30 October 2021

The hardest battle

The hardest battle is always the one that you face alone. Or, rather, seemingly so.

Being a political pugilist or a culture-warrior on the left or on the right can seem exhausting work when viewed from outside. But in terms of the internal effort, it’s very easy to orient yourself toward an ideology, and then judge your own moral standing in the light of that ideology. It’s easy to take on public battles, to defend political positions, because these demand nothing of you but a relatively simple sort of intellectual consent. It is in fact far, far harder to face the world within than the world without. Doing battle with the darkest and ugliest parts of myself, the Pauline ‘old man’ within me, has been the hardest I have ever faced, and I’m still trying to do it honestly.

For a long time, the demand that the Orthodox Liturgics place on me that I consider myself the chief of sinners, the only sinner, seemed to me to be an imposition, even a kind of arrogance. And indeed, if approached on a purely intellectual level, it can become that way. There is a certain ‘style’ of convertodox or hyperdox feigned-humility which is grating – even if, generously speaking, it can be kind of a necessary ‘baby step’, if one doesn’t grow out of it, it can harden into a kind of delusion or a pose.

This pose often goes hand-in-hand with an idea, or may be seen to lead to a temptation, often implicit or half-articulated, that somehow things would be better if I was ‘over there’ rather than here. But that’s the thing: Orthodoxy is not ‘over there’ (a point which Mr Padusniak makes quite effectively in regard to a certain type of Orthodox convert), it is instead right here. And in my own case I literally do mean right here. (As an Orthodox Christian in Minneapolis I cannot at all ignore the threats to the safety of my neighbours or the quality of our drinking water, for example. But I digress from my main point.)

The main point of this insistence on seeing myself as the sinner, the chief of sinners, is to make me recognise, not that my sins are in degree or in number worse than those of other people, or that my nature is somehow more thoroughly base or corrupted than others’. The human being is an icon of God, after all, and I too am a human being. This insistence on myself as ‘chief of sinners’ is instead to make me understand that my own sin is what, with God’s help, I can begin to fix. As St Andrew of Crete said in his Lenten Penitential Canon, each one sins ‘like no other man’. Who else is fragmented in the same way? So when I say ‘of whom I am first’ or ‘of whom I am chief’ in reference to myself-as-sinner, it is an acknowledgement, fundamental to any spiritual progress, that I cannot hope to fix anyone else before Christ helps me to fix myself. My job is not to pull the speck out of my neighbour’s eye, but to pull the log out of my own.

And with that acknowledgement vanishes any illusion that fleeing somewhere else, moving to a country that I believe better aligns with my values, altering my environment or my social life without changing my own orientation to it, is going to fix my problems. I carry all my own sins upon my back and they are leaking out behind me wherever I go, so that I cannot see them. So, always, the best place to fix them is always here. In my own house, in my own family circle, in my own neighbourhood – and in the darkness that is the tomb of my own heart. As Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk put it in his own Canon of Repentance, in a paraphrase of Jeremiah 17 as read through Saint Maximos the Confessor’s texts on love: ‘The heart is deep beyond all things, and it is man, and who can know him?’

But although the battle is one that is mine and only mine, and although it often seems like a hopeless battle: I am not without help, not without an ally. Partaking of Christ in the Eucharist means – in a material way, not in the semiotic-idealist or sentimental way meant by most Protestants when they say this – that Christ lives in me, and that Christ works on me from within. This doesn’t mean that Christ imposes Himself upon me without my consent, or that He forces me to take a particular path. It also doesn’t mean that He takes away my troubles, my hardships, my arena. It means only that if I call upon Him for help in my struggles – as I inevitably need – He will help and heal me as I ask, and then more.

In focussing here on the existential-psychological aspect of Christian praxis, I am emphatically not engaging in a call for political quiescence or apathy. Both the vertical bar of the Cross ascending from earth to heaven, and the horizontal bar of the Cross embracing all of humanity with love, are needed. You cannot have only one; or else the other will be merely a false gesture. As I said above: caring about my neighbour’s physical safety, health, clean air, clean drinking water, social circumstances and dignified existence are all indispensable elements of the truth taught by Christ when He walked the earth. Any Christianity which ignores or downplays or dismisses these things is not a Christianity worthy of the name. But it is equally impossible to focus only on the social-activist or culture-warrior dimension of the faith, without doing the much more difficult work of prayer, fasting, reflection and repentance.

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