Everyday Holiness

Sanctification is not always an earth-shattering affair.

More often, I think, sanctification and spiritual growth come through the (perhaps seemingly menial) tasks, actions, decisions, thoughts, and words that populate our daily lives.

We recently bought a basil plant and placed it on our balcony. After a few days, I harvested the leaves to use while cooking dinner, leaving the plant nothing more than a bare, green stalk with one or two small leaves near the top. Days passed by, and for a while it seemed like the leaves weren’t going to grow back. From day to day, I couldn’t see a noticeable difference in the plant. After a couple of weeks, however, it was clear that the remaining leaves had grown larger, and new ones were beginning to sprout. I couldn’t see a difference on any given day, but the growth was happening nonetheless, and over time it became clear.

Most change and growth in life seems to occur this way: it almost sneaks up on us, and we don’t realize we’ve changed until after it’s already happened. But most good and beneficial change won’t happen at all unless we work towards it, consistently, every day. I believe the work of sanctification is, at least in part, found in our small, daily toils and responsibilities, and it’s the smaller tasks that can be the most difficult because they are easier to dismiss as unimportant.

I came across a quotation that paraphrases something C.S. Lewis says about love in Mere Christianity, and it reveals the combination of forces necessary to sustain any virtuous or holy thing:

“Love is not merely a feeling: it is a deep unity maintained by will, deliberately strengthened by habit, and reinforced by grace.”

We are responsible for the first two thingswill and habitand the grace comes from God. As an illustration, this notion is easily applicable to marriage. The reality is that the state of my marriage twenty-five or fifty years from now depends upon my husband’s and my daily actions and behaviors in the present. It probably won’t be one big, monumentous thing that alters or defines the course of our relationship. More likely, it will be the culmination of all the little things we do (or don’t do) along the way, combined with the grace of God.

While marriage is an apt example, I believe the quotation above applies not just to love (marital or otherwise) but also to every aspect of our daily lives. To find grace and virtue and sanctification in the everyday, we must have the will to continue in our work, maintain the habitual actions necessary to strengthen ourselves and our relationships, and trust in God’s grace to sustain us. When you think about it this way, repetitive, everyday tasks start to seem kind of miraculous.

In turn, this thinking speaks to the importance of maintaining a daily prayer and Scripture study habit: the five or ten minutes I spend each day seeking communion with God may not seem like much in the moment, but it’s a habit that will strengthen my spirit and my relationship with the Lord over time.

Much of my thinking here is inspired by a blog post by Janelle Aijian titled “On the Road with the Noonday Demon” that a couple of my Facebook friends shared recently. It’s short and worth a read, so I won’t rehash every detail here, but the overall message of the piece is that Christians may be easily distracted from everyday tasks, dismissing them as less important than more exciting, “meaningful” activities (evangelizing, community service, etc.). However, the difficult work of committing consistently to our everyday tasks is in fact the root of growth and sanctification. As Aijian notes, early Christian monastics referred to this struggle as the “noonday demon,” that is, the “tedium or perturbation of heart” regarding their everyday work that came upon them around midday.

The author references Pascal to explain the heart of this difficulty: it is the struggle between our inherently sinful nature and “our restlessness for God and for holiness.” She continues:

“We were created to be perfectly holy and perfectly happy, in communion with God and each other, but at present we are full of error and sin and trying not to think about it. It’s Pascal’s contention that most of what we spend our lives doing is intended to distract us from this fundamental wrongness in our spirit, this knowledge that we are capable of being completely happy, but because of the sin rooted deep within us we are always subverting ourselves, preventing ourselves from experiencing the unencumbered joy we were made for.”

Striving to live virtuously in the everyday forces us to face up to our weaknesses, fears, biases, inadequacies, and bad habits. Our everyday roles and responsibilities as friends, spouses, parents, students, teachers, employees, or leaders can be both frightening and boring (doing the laundry can be as much a part of being a supportive spouse as being emotionally and physically available). Sometimes we feel like we’re doing a terrible job, and a lot of the time we’re just faking it. Often it would be far easier to abandon these tasks than to commit to return to them, day after day, and try to do better. Settling into our daily work can be quite challenging because we must constantly fight against our corrupted nature in order to endeavor any sort of virtue. Aijian explains:

“When we settle down to work it’s easy to be unsettled. Consistent work is not distracting. Consistent work, our own work, is quiet, and it requires a quietness of spirit to accomplish. The desert fathers moved into the wilderness and lived simplified lives not in order to remove themselves from temptation, but to confront the twists and turns in their spirits that only became apparent when they refused to be distracted.”

