Tuesday, January 15, 2013

My Year of Living Reclusively #2

I don't really have an outline prepared, nor do I have any real clear idea where I am going with this series of posts.  I was sick to death with the flu for ten days over Christmas.  I had nothing to do but lay in bed and consider my life.

I came to a sense that my life is like a spider web. It seemed to me to have some structure and elegance and purpose to it (I could possibly even catch God in it!), then this past couple years was a big hand that swept it away, tore its fabric, tangled and crumpled it and now I have to try to pull it apart and make some sense of it. But life is like spider webs: it is impossible to pull the strands apart and examine them as independent pieces because they are stuck to each other and impossibly intertwined. So this may be as frustrating to read as it is to write because there will always be a loose strand flapping in a breeze blowing in a direction that tangles up the whole mess even more. 

I got an email from someone who is kind of a "recovering Christian" and just discovered the blog a couple days ago.  I won't quote his email, but my reply (edited for the blog) is probably as good a starting place as any to talk about some of the things I've been thinking about.

"I know what you mean about the "haunting of conversion experiences". The longer I live and see people convert to stuff (religions, Argentinian cabernets, fair trade coffees, political causes, or even just to themselves) I think most of us are haunted by the need for a conversion experience so we can manufacture some false passion in our existence. Without some kind of passion to distract us we are left to only look into ourselves and our own failure as a human being. Once we see our own failure we begin to see other people as human beings who are really failures too and trying to cover it up, most of the time not too elegantly. It is so much easier to categorize, differentiate, hate, 'love' and label than it is to just 'see clearly' and not react or judge. The worst false passion is a religious one."

"You nailed it: true conversion can only be to authentic humility and I am no longer one to judge how God gets someone there whose heart He knows is pointed in that direction. You are correct, the blog and all the Orthographs are really about my realizations of my own failures but also my longing to know a 'true conversion' some day. "

 So, that is that.  A beginning.

I've lived over a year merely as a "Christian" among business co-workers and at large in the world (though I tell no one I am a Christian).  I have no "defacto honor" because I wear a gold dress or any discernable signs at my office. I earned and continue to earn respect from nothing with my co-workers and every new hire, and I am judged solely on how I act as a human being from day to day.  (Though, within the Church, I am very aware that the honor of wearing holy vestments can be seen as the garb of a hypocrite in a twinkling of a public sin).

As I mentioned before, I don't advertise my faith nor do I evangelize in my office nor in any other context.  I have lived for about 18 moths without my past immersion in Church (parish, local, national and global) politics and Orthodox (and even just Christian) apologetics.  My un-sought for conversations with co-workers and random people were filled with regular, every day people's inner pain, family problems, spiritual anxieties, despondency and wrestlings with God, themselves, man and mortality.   But "un-sought for conversations" isn't quite accurate.

I think more accurately I would say "attempted avoided conversations". That is a loose end flapping in a breeze.  I have and do avoid conversations.  I have and do avoid people and obvious "train wrecks".  I don't respond to everyone who asks something of me. Sometimes I say "no", sometimes I say nothing. Sometimes I just turn off the phone, don't check or read my email, don't listen to messages, don't click "confirm", etc.  I have no "spiritual trick" that tells me who to avoid or what to say or not to say, etc.

I've found, in general, I like not speaking, not responding, not engaging, not replying, not seeking, and not fishing in people's lives.  It is work to speak up whereas it used to be work to find a place to speak.  But it is a different kind of work, and harder.  But that is for another post later.   


Øystein said...

Greetings from Norway.

I have no clear biblical or patristic reference to back up this assertion, but a friend of mine once explained to me the grand scheme of the fall and the redemption in the following way: The fall he described as a movement of ”closing in”, and the liberation from the fall as an ”opening up”. Fallen humanity centers around the ego, the human soul closes in on it self, a closing of the mind, our existence became one of grabbing as much stuff as we could to ourselves. (Taking the forbidden fruit seen as metaphor). To become a christian is to become more and more like God, he said, who does not stay encapsulated within himself, but reaches out, opens up in an everlasting outwardly directed movement. A movement of love, of giving, of opening up. When we open up our time, our minds, our hands, our wallets, directed towards God and our fellow human beings, then we imitate God. Does that make any sense, at all?

Mvh. Oystein Lid

Anonymous said...

This post reminds of story of Schemamonk Melchisedek who epitomized humility in book Everyday Saints by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), bestseller in Russia.

123 said...

The typical path of the ascetic recluse returning to the world to share what he has learned, to comfort, etc. is often put on its head. The ascetic effort is minimized, the time frame is dramatically shortened, the heights of holiness are lowered, and the vast multitude of such holy ones who never returned from silence and seclusion is ignored in favor of those who became famous.

