Glory to God for All Things

Personal Issues

From 2009

The title of this post is quite misleading – for in proper theological language – there are no “personal issues.” Our culture is quite fond of issues – both the politico-entertainment industry – and many individuals. It is a word and a phenomenon that has been baptized by the culture such that “being concerned with the issues” makes someone sound as if things matter to them in a significant way. The Orthodox response to the issues should generally be – not to respond.

The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.

In the meantime it is possible to avoid all this by concerning ourselves with issues. Some concern themselves with political issues, particularly if those issues carry a moral component. But it is as possible to take the “right” position on a political issue as a wretched sinner as it is to take the “right” position on a political issue as a saint – though saints often have a strange way of not being involved in “political issues.”

Others set their sights in other places and concern themselves with theological issues or local issues such as the goings-on in a parish.

I would offer a brief definition of “issue” as I am using it here: any subject or situation with which we may concern ourselves, that having been addressed, leaves ourselves and others involved no closer to our salvation than when we began (and perhaps farther away).

The transformation of the world will not come about through the successive addressing of issues. It will, according to the Fathers of the Church, come about through the transformation of human persons, whom, having been restored to the proper image and likeness of Christ, are able to restore others and creation around them. It is thus that the “movers and shapers” of our world may never be acknowledged by the world itself.

It is significant that the world admires Christ as a moral teacher – for He was not a moral teacher. Christ, the God-Man, was an is the Mediator between God and man, the means by which our distorted selves may be restored and transfigured and all creation set free. That transformation is simply impossible through “moral” effort.

Classical monastic spiritual teaching would speak instead about the purification of the passions and the illumination and deification of man. More recent Orthodox writers and teachers, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony have addressed the same teaching in terms of personhood. However, in both cases the nature of our salvation is described in the most profound terms of the inner life.

Orthodoxy is a seamless garment. The sacramental life and the ascetical life are not two separate compartments. Both have to do with the healing of the soul. It is for such a reason that communion in the Orthodox Church is always linked with fasting and confession, however the discipline is applied. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch. But that same medicine must be received by a heart that has prepared itself through fasting and repentance. As Christ Himself proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” So too, we approach the Kingdom in the Cup of Christ, and our hearts must greet it with repentance.

Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence.

Some years ago I heard the abbot of a monastery describe the young people who came for retreats during the 60′s and early 70′s. “They were so angry about peace,” he said. He added this thought: “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart than to find the source of all violence in the world.”

This, indeed, is the issue.

Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian writer, spent his early adulthood deeply involved in a group of semi-revolutionary writers, artists and intellectuals. As a group, they were deeply committed and involved in the issues of the world. The reform of the Russian state – and in some corners – the reform of the Russian Church was an all-consuming passion. The Romanticism of the 19th century – its belief in the perfectibility of man, if only the proper state and economic system were employed – yielded the various experiments of the 20th century – with generally disastrous results.

Dostoevsky’s own existential crisis occurred when he and a small group of similar conspirators were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. At the last moment their sentences were commuted to short terms in the Tsar’s Siberian prison system. It was in the few minutes that preceded his commutation – during which the great writer had opportunity to ponder death and his short life – that an inner change occurred. It is not that he saw everything in a flash – but rather that the issues moved away from an intellectual stage and into the deepest parts of his heart.

In what are perhaps his two greatest novels – the heart of man is revealed in the crime of murder. In Crime and Punishment a young man, Raskolnikov, convinces himself that only the will to power matters, and that he should be able to rob and kill a wretched old woman because he would put her money to better use. He succeeds in killing her only to discover that his “philosophy” is bankrupt. Utility (what works) is insufficient for the human soul. He finds salvation in prison through the unrelenting love of God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, murder again is at the center of man’s “issues.” Again it becomes the catalyst for a crisis in which the truth of God is revealed. The moral reform of the characters of the novel is a non-issue. Indeed, the most “moral” of the Karamazov brothers is arguably the unbeliever, Ivan. But Ivan, interestingly, is the devil. It takes little character to argue about justice and to be concerned with fairness. In my experience, even unredeemed humanity is born with an instinct for such arguments.

Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance. I often think that Jesus asked those who sought to follow Him to give everything to the poor precisely to bring them to the point of crisis. To give away everything in the name of Christ raises the question about the name and nature of Christ to its proper place. Either He is worthy of such an action or He is not worthy of any action. The Kingdom of God is never found in half-measures, or in carefully measured actions of any sort. Anxiety and care cannot map the road into the Kingdom.

I am not suggesting that we cease to care about people or the things that effect them. I am suggesting that our concern for “issues” falls far short of actually caring about people and the things that effect them. It is possible to love humanity and actually hate people. I have seen it far too often and have done it myself.

It is much easier to trust someone who wants to “save the world,” if they have also bothered first to “save themselves” (yet another paradoxical statement). It shouldn’t take an arrest by the Tsar to bring us to our senses – though for Dostoevsky it seems to have helped. Perhaps it would be sufficient if we would recognize that we ourselves are murderers and that no amount of moral reform will return the life we have taken. Nothing short of resurrection will present us with the medicine for which our souls thirst.

25 Responses to “Personal Issues”

Author comments have a tan color background for you to easily identify the posts author in the comments

  1. The photo, which I’ve used a number of times has much meaning to me. It is my son (in his late teen years) walking towards the trailer in which my parents lived before moving to a senior center. It was the last place our extended family knew as “home.” My son’s casual glance back speaks volumes to me about my own interior life.

  2. Meredith says:

    I definitely identify with what you are saying. I wonder though…is it wrong for a Christian to be a professional counselor? The counselor’s job is to help others with their issues and to listen to their problems. I live in Alaska where the issues of alcoholism, abuse, and suicide are everywhere. What is the Christian’s role in dealing with these issues? I am unable to remain aloof from these issues since they affect those around me day in and day out.

  3. Meredith,
    Though we use the word “issues” for such things as you describe, I did not mean the word in that sense in the post. May God bless you in your counseling.

  4. Ruth Ann says:

    Because you have written here and elsewhere about the centrality of praying for mine and others’ salvation, I have now made that the focus of my intercessory prayer.

  5. mushroom says:

    It’s like the instructions they give you for the facemask on an airplane. Put your own on first. Jesus never said not to get the mote out of your brother’s eye, just get the log out of your own before you try it.

  6. Bill says:

    Reminds me of Fr. Schmemman’s “help” vs transformation.

    I give thanks for your post, and pray, Lord help us do more than just help!

  7. stephen says:

    This one really speaks to the heart. Our parish priest has been discussing this at our weekly Bible study, how we allow ourselves to get caught up in things we cannot control while ignoring our own salvation. To many of the modern era faith traditions this goes against the very concept of the “Great Commission”, but how often do we see those that are not properly purified and illumined take up a mantle they are not ready to wear. Lord have mercy on me a sinner….

  8. John Sewell says:

    It has become very clear to me that, while my job is rector of Saint John’s, my work is soul work preparing my soul to meet God and as I pray and prepare to help others do this as well.

    It is amazing how many people came to me after I embraced this simple call to soul work. Everybody has “issues” but those are the symptoms of the ego-eccentricity of sin.

    Thank you for you clear and frankly hopeful posting.

  9. AtP says:

    Bill, What did Fr. Schmemman say about help vs. transformation?

  10. Michael Bauman says:

    While I have a degree of understanding of what you mean and certainly appreciate the centrality of salvation over worldly fairness, are there not times when refusing to become involved in some worldly disorder (inside or outside the Church) is just selfishness, apathy or cowardice?

    Fasting and repentance certainly must be central to the life and to calling one’s brothers and sisters to repentance, but I can see how easy it would be to take your words as an excuse for living “of the world, but not in it”: living with a facade of holiness and none of its power.

    Is there not a commonality of sin in the Church/world that helps create the many disorders we see? Should we not face that sin in a common manner openly and not just in our own closets?

