kind of thing. And we muddy up that home by our responses to the various temptations of life, by the sins that we commit.
I wrote on part of this:
This life is a journey into eternity. In the journey of this life, those who seek eternal life and immortality must engage themselves in a spiritual battle to ensure the safety of their souls. The spiritual battle involves encountering temptations to sin and achieving victory over such temptations.
When we think of spiritual battle—I don’t know, I might think of battling demons like St. Anthony of the desert—but for most of us, the most vicious battle takes place in the arena of our minds. This is where the thoughts assail us, and every sin begins as a thought. Every sin begins as a thought. It’s that thought and how we deal with it that leads either to sin or to holiness, and the choice is ours. We all have freedom of choice. We can choose to do good or to do evil. When we do good, we move ourselves closer to our ultimate salvation. It is true that eternal life is a gift, but we must still become servants of righteousness in order to obtain eternal life. When we do evil, we sin, and temptation precedes sin. Our regular and daily response to temptation determines the fate of our souls.
You know, that’s one aspect of this: our salvation. Obviously, we are concerned about our salvation, but not always willing to work for our salvation, not always willing to put in the effort, the struggle, or perhaps not even willing to focus on the fact that we need to participate in that salvation. It’s a very popular teaching in much of pop Christianity today that Jesus has done it all. “By the Cross, everything is done. You just buy into it by a mental assent—I believe—and everything is taken care of.” Well, that’s just not quite true, and the Scriptures testify, over and over again, that we must refrain from evil and do good. Of course, Jesus says things like, “Be ye perfect as I am perfect,” and he tells some people, “Go and sin no more, lest something worse befall you,” and St. John even says, “Those in Christ do not sin.” We look at that, and we go: “Yeah. How does that work?”
Well, in part, this is how it works: this is a way to attain sinlessness, if we’re able to practice it perfectly. If we’re not able to practice it perfectly, at least we’re on the road. We’re on the road to purity. St. Mark the Ascetic once wrote:
What repayment for all these blessings can you possibly make to him who has called your soul to eternal life? It is only right, then, that you should live no longer for yourself but for Christ, who died for your sake and rose again. In your struggle to acquire every virtue and fulfill every commandment, always seek the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God, endeavoring with all your strength to pursue it.
Now, there’s another aspect: gratitude. Why should we be pure in heart? Because God loves it. It pleases God when we become pure in heart. This is kind of different from: “Jesus did it all so I don’t have to do anything.” There’s not a lot of gratitude in that attitude, but in this sense of “After all that our Lord has done for us, making salvation possible, opening the door, as we just celebrated, even directly in the ascension into heaven, don’t we owe God something?” People say, “Why do you…? I don’t like this version of Christianity where you have to struggle. Jesus did it all; you don’t have to struggle.”
Well, I think we do have to struggle, especially to please God, and why should that be bad? Why should it be bad for us to struggle to make offerings to God, to make sacrifices to God? We don’t maybe sacrifice bulls and lambs any more, but we sacrifice maybe ten percent of our paycheck, we sacrifice our own pleasures many times, and we make the sacrifice of ruling over our thoughts and governing our thoughts so that our lives begin to become holy. This is a way of honoring God and pleasing him.
One of the things about this is that it breaks down how, basically, a thought, how a suggestion, turns into sin. If you’ve ever seen magicians, sleight-of-hand experts, they can make you think you saw something that didn’t really happen, through flipping the cards around or whatever—you’re amazed at these tricks—of course, they all say that with the advent of video cameras and such, it’s ruined the magicians’ trade because now you can slow it down and you can see where they tricked you, where the illusion was made… In a sense, that’s what this is all about here, is that we’re slowing the process down. The devil has been playing tricks on us for years, all of our lives, leading us down the path of temptation from, well, provocation to passion, often with us barely aware of what was happening.
So what we want to do with this presentation is to slow the process down, show you how it first begins in slo-o-o-w mo-tion, so that you can see what’s actually happening. If you pay attention to this, it’s revealing because this is your soul. This is what happens in your soul. This is not some guy’s theory. This is the revelation of the Holy Spirit through holy men who’ve studied their souls and the souls of others. This is exactly the process as it takes place in your own soul, even if you’re not aware of it.
I think this is a really important teaching, and if that sounds presumptuous, remember: I didn’t write it. In that case, I think it’s the most important teaching that we’ll feature in this entire series, because… We all talk about living a sinless life, we all talk about being pleasing to God, we all pretty much have given up on that, because it’s hard. How do you stop from sinning? We’ve got people who even say, “You cannot stop sinning. You have a sin nature. It’s your nature to sin.” Well, of course, that’s false, though we’ll talk a little bit about that later.
But it is possible to do what the Scriptures say: to purify ourselves and to refrain from sin the more that we pay attention to this. The holy Fathers of our faith have identified these six stages. In looking at the list, it’s important to understand that the first four stages can and often do happen instantly, one following the other [snap], just like that, particularly if we’re used to giving into that route. What we want to do… See, if it goes from here to here, just like that, we’d kind of like to slow that down a little bit. Maybe where it goes from here to here, bounces back… I’m going to explain what all these things mean, but it’s possible to stop the process. It’s possible to stop from provocation to building a passion, if we are willing to pay attention.
And, you know, the first two, as I say, often happen almost instantly—provocation to assent. These [next] two take a little bit longer to form in us, but in most of us they have formed. They’re already there. So to change these things, to reverse these things, to use this model to work on having a sinless life, it’s going to take the same process. [These are] what we could actually put into practice pretty quickly. It doesn’t take 25 years at a monastery; you can begin practicing it today. You can begin as soon as you leave, or even before. These are going to take a little longer. Just as salvation is a process, so the breaking of the predisposition and the removal of the passions is a process. It takes longer, but it’s by attacking these first four that we can begin to make that progress.
So the first stage, then, is provocation. There [are] different was of describing it, different words. Sometimes it’s “suggestion,” whatever, but the idea of provocation is just that initial suggestion to sin. Now, it can take a form of a thought, an image, a comment, a misplaced glance, or virtually anything. Provocation is everywhere, and even if you were travel to the moon, it would probably be there, too, delivered by our friendly local demons. I mean, provocation is everywhere. The good thing regarding… And does everybody understand what I’m talking about with provocation? It’s just that idea, or I don’t know what. You’re on a diet, and you see a chocolate bar: provocation. It hasn’t done anything; it’s just sitting there, but it’s making a suggestion, isn’t it? Or we can substitute much more serious things, but just that suggestion to sin.
