Monday, May 14, 2012

The Hands at Work, the Heart and Mind with God

A friend of mine recently posted some reflections on his blog about living a holy life "in the 9 - 5" (see the Eastern Catholic Spiritual Renewal blog). I found it coincidental in that I was just about to post pretty much the exact same thing. Following are some of my own reflections. I hope that my thoughts compliment his.

It seems to be a common experience that those of us who live in non-monastic vocations, particularly the vocation of marriage, but who at the same time struggle to live authentic Christian lives of deep prayer and communion with God, at one time or another begin to wish that we had chosen a monastic vocation instead so as to focus our attention completely on deepening our relationship and communion with God. I remember getting this impression not only from my own mother, but from the mothers of most of my friends growing up. I remember also when I was visiting a monastery hearing one of the regular attendees explicitly say that she wished she'd never gotten married, but rather chosen a monastic vocation. In all honesty this attitude saddens me. Holiness is not just the vocation of bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and consecrated virgins. Holiness is the vocation of all the faithful, including the laity. It seems to me that folks get so caught up in analyzing what vocation they are/were called to that they forget to live lives of holiness in the vocation in which  they are already living. I know that happens to me from time to time, sometimes more frequently than I care to admit.

Now, in it is true that in the Eastern/Byzantine tradition our spirituality is, fundamentally, a monastic spirituality. But for us this does not mean that we have to be monks or nuns in order to fully live that spirituality. A ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) priest once said, "My wife is my monastery... my children are my monastery." If we cannot live lives of authentic Christian love for God and our neighbor by loving and submitting ourselves in obedience to our spouses, what makes us think that we would be able to submit ourselves in loving obedience to our superiors at a monastery? If we cannot deal with our children and the challenges they present with love, patience, kindness, etc., what makes us think that we could deal with our fellow monastics in that way within the confines of a monastery?

I do not mean to put down monastic vocations here. We need more monastic vocations, and such vocations ought to be encouraged and nourished by parents and parish priests alike. Monastic vocations are a part of the life-blood of the Church, and in times of crisis it has often been the monasteries, in both East and West, that have provided solutions and proven the stable ground upon which the Church might gain her footing. But those of us who are married need to realize that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the monastery walls. Were we given the opportunity to enter the monastery, we would find that we still have to face ourselves and the snakes and dragons that lie within. The Christian vocation is a vocation to face those snakes and dragons, and to expel them through the love of God and by keeping pure our baptismal garments. Whether we get married, become a parish priest, or enter the monastic life it doesn't matter. Every vocation has two inseparable elements: service of others, and the purifying of one's heart. When we truly serve others out of love for God, our hearts become purified so that we can see God and love Him all the more.

So for those of us who may be in the world, but are seeking a deeper prayer life and perhaps a more tangible communion with God (if "tangible" is the word I'm looking for), what can we do? How can we foster that deeper prayer life and communion. St. Theophan the Recluse gives wonderful advise on this matter.

"Rising in the morning, stand as firmly as possible before God in your heart, as you offer your morning prayers; and then go to the work apportioned to you by God, without withdrawing from Him in your feelings and consciousness. In this way you will do your work with the powers of your soul and body, but in your mind and heart you will remain with God."

This is advise that can be followed by any monastic or married person. Incidentally this is the whole point of having an established prayer rule or routine. The point of a prayer rule isn't so that we have those moments throughout the day where we stop to think about God. The whole point of a prayer rule, those moments, is so that throughout the rest of the day our words and actions are saturated by the remembrance of God. In this way we actually become prayer; being always lovingly aware of God's presence with and in us as we go about our day-to-day lives. Through that remembrance we maintain constant communion with God, thereby increasing in love for both Him and neighbor, whether our neighbor is our spouse and children, our parishioners, or our fellow monks and nuns.

So remember this the next time you find yourself wishing that you had entered a different vocation. If you cannot live a life of prayer and holiness in the vocation in which you find yourself, how can you live the same in a different vocation?

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