We ought to be very careful to keep watch on ourselves. When a harbor is full of ships it is easy for them to run against each other, particularly if they are secretly riddled by the worm of bad temper.
St. John Climacus, 4
I have seen my four living children nearly grown. The youngest turns 17 tomorrow (which is quite old as we all know). Her older sisters are in their twenties and married. Her brother is enjoying his first few months of marriage while still in college. When I think of my life with these marvelous people, I am staggered by how quickly years have sped by. I am stricken with grief at the many words which failed to be spoken, and with compunction at many of the words which were.
St. John Climacus, in his classic work, The Ladder, looks at the inner life of monastics. And though they pray more and fast with greater rigor, their life is not categorically different from that of the rest of us. We share, after all, one human nature. And thus it is that we can read the advice from an ancient monastic of the desert and find that it fits our own hearts and the struggles within our own families and social climates.
How many words I have spoken in haste with unkindness to one of my children – or my spouse – when there was no provocation! It is to such words that St. John refers when he speaks of the “worm of bad temper.” To awaken in the morning in a bad mood was one of my great indulgences as a teen. It later was curbed when I lived with a group of committed Christians in my early twenties. There was no room for “grumpiness.”
Living with others – particularly with my immediate family – has been the most important crucible of the inner life. It is one thing to be a father – it is another thing to be a father who happens to be a priest. The children with whom you are sharp in the morning have the great spiritual trial of forgiving you and seeing you as a priest later in the day at the altar of God. By God’s grace we learned to beg forgiveness of one another – and I was usually the one who stood first in need of begging. Fortunately my children are good hearted and forgive very willingly.
But the interior world of the heart that our closest relations and associations reveal to us is indeed the great battleground of the faith. St. John the Theologian says it all very simply:
If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).
Of course there is a world of difference between grumpiness and hate. But hate is a plant that does not flourish in the ground of kindness and meekness. Grumpiness is perhaps a minor thing but can make a fertile soil for far more serious.
I have to quickly recognize that my family has taught me much. One of my children once said to me: “Our family is a lot like a monastery – and you’re the abbot.” I smiled at the time – though it was true. It was the crucible where the love of God was being forged in our hearts. If we could not love our own flesh and blood, how hard it would be to love another.
That two of my children have taken up the cross of being the wives of priests only makes me pray more for them, and to think that my wife clearly set an example that was worth imitating. But each to his own call.
For all of us, in our various states and stages of life, the battleground is much the same. Most of our battles are with matters small and insignificant of themselves. A worm is but a tiny creature! But unless we tend to the battle moment by moment – struggling for love and forgiveness – then something other than love and forgiveness will triumph in our hearts. There is no neutral ground in the heart.
To my daughter who has tolerated me for seventeen years I pray: “Many years!” And ask that Christ “make her yoke easy and her burden light.” And that for all of us, we may take up His cross in our battles (small and great) and triumph over every temptation – even bad tempers!