It’s difficult, and not fun, to sit down and own up to your shortcomings and sins. We begin any virtuous work (including the work of everyday living) having already fallen short, so it’s easy to get discouraged and opt to think about something else instead. When we distract ourselves by checking email, running errands, working overtime, going out with friends, or doing any other activity, it’s easy to believe that we’re actually just fine and that we don’t really need God’s grace or forgiveness right now. None of those activities are inherently bad, but they become harmful when used as distractions from our spiritual state of being and the everyday work that has been allotted to us. To quote Aijian again, “The noonday demon is perfectly happy to get you doing something, so long as it isn’t the thing that is yours to do right now.”

If we continually distract ourselves and ignore our faults and sins, then we are unable to address them, ask God to forgive them, and work to eradicate them. When we remove ourselves from distractions, we can come before God more honestly, more humbly, and in a better state to receive God’s grace and let our hearts be changed and worked upon by Him. And that miraculous, divine work of forgiveness, sanctification, and growth starts today, in, as Aijian says so well at the end of her piece, “the simple, monotonous, often unobserved, difficult, profoundly good work of living.”

Image via Flickr.

Put Your Face in the Dirt and Start Struggling

Any Christian who can’t think of a fistful of sins he or she is struggling against is probably not in a good place.

In the war against hell in our hearts, there exists a continuum of three possibilities: our defeat, our struggle, or our perfection. We lazily assume perfection is our default disposition. Subconsciously, we believe we have two or three things we’re struggling with, but the rest of the seven deadlies or the ten commandments are probably in good shape in our souls.

Rarely does the modern Christian challenge herself with the possibility that the areas of temptation with which she struggles are the areas in which salvation is being enacted. This is working out salvation with fear and trembling. This is sanctification.

Kneeling down at bedside with hands clasped in prayer, we will confess those little things or big things, once again or for the first time. We label pride each time, if we’re honest. We say anger or despair or this or that. And, we ask God to deliver us.

If we believe that the fight against sin is worthwhile, we might lean in a little further and ask an uncomfortable question at this point in our prayer. Instead of only telling God our sins, we might add a request that God tell us some of our sins, too.

That suggestion terrifies me, of course. After all, there’s a great, unexplored chasm between the sublime glory of my God and the festering evil of my heart. I am not virtuous enough to summon the faith necessary to save me from the despair of really, truly seeing the state of my soul in entirety. There may be things I’m not ready to start struggling against. God in His mercy veils even myself from myself, disclosing a little bit at a time. By breaking it into manageable chunks, He helps us build the faith necessary to avoid unbearable sorrow as the next little cloudy wisp of evil floats out of our hearts.

So goes the lesson. So goes the movement from bored defeat to struggling toward perfection. The little temptations against which I am not struggling are likely to be the areas of my soul which bear the fewest of God’s fingerprints.

The areas of our soul that seem bright and shiny are suspect. The areas that seem noxious attest to God’s presence in our lives, because without God we could not have identified their rankness. A moment of pause and numbness or a day in which one can remember no wrong action smells less of perfection than stagnation.

This is because perfection, sadly, is not our default disposition. We live in a state of perpetual stumbling, and the height of Christ is the most visible to the man who knows his face is flat on the ground. All men’s faces are, of course, flat on the ground from our stumbling. But, it is only the ones who realize it that can cast their eyes upward and perceive the great bridge of the cross and the lowest of the heights of heaven. (These men are the happiest.)

These men are capable of realizing the lowness of their state and their utter need for God. And, from there, they can see the first roots of temptation. They can immediately call on the Holy Spirit to rip the sin away. And, who with the knowledge of his position, with the view of God’s glory, could possibly hesitate to cry for help at the instant of temptation’s onset? Who can be proud with his unworthy face in the dirt and his loving, glorious, all-powerful God stooping down to lift him up?

From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Three weeks ago I wrote about Christians having to live with TV and pop culture that is frankly yucky. I said that even though pop culture is often disgusting and rotten, Christians who are moving from death to life in Christ have to engage with it because 1. there is some good in it still and 2. they do not really have a choice not to have some level of interaction with it. In a discussion on Facebook, someone pointed out that I focused too much on tolerating evil than on moving toward good. Here I want to properly emphasize why Christians should learn to deal with stuff that is yucky and gross: the point is not merely to prolong our existence but to endure long enough to introduce what is truly good, free of taint and impurity. With that, I will turn once again to the video game Fallout 3. Continue reading From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Learning to Not Be Judas

There are certain people in the Gospel that Scripture calls us to identify with; more often than not, the people that Christ exalts, forgives, and heals—both physically and spiritually—are not model citizens. They are not well-liked and are often relegated to the fringes of society. Some common examples come to mind: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers. They are both people with whom Christ interacts and characters in his parables, and through both examples we learn how to become righteous and how to interact with God. It is these broken, dirty, unjust people to which Christ tends specifically, and they become models for all believers.