    Is there not an active turning away from God that is destrutive to the souls of many in certain political ideologies and in unrighteous ecclesial activity? Do we not have a responsibility to witness to the destructive nature of those ideologies before we ourselves are perfect? Should not that witness include actual public participation in the life of the polity of which we are part?

    Is there not a time to stand up to those people who are leaders of destruction and say “no more!” even at the risk of our own salvation?

    While I can readily admit how easy it is to participate in destruction and sin while attempting to right wrong and prevent further evil, there is a point when the proper course (with prayer, fasting and repentance) is to engage the world and confront the evil and disorder without subtlty or fear. Such responsibility is heightened, IMO, when the disorder and evil come arrayed in the clothes and words of our shepards. If we do not do so we risk loosing our own souls by acquiesing in evil and in the destruction of others.

    There is no 2nd storey of contemplatives and a first storey for ‘doers’ anymore than there is for God and man, yet your post seems to lean in that direction.

  11. Fr. Stephen says:

    I do not mean to advocate a form of “quietism” in these matters. We are commanded to “resist evil,” and to overcome evil by doing good. Frequently, however, in such efforts, we fall prey to worldly philosophies such as utilitarianism in which we justify means by the loftiness of our goals. In many things, including intra-ecclesiastical struggles, I have often seen many dominated by anger sinful behavior, which also does great harm to our souls.

    I certainly believe there are times to act – but we should do so with wisdom and sure confidence in the goodness of God – and without fear or anxiety.

    Our adversary cares nothing about any issues. He only delights in our destruction, by whatever means.

  12. Michael Bauman says:

    Neither should we act out of any sense of our own righteousness, but sometimes, enough is enough.

    I think occasionally of the scene in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf faces the Golrog alone on the stone bridge deep in the earth and proclaims, “You shall not pass”.

    Certainly physical battle is not often called for, but the courage to stand in evil’s way comes with the reality of being Christian it seems to me–especially in one’s own heart, but not just there.

    Solzhenitsyn, in one of the Gulag volumes remarked that if the secret police took you, they would break you if you did not assume that your wife, children, anything you held dear in this world was already dead or destroyed.

  13. Fr. Stephen says:

    The true struggle against evil in our world is a truly difficult thing. It is the world of “opinions” “positions” and “issues” that often run shallow. In America, everyone has an opinion, but few vote (as an example). Statistics show that evangelical Christians (who generally oppose abortion) are as likely to have one as a non-believer (I don’t have the figures for the Orthodox but would assume we’re not much better). We have much difficult work to do within our souls in order to do battle with the world.

  14. ochlophobist says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I don’t mean to put you on the spot by noting this, for I know the man is your boss, but reading this post I could not help but think of the announcement on the OCA website that Met. Jonah will be leading the Orthodox contingent at this coming January’s March for Life political rally in DC, and afterwards will be hob knobbing with other influential (and I suppose fairly wealthy) members of the pro-life establishment at a dinner at the DC Hyatt Regency. Perhaps he will have his picture taken with a Mormon Elder as he did at the last neo-conservative gathering he attended.

    My thoughts also turn to St. Nil Sorsky, who I think would agree with everything you have written here but who in his ecclesio-political battle with St. Joseph Volotsky essentially had to “fight” on the level of public argumentation and debate and even some behind the scenes political maneuvering to, among other things, protect the interests of his fellow skete monks who were trying to avoid the corruption and politics of the large landed vested monasteries. It seems sometimes it takes politics to fight politics.

