I stumbled across some wonderful photos and sayings of the Fathers of the Church recently. I cannot fully express how much they moved me; how it touched me and how deeply I felt the sentiments they expressed. One of my favorite to quote is St. John of Kronstadt. Here is one of his that struck me mightily and I love the photo that accompanies this quote:As an Eastern-rite, or Byzantine Catholic, one of the most profound things you can experience is a Byzantine confession. We don’t use boxes or separate rooms. You can go at times the Priest (we call them Abouna, out of love, in the Melkite tradition) may set for the parish, or at our Melkite parish, you can just walk up and request it during prayer times or before or after Divine Liturgy. As you bow your head and the priest wraps you in his stole and starts to pray for your soul, it is profoundly moving. In the Melkite tradition, you face the Icon of Christ; in some Orthodox traditions, you lay your head on the corner of the altar itself. You do not have to shout to the rooftops the sins that are laying heavily on you; you need not even say them aloud. The entire experience does, however, engender in you a desire to “come clean” and express the sins you have committed and pray fervently for a desire to never repeat them, and a deep, aching desire for forgiveness. And if you do this on a regular basis, you find yourself continually reviewing your actions. Once it is habitual, that review happens automatically, often as soon as you have said or done something you know is wrong, or if you have avoided acting when you should. (As in the sin of omission). In the Eastern Churches, there is no demarcation between venial (not so serious) and mortal (serious) sins. The action or words either helped you take a step towards God, or they took you further away from God. Sin is just sin. Period. And I love how St. John of Kronstadt remarks that the longer you take to confess what lays heavily on your heart, the easier it is to just let it go, and becoming so entangled with our sinfulness, it becomes a part of who we are and is unrecognizable.
All of this really can be addressed in so many “like” ways of thinking. There are pundits who say that you need to do something consistently, at least three times, for it to become a habit. Others will opine that if you cheat on your diet, after having dieted for months, all is lost. Still others tell us it is okay to reward ourselves for our efforts, and cheating once or twice on our diets is no big deal. We all fall down; what is important is to get back up and get in the race, again. Isn’t it the same with our spiritual habits? I mean, if you just stop praying, it gets harder and harder to start praying again. You often think that you don’t know where to even begin. And what about spiritual reading? There are some awesome novels out there that I just couldn’t put down. What about my religious reading? Have I stayed up all night reading a religious tome? Actually, only once. It was the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus and it had me spelled-bound and it still does. He says in the book, ” Tedium of the spirit….tedium is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of the mind, a neglect of religious exercises, a hostility to vows taken. It is an approval of worldly things.” He goes on to say, “When dinner is ready, the Christian jumps out of his bed. But now when time for prayer comes, his body begins to languish once more. He begins his prayers, but the tedium makes him sleepy and the verses of the psalms are snatched from his mouth by untimely yawns.” And also, “The real men of spirit can be seen at the time when tedium strikes, for nothing gains so many crowns for a monk as the struggle against this.” It is wonderful that we have the Fathers to direct our thoughts, and perhaps our actions, when we are feeling that “tedium” of the spirit and when our guilt builds and we have not availed ourselves of the gift of confession.
At this time of year, especially, it is so easy to be distracted by the world. There are lights and bells on every corner. People drive around with antlers and red noses on their cars. Our neighborhood is one of those “Christmas Lights” neighborhoods where people drive through every night. (They also drive without their headlights on, so it does not interfere with their enjoyment of the lights, and it was very disconcerting the first time I experienced it!! One car came through the other night with a lit Christmas tree on its roof – I kid you not). And as you drive through the neighborhood, there are lots of reindeer made of wire with little white lights on them; there are lots of those new-fangled “blow-up” balloon styled displays, too, of snowmen and Santa. But we see very, very few manger scenes. I think of the several hundred homes in our neighborhood, there are three manger scenes. We only have lights, but my husband’s goal is to someday have a huge manger scene!
And I think that Elder Amphilochios Markis really has the right idea: “We need to have our gaze fixed on heaven. Then nothing here can shake us.” If we focus on the lights and the bells and the cookies, but forget to pray or go to confession, we are forgetting to prepare our hearts and souls for this most important “holy-day,” the Birth of Christ. I know I get all caught up in the “Spirit of the Season” and struggle with keeping it simple and not stressing out about all of it. The struggle within my soul is what I need concern myself most with, because if I am not paying attention to that, all my outer preparation will mean absolutely nothing.
“Let us put away from us our spiritual short-sightedness, and let us cease concentrating all our attention upon temporal, earthly things; let us foresee with our mental vision the future, everlasting life, and rise in our hearts to our heavenly country. Indeed, it is incredible short-sightedness for the immortal soul only to look upon the present, visible things, generally relating to the senses, and flattering our carnal nature, and not contemplate the life of the world to come – the blessings which ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man,’ but which the Most Merciful and Most Wise ‘God has prepared for those who love Him’ (I Cor. 2:9). Of what do we not deprive ourselves through this voluntary short-sightedness?!” St. John of Kronstadt
“A spotless heart create in me O God: renew a steadfast spirit in my breast. Cast me not afar from your face, take not your blessed Spirit out of me. Restore me to the joy of your salvation and let your guiding Spirit dwell within me.” (Psalm 50)
I think that pondering these things will give a greater blessing than worrying about cookies and cakes and how that dang turkey will turn out. And it is only by stopping and allowing this contemplation that the true Spirit of Christmas will envelope our hearts and the Birth of Christ will be a profound event this year, and every year.