“My spiritual efforts don’t do anything, they merely bring me to the place where I know I can’t do anything, to the place where I am utterly naked before God!” -Fr. Silviu Bunta
Sometimes I run across a quote that strikes my heart so deeply that I’m surprised it wasn’t me who said it. The quote above is from Fr. Silviu Bunta, Associate Professor of Old Testament at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, in a retreat talk he was giving at St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, KY. During the same weekend, I was in Loveland, CO, doing a series of talks on the place of shame in the spiritual life. The nakedness that comes with our shame (from Genesis forward) is a theme that is accompanied by God’s continuing efforts to “clothe” us (from Genesis forward). Our nakedness does not reveal us as “evil.” It reveals us to be who and what we are. Strangely, the mere fact of our being is something that is accompanied by shame. Much of what we name as “civilization” is little more than our collective efforts to clothe ourselves in the various masks that disguise reality, giving us, instead, a culture of make-believe, including a culture of make-believe spirituality.
Several years ago, I wrote an article in which I suggested that moral improvement is largely make-believe. Nothing has changed my mind on the topic. Instead, I am ever more deeply convinced that the path described by Fr. Silviu is quite accurate. It is our moral failings, faced honestly and with humility, that allow us to see the truth of our helplessness and of our utter dependence on God. St. Sophrony described this as “bearing a little shame.” Among the greatest errors of modernity’s false ideas, is the notion of our self-sufficiency and our moral competence. Those same errors convince us that we are able to do for the world what it refuses to do for itself. Every new crisis brings a chorus of voices that demand action while ignoring the fact that each new crisis is a recurring indictment of our own incompetence and moral failure.
Attending to the evil within my own heart (as well as attending to the good) is castigated by some as “Quietism.” There are, instead, impassioned proposals that call us to action (write your congressman and save the world). Moral sentiments and moral actions come to us with the promise of their effectiveness. If enough of us act, we will change the world. This is not true now nor has it ever been. To say this, I know, runs counter to the religion of modernity. To believe that moral sentiment and actions will, in fact, change the world is to subscribe to the secular imagination. It suggests (repeatedly) that politics can save us.
Nothing can be more dangerous in this world than a “moralized” state. When the political project is to make the world moral, then there are no limits to the exercise of power. (How can there be too much good?) In our moralized modern states, we see increasing pressure to silence dissenting voices as threats to the moral order. That state which sees itself as holding a “moral” role has begun to see itself in the place of God. God alone is good (not the state).
The tradition of the faith reminds us, as is espoused by Dostoevsky’s Elder Zossima, that each of us is responsible for the sins of all. Solzhenitsyn said the same thing by noting that the line between good and evil runs in each individual heart rather than between groups of people. There are no “moral” people and “immoral” people. We are each of us guilty for everyone and everything (so says Elder Zossima).
This reality creates a deep burden for the human soul. There is a certain freedom (though it be false) found in being able to shift the blame to others and put them forward as scapegoats. We imagine that making the world a better place can be achieved by fixing the goats (or getting rid of them). At its deepest level, such thinking is nothing more than envy, the “evil eye,” and it is the source of every murder, both individually and collectively.
What about evil in the world? What should we do?
Turn the question around and place it before Christ. Ask Him the question. Is Jesus a Quietist? Did He refuse to make a difference in the world? A common evil of His day could be found quite nearby – that of a Roman Soldier forcing local citizens (including women and children) to carry his military pack. This was a practice loathed by Jewish zealots. Christ’s commandment(!) was, “If someone forces you to go a mile with them, go two miles with them.” (Matt. 5:41) The “extra mile” is not a bit of extra effort we do for a friend, it is a radical act of non-violence in the face of unjust oppression.
Why would Jesus have said such a thing? Is Jesus a pacifist? I think that would be the wrong conclusion. There is no acceptance of evil in His teaching, nor is there a command of non-violence that trumps all others. Christ does not enjoin us to be passive in the face of the unjust demand. Rather, the command to go the “extra mile” is the radical application of the Cross in a situation of practical injustice.
The Cross should not be seen as an event of divine payment, an arrangement that clears the way for us go to heaven. Nor should the Cross be reduced to a mere willingness to suffer patiently. The Cross is the way of life and is constantly set forth to us throughout the New Testament. It is the singular mark of a Christian: “Those who would be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me.”
What is the Cross? The Cross is ironically described as the “Weapon of Peace,” in Orthodox hymns. Though it may appear passive to outside observers, it is the most singularly “offensive” action of power available to us. The Cross triumphs even over death. The Cross is our self-emptying union with the Crucified Christ in which we offer ourselves “on behalf of all and for all.” It is both prayer as well as the inner shaping of our outward responses. When cursed, we bless. When struck, we turn the cheek. These are not symbolic actions, but actions of supreme spiritual power that diffuse the poison begotten in the evil actions of others. These are actions that “atone,” in that they cause an “at-one-ment,” a “union,” between a situation and God. Goodness in anything can only come about through union with God, in that He alone is the source of goodness.
Hesychasm (the way of silence and prayer), is not Western Quietism (just do nothing). It is, however, the very heart of the Orthodox spiritual life in that it is the interior union with the active life of the Cross. Those who imagine (or accuse) such a thing to be a passive way of life only demonstrate that it is a stranger to them. It was a commonplace in the desert fathers to observe that God preserved the world through the life and prayers of but a few righteous ones. They served as the “righteous in the midst of Sodom.” Today’s anti-Hesychasts imagine that the world is preserved by those with armies, social workers, and nuclear weapons married to their “moral” commitments.
O God, save Thy people!
And bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victories to the Orthodox people
Over their adversaries.
And by virtue of Thy Cross,
Preserve Thy habitation.
At the end of the day, we learn that “we can do nothing.” However, in union with Christ, we can do all things. By His Cross, through which we gather into ourselves the whole world, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, offering ourselves “on behalf of all and for all,” we take refuge in the only life that gives life. No moral project, no matter how well intended, can do the same. God give us the grace to embrace such weakness.
Image: Christ Crucified, Viktor Vasnetsov