    With regard to possessions and Christ’s command – I read yesterday of the sale of the estate Edward Pusey was born and raised in is for sale (http://www.stribling.com/propinfo.asp?webid=1188526&type=TOWNHOUSE ) – at a mere 41 million for 14 bedrooms, 9 baths, on 650 acres with stables. Pusey, of course, was known for his reclusiveness and great charitable giving later in life. But I am increasingly of the opinion that when men of such means give a lot, but not so much that they lose that means which keeps them in great wealth, etc., it rarely amounts to more than a spiritual charade – a means by which the wealthy man justifies his continued mockery of the God born in a stable by living in the midst of such decadence. No matter how many ascetic acts one does within those halls, it is still a possessiveness beyond the parameters of a finite, limited, frail, human life. All of us pick and choose what part of the Bible we want to take literally, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is an exact line where we might say that to go beyond an net assets of $281, 439.32 is to grieve the Holy Spirit, and I’m even willing to concede that in very rare circumstances, that eye of the needle, one could for a while (before getting out of such money through some means, perhaps martyrdom) live a Christian life with such wealth. But if we were to spiritualize the passage to the extent that the wealth we have access to in this life doesn’t matter, and only the heart matters – well, that seems to me to bring us back to a two-storey universe, where I have my religion of the heart but still get to keep my Lexus with leather seats and pay my employees less than a living wage and make a killing on investments in a company which I know sprays chemicals on field laborers in Mexico because it is cheaper to keep them in the fields without protective equipment on than bring them out of the fields when spraying occurs.

    I also think of a situation where, say, a number of clergy are faced with some horrible corruptions and abuses, and they decide to say and do nothing about it, choosing instead to preach and teach the wisdom of the fathers and the elders about prayer and fasting and almsgiving and ascetic acts, leaving to God these complicated and frustrating matters. Let’s just say it just so happens that I know a bit about the culture of this number of clergy, and that a number of them live fairly comfortable middle class lifestyles that they might well not be living if they lost their parishes (so let’s say we are not talking about the OCA). And they fast, but it is that Whole Foods lots of boca burgers and shellfish and gourmet vegan dinners type of fasting and not so much the beans and rice and peanut butter and jelly sort. And lets say they pray with voices that seem quite practiced at being calm, and that seems like holiness at first, but then after a while it seems like maybe they just don’t handle confrontation well, especially confrontation which might result in them losing their comforts, and maybe that practiced voice has a bit of putting on airs to it. I fear that the teaching you offer here can be used by such persons to justify their own cowardice and spiritual game playing, and to puff themselves up in their own minds as taking the holy path when in fact they are taking the path of least resistance keeping their comfortable lives, and convincing those who have not been around the block in American Orthodoxy that the somber slightly hushed voice with the weird pronunciation of a few vowels as if they have spent much time in the company of a foreign monk is an indication of holiness.

  15. Ochlophobist,
    My dear brother and friend in Christ! No particular problem here. I support my Metropolitan’s actions and leadership, and wish I could join him this year for the march. I suspect that my words may be easily misinterpreted – but so is everything. I appreciate the boldness and truthfulness that has marked your own writing (and the anxiety and fear legitimately engendered by it). May God keep us faithful.

  16. Mark Basil says:

    Dear Fr Stephen, Michael, and Owen;

    What little thought I have about this tension between action and faith-filled inaction, is that a constant focus on my own sin, my own need for repentance, my own failings, is the condition necessary for being useful to God.
    If I am aware of my manifold shortcomings and struggle to stand naked before God in this, then I might be able to act with less passion when some social or political, external situation requires it. The only way to rightly perceive when to speak and when to keep silent is this acquisition of the Holy Spirit.

    I believe this remains true even though the vast majority of us will choose to mis-percieve our own inaction as somehow “holy” even when it is really cowardess and sinful. This misinterpretation (which you mention Owen) is only possible when we are blinded by our own pride. I think a post like Fr Stephen’s here cannot possibly be misinterpretted by a heart that is seeking in all it’s strength to root out pride. A heart that is not so struggling, will not benefit by better or worse “explanations” of the spiritual life.
    So still, I think the only way to be of use- external use- to God is in this same path of faith-filled weakness. This true struggle for humility will entail *never* assuming that my own choices to keep silent or keep from acting, are without passion and therefore “rightly made”.

