I saw something a short while ago on Fr Stephen Smuts’ blog, and I have been waylaid by irksome things like work. He quoted some maxims of spiritual life from Living In A Strange Land, Fr Stephen’s blog, Glory to God For All Things.
As we draw towards Septuagesima, we should read them and meditate on them and put them into practice. I could say it the way we put it up in Yorkshire “Easier said than done“. I’m not going to reproduce them here, but rather encourage the reader to refer to the appropriate link above. Some of these rules refer to disciplines that are more rigorously observed in the Eastern Orthodox Churches than in Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism. Though they are all of importance, there are some that strike me more profoundly.
3. Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline. The emphasis seems to be on keepable. It is easy to go to excesses from Ash Wednesday, like on January 1st, but fail miserably within a few days. It is better to be more moderate and successful than take on too much and fail.
9. Spend some time in silence every day. Silence is not merely the absence of noise, but it is also the quietening down of our own thoughts and imagination. In modern language, we talk of unwinding after work. We might find that listening, I mean really listening, to some music can bring us into receptiveness to the voice of God. 13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start – says just about the same thing.
10. Do acts of mercy in secret. This comes directly from the Gospel. It is no good being ostentatious about prayer and humanitarian acts. We just do what is needed and efface ourselves before anyone can come and say what good persons we are. Hit and run – do good and skedaddle.
18. Be an ordinary person. We should live in the world around us and find out how ordinary people think and talk. We are not asked to conform to every wind that blows or every fashion, but none of us should think he is special. Even if we are priests, we pay for things like everyone does, and nothing is due. That was a bitter lesson for me as I left the Roman Catholic clerical life and began to stand on my own two feet. This maxim applied especially to priests, and is closely related to humility. Just be ourselves – ordinary guys. Yes, we have a gift from God, but it is God’s.
21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby. Sailing, anyone? Seriously, the health of the body is the health of the soul. Climb mountains, take to the sea, walk, get a dog and go for walks – or a bicycle and leave the car at home whenever possible. There is not only sport, but things that help us to be creative. There’s also the garden to dig and the cladding on the house to re-varnish. Lots to do…
23. Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time. It’s the only way we can deal with worries. Just deal with today’s, and the rest won’t be so overwhelming.
24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself. You can’t kid yourself, still less God. That might be the Lenten scouring many of us will have to do. It’s just a question of truth, not denigrating ourselves or aping other people – just being ourselves and being straight with it. Self knowledge is the way to humility.
25. Be faithful in little things. Yes, the washing up, household chores and all the things that seem insignificant to anyone else.
26. Do your work, and then forget it. We often get into a twist about work or having a row with a colleague or the boss. Just let go as soon as you get home, or even when you leave the office.
28. Face reality. This one is related to 24 above. I’m not going to fly to the moon, circumnavigate the world or become a Cardinal. This was something I had to deal with against various points of view from others, including those who would say “You’re going to be all right. Bishop Elliott has said so“. Reality is sometimes dictated by our sober intuition, our conscience, what we have to follow or regret the consequences later. Reality usually feels right. Stick to that and you won’t go wrong.
Another thing to watch out for is the person who claims to have a secret and a special privilege with, for example, the Vatican. It goes with the instinct of looking for lost worlds and secret knowledge. If it’s true, it is known about. People with secrets tend simply to be liars or deluded. Stick to what is known and common knowledge!
31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small. 32. Never bring attention to yourself. Yes, but be yourself. Don’t just fall in with the grey amorphous mass of humanity like sheep. We have our gifts and our philosophy of life, and that might sometimes draw attention. Deal with the remarks in an effaced way and without fanfare. The balance is difficult to find.
33. Listen when people talk to you. This is one I found particularly difficult as a teenager. This is all a part of our training in empathy, being interested in what other people have to say rather than imposing our own ideas and interests. We avoid being a party bore that way. This isn’t just spirituality, just common courtesy and good manners. Related to this is 35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary. People sometimes repeat things over and over again, and are quite put out to hear “I find your conversation most stimulating, so if you would excuse me…”
36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly and directly. With my Yorkshire origins, we do call a spade a spade, and there’s not a lot to say. Even when talking about highly technical things, simplicity is the best way. Think of Occam’s Razor. Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity is one way of expressing it. Another expression is Simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones. We communicate better and are more peaceful in ourselves. Also, don’t blind others with technical jargon, better to put things in everyday language.
39. Don’t complain, mumble, murmur or whine. When we hear this in others, it just makes us angry. It’s just the same thing the other way round. If we’re ill or in pain, just take the medication and / or see a doctor, and spare other people the aches and pains! We English have the stiff upper lip – it sometimes comes in handy!
40. Don’t compare yourself with anyone. This is all a part of the cult of celebrities in cinema, sport and just about everything. The big shots set the fashions, and people follow like sheep. Perhaps we wouldn’t when we realise that they have their problems as human beings and so do we. Perhaps our cross is lighter than theirs, and we can be content that we are who we are rather than being them.
41. Don’t seek or expect praise or pity from anyone. How right! The world, especially in towns but also in the country, is a pretty bleak and uncaring place. Most decent people will help someone in danger, but that’s about all. Would we do much more for someone we don’t know? We have just got to get on in life without worrying about humans being humans and not caring. This is what enabled me to go on as a priest. We just carry on even if no one else is interested. That doesn’t mean that what we are doing is any less true or good.
43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything. Indeed, not even of the truth! It’s like trying to get a smoker to stop cigarettes. The person will only stop by his or her own motivation. Truth comes from within or at least through within (if we want to be pedantic).
44. Don’t defend or justify yourself. OK, but this can be exaggerated. If we are accused of a crime, who wouldn’t get a lawyer and at least argue for mitigating circumstances if not complete innocence?
46. Accept criticism gratefully but test it critically. Oh yes! Other people are no more infallible than we are. As in 44, we might not think too much of ourselves, but the one doing the criticism shouldn’t think he is doing so free of charge. Advisers should be payers. For example, someone who thinks I should be doing parish work instead of blogging should provide the means for me to take up a vacant benefice in a place where there are lay folk in need of a priest. 47. Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so. The same goes for us. Before giving advice, think what it will cost us – not just money – but in terms of helping the person follow through with a good resolution.
48. Do nothing for anyone that they can and should do for themselves. Respect the other person’s self-esteem. But don’t hesitate to offer help if the person is obviously floundering or if he asks for assistance. Alternatively, people need to learn self-reliance like we have to. In that case, leave them be.
51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath. That’s the surest cure of depression, which happens if we have high expectations and are disappointed. Be modest and realise that nothing is free in this world. We have to earn it. If that sounds like Pelagianism, well it’s just too bad!
52. Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness. 53. Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness. 54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over. 55. Get help when you need it, without fear and without shame.
All these are related. Doing ourselves down is often a greater sign of pride and inverted snobbery than being grandiose. Orthodox spirituality can be so much more healthy from than the Spanish stuff involving blood, gore and whipping in profusion. It’s not flogging that we need, since it breaks a good man’s heart and makes a bad man even worse. We need light and food for the soul, which helps us get up again when we sin and do something about it.
Just a few reflections…