For example, in Luke 18 Christ tells the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The first, an allegedly knowledgeable, righteous, religious leader; the second, an untrusted, widely disliked tax collector. Christ tells the parable as follows:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. — Luke 18:10-14

It’s interesting that the Pharisee lists off the very types of people Christ spent so much time with as counter examples to his self-righteousness. But Christ teaches us through this parable that true righteousness is not achieved by surpassing others on the morality scale. We are called to be humble, like the tax collector. We must recognize our sin, and then we must also recognize our great need for God’s mercy, which he offers freely to all. As Psalm 51:19 reminds us,

A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit,

A broken and humbled heart God will not despise.

The parable of the tax collector teaches us that we are lost, but also that we are not without hope. This the Pharisee did not understand.

I think also of the thief on the cross who was crucified next to Christ. Luke 23 recounts:

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’ — Luke 23:39-43

Again, we see the dichotomy of unrighteous and righteous, with the second thief gaining righteousness through his humility. Through such examples, Scripture teaches us that we ought to identify not with the self-righteous or those that society may exalt; but again, the point is not to be hopeless. Rather, we are to recognize our sinful state and approach God with humility to receive mercy and become sanctified. As my priest says every Sunday before communion: “With the fear of God, faith, and love, draw near.” The first thief did not understand.

I felt particularly convicted by these truths during one of the Holy Week services in the days leading up to Easter this year. It’s a well-known and saddening phenomenon that churches seem to fill up the closer we are to Christmas and Easter. I never see the church more full than I do at Good Friday and Easter. Praise God for a full church during such an important time for our faith, but it’s deceptively easy to fall into the mindset of the Pharisee from Christ’s parable. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m in church every Sunday. Similar thoughts crossed my mind as I noticed more and more people I did not recognize filling the pews. In such moments, I am no better than the prideful Publican or the scornful thief. I do not understand.

But it was one reading in particular that pierced my heart that week. A little ways into the service, I read the following words in my service book:

Let us present our senses pure to Christ, and as His friends, let us offer our souls to Him. Let us not, like Judas, choke ourselves with the concerns of this world, but from our innermost depths, let us cry out: ‘Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil.’

In my experience, at least, I have not often been called to not be like Judas; beyond a basic understanding of Judas as evil, I’ve more or less discarded him from my thoughts. But these words abruptly reminded me how easy it is to be like Judas. I’ll be the first to admit that I “choke” myself “with the concerns of this world:” work-related stress, pining for worldly success and accomplishments, fretting over day-to-day struggles, and forgetting about God. It is not far from the truth to say that I often feel choked by such anxieties. I’d never before considered such things as similar to Judas’ sin, or considered myself similar to Judas in any way at all, and the comparison was almost shocking. Perhaps the underlying reminder is that it is through concerns of this world that Satan works himself into our hearts. Concerns like status and outward perfection (and who’s got higher church attendance), like those of the Pharisee. Rather, our concern should be for our souls and how we stand before God.

Our Father, deliver us from evil.

The service continues:

‘Be vigilant and pray, that you not be tempted;’ You, our God, were saying to Your Disciples; but the lawless Judas was unwilling to understand.

And so, this reading teaches another lesson about what we are called to be by reminding us who we are not to be—Judas. Reflecting on these lessons, I pray first for myself: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner. Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil. Lord, help me understand.

Force Yourself: Why Spirituality Sometimes Sucks

When I was younger, I used to wonder why all of the best-tasting foods are usually the worst for you. Why can’t ice cream and chocolate and burgers be good for me? Or at the very least, why can’t I have cravings for fruits and vegetables? 

My husband shared an interesting insight in a Facebook status the other day: “When I eat poorly, all I want to do is eat poorly. When I eat well, I can’t believe I ever ate poorly.”

I’ve experienced this as well, as I’m sure many have. Even though it’s hard at first, the longer you sustain a habit of eating better, the harder it is to go back. If I’ve been doing well for a couple weeks and then I have a burger, I can feel the difference. The same thing goes for exercise; I’ve been training for my first 5k run and have been working out more regularly than I have in months. It sucks at first, but if you persevere it gets better. Although some days still suck. Some days I just don’t want to go run, or I feel too tired, or I’d rather sit on the couch and watch Hulu. Some days I just want to eat a burger and fries and not care.

