From: The Illuminated Heart
Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)
Anna misses her brother, the monk Timothy, every day, but some days she envies him. On days like today she would rather sleep on the ground and eat dry bread than go to dinner at her mother-in-law’s house.
Irene is a beautiful woman, accomplished, musically talented, and intelligent. Even her hair is perfect. In her presence Anna feels like a country mouse. In Irene’s house, James’s and Sophia’s table manners, which looked fine at home, suddenly look appalling. Irene has a way of not saying anything about this, but just clearing her throat, that shows how tactful she is.
Just thinking about this makes Anna feel itchy all over. I could maintain my veneer of holiness a whole lot better, she thinks, if I didn’t have to keep dealing with Irene every Sunday.
She’s right; it’s the other people in our lives who offer the best opportunities to overcome instinctive, deep-rooted sin. Saint Theophan the Recluse wrote that a hermit has a harder time making progress with this kind of sin than a person who lives in the world. “Life lived in common with others is more suitable, because it provides us with practical experience in struggling with the passions and overcoming them,” he said. “In solitude, the struggle goes on only in the mind, and is often as weak in its effect as the impact of a fly’s wing.”
It is when we meet up with people who stimulate our pride or anger, and struggle to subdue those impulses, that the passions start to die. “These victories strike the passions in the chest and the head, and repeated victories quickly kill the passions completely,” says Saint Theophan.
We may not know initially what to make of such advice. Aren’t you supposed to stick up for yourself? If someone is acting snobby, shouldn’t you put him in his place? This is a common theme in popular entertainment, of course: a person is treated badly one way or another, and responds with anything from a sarcastic put-down to a flamethrower. We cheer, and leave the theater pleased with the uncomplicated vigor of it all. Next time we meet a snooty waiter or a tailgating driver, we can be a hero too.
Our impulse to be a hero is crossed, however, by a nagging sense that as Christians we should be nice. We don’t have a clear idea of how this looks in practice, and no idea of how to accomplish it. So we are about as nice as individual temperament allows, and expect our lapses to be treated with understanding, and our heroics to be cheered.
Yet there’s a complicating factor. In real life, the person whom we’re practicing heroics on is very unlikely to recognize that he’s the bad guy. The plotline in his mental movie is different from ours. We may consider the stinging comeback we deliver as the final scene, but for him it may seem like the opening challenge. Now he has the opportunity to be a hero and set things right in return.
It’s funny how the labels “bad guy” and “good guy” can switch, depending on where you’re standing. This is because the whole concept is an illusion. In reality, bad guys and good guys are mythical creatures, and don’t exist in real life. Each of us, no matter how good, is fallen, and each of us, no matter how evil, is as beloved as the prodigal son.
The real “bad guy” hides behind the entire drama, delighting in every human conflict, every moment of self-righteousness or hate. When we indulge in even a petty moment of sarcasm, it makes us his instrument, and someday, Jesus tells us, we will have to give an account for every idle word we utter. The line between good and evil doesn’t run between people, but down the center of every heart. This is why Jesus came.
In all these things Anna is not a markedly more holy person than we are. but she does have the advantage of getting one uniform clear message about how she should relate to others, rather than our current muddle of intermittent niceness and dreams of glory. Anna knows that there is one unfailing prescription for all dealings with other people: humility.
Saint Paul said we should do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than ourselves. This is the exact opposite of what we naturally want; we want others to count us better than them. The sting of Irene’s condescension, real or imagined, reminds Anna of how desperately she still craves admiration. For Anna, dinner at Irene’s house is a better arena for athletic struggle than a desert cave.
Jesus commanded his followers, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Anna would be surprised at our modern notion that Jesus was here advising that we should love ourselves first. We already do that; loving ourselves is what causes all the trouble. Even people who don’t much like themselves still nourish and cherish themselves. The kind of love we habitually label on ourselves is exactly the kind we are supposed to show others, a love that honors, protects, and comforts. We should love others the way we instinctively love ourselves.
But toward ourselves the prescription is not “love yourself” but “die to self.” Vengeance and self-righteousness, sarcasm and vindictiveness, have no place, no matter how dashing the movie heroes make it look. The martyrs are the supreme example, but every Christian can die to self daily, maybe just by sitting through dinner without snipping at her mother-in-law.
In fact, in some providential way, God has designed for Anna and Irene to be stuck together in this life. They are partners in each other’s process of theosis. Anna needs Irene, because Anna gets along pretty well with most people, thanks to her inborn good nature. It takes Irene to flush out of hiding just how stubborn Anna’s pride is. When it’s brought so persistently to her attention, she can begin to learn how to defeat it.
Irene needs Anna, too. Though Anna doesn’t know this, Irene has to get herself thoroughly prayed up on Saturday nights for these dinners. Not saying anything doesn’t come naturally to Irene. But when she bites her tongue she knows that Anna is helping her, too, to grow spiritually.
In communities, at work, but particularly in families, people are put together in something like a three-legged race. God means us to cross the finish line together, and all the other people tied together with us play some part in our progress. They are there oftentimes to rouse our stubborn sins to the surface, where we can deal with them and overcome them – striking them in the head and chest, as Saint Theophan says.
Bundled together in families, a giant seven- or nine- or fifteen-legged pack, we seem to make very poor progress indeed, and fall to the ground in a bickering heap with some regularity. But God has put us together – has appointed each other person in your bundle specifically for you, and you for them. And so, “little children, let us love one another” with might and main, and keep hopping together toward the finish line.