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The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society
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The Struggle for Virtue > Week 8 (Oct 27 - Nov 1: Ch. 7 - Guarding the Heart Amidst the Distractions of Life

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Dcn Peter Markevich | 52 comments Mod
Again I need to apologize for being tardy with this week's posting. We have been preparing for the release of another new book Embassy, Emigrants, and Englishmen: The Three Hundred Year History of a Russian Orthodox Church in London and two of us are traveling to England in just a few hours for a week-long work trip. In any case, let's get to it...

I won't post discussion questions today. Rather, I'd like to start the discussion just by saying that this chapter hit me hard. There are so many ways in which I allow myself to be distracted from prayer and from my true responsibilities. Not only that, I constantly seek out the distraction and "entertainment" of which Vladyka speaks. So, lots for me to work on. Other thoughts?

message 2: by Gregory (last edited Oct 31, 2014 09:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gregory Korbut | 40 comments Wow. This chapter could easily have been title “My life in a nutshell”

I will go with the thought that first popped into my head after the chapter and start there. One of my greatest woes is the feeling of spiritual discontinuity – my spiritual life begins to hum on Saturday before the evening services and continues through the end of Sunday Liturgy. But once I've left the confines of the church, the essence of why we were there and the desire stay close to Christ begin to wane. By Monday morning, I feel knee deep in the world, and spirituality seems once more like a pleasant but fading dream.

My initial reaction is always something akin to, “well, if I lived at a monastery it would be different.” Possible, but does that absolve me from making any attempt to maintain a more consistent spiritual state? No, not at all.

In short, I think my personal struggle with distraction is my inability to make the life in Christ my whole life, and not just some facet of it. Somehow I continue to convince myself that a little distraction is ok, a bit of indulgence wont hurt. If I continue to view my whole life as nothing more than a personal planner into which I simply drop various activities, and my spiritual life is simply one of those activities, then I will continue to struggle poorly.

One facet of the chapter that hit home, and I just finished writing to a friend about it, is how when we give in to distraction, we become unreliable and are prone to failing not only ourselves but those around us. How can we be spiritual attentive to our neighbor when our own house is in disorder! And per my previous comments on how sin can become 'normal' to us after a time, the distracted nature of my spiritual life becomes 'normal' without attention.

Speaking of disorderly houses, I really should clean! But, that which is messy and in need of cleaning to the normal eye can become shabby chic (or just shabby shabby!) to the lazy bachelor. :) Ack, I have messy house and messy soul!

message 3: by Mary (new)

Mary Benton | 48 comments (Once again, I will write before I read...)

I have spent more time with this chapter than with any of the others, having gone over it 4 times. I have discovered, to my shame, that I do not like to struggle. I prefer to be able to read something once or twice, understand it and move on. However, I think I am finally (perhaps) learning how to read this author a bit better. Rather than read his words literally and superficially, I need to grapple with them. What does he really mean - even if it doesn't sound like that to me at first?

In my first reading or two of this chapter, I was left disappointed because it seemed to me he was portraying the Christian life in general and asceticism in particular in the dour, colorless fashion that causes the average person to run in the opposite direction.

Referring to our sensory organs, he tells us to "keep closed the 'windows of our souls'". Later, he says that the Church "resolutely rises up against every type of entertainment, diversion or amusement and considers them inappropriate for Christians". Read too literally, one might think he is saying that a person should shun the church picnic and certainly not enjoy the fresh fruit salad served there.

Of course, I know he isn't really saying that. But what is he saying? Certainly there are very real distractions which, by the nature of their content, are going to draw us to evil and we must avoid those and stop any and all attention accidentally given them. No argument here.

But personally, I am not drawn to a lot of those types of distractions. I am not saying that boastfully. It is not hard to refrain from things one is not drawn to. What became more apparent to me as I really worked with this chapter is that virtually anything can become a distraction, depending on how I approach it (and many things which I, in my pride, might think are distractions to others, are not necessarily, if approached properly).

Ironically, I have become aware quite recently that reading and writing about the faith can be a distraction for me! There is nothing inherently bad about reading and writing here, for example. In fact, it would seem to be a good thing. However, I can get drawn into such things to the point where I am perhaps not carrying out other responsibilities. Or perhaps I am doing it at the expense of prayer time. (Writing about God is not the same as uniting myself to Him.) Or perhaps I am seeking approval or admiration in what I write. And the list goes on - of how a "good" activity can be made into a distraction by my sinful heart.

It occurred to me (while running errands earlier) that it is not that God does not want us to enjoy our lives - and therefore we should close our eyes and ears to all that is pleasant - nor do I think that God would ban all entertainments per se. The problem is not that we enjoy. The problem is when we make the **pursuit** of enjoyment our life's purpose.

My life was not given to me for the purpose of experiencing fun and pleasure. I was given life for Love. Love, we know, may at times feel very beautiful and at other times be "a harsh and dreadful thing" (Dostoevsky). But my commitment is to love, regardless of how it feels - because how **I** feel is not the important element when my life is given over to Christ.

When we read the words of St. Paul (and many other saints), we note that they do not seem bothered - and even rejoice - when they are allowed to suffer for the sake of the Gospel because the entire direction of their lives is for Christ. They don't fail to enjoy a beautiful day or good food if it comes along. These are minor, passing enjoyments for which Christians give thanks - but they do not spend their lives seeking such things when there is something so much more magnificent before them.