Provocation, at this point, is not sin. If you see the candy bar and you—mmm; I’m going to growl—that’s not a sin; that’s a temptation, but it’s not a sin. As we know from Matthew’s gospel, our Lord completed 40 days of fasting, and then he became hungry, and the devil came, making suggestions to him, trying to get Jesus, for example, to turn stones into bread and prove himself to be the Son of God by hurling himself from the pinnacle, or accepting all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down before the devil. Well, Jesus… These were provocations, and Jesus rejected them. He didn’t sit there and go: “Hmm. Stone-bread, yeah… That just might be good,” you know? No. Immediately, off of that: “Be gone.”
He countered with Scripture, most often. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Therefore, right there, at that moment, he’s teaching us the number-one way to counter provocation is to counter it with Scripture, which is why, for example, there is such a tradition of the memorization of the psalms in Orthodox tradition. These are our number-one defenses against these kinds of things.
I use the illustration in our catechism class: if a bully comes to your front door, what’s the smart thing to do? The smart thing to do is to shut the door. As a matter of fact, if you see him coming, you don’t even open the door, and you certainly don’t let him into your house where he could start breaking things and hurting people. And it’s the same with provocation. This thought, this mere suggestion to sin—you look at someone, and a thought crosses your mind; you see something on a billboard or something pops up on your screen on your computer—it’s that provocation, that suggestion: shut the door. That’s what you do: you shut the door, change the channel, close your eyes, turn off the computer, set your hair on fire, do whatever you need to do. [Laughter]—but say No to the provocation.
Now, if one is continually assaulted by the suggestion to sin, once you start making the sign of the Cross… This is because the sign of the Cross has been just universally recognized as something that the demons absolutely hate, and while they’re to [still] provoke you, if the source of this temptation is from the demons trying to provoke you into sinning, the more that you make the sign of the Cross at every provocation, they just hate that. It drives them away. Making the sign of the Cross, saying the Jesus Prayer, continually repeating this prayer. This gives you relief, if only temporarily, if only until they redouble their efforts and come back, but, you see, this is what we’re talking about: the arena of the mind, the soul, the struggle. This is where we get the most success. Why? Because it’s like holding the door shut against the bully: it requires a lot of work and effort, but it’s a whole lot better than going ahead and just letting the bully in.
Here is where we fight. You have this suggestion, you have this thought, you have this impulse, especially since some of the times it comes from way down deep inside, from the passions, and you want to do the same thing that you’ve always done. Fight. Fight that. Resist that. Make the sign of the Cross. Say prayers. You know, in Scriptures we’re told over and over again to create this environment in our hearts and minds of spirituality. St. Paul talks about speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and elsewhere in Scripture it says, “If anything is good, if anything is pure, if anything is noble… let your mind, your heart, dwell on these things above, where Christ is.” This is the kind of environment that we want to create in our hearts and souls to aid us in this fight against provocation.
I’ll talk a little bit more about that later, but the next stage—is that thunder?—the next stage is disturbance. I’m always having to double-check my spelling. This stupid spell-check doesn’t work. Disturbance is primarily a momentary disturbance of the intellect. The suggestion has been made, the provocation, and we’re briefly aware that there’s been a shift in the Force, that something has happened within us, that this suggestion, this thought, has touched us. We become aware of that. In a sense, we’re aware that we’ve been provided an opportunity, either to follow it into sin or to resist, but that’s as far as we’ve taken it. When we’ve come to this stage of disturbance, it’s just this: the water’s mucky; it’s been stirred up. We’re simply aware that there’s an opportunity for sin and that the thought has entered our minds.
Once again, at this stage, there is still no active sin on our part. What we’ve experienced is only the suggestion to sin and the mental awareness of its possibility. What we do next is critically important in regard to whether we remain without sin or allow ourselves to fall into it, to run with the bully at the front door illustration, perhaps we’ve opened the door and we’ve found the bully standing there, and we quickly move to shut the door when he exclaims, “Wait! If you let me in, I’ll just beat up your brother today,” so we hesitate. No decision has been made; we haven’t even weighed the pros and cons in our minds necessarily, but we’re simply aware that we’ve been presented with an opportunity, a choice, a decision—to possibly get our brother beaten up.
To put in another example, we might be talking with some friends when a conversation suddenly turns to a certain person who’s conveniently not there and just suddenly out of nowhere we remember this juicy bit of gossip about that person and then we’re sort of at that stage of “should I say it or shouldn’t I say it?” That kind of thing.
Provocation (suggestion) and disturbance. A lot of people are really defeated at this point in terms of being discouraged. You know it goes if you’re… You always have these thoughts. Maybe you have all these bad thoughts, and it starts to wear you down. You think, “I’m a bad person, because I have all these bad thoughts.” And where do you have your worst thoughts? It’s when you come to church, usually. You’re driving to church and you’re thinking, “Oh man, what’s Fr. Wayne going to do today?” [Laughter] Or you find somebody: “Oh, that choir director…” Or you’re sitting there, looking at somebody, and the worst, horrible, ungodly thought comes into your head, and you’re like: “Oh, gosh, I killed myself. I’m a bad person.” That’s exactly what the demons want you to think, because, remember: there is no sin at simply being a recipient of provocation. Jesus was tempted by the devil, but he did not sin. There’s no sin in the sense that the waters have been stirred because you’ve been hit by this evil thing; your soul is disturbed. It’s what you do after that that determines whether or not it’s going to be sin.
So it’s like the old saying, “You are not your thoughts.” If you have bad thoughts, it does not necessarily mean you’re a bad person. That’s such a hard thing for us to understand and grasp, just like, I guess, if you have good thoughts, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person, but I do believe our thoughts determine our lives, as the Elder Thaddeus from [Vitovnica] Monastery said. So the thoughts that we give ourselves, too, are the thoughts that are going to shape our souls, but you don’t have to give yourself to these evil thoughts. If you’re coming to church and you’re going to get into a fight with somebody, you’re going to disagree with somebody—all during the rest of the week you love them to pieces, but for some reason when you’re coming to church, they’re the worst person in the world, or you have a wicked thought or whatever—you are not your thoughts. These are demons assailing you, or they are perhaps habits assailing you, but it’s not a reflection of who you are as a person, and that’s really important, because we have to, I guess we have to believe that we are worthy, in a sense, of God’s salvation, that we are essentially good and, fallen, yes, but essentially good, and all these bad thoughts, all these temptations, all of this junk that comes at us all the time, is not necessarily a reflection of who we are. It’s just who the devils want us to be, that temptation that they’re suggesting.
