Thursday, April 23, 2009

WOA Ch. 10: On the Sins of Others and One's Own

St. Dorotheos of Gaza, desert Father and writer on the spiritual life

A major theme of the first nine chapters of Way of the Ascetics is becoming aware of our own sinfulness. The main reason why we must do this is so that we can begin the lifelong process of cleansing ourselves of our sin and advancing along the path to theosis. Another reason we must come to terms with our shortcomings is to eliminate the temptation to judge others. As Colliander opens his chapter,

Now that you have thus become aware of your own wretchedness, your insufficiency, and your wickedness, you call upon the Lord as did the Publican (Luke 18:13): God be merciful to me a sinner. And you add: Behold, I am far worse than the Publican, for I cannot resist eyeing the Pharisee askance, and my heart is proud and says: I thank Thee that I am not like him! (33)

[Fr. James’ note: Isn’t that an interesting twist on the original story!]

But, say the saints, now that you recognize the darkness in your own heart and the weakness of the flesh, you lose all desire to pass judgment on your neighbor. Out of your own darkness you see the heavenly light that shines in all created things reflected the clearer: you cannot detect the sins of others while your own are so great. For it is in your eager striving for perfection that you first perceive your own imperfection. And only when you have seen your imperfection, can you be perfected. Thus perfection proceeds out of weakness (33-34).

In other words, seeing the depths of our own sinfulness allows us to, in the words of St. Ephraim the Syrian, “see my own sins, and not those of my brother,” and also to put into Jesus words “First remove the plank from your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). Colliander continues:

For who can wish to be obeyed who realizes, with the pangs of love, that he himself never obeys his Master? What reason, then, has he to be disturbed, to become impatient and impassioned, if everything does not go according to his wishes? Through practice he has accustomed himself to wish for nothing, and for a person with no wishes, everything goes just as he wishes, explains the Abbot Dorotheus. His will has coincided with God’s will, and whatever he asks, he will receive (Mark 11:24) (34-35).

Now THAT is a goal to strive for…for our will to coincide with the will of God! Colliander concludes thus:

Can one very well be envious of a person who does not exalt himself, but who, on the contrary, sees his own condition and finds that everyone else is far more worthy of fame and honour than he? Are fear, anguish and anxiety possible for the person who knows that, come what may, he, like the robber on the cross, is receiving the due reward of his deeds (Luke 23:41)? Laziness leaves him because he is constantly unmasking it within himself. Dejection finds no place, for how can what is already prostrate be cast down? And his hate is directed exclusively towards all the evil in his own life that dims his view of the Lord: he hates his own life (Luke 14:26). But then there is no longer any ground for doubt, for he has tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is (Psalm 34:8): it is the Lord alone who bears him up. His love grows constantly in breadth, and with it his faith. He has made peace with himself…and heaven and earth have made peace with him.” (35).

One final caveat: be careful about the phrase “he hates his own life.” Be sure and take it into context with the previous phrase: “His hate is directed exclusively towards all the evil in his own life that dims his view of the Lord.” As Christians, we should not hate the totality of ourselves, for God loves us. If we hate ourselves, then we are essentially making God out to be a liar. Rather, we should hate the sin that is within us, and go to war against it, seeking to eradicate it. In this way, we will grow ever closer to God.


Anonymous said...

Father James,
I think your "final caveat" makes an excellent and most necessary point: We should despise our sins and not ourselves. If God can still love us after all we have done, we are rejecting Christ and all he came for if we direct our anger at ourselves and not just at our sins. There is nothing that cannot be used for good.
A point that Colliander made in this chapter that really hit home was about the times when our will coincides with God's will. Life has a way of throwing pies in our face when we least expect them. All at once we cannot see our way , breathe, or speak aloud. It might seem like the world is ending. But if we stick out our tongue and taste that it is simply some concoction of pie, we can go about cleaning off our face and getting back to living. God is seen in the sweetness of that pie: there is nothing that happens to us in this life that cannot be used for the glory of God and our own growth towards Him. I think when we recognize that, our will coincides with God's will.
Thank you Father James for continuing to guide us in studying Colliander's words.

Fr. James Early said...

Excellent point, Charlene. As the Spanish say, "No hay mal, que por bien no venga."

BTW, I love your analogy, not the least of which because I love pie!

Isabel said...

"nothing that happens to us in this life that cannot be used for the glory of God and our own growth towards Him" is something I see more easily in the looking back than in the now. Since being baptized Orthodox, I do fine it possible to say "thanks be to God for all things", and mean it. at least, so far. But seeing how it helps me? Not quite there yet. ;-)