Would that I learn to live this way.

message 4: by Mary (new)

Mary Benton | 48 comments Gregory -

I SO appreciate what you wrote. I have to clean too - I manage to put it off by writing long reflections here. So I'm going to do it. Now. :-)

Gregory Korbut | 40 comments Nooooo, don't clean, stay and be more distrcte ...umm, I mean reflective! ;).

I used this topic (distraction) as part of the church school discussion today. The students were very thoughtful and receptive to the discussion. One girl said the topic felt very personal and meaningful.

Next week we will be discussing the Creed - I hope the they are as engaged.

Gregory Korbut | 40 comments Something I had not considered. While It might seem that abandoning all pleasure and joy in activities is extreme, if this life is only a prelude to life eternal, then such pleasures are of little or no value.

Perhaps part of the ascetic struggle is constantly weighing what we want now against what is to come. To what end did the saints go? The closest answer I can fathom is that abandoning fleeting pleasures now, pleasures derived from base activity, is the sacrifice we must struggle with daily.

Pleasure and joy, in the ideal sense, come from living a God pleasing life, which on the surface is often painful by modern standards.

Of course I am contemplating all of this in the comfort of my recliner, a bowlful of peanut butter M&Ms at the ready, and Sunday Night Football droning somewhere in the background.

It is hard to imagine the better path when the one I presently walk appears so 'normal', but is in truth far from it.

It always reminds me of the Gospel of the rich man who is exhorted to sell all he has and take up his cross. Is it possible to work toward this if we don't have the courage in a single moment?

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Dan | 12 comments This is perceptive and at first glance comes off extreme. Absolute asceticism as many monks engage in is beyond respect. Is it the pinnacle that every Orthodox Christian is intended to live ( or nun of course)- apparently not. There must be a magnetizing to our life's calling which may be commensurate with discovering our "talents" ( but much different than the standard self help bromides we come across). I don't know... I really struggle with this. Gregory- your image with M&M's made me laugh. That is Everyman.

message 8: by Mary (new)

Mary Benton | 48 comments Gregory -

I too smiled at your image of the M&M's and football. But I might add a serious reflection to the overall idea (to avoid cleaning my house, of course!)

Except in the case of what is inherently sinful, it seems to me what is most important is attachment and obedience. So, for example, if the Lord said to you, "Gregory, I want you to fast from M&M's and Sunday night football", would you do it without a moment's hesitation?

Of course, I am not saying that that is what God is asking you to do - since I have no idea what God asks of you. But, if we are to follow, we need to be ready to obey without hesitation, even if the obedience goes against something that appears harmless or even good.

I am basing this consideration on something I read about Elder Paisios. Though he typically didn't seek out medical help when ill, there were times when he was faced with it. While he generally fasted very severely, if the doctor told him to eat meat when in the hospital, he was obedient and ate it without a word. More broadly, his greatest desire was to serve God in prayer and solitude, but God made known to him that he was to receive the pilgrims who came to him in vast numbers for counsel or healing. He was obedient. He did what was asked of him, not what he wanted.

Thus, it seems to me that his holiness did not emanate from the severity of his self-deprivation per se, but from the complete forfeiting of his own will to God's. The obedience is so important because it is the antidote to the first sin of disobedience. The "self-asserting pride" cannot exist in one so obedient.

Of course, one might well make the argument that one only learns to forfeit the will and be totally obedient through self-deprivation. If I indulge the self's desires, it certainly will not learn obedience. Yet I think it is important to consider what mechanism is at work - for people can deprive themselves of enjoyment/pleasure and maintain their self-asserting pride quite easily.

I understand this rather well because, were I in the Elder's position in the hospital, I would probably be fighting for my "right" to eat a vegetarian diet! Or some such nonsense. Without true humility, I can easily become proud of my disinterest in M&M's and TV. :-) Then I am not a saint at all but a sanctimonious snob.

The path to true holiness is so perilous it is frightening - but we have Christ. A very sweet consolation to us sinners. St. Porphyrios wrote: "It is a priceless thing to be led by God and to have no will of your own."


message 9: by Dan (new) - added it

Dan | 12 comments Mary, thank you for all this. Recently came across this on Elder Paisios facing death that you may have already seen.

message 10: by Mary (new)

Mary Benton | 48 comments Thank you for the link, Dan. I had not seen this before. The elder's joy and willingness both to live and to die indicates to me how selfless he was. He did not live for his own wishes but for Christ.

In a way, this is what I meant in the earlier comment about enjoyment not being inherently wrong. If one can accept suffering and enjoyment equally, humbly rejoicing in whatever God gives, there is no need to avoid enjoyment.

The problem is, of course, that I am nowhere near that point...

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Dan | 12 comments Yes, of course I have no idea what this would be like. The lives of these Saints are like Icons in themselves.i agree, with spiritual discernment - maybe pleasure and pain can be accepted equally. That seems to dovetail nicely with your comment about They, who have reached Theosis , have no need for opinion anyway:)

message 12: by Mary (new)

Mary Benton | 48 comments I do hope our beloved Deacon has traveled safely. I had anticipated he would be back by now and ready to lead us with the next chapter. Not that there is any rush...

Fr. Peter - are you home and well?

Dcn Peter Markevich | 52 comments Mod
Home, and somewhat recovered. Posting questions for the next chapter shortly :)

message 14: by Mary (new)

Mary Benton | 48 comments So glad. Didn't mean to rush you - was just concerned. I know overseas travel can be exhausting and it sounds like you had a busy agenda. Thank you for remembering us among the many things you have to do.

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