So I think that’s really important. That gives us courage. You come to church, all of a sudden you have a terrible thought—just make the sign of the Cross. Do the same thing that we’re teaching here: make the sign of the Cross, say, “God, help me to focus on the good,” and you do what you need to do. Remind yourself, keep your eyes to yourself, or whatever you need to do. Keep your thoughts to yourself. That’s all you need to do. You don’t need to upbraid yourself: “Oh, I am the WORST SINNER!.” You don’t need to do that. I shouldn’t have done that… [Laughter] But that’s what the devils want you to do. They want you to lose hope, so don’t fall for that trick. You are not your thoughts.
Now we come to… a little further. I want to refer again to a couple of Scriptures; we’ll read here. St. Paul wrote: “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” This is not like Kumbaya kind of stuff. He’s talking about creating a spiritual atmosphere in your thoughts, in your heart, in your minds. This is serious stuff. He also reminded, as I quoted earlier:
Finally, brothers (this is from Philippians 4), whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.
The idea behind this and many other verses in Scripture is that Christians should build the habit of having good thoughts in their minds, good and godly thoughts. Memorized psalms, hymns, prayers, especially, again, the Jesus Prayer, should occupy our minds day and night in place of the garbage that might usually dwell in there if we don’t pay attention to these things. If we train ourselves to fill our days with godly thoughts and prayers, then when the provocation brings that momentary disturbance of the intellect, we will be conditioned to recognize it as a thought that does not belong there. This is really important, and it is fairly easy to get to this stage. You don’t have to, like I say, be in the monastery for 20 years.
It’s like if you live in a filthy house, you can practically spill a whole bottle of ketchup on the floor and nobody would notice, because it sort of blends in with everything else, but if you live in a spotless house, then a flyspeck, all of a sudden: “Oh, look at that!” That’s the way it is with our souls. If our souls are just filled with, not even bad thoughts, but just worldly thoughts, if all we think about is just life on this horizontal plane and it’s just full of stuff, then sins and disturbances and temptations don’t alert us that much. They can often sneak in, and we’ll be going into the next stages with them pretty quickly, because we’re just not… We don’t see them. But if you live with a pure heart, if you strive to have a prayerful heart, a heart that’s quick to respond to the grace of God, always forgiving, loving, kind, merciful, seeking to imitate Jesus Christ, trying to live on that vertical plane, up above, where Christ is, then when a temptation comes, you notice it right away. It doesn’t belong there. “P.U.! What is that!?” This is very important.
This takes some time, but, again, it doesn’t take a lot of time. What it does take is perseverance, because what happens is: we get tired. We get tired of the constant vigilance and prayer and being mindful and watching ourselves and this sort of thing. We’re like the guards on the towers, and we just… “I just wanna lay down for a little bit…” and then the enemies overrun, and here we are again. Well, we just have to keep coming back, coming back to this work, keep returning. If we fail, we come to confession, and then we come back to this work of being watchful, being mindful, being prayerful, and trying to create a clean room within us. It’s God, of course, who cleans, but, as much as possible, [we must work] to create an atmosphere that is not receptive to sin. That’s the good thing.
If we fail to do this, and we again begin to incline ourselves toward the evil thought, the next stage of temptation is called “coupling,” number three. This is where we begin to savor the idea and roll it around in our minds. The bully has promised he’s only going to beat up our brother, so we start thinking, “Boy, I’d sure like to see that. It would serve my lousy brother right for picking on me all the time.” We begin to attach ourselves to the idea, which is what the word “coupling” suggests. At this point, we’ve begun to enter into the early stage of sin and culpability. Remember, before this this was not sin; we weren’t responsible before God. We weren’t culpable for the provocation and disturbance, but this is where we start to get into that range, where you’re thinking, “Ahhh… stone-bread, ruling over all the kingdoms, yeah.” This is where we’re starting to attach a little bit too much of ourselves.
For the provocation or the disturbance, we would not be held responsible, but for the moment of coupling, we’ve been connecting ourselves to this temptation and are now voluntarily participating in the conceiving of sin. At this stage, of course, it’s not too late, still, to stop, to disengage, to detach ourselves from that, and this comes, again, with practice, with that constant practice to be pure of heart, to cultivate purity. When we realize that we’ve gone a little too far in our thoughts, we’re thinking about something we shouldn’t, and kind of… liking it… we recognize that a little more quickly if we’re trying again to live a pure life, to live [with] a heart of purity, and we decide: “No, I’m going to pull back.” It becomes easier the more that you cultivate that. If not, of course, provocation, disturbance, that thought is suggested and we pretty much immediately go to coupling, because we like the idea! We want to do whatever it is.
It really doesn’t matter what it is, either. That’s the interesting thing. It doesn’t have to be, necessarily, the sin of murder or fornication or something like that. This may sound strange, but it could be like the sin of double-double during Lent. You think, “Woah, man…” I wish I hadn’t said that, because now I’m really hungry. Sorry. Little Mike gets upset. Now, is In-and-Out a mortal sin? No, it’s a good thing. [Laughter] But what happens when, like you’re on a fast day or something, we decide, “The heck with it: I’m just going to go have a burger,” is that we’re weakening our resistance to suggestion, provocation, and we’re inclining our disturbance to lead into coupling very quickly. This is why the Church teaches us to fast, because it’s important. We need to learn how to say, “No!” to even just basic things like the foods that we eat. It’s not just because the Church says, “Don’t eat meat”—in fact, the Church doesn’t say that, except for monks.
It’s because it’s trying to teach us just to say, “No,” just to stop a process. And what’s more powerful a process than your belly? [Grunts, laughter] You learn to gain mastery over that by fasting, sometimes by failing, but by returning to the fast, by taking it seriously. And we gain a little more strength to combat the more serious sins. I think Fr. Wayne has often said, “How can you say no to fornication if you can’t say no to a cheeseburger?” Yeah. On a leveled scale of importance, obviously, one is much greater, but if we can’t even say no to a cheeseburger, how are we going to learn to say no to any suggestion that’s begun to take charge of our very beings?
So saying your prayers, dragging yourself out of bed to come to church or to stand before your icons, keeping your fast, making offerings to God—these physical things are all very, very important, and all interconnect with just our ability to say no to sin and yes to God. We pigeon-hole our lives so much, to think, “I can fast… certain categories. I can say prayers… pretty much every other day. I can give an offering to the Church… when I can afford it.” Or, “I’ll do this, but I won’t do that.” But it’s important to see that you can’t pigeon-hole your life. That’s not how God made you. You have to unite yourself to God and to live for him. So the prayer and the fasting, all these things all connect to this, which is to save our souls. Very important.
Q1: That makes me very nervous! So, stage three: you’re in the sinning stage and you’re vacillating back and forth: “Yes, no, cheeseburger? Yes. No. Cheeseburger. No, no, no…” And you’re going back and forth and you’re trying really hard. Are you sinning then because you’re fighting and you’re toying with the idea but you’re trying not to. I mean, at what point are you sinning?