Some days, I have to force myself.

A Facebook friend commented on my husband’s status, saying, “Replace ‘eat poorly’ with ‘sin’ and ‘eat well’ with ‘don’t sin,’ and you’ve pretty much got the story of my life.”

Do you ever feel too tired, or too busy, or too lazy to pray? Do you sometimes feel like you’d rather sleep in than go to church? Or do you ever find that you’re in church, but your heart really isn’t? I am guilty on all counts. For whatever reason, my personal spirituality is the most difficult for me to maintain. I’ve been a Christian since I was about twelve, and ever since then I’ve struggled to keep a regular regimen of prayer and Scripture study. It’s so easy to make excuses: it’s late, I’ve had a long day, and I’m tired…I’ll pray in the morning. And then: it’s early, I’m running late, and I don’t have time…I’ll read my Bible tonight.

But when I manage to get into a habit—usually my husband and I like to say our evening prayers before bed—and then I don’t do it, it feels especially wrong. Because when I don’t make time to pray or study Scripture, I’m ignoring God, and that fact is more obvious when I neglect my spiritual responsibilities after starting to get good at fulfilling them.

When it comes to most important things in life, I think “easy” is overrated; at least, I think it’s dangerous to believe that if something is right or worth doing it will always be easy.

I believe the opposite to be true sometimes: sin is apathy; sin is laziness; sin is easy. Righteousness is difficult.

St. Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation that human nature is inherently akin to nothingness, and therefore at odds with God:

For the transgression of the commandment [sin] was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of nonexistence, so were they now on their way to returning, through corruption, to nonexistence again…By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of his power and he remains incorrupt.”

By the grace and salvation of God through Christ we’re able to return to holiness; we are made worthy to approach God once again. If we persevere, it becomes less difficult—I think the best way to put it is perhaps that, as with physical habits like diet and exercise, it becomes harder to turn away from spiritual goods once we’ve worked to build them into our lives and experienced their benefit. After all, that’s what we’re made for. But it’s not always easy, because thanks to sin, we are at odds with ourselves.

My husband once put it this way: “I have to remind myself that when I don’t want to pray, that’s the part of me that wants to go to hell.”

And so I think sometimes, what’s more important than having the right “feeling” about something—even more important than feeling like my heart is truly in it, or doing something because it always feels easy—is to do what I know is right and good for me and for the betterment of my soul, even if I have to force myself.

If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force. (Matthew 11:12)

– St. Ambrose of Optina

Forgiveness and the Cross

In life, we will all do things that we will come to regret. Every one of us will violate the moral code. Even the man who does not believe in an objective moral code will find his actions inconsistent at some point, and regret the different action. We make mistakes because we are fallible.

With each mistake we make, we are given a choice. Continue reading Forgiveness and the Cross

When Gandalf Goes Down with the Balrog: Or, When My Pastor Falls into Sin

Let’s just call him Pastor Bob. In church, he was Gandalf. Gandalf could do anything! Church cannot go on without him! What do you do when the Sin Balrog takes down Pastor Bob? Whether it was embezzlement, pornography, adultery, child molestation, addictions, or any one of a thousand things, it was big and you know that Pastor Bob the Grey will not be coming back as Pastor Bob the White. Maybe the Sin Balrog went down with Pastor Bob, but orcs and demons abound and you have to run on — without Pastor Bob. Continue reading When Gandalf Goes Down with the Balrog: Or, When My Pastor Falls into Sin

The Grandeur of Sin: A Contemplation

“Sometimes, the grandeur with which we regard our sin is really pride,” my priest said. The statement struck me as very different from the way I’m accustomed to thinking about sin, and I’ve been mulling it over since I heard it. I offer these thoughts tentatively, with a sort of over-arching question mark, since they come entirely from what my mind did with twelve words over the course of a week, and not from research or discussion or even long, careful thought. Continue reading The Grandeur of Sin: A Contemplation

On Cultural “Sin,” Indiana Jones, and Shared Narratives

When it comes to functioning in any society, there are certain texts and narratives that are shared by a large portion of that community; if you are ‘outside of the loop,’ so to speak, you may miss references, feel left out, or generally function as an outsider. I’ve occasionally mocked (jokingly, I assure you) people who haven’t seen certain films that are staples for our culture: Star Wars, for instance; some of the James Bond films (particularly the Sean Connery era, though I hardly think you need to see them all to feel caught up); and, of course, Indiana Jones. Continue reading On Cultural “Sin,” Indiana Jones, and Shared Narratives