For whatever good they provide, too, the primary examples of what I mention above in American Orthodoxy is the typical American monastery and the convert priest. Too many monasteries speak of silence and advertise their withdrawal from the world. Too few see the conflict. Too many convert clergy who were clergy in other faiths see their path to conversion and the often short time before they are ordained in Orthodoxy as their 'time in the desert'. This is false, at least in the pattern mentioned above of withdrawal and asceticism followed by a return.

No one wants to be an unknown saint celebrated only on All Saints without his or her own icon, dedicated altars, books, services, etc. In fact, no one want to do the things the saints did; they just want to be famous for something like saints were. It's really just playacting and a pilgrimage to one's 15 minutes of fame - and 'holy' fame is so much better than the 'fame of the world', 'infamy', etc.

Adapting counsel from a modern Greek elder regarding the impiety of one's children: We should talk to people less about God, and pray more for people to God.

Anonymous said...

When I try to talk to people I just make an ass of myself, every time. That is why I avoid most social contact with people. The recluse life suits me. I also wonder if I am being selfish and should be out there "making friends" and helping people or something.

LV said...

Your metaphor of the spiderweb was very apt and very helpful. I'm a little older than you - have over the past few years experienced the "big hand" of circumstance sweep away what I thought I had, and what I thought things should be like.

s-p said...

Anon #2, For me the issue is going against my "nature" and gifts. I'm basically a social/gregarious "gift of gab" person who interacts seamlessly with everyone on a lot of levels. The recluse life for me is contrary to how I have existed since I can remember. I can't presume to say the opposite is good counsel for you.

s-p said...

123, An astute comment and a topic for a future post, actually. "The desert" is such an ego trip and self defined by our own personal angst over not getting what we want when we want it....

amy said...

A difficult post for me to sink my teeth into and so, an intriguing one. I like your analogy with the spider web though and can relate to that. Our world shifted dramatically in 2009 and hasn't been restored since, in the way of daily living and learning how to live with grief.

But the need for a conversion experience to manufacture a false passion to give our existence meaning...I can't relate to that. Maybe I just don't catch your drift yet. Maybe I just don't have the wisdom to see your point of view.

My experience seems to have taught me something different. I tend to always be seeking an absence of passions. My life seems like a continual "conversion" through things I do not wish for, a damned wheel from which I try to escape to find peace and harmony in blessed routine and fixed foundation.

And, I should note, that even though I often seek escape, I'm fully cognizant of the fact that God shapes me, meets me and strengthens me THROUGH this wretched wheel.

123 said: "holy fame is so much better than the fame of the world" I can relate to that...in my arrogant comparison with women saints who suffered much. I tend to see my own circumstances as a type of martyrdom. Is that selfish? arrogant? wishful thinking that someone will praise my efforts? ugh. well, that's the truth no matter how ugly. Humans do want to be recognized for the beauty within them... maybe the difference with the saints is that they want all to know that the "beauty" is nothing more, nothing less, than Almighty God.

I dunno. Just thinking aloud - thanks for the inspiration.

s-p said...

Amy, I think you are tracking just fine. The "need" for a conversion experience is dysfunctional, BEING converted is not, along with all the rollercoaster that goes with God's providence. I'll probably flesh that out in future posts. I've also touched on the idea of "I am not a Bible character/saint" and our narcissistic tendency to see ourselves as martyrs, in the desert, being persecuted for righteousness sake etc. And, finally, yes: the best thing we can do for another human being is recognize the beauty (image of God) within them. If we can do that instead of judge them for whatever reason they need to be judged, we are not far from the kingdom, IMNSHO. (In my not-so-humble-opinion).

Anonymous said...

"... our own personal angst over not getting what we want when we want it…."

I don't see why this kind of deprivation can't also fall under the heading of "the desert," particularly for a person who will learn from it (however unwillingly or imperceptibly). If we are, willingly or unwillingly, being made to die to ourselves or to our insistences, then there you have it. It's tough to be a jedi saint, you know. Now obviously, the "ego trip" part of it is when we go around bemoaning (boasting) about how much we've had to do without, looking for pity or praise. But still, we didn't get what we wanted when we wanted it. That in itself can be quite salutary.

Even so, 123's comment about clergy putting in their "time in the desert" is a good one. As though the desert is a kind of "paying one's dues" that comes to an end after a couple of hard-to-bear experiences. Until (and even after) one is able to gladly accept with thanksgiving everything that comes to himself or herself, one remains in the desert. The people most pitiful, IMNSHO, are the ones who have no sense whatsoever that they are in a desert.

s-p said...

Anon #3, I guess I was thinking more like "the desert isn't spiritualizing being a whiner clothed in false humility and ego because I didn't get my way" kind of thing (as you mentioned). God denying us our will and His presence in His severe providence, yeah that hurts and can be transformative. I'm sure the entire experience isn't (perhaps can't) be totally binary, it's always a mixed bag.