Fr. Michael: Oh, when you say yes. [Laughter]
Q1: When you say yes? Okay.
Fr. Michael: When you struggle… To struggle is a sign of our imperfection and our weakness, because, obviously, we should desire to do the will of God, but the fact that we’re struggling shows that that desire is within us. The coupling really is this idea of saying, “Yeah…” It’s not quite to this point, which is assent, which is saying yes to the sin. I’m not sure if I answered that right. If you’re struggling, no, that’s not so much sin in terms of culpability or something like that. It’s just a sign of our weakness, but the more that we win that fight for God, the stronger we become. And the more that we lose that fight for God, the weaker that we become. And that’s really more important than: “Here’s another demerit. You sinned.” Those things are covered by God, our sins. But it’s the shaping of our soul: this is what we’re participating in. And to come out of the fight successful.
I mean, if Jesus had said, “You know, I hadn’t had stone-bread in 30 years. That just sounds great. But no, no, no, I’m not going to do it.” He didn’t say that because he was perfect, but if he had said that, but decided to still defeat the devil, that would have been good, much better than giving in. So, yeah, we want to look beyond just black-and-white sins, points against us, marks against us, to: “What is this doing to my soul?” That’s what I’m… Same thing with the fasting. If I say, “I don’t want to fast today,” is that a sin? And sometimes people will mock you and say, “Is it is a sin to eat a cheeseburger?” Well, no! but if it weakens my conscience, then it is a sin, because now I’m set back in this whole process.
Tim: Fr. Michael, could you maybe break down the steps and how it applies to the Fall with Adam and Eve?
Fr. Michael: No. [Laughter] But maybe we could discuss that afterwards.
Fr. Michael: Okay, if we fail to stop the temptation at that stage of coupling, we wrestle, we lose. Then the next stage is assent, and that, obviously, is when we make up our minds to commit the sin given the next opportunity. As soon as I see an In-and-Out, man, I am so there. Now we’ve gone beyond disturbance, beyond savoring the temptation, right to the point where we say yes to the sin: “Bring it on.”
At this point, a person might still be able to come to his senses and flee the sin. Somebody might be asleep in the driveway or something at In-and-Out, and you’re like: “Oh! Thank you, Jesus!” and then drive away. You’ve ever had stuff like that happen, where you are so set on doing something you know you shouldn’t do, and all of a sudden God just sort of intervenes and says, “Nah-uh!”? [Laughter] Sometimes he does that, and thank God. Sometimes he saves us from sin, even when our hearts and minds are inclined toward it.
But this is that point where we’re in real danger. I mean, this is serious stuff, because even though we might possibly come to our senses, even though the grace of God might intervene and save us, if it doesn’t happen, then we enter into that sin, and a little bit more of our soul, you could say, perishes with it. The point of assent is when we hand over our free will to the temptation and unite ourselves to the sin, and at that point, the sin is committed, and, unfortunately for us, the wages of sin are still death, as the Scriptures say.
See, this is will. This is the human will. This is really the part that you could say was assaulted in paradise. To bend the will away from God, toward a material thing—that bending of the will, that weakening of the will, weakening of conscience, hardening of heart, whatever you want to call it, this is the stuff that kills us, spiritually.
Spiritual death doesn’t happen all at once, just like salvation doesn’t happen all at once: it’s a process. Spiritual dying is also a process, and it takes the form of—one of the forms of—increasing inclination towards sin. We now… If we give into this stage repeatedly, it becomes easier, because our will now is directed toward the sin, not toward the purity, not toward the struggle to be pure. And this inclining of our will, this breaking-down of our will, is what we call “predisposition,” which is the fifth stage.
All of us, of course, are predisposed, in a sense, towards sin, because we’re born as broken and fallen people in a broken and fallen world. But whenever we voluntarily give ourselves over to specific sins, or just sins, those sins become increasingly more difficult to resist, and they become what the Fathers refer to as “second nature.” See, unlike a lot of contemporary Christians who say, “We all have a sin nature. We’re born again, but we have a sin nature, and so it is our nature to sin,” the Fathers of the Church say, “No, that’s absolutely wrong. We have a human nature that is fallen. Because it is fallen, it has a predisposition towards sin, but it is not the nature of human beings to sin. But it can become their second nature.” See?
It’s almost the opposite of what’s taught in modern Christendom. It’s like being born again is your second nature, but from the Orthodox point of view, being transformed, born again, purified, is our true nature, but we can develop that second nature to sin, and it seems like our nature; it seems like we have a sin nature, because all the time, in our minds… and our responses, so many times, are to assent, to give in. This predisposition is what happens when we don’t stop it here, when we don’t win the fight here, when we give our assent too much—then it just becomes formed in us. It has to do with that human will.
It’s been said that human will is the strongest force in the universe. Even God does not oppose it. God created us with a free will, and he allows us to exercise it, and that’s the most precious gift, because only if we have this gift of free will could we love, because anything without involving that free will would not be love; it would just be robots, would be whatever. That’s what makes love precious: is that you choose to love, as God chooses to love us.
Where was I going with that? Had my own famous catechist senior moment here. Well, anyway, it was probably a lie anyway. That’s what my mother used to say. “If you can’t remember what you’re saying, it was probably a lie!” [Laughter] “Yes, Mom.”
Oh, will! Yes. The breaking-down of the will is the most terrible thing that can happen to a human being. When you see people that they’re like, I don’t know, demon-possessed, addicted to drugs, alcohol, it’s like they’re not even human any more. It’s like they couldn’t say no if they tried. It literally de-humanizes somebody.
Fr. John of Kronstadt—and this is a story a lot of people don’t like, but you have to understand the context—he saw a drunken man lying in the gutter, and he knew this man, knew this man’s family. He had been a good guy until he became addicted to alcohol. Fr. John of Kronstadt, this loving, compassionate priest, looked down at the man in the gutter and said, “You were human once; become so again.” And he repented, thank God.
But we might say, “Well, that was awfully mean. Shouldn’t he take him into rehab, whatever, buy him a drink or something?” [Laughter] No. He just reminded him of the context. When you lose your will, when you give yourself over to something, you cease to become human, and you’re like the animals, or worse than the animals.
So this is a serious progression, when we start to break down that will, because we, all the time, just give in and say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter: Jesus forgives, right?” and just giving in all the time—not a good thing.
Come to this sixth stage of passion. If we do not fight vigorously against our established habits and the predisposition towards sin that we have allowed, well, then, the sixth and final stage of the temptation is passion. At this stage, a particular sin dominates one’s life to such an extent that he not only commits the sin habitually, repeatedly, but becomes overly preoccupied and even obsessed with the practice of that sin. When a sin has reached the level of passion in a person’s life, it becomes extremely difficult to remove, but the Fathers tell us that we must absolutely devote ourselves to removing it. You can imagine.
