Monday, April 26, 2010

Planting and Harvesting

We have all heard the old saying, “You reap what you sow.” This principle has more influence in our lives than we often think. In simple ways, we can see this principle at work: generally, if you work hard, you experience a good benefit; and if you’re lazy, you don’t. But we have to preface this principle by “generally.” If fact, many of us might argue that “generally” is not really the right word. Many of us have experienced situations in which no matter how hard you work, you can’t get much benefit. And we have all known people who seem to have all sorts of advantages in life, so they don’t have to work very hard to receive lots of benefits.

The fact is that life is complicated. What I harvest depends a great deal on what I plant, but it also depends a great deal on what my parents and grand parents have planted. We all spend a great deal of our adult lives pulling the weeds from the garden of our life, weeds that were planted (knowingly or unknowingly) by our parent, grand parents and even by many generations of ancestors. And if we are wise, we realize that we ourselves have passed on weeds of various sorts to our children and grandchildren--calling for a certain amount of humility and compassion when our children and grandchildren don’t always turn out exactly as we had hoped.

And matters get even more complicated. Seeds are sown in the garden of our life by our friends, teachers, and enemies (see Matt. 13:25), by the movies we see, books we read and music we listen to. Some of the seeds sprout quickly. Some wait for years until just the right combination of circumstances come along and suddenly anger, lust, cynicism, fear, or rebellion spring up seemingly out of nowhere. Seeds are powerful and don’t just go away by themselves.

And while we cannot control all of the seeds sown in the garden of our life--you don’t get to choose your family and are often trapped in a circle of friendships and work related relationships that cannot be easily changed--nevertheless, we are not powerless. Seeds are ideas, thoughts that spring up in the garden of our mind. We can decide to pull them out or let them grow. We can get help from the Church, from counselors, from wise friends. To a large extent we can still manage the garden of our lives, even if we cannot control everything that springs up. We can water and care for what we want to grow, and we can do our best not to water but to pull out of our lives those things that we do not want to grow.

One more thing. Our garden (our life) is not just about us as individuals. What we let grow will produce fruit and seeds in the gardens of those around us, in the gardens of our children and grand children. If I nurture plants (thoughts, actions, disciplines, practices) that produce peace, kindness, gentleness, self control, etc, then the seeds of such virtues will be planted in lives of the people around me and in those who follow after me. It’s not just about me. Spiritual life and spiritual disciplines are not merely a matter of “my” relationship with God. They are about loving my neighbor. The work I do to cultivate my inner life today will bear fruit not only in my life, but more importantly, in the lives of those who are near me--my neighbors, my family, my colleagues, my friends.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Left and Right and Poison

One of the metaphors commonly employed by the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church has to do with erring to the left or to the right. Jesus has called us to walk the narrow way, to pass through the narrow (strait) gate. We err when we do not walk in the narrow path, which means to live according to His commandments. However, we can also err by tending too far to the left or right in walking this narrow way. Consistently for the Fathers of the Church, the left has represented leniency while the right has represented strictness.

However, there is also another way we err in walking the narrow path. We err when we judge others who seem to be either too strict or too lenient, too far to the right or too far to the letf as they attempt to walk the narrow way.

It seems to me that one of the reasons why we judge one another in this way is that we are insecure. We feel that if the level of strictness in our lives were appropriate, then others would be as strict (or lenient) as we think ourselves to be. It is as if “love your neighbor” could be clearly and consistently applied if only we could all agree on the definition of the terms—“But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus. But the narrow way is not lived by agreeing on narrow definitions.

Human beings are persons in the image of God. We share a common humanity and yet differ each in his or her callings, gifts and abilities—and perhaps even more importantly—in our wounds and weaknesses, for these are what are healed in following Christ’s commandments. A wise spiritual father knows this. He or she [for my first Orthodox spiritual father was a mother] is like a doctor who prescribes medicine and therapy based on a patient’s particular diseases and particular constitution; however, the medicine that would heal one can kill another, the physical therapy that can restore one would break the bones of another.

As we walk together this narrow way of Christ’s commandments, let us each trust the advice of our own spiritual father; and let us each trust the other to the care of their spiritual father. Let us assume that the one who seems too strict or lenient is merely following the advice of his or her confessor. Let us assume that this difference is because the other is better, higher, healthier, than we are. By taking the lower seat, we save ourselves from the poison of judging others.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


“Let there be banished hence dejection born of passions, and thoughts that rise like tempests. In this wise shall the springtime of faith sprout up and blossom forth.” (Matins Aposticha, Thursday of Thomas week)

Here we are in the springtime. Everything is blooming--the time of budding has already past. And yet we can miss it: not merely the season of the year, but the season of the Church. Thoughts besiege us. Dejection is always near. The passions don’t go away. But where we put our focus makes all the difference.

I can sit here all day looking at the glowing screen before me and never walk outside to smell the blossoms and see the new life pushing out of everything living (the first malard ducklings of the season are scurrying around the pond now). And even if I see it, if my mind pays too much attention to the mental tempests, I will not see it.

Every living thing is a revelation, a disclosing of the mind of God, of the Word of God. In that God spoke everything into existence, everything--especially every living thing--reveals the Word of God: the life-creating Grace, Energy, Life of God. If only we would pay attention, we would “read” the Word of God everywhere.

But paying attention is not easy. What’s easy is to allow ourselves to be captivated by passions, by “thoughts that rise like tempests,” by the dejection we so easily slip into when we realize that the day was spent running very fast and getting nowhere.

But the Church reminds us today to banish such things, not to allow them to remain in the kingdom of our heart. They will appear, they will try to stay, but we have the power (and the responsibility) to banish them. They are the thorny brambles that choke out life.

And if we will do this, if we will banish dejection and the tempest of confusing and conflicting thoughts, then the promise is that “the springtime of faith [shall] sprout up and blossom forth.” I could use a little springtime in my soul. I bet you could too.