    That’s as much sense as I can communicate, as it seems to me.
    -Mark Basil

  17. easton says:

    we have much difficult work to do in our own souls, in order to do battle with the world. this speaks to me in many ways about what has happened to our culture and way of life. i am in the antique business and go to many estate sales. i have been saddened to see the number of elderly people left in their homes with very little help or support from their well to do children. i have been in many homes that were dirty, run down, and the poor elderly persons who lived there had little help from their families, who were too busy saving the world. what have we come to?? there is a saying that you can judge a society by how well their elderly are cared for….

  18. ernie says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am intrigued by wish that you could join your Metropolitan at the March for Life. I am oposed to abortion, but I am also opposed to the March for Life and similar efforts to make abortion illegal. I have two reasons. First, I have seen no evidence that convinces me that making abortions illegal will reduce the number of abortions performed. Making abortions illegal only makes them more dangerous for the mother, Second, the abortion issue is not a legal issue. As you say, “Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence.” The only solution to the abortion issue is the salavation of men’s souls. Loudly proclaiming that abortion should be illegal only serves to further drown out that message.

  19. Ernie,
    I think protecting the life of the unborn, including by legal measures, is an appropriate use of law. We have laws for many things, which does not eliminate them, but the laws still play an important role. The protection of the unborn, like the protection and proper treatment of the elderly, are important values to be nurtured in a culture, including supported with appropriate legislation.

    The abolition of slavery (which was spearheaded by Christians) was important, legally, but only the beginning of a long, long march towards racial justice (something that remains a problem to this day). I suspect that our culture’s approach to the life of an unborn child will take many years to change. Legislation will, I believe, be an important part of that change.

  20. Doug C. says:

    FR. Stephen,

    It appears, as I read several of the comments, that I read your post differently than others. I neither saw it as permission to absolve ourselves of responsibility in our current socio-economic system, nor was it permission to judge others based on our own(failing!) assessment of our socio-theological, and socio-economic status. It seems as though our number one “issue” is the pride which blinds our eyes.(I know, I struggle constantly.) Pride which allows us to judge a rich man, or a poor widow, or an orphan; pride which makes us think that we are more pious than those who struggle with other “issues.” I know that all I can do is to pray “Lord Jesus Crist, Son of God, Have mercy on ME a sinner.”

    Doug

  21. Christian says:

    “Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance.”

    Indeed most of us, like the Prodigal Son’s brother, assume we haven’t been bad enough to need to repent.

    And I have to admit, if it weren’t for yesterday’s prodigal sins, I think there’d be more distance between God and me today.

  22. mike says:

    ….earlier this year for several months i attended a Quaker church..there i learned of the zeal with which the Quakers involve themselves in social activism on manifod fronts (issues)…at first i deemed it as something admirable..but as i pondered on it my feelings changed somewhat..i began to realize how often people get intoxicated on the feel good ‘spirit’ of social or political reform and lose sight of the root issue of Godlessness and the consequences of sin….I’ve lived too long and seen too much to entertain dreams of establishing any semblance of heaven on earth until the issue of sinful man be resolved first……..

  23. Tiffani says:

    Perhaps I am “off the mark” here (which is not uncommon when I come into the middle of a discussion), but I believe a Christian can so consume themselves with the cross of another, with some political action or cause that they can come to believe in their powers of persuasion. There can be a tremendous indwelling of pride in this, even if the cause is a good one. I wonder if one can “gain the whole world and lose their soul” when one’s appeared strength to defend or fight an issue becomes the focus of their lives and not the true weakness that allows Christ to fill us.

  24. Michael Bauman says:

    Tiffani, there is risk in everything we do (or don’t do). If we act, or don’t act out of fear, ego, pride, etc, we are wrong. However, no matter what we do, our motives and our actions will be mixed with sin. That is a given.

    We must strive to do what is right in a righteous manner. Sometimes that means remaining in one’s closet even when bad things are happening, sometimes that means standing up and proclaiming the truth in the face of power and accepting the consequences. Anger, self-righteousness and triumphalism have no place. There are few prophets and few hermits. The rest of us are somewhere in between. We fall into the mind of the world if we look with dicotomous eyes.

    Discernment is the key. Discernment requires us to be rooted in the life of the Church: worship, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, repentance and forgiveness.

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