I think that sometimes we… I don’t know, I guess we use this word kind of lightly sometimes talking about our passions. We don’t mean the passion for art or collecting pocket knives or something like that. Who would do that? Or we talk about, I don’t know, just because we have some besetting sin, we call it a passion, but we need to take this seriously. This is something that does not belong in us. It’s foreign to our humanity. It disfigures us, and it needs to be taken very seriously. When we discover that we have a passion of a particular nature, we really need to work on it with the help of God, with the help of our Church, our father confessor.
Let me read to you a section from the Counsels [from] the Holy Mountain, which contains letters, excerpts, from the Elder Ephraim. It’s a long kind of quote that I want to read to you, but I think it really conveys both the severity of the work that’s necessary to unroot the passions and also the unwavering commitment and devotion to the effort that we need to have. You see, it’s really important that we put forth the effort. What is that saying? “Grace is not opposed to effort, but demerit”? Some people say, “If you believe in the grace of God, you shouldn’t have to work for your salvation?” Oh, really? Where does that come from in the Bible? ...Exactly.
Effort is always involved, whether it be this constant effort to drive sin out, to shut the front door and keep that out, or whether it’s the effort to work at this level. Christianity—grace—require effort. Grace and effort work together. Again, not for merit. It’s not for “okay, you worked hard, so now you can come into the kingdom of heaven,” but just simply to participate, as you’ll see here. The Elder Ephraim:
Struggle, my child, for God’s road is narrow and thorny, not inherently (in other words, not because God made it that way) but because of our passions. Since we want to eradicate from our heart the passions, which are like thorny roots (thorny roots; not just roots: thorny roots) so that we may plant useful plants, naturally we shall toil greatly and our hands will bleed and our face will sweat. Sometimes even despair will overcome us, seeing roots and passions everywhere.
I think thorny roots, I mean, sometimes pulling roots out is pretty hard. Imagine you’re ripping your fingers apart at the same time that you’re trying to pull these things out. He’s creating a picture here of violent effort that is being involved.
With our hope in Christ, the repairer of our souls, let us diligently work at clearing the earth of our heart. Patience, mourning, humility, obedience, cutting off of one’s will—all these virtues help cultivate it. We must apply our strength, all of our strength, and then God, seeing our labor, comes and blesses it, and thus we make progress.
Take courage, for the toil is temporary and ephemeral, whereas the reward in heaven is great. Struggle and be vigilant with your thoughts. Keep a firm hold on hope, for this shows that your house is founded on the rock, and the rock is our Christ. Do not feed your passions by yielding to them so that you do not suffer pain and affliction later. Labor now as much as you can, because otherwise if the passions are not tended to, in time they become second nature, and then try and deal with them. Whereas now if you fight against them lawfully as we advise you, you will be freed and have happiness by the grace of God.
The thing that should preoccupy us above all is how to cleanse the heart from the passions and how to evade some passion or vice. The visitations of grace that God sends us from time to time for consolation do not play an important role, because they come and go, but, ah! those passions, they are like roots with thorns. How much toil, how much pain, what tears, what prayers are necessary for a person to find slight relief? It is a real martyrdom.
I pray to the merciful God that he will show you the path of salvation and guide you as a hart to the springs of living water of refreshment. Man is full of passions, shortcomings, etc., and in order to be freed of them, he must engage in a bloody battle. Once he wins, with God’s help, he will receive here and in this life the promise of the future marriage with the Lamb who was ruthlessly slaughtered by cruel hands accursed by God.
Hearing the Elder speak to us in this way reminds us how seriously we need to approach this spiritual labor. The passions must be uprooted from the garden of our souls, and we must struggle against the forming of new ones. We must till the ground and work at clearing it, that God might plant in us the virtues and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit. When he speaks of laboring unto sweat and blood, we understand him to mean that the spiritual labor is hard work or true struggle, or, as he says, a true martyrdom.
There is no entry into the kingdom of heaven without struggle. As one of the Fathers said, “If we could gain the kingdom by sitting on feathered beds, eating bon-bons, then we would do so, but we cannot. We can only enter in through struggle.” And it’s struggle every step of the way. But that’s the thing we need to realize, and that’s the thing that we need to apply to our everyday Orthodox living. Everything that we do is important. These aren’t just a bunch of add-ons. This isn’t like Christianity with a bunch of stuff put on and decorations. Orthodoxy is mere Christianity. It is life. It is the reflection of the life of God, united with our life.
We need to struggle against our provocations, realizing, “I am not my thoughts.” If I have the most evil, wicked thoughts, that doesn’t mean that I’m the most evil, wicked person. I’m just a person who’s been assaulted, who’s been assailed; it’s not my fault. Disturbance: need to start watching it here. Coupling: win this fight, get out of there. In the Shepherd of Hermas, one of the oldest Christian documents, it says that every person has two angels: one, a good angel that sits upon their shoulder, and the other, a demon. Of course, how many Chuck Jones cartoons have we seen? It’s usually Bugs Bunny and evil Bugs or something.
But actually that comes from early Christian beliefs, that all these… There’s this thing going on where the demons are putting thoughts and suggestions into our minds, and the holy angel is trying to lead us away from that, lead us into truth. And, golly, don’t you know that? I mean, every day of your life, you go through stuff, you go through thoughts, you struggle with thoughts; maybe you give into thoughts, maybe you form the habit to give into thoughts that burn into your soul, and as Scripture says, “Can man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?” We need to struggle to be pure, and recognize that there are these various steps that we can go through very quickly that lead us to the building of passions, but we can also slow that or even stop it, and free us a bit more to work on these passions.
And the struggle, this martyrdom that the Elder Ephraim talks about, it’s intimidating to us. We don’t like that kind of talk. We like microwave Christianity: “heat and eat” kind of thing. Throughout most of human history, people have had to work just to survive. You couldn’t eat bread unless you grew the wheat and ground it and baked it and I don’t know what else, because I don’t do that, because to me it’s just a lot of work: slicing the bread, you know. [Laughter] But we like things easy. We don’t really like hard or honest work, and unfortunately this really has translated into contemporary Christianity, to where Christianity’s supposed to be easy. You’re just supposed to believe in Jesus and you’re saved—boom. It’s not that way. Look at your own souls; it’s not that way.
And people say, “How come I’m born again but I keep on sinning, but the Bible says we’re not supposed to sin?” Yeah, well, it takes work. It takes cooperation with the grace of God. Not for merit, not so God will love us—God already loves us—not so God will forgive us—God already forgives us—but so that we can clear this junk out and allow the grace of God and the virtues that we desire to be planted in us by God. It’s like the Elder says: we’ll do all this work, and then the grace of God will visit us and bless it and make it worthwhile.
But this is our struggle, particularly since we are sinners, enslaved to many passions. We are fallen, and upon many of us provocation and disturbance lead to coupling and assent and an increase in sins. We are broken and the despairing who weep and lament over our tragic condition. We still remain slow to turn to God. Many times, people come to confession in tears, but we’re not willing to change. We’re not willing to put in this effort. Sometimes we are. Sometimes we don’t know what we need to do, but hopefully this helps.
In regards to these six stages of temptation, we need to realize with the help of God we can start taking back our lives. We can start cooperating with God in the reshaping of our human being. Even simple things. I mean, like I say, everything in Orthodoxy has a purpose, has a meaning. Everything that we do is there to help us, even simple things like what Martin Luther once said—forgive me if you don’t like Martin Luther, but he did say something interesting—he said, “It’s not my fault if the bird lands on my head, but it is my fault if I let her build her nest there.” [Laughter]
We can stop that from happening. We can stop these sins from growing worse in us, growing deeper in us, and we gain this strength and this courage and this virtue and this grace from God, applying it to the even deeper struggle of uprooting the passions. Can we see how that stopping temptation is really relatively easy at the earliest stage, but becomes more difficult the further we get into it and the more that we allow it over and over and over again to control us? This means that we certainly need to give great attention to those early stages, being watchful, as the Fathers say, over our thoughts.
I think that St. Paul said, “Take every thought captive.” How simple is that, I mean, to say? [Laughter] And yet, we realize, if I take every thought captive… Again, here’s a castle. Some guy comes in and says, “I’m the bread salesman.” “Oh, yeah? What’s that sword under your tunic?” Look at… consider your thoughts. Your thoughts determine your lives. Consider your thoughts. “Should I invite this into my soul or should I not? Should I reject it?” This kind of watchfulness, this is very… It’s easy; the only hard part, as I say, is that it requires perseverance, remembrance, struggle.
But we need to get in the habit of shooing the birds off our heads, I think, and keeping our minds on the things above, so that we might recognize the provocation or disturbance of our intellect when it comes, and quickly turn it back into a peaceful, godly meditation, to avoid following the rest of this procedure. And then the uprooting of passions, this is something we’re hopefully applying ourselves to in the life of the Church through honest self-reflection and self-evaluation. Again, I’m not bad, but the sin within me is bad, and coming to confession, and receiving perhaps penance or instruction, and struggling, struggling.
If your passion is hatred, your struggle is to love, and so on. But this is the basic teaching, and, as I said, it’s a very important teaching, and if you really remember [it] and start putting it into practice, you’ll find it to be a great help. We’re no longer just going to listen to these Scriptures—“Go and sin no more”—and go: “What the heck? How do I do that?” It is possible, yes.
Q2: I have a question. Fr. Hopko… and I may not be quoting him right, but he says that God is our lover of us who sometimes allows us to be wounded and then hides from us, hoping that we will find him. And I’m wondering if some of these things can be turned around in the sense that when we repent, we become provoked by God to seek him. We’re disturbed from our sinful fallenness, and we desire, we begin to desire to couple with him and then give assent to him, and that this whole process can be turned around in a repentance, and then God brings us to him, even through this sort of stage-process.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, because our natural inclination should be to God, and not to take pleasure in sin. So this is where… This is a marking or a map, a road-map, of our broken responses, but in the same way, yeah, we should respond to God, if our desire was to please God. So it really requires the redirection of our will, which can only happen through repentance. You’re right. If you’re living a pure life, pure heart, then evil is immediately disturbing, and you know it doesn’t belong there. But, as I said before, how do you know that if your heart isn’t pure?
I had a young man come up to me before confession once and say—because you know how in church God visits us in different ways and puts different thoughts in our minds and our hearts—this person had heard the Beatitudes for forever; he said, “All of a sudden I heard the verse, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to see God.’ ” Sometimes it takes moments like that for us to realize: yeah, this really is important stuff. We do need to make our hearts pure. Again, it’s God who does it, but if we don’t… God gives his gifts to those who want them, and if we disregard [them], then we’re not worthy. Yes, sir.
Q3: I was wondering if you could sort of expand on that, the dark chasm sort of between coupling and assent. So, in coupling we start engaging in delusion and taking on… playing with the fantasy of this temptation, and we start to sort of enter into that mindplay: living it, giving ourselves over into the action that takes place in assent, but we sure like to go back to that dark cave and play in there. Could you just talk about that dark place that we like to go and play in, but we haven’t necessarily acted in a sin, but we entertain those thoughts quite happily.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, I can, because I’ve been in that cave a few times myself, as we all have. It’s a dangerous place to be, because these things… This isn’t mathematics. We’re dealing with living and very evil beings, and we go into that dark cave of trying to go… playing with the sin, going back and forth, “what if I did this?” How do you know you won’t be snatched by the demons? I mean, you don’t know. You hope at that point the grace of God will rescue you and bring you to your senses. This is a dangerous place to be, although some people say, “Yeah, we talk about a fantasy life. I was just pretending what it would be like to date Bo Derek or something.” Talk about a fantasy. She wishes. [Laughter]
But the Fathers have taught that fantasy is the realm of the demons. They’re always dealing in that realm of fantasy. “Did God really say, ‘Thou shalt not eat of the tree?’ ” It’s the bending of reality. It’s just a bad, bad place to be. So if we find ourselves in that stage of toying with something, we ought to get out of there as quick as we can.
Q4: I have about a hundred questions. [Laughter] When you talked about passion, you said that it dominates your life…
Fr. Michael: It can, yeah.
Q4: Okay, so [are] there like, degrees of passion, because when you talked about the Fathers were talking about, rooting passions out, my first response was: “Well this sin doesn’t dominate my life; does that mean it’s not a passion?” You know what I’m saying?
Fr. Michael: Yeah.
Q4: Can you clarify? How does… Where does spiritual blindness… What’s happening?
Fr. Michael: I’m sure that’s part of it. Again, the fact that… I don’t know what it is about us, that we like to pigeon-hole everything, but if we have a particular passion, it affects us in more ways than we know and in more than just one area. It’s like tentacles throughout our whole humanity. And a passion in one area can manifest itself in many ways: lack of love, lack of commitment, any kinds of things.
To say that a passion dominates our life is like… It’s not just the particular sin that we most associate with that passion. It can dominate in a myriad of ways. The point… Are there degrees? I guess. I’m not that knowledgeable about that except to know that we really should, when we identify these things, we should take seriously the job of fighting them, fighting at least what we see, fighting at least what we know, whatever that major sin is that manifests itself. We should really endeavor to fight that, and not just say that we’re fighting it. People say, “Well, I’ve been struggling with such-and-such.” Boy, that’s a term that we use a lot. Sounds like you were doing it. [Laughter] Struggling means you’re not doing it, right, or do I have the wrong dictionary?
Yeah, we need to struggle against those things, and that’s really what he’s talking about in terms of the uprooting and the bleeding fingers and all this kind of thing, because it’s hard to deny ourselves what we want, but if we do that, then we find healing as those tentacles withdraw, healing on all kinds of areas of our life that we didn’t even know were sick.
Q5: Father, so, for the coupling phase, I’ve got a question.
Fr. Michael: Yeah.
Q5: What about those times when you’re really struggling to get out of that phase, and you’re doing the Jesus Prayer and you’re doing whatever, but you just keep getting bombarded—do you have any recommendations for a process to help you besides just making the [sign of the] Cross and the Jesus Prayer if it’s just coming at you even more?
Fr. Michael: Well, yeah, a couple of things: one, to follow the counsel of the Church, the holy Fathers of the Church, which is… When I mentioned memorizing psalms, things like this, this is an important part of Orthodox spiritual formation. We don’t always take that seriously, but we should be memorizing psalms. The psalter is the prayerbook of the Church; always has been, even when the Church was called Israel. We need to use these prayers, and whatever else the Church recommends to us: fasting, whatever.
The second, really—and maybe the second one should be the first one—your father confessor. He’s the first person that you need to turn to, because I can give you general advice—“Here’s what the Church says”—but we all need specific counsel and direction, and we all need obedience, because that’s a big part. Humility, obedience, is how we gain great ground. You only have that if there’s a person involved: your spiritual father.
A third thing I would say is: get used to the idea that it’s struggle, because that’s just what it is. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance. Again, take some consolation in the fact that the more that we win, that we’re involved with the help of God with that process of redeeming our will, it becomes easier, maybe, to say no next time. Unless the devils just gang up on you and say BOOM!; that happens, too, but that’s why we have spiritual fathers and places like confession to go to.
But, again, if we take these things seriously, fantasy, toying around with ideas, playing around with sin in our mind—really, really, really dangerous, bad. A “don’t do it” kind of thing. And keep reminding ourselves of these things; I think that’s helpful, too. Anything else? Scott’s getting his exercise today.
Q6: I just need a little clarification on… actually what it sounded like you’re agreeing with what Dr. Rick said over there, because I’m kind of confused by my understanding, also from Fr. Hopko, and it sounded like he was saying that God can provoke us and move away so that we seek him, and if I remember correctly, what I thought I’ve heard is God can’t provoke evil—it’s not possible—and that God is never away from us; he’s always there; we’re either looking toward the sun or looking toward the shadows. So I’m very confused about that, so between the two of you, if you could please clarify that for me?
Fr. Michael: Yeah, I’ll let Dr. Luke clarify his point first, and then I’ve got something to say.
Dr. Luke: Yeah, I think I had a question regarding that. It’s that, in the view of the struggle that we have, that God seeks to provide a way for us. He provides a way through his Spirit, working in our lives. And God can provoke us in our state of struggle, can disturb us from our state of struggle, our intoxication with our struggle, and provoke us and call us away and disturb us.
Fr. Michael: Call us away from what?
Dr. Luke: From our struggle in sin, the idea that in Romans, where Paul talks about the life of the Spirit, that is opposed to the struggle that we have against sin, that we haven’t… we can’t… the sin in us, we can’t fulfill the law of the flesh, but the law of the Spirit that God is constantly calling us away from that. And in our woundedness, we have to decide in our will to seek him.
Fr. Michael: Yeah. Of course, in Paul’s discourse on the spirit versus the flesh, we understand that by “flesh” he does not mean our humanity; he’s referring to the fallen aspects of the human condition. We need to understand that, because he wasn’t a Gnostic. He wasn’t saying spirit good, flesh bad. But as far as God provoking us to evil…
Dr. Luke: I’m not talking about provoking us to evil, [but] provoking us to goodness, right.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, which is what I think Marilyn was wondering if you’d… Is that what you were asking?
Fr. Michael: Okay, now we see our communication problem here.
Dr. Luke: Yeah.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, God does what God wills. God is consistent with himself. God is love, and his every action towards humanity and creation is motivated by love, and he can have no other motivation. God will sometimes hide himself, as the Elder even said in the quote I read: we struggle, we fight, we weep, we mourn, and from time to time God maybe gives us a little grace, but then he withdraws and we’re left to struggle.
Of course, God is always with us, and the idea is that we’re not to make an idol of his consolation, like: “If I struggle…” In everything else, it’s like: “If I struggle in my garden, I’m going to have a beautiful garden by spring. I struggle with raising my child; he’s going to become a doctor and make me rich or something.” [Laughter] I guess I didn’t struggle enough with Sean. [Laughter]
But with this, it’s not so easy to measure our progress. God is always with us, but we shouldn’t be doing this, as it were, to feel better about ourselves or to feel like we’re holy or to feel like we’ve arrived, but we should do it because, first of all, it’s a necessary work. As I said at the very beginning, it’s pleasing to God; when we strive to have a pure heart, it pleases God, and out of gratitude, we should… He’s concerned about these things that we maybe aren’t so much concerned about—our souls! And to purify our souls, to please God: this is a good thing. We need to pursue this.
The Fathers often say that in the midst of the struggle, sometimes it feels as if God is right there with us, helping us, and we take pleasure in consolation; sometimes it feels like God is a million miles away, but he’s always with us. We don’t measure our progress by feelings anyway. I guess this is kind of abstract, but I thought it sounded pretty cool… [Laughter] Who? Hi, Erin.
Erin: Hello. I have a question. My daughter, nine, she is more aware of struggling spiritually, and some days are kind of a struggle for her often. That’s the day her brother bothers her the most or she is the grumpiest. She’s sensitive. I don’t want to necessarily be like: “The devil is attacking you.”
Fr. Michael: Yeah.
Erin: Because that won’t leave her mind. That would just be a very… probably not the best visual to give her.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, that’s the stuff that nightmares are made of for little kids.
Erin: Exactly. So we’ve done some things: she’s started confession, sometimes the night before she’ll sleep with her icon. She’s doing the Jesus Prayer. She’ll say, “The Jesus Prayer’s great, but I don’t… I still struggle on Sundays” or “I cross myself, but I still struggle.” Do you have any suggestions, a more simplistic way to explain this without giving her the image of Satan physically attacking her?
Fr. Michael: Yeah, yeah. Boy, she doesn’t like that… Okay. You know, I think it’s good to establish patterns so kids can start… I mean, the parents help by maybe tracing the lines, but the kids need to start figuring these things out eventually. Struggling to come to church on Sunday. It’s not just circumstances. It’s not just “I can’t find the right ribbon.” There is a devil that wants to just, first of all, prevent us from coming to church at all, but if he can’t do that, he wants to disturb us, so that when we come to church, we’re just all: “Augh! My brother was just terrible today. Where’s that bully when I need him?”
And just generally helping kids see: “You see how hard it is to come to church on Sunday? But we want to please God.” Creating that whole idea that we’re going for God’s sake, and keep remembering God, keep focusing on God. Then we have to give ourselves that same little talk all the time, because we forget; we get upset at people. “Oh, if I have to go to church today and listen to that person sing again…” Hey, we’re going for God. It depends on a child’s maturity. You don’t want to create this idea that, well, frankly, that there are demons everywhere, even though it’s true, but you’ve got to wait until they’re mature enough to understand and not be afraid. But always, I think, emphasize the love of God, the goodness of God, the non-coincidence that we struggle, maybe with our brothers or our sisters or with our parents or with obedience, like obedience to God. Connecting things in this way towards the positive I think is a help. Does that come anywhere close? Okay.
Q6: Back to the thought about God not being with us or allowing this or allowing that, are we closer when something happens? Sue and I lived this, and when my son died and went to be in paradise, I had a choice to make. I could be angry or I could say, “God, you are merciful,” because he didn’t do it. He didn’t kill my son, but he allowed it, and it was to see if I was going to make it through. And you know what? It is a struggle, but that’s the only hope I had, so I did make it through.
One thing I think that goes along with that is remember the Lord when he was dying. He said, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” For that moment, Jesus was so filled with my sin and our sins that I think God had to turn his back, because he maybe couldn’t look at him at that moment. But we can struggle; we can make it, because that’s our only hope.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, it is. The consequence of living in this world, that there is pain and sorrow and struggling. I mean, there’s no exit from this world apart from death. But to understand that all things are in God’s hands and that even death has been redeemed—we have no enemies remaining. Again?
Q7: I know. Forgive me. One of the questions that I had is: what motivates us to want to do the hard things that are required? But then, when Erin was asking about her kids, one thing that I find helpful is to help them to try to understand what love is, because it requires sacrifice, and they can really understand that if you give them examples of things that they want in life. We can educate them what love is, and then perhaps help them to see that [their] giving up stuff is a good thing. So I’m wondering if that… what we do with our kids, we show them sort of the positive stuff…
Fr. Michael: I think so. The fact that we… We often say that we are living upside-down in this world, and so, as an example of that, sin seems pleasurable, but it brings death. Love is painful, but it brings redemption and life eternal. Love involving sacrifice is always painful. No good deed goes unpunished, but every good deed requires some struggle, some pain, some surrender, some sacrifice. So everything is upside-down and backwards.
Scott: I think we’ve got time for one more question. I think, Dn. Tom, you’re on the last of the list here.
Fr. Michael: Not Dn. Tom! [Laughter]
Q1: Father, if it’s okay, I just wanted to add a comment to the one Gary asked a few minutes ago about how, when we’re really involved in that back-and-forth struggle… I think we need to think of ourselves, to a certain degree, as warriors, and we don’t—warriors don’t go onto the battlefield without a strategy. If there’s something that is a struggle, you need to recognize it and do everything to avoid it.
A couple simple examples: maybe a trivial one, if anger when you’re driving is a frustration and that causes a passion and you get out of bed earlier, leave 15 minutes earlier for work, so you’re not quite as agitated when somebody cuts you off on the road. Maybe a bigger struggle: I remember one time one of our guys at work… the IT people figured out the guy was going onto really bad websites, and I sat down with him, and he… It was actually really refreshing. He was a neat Christian guy, and he just said, “You know what, Tom? I am addicted to porn, and you need to take this, take the internet away from me.”
So that’s something I just would really encourage, if there’s something that’s a struggle, put a filter on your struggle, or, doggone, throw your computer away if it’s that big of a struggle. My dad used to say, “Avoid the internet. Don’t walk by the pornography shop if that’s a struggle for you.” I would just… I would encourage: be strategic. And also, just like what we’re doing today, we’re all here as brothers and sisters, encouraging one another, and we should surround ourselves with people that are going to help us on the way to salvation. If alcohol’s a struggle, you don’t want to be hanging out with your buddies that are all: “Hey, let’s go have a beer!” You’ve got to hang with people that are going to encourage you in the path. I would just encourage: be strategic.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, and you bring up a good point, because, particularly, let’s say, denial—nobody is an alcoholic; they just like to drink. Nobody’s got a drug problem; they just like to party. We are so good at denial, and it comes all the way down. Like I say with the pornography thing: you’ve got an issue with pornography on the computer? Do something about it. But we never want to. We always want to take these little half-step measures. That’s like going to the bar only on days that end with “y” or something. We’re not willing to take it on seriously, I guess is what I’m trying to say, and that’s really the important thing. When it comes to these matters, we do have to take them seriously.
Ruth alluded to, a moment ago: where do we get the conviction to do this, to overturn these things that we love? This is, again, a little hard to make it child-friendly for Helena, because we’re talking the adult level here. The Fathers say the remembrance of our death is the greatest help. What happens, let’s say, when you’re tempted to do something, especially something really bad. You’re going to do something really bad. You just suspend all reality. You forget about consequences, and you most definitely forget about the fact that you’re going to die and face God. Then that allows you to go out and commit this sin, and then afterwards the devil reminds you, “Oh, ho ho!”
Well, the Fathers teach that the constant remembrance of death—not in a morbid way, but just the fact that we are going to die, we are going to face God—this is what fills us with enough fear that we’re willing to walk the straight and narrow. Again, hard to translate to the child level. But if we just remind them, for example, of consequences—“If you don’t clean your room, you don’t get to watch TV”—it’s building in them that same idea, so it’s not so easy for us to forget.
But the forgetting of death is one of the worst things that can happen to a Christian struggler, for somebody who wants to take seriously holiness. If you forget your death or refuse to think of it or put it out of your mind and not actually think of it every day—this is why I need to go pray, because I’ve got to do it while I have the chance, because I’m not going to live forever. This is why I need to be righteous. This is why I need to struggle with this thing. This is why I need to stop giving into my pleasure and do what’s right: because I’m not going to live forever, and I’m going to face God.
So that’s why this is important: because it’s the way to do it. [Laughter]