A reader has sent us a very interesting email. We will call her Sarah Jones, not her real name. She has accepted that we discuss her email on the blog. Here is what she says:
Dear Orthodox Monk(s),
I am so happy to have found this blog. For numerous reasons. I was going to write out a big, long email, but I feel like such a fool that I don’t even want to burden you with my thoughts. My thoughts are what I want less of.
My simple question is: for someone in the world who is married with children, how can I pursue the ascetic life? The more I seem to go in the direction, the more I hear that I am to be “moderate.” For example, having an issue with pride and vanity and in turn, not wanting to wear makeup or wear the latest fashions. That is seen as “extreme” and for “monks and nuns.” That monastic life isn’t for everyone. I understand that I am not a nun, but I so desperately want to grow closer to God and moderation doesn’t make sense to me.
What is moderation and how does it apply to the spiritual journey for those who are married? I am prideful, so prideful, and the more I look to God, the more I realize I need to get rid of my “self.” My opinions, my thoughts, my, me, me, me, my, I, me ... I am young. I am 25. I am married and have three babies. New to the Orthodox Church. I am young spiritually and in age. To me, it seems the only way to fill this insatiable thirst for God is to grow closer to Him and further from things of this world, but getting rid of worldly attachments, in some cases, is extreme, isn’t it?
I know I have probably come across as foolish. Forgive me if I have wasted your time. I know you get many emails. If you could discuss this on the blog sometime I’d much appreciate it.
Thank you so much,
Let see if we can address the issues. We won’t list what we think to be the points Sarah is making; her email seems too clear for that. We should point out that all we know about Sarah is what she says in her email.
The key issue seems to be this. Sarah has recently joined the Orthodox Church. She feels an insatiable desire for God. But she is being told that she is not a nun, that she must be moderate. She is also married with three babies, 25 years old. How is she going to go to God?
There are several dimensions to this problem—and it is a problem.
The first dimension is where Sarah is. She is in America. The state of Orthodoxy in America is problematical. There are jurisdictions which are rigorist—letter of the law types—and there are jurisdictions whose fondest wish is to blend into the liberal Protestant woodwork of America—American Protestantism with icons. Then there are jurisdictions whose fondest wish is to folk dance just like in the old country. In this context Sarah has become a zealous convert to Orthodoxy.
Next, Sarah is married. In our post ‘Questions about Orthodox Monasticism’ we quoted the Apostle Paul as follows:
He who is unmarried takes care for the things of the Lord, how he will please the Lord. But he who marries takes care for the things of the world, how he will please his wife. For the married woman and the maiden have been divided. She who is unmarried takes care for the things of the Lord so that she be holy in body and spirit. She who has been married takes care for the things of the world, how she will please her husband. … A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband is alive. If her husband passes away, she is free to marry whom she wants, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is more blessed if she remains thus [i.e. an unmarried widow], and I think that I have the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 7, 25 – 40.)
Concerning, then, those things which you wrote to me, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. On account, however, of [the danger of] fornication let each [man] have his own wife, and each [woman] have her own husband. Let the man render to the wife the favour which is owed and likewise the wife to the husband. For the woman does not have authority over her own body but the husband; likewise the man does not have authority over his own body but the wife. Do not deny each other, unless it is by mutual agreement for a time so as to dedicate yourselves to fasting and to prayer and then to come together again, so that Satan not tempt you on account of your incontinence. I say this by way of concession not by way of command. For I wish that all men were as myself. But everyone has his own gift from God, one this way and one that way. I say then to the unmarried and to the widows that it is good for them to remain even as I am but if they do not keep continent then let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. I command those who are married, however, not I but the Lord, that the woman must not separate from her husband. But if she separates, let her remain unmarried or else let her be reconciled to her husband; and let the husband not leave his wife. (1 Corinthians 1 – 11.)
We would recommend that Sarah read the whole post and the following one, ‘The Monastic Vocation’. We do not want to make Sarah a nun. Sarah has three babies and a husband. No one, not even Sarah, believes that it’s time for Sarah to enter a monastery. However, we think that Sarah should study those posts because in them we discuss the vocation to marriage at the same time as the vocation to celibacy.
Sarah remarks that she feels very self-centred. We will remark on the spiritual aspects of this feeling below, but here we want to remark that St Paul provides in the first passage above one of the key methods of ascesis for the married woman—and married man! The married person is to cut his or her will off to the spouse. ‘She who has been married takes care for the things of the world, how she will please her husband.’ Moreover, we see in the second passage just how far this other-orientedness goes: ‘Let the man render to the wife the favour which is owed and likewise the wife to the husband. For the woman does not have authority over her own body but the husband; likewise the man does not have authority over his own body but the wife. Do not deny each other, unless it is by mutual agreement for a time so as to dedicate yourselves to fasting and to prayer and then to come together again, so that Satan not tempt you on account of your incontinence.’
So we can see that one of the main ways in which Sarah is going to become humble is to put these two passages into practice. With zeal.
In this regard it is worthwhile to direct Sarah to read St John Chrysostom, who was a monk and Patriarch of Constantinople and a great moralist, concerning marriage. He follows the indications of St Paul above. He does not suggest that man and wife live as brother and sister.
Moreover, in the Pidalion, the compendium for confessors of canons of the Church, with commentary, of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (of Athos), St Nikodemos instructs the confessor to discourage young married couples from living as brother and sister. He leaves the possibility open to older couples. This is something that has to be grown into by the husband and wife on a mutual basis.
Moreover, in the Life of St Hilarion, contemporary and friend of St Anthony the Great, there is the episode where a wife with zeal for God is refusing her husband. St Hilarion leads her to be reconciled to her husband.
Now a fundamental principle of asceticism is that it is by keeping the Commandments that we approach God. Bodily asceticism only has meaning as a tool to help us keep the Commandments. It is only after a long period of keeping the Commandments that we enter into advanced stages of prayer. The Dismissal Hymn of ascetics says something to the effect, ‘Keeping the Commandments (praxis) is the stepping stone to contemplation (theoria).’ What this means is that it is by keeping the Commandments that we are made able to enter into advanced stages of prayer and union with God, which is what Sarah zealously desires.
Hence, the basic matrix of keeping the Commandments is for Sarah, and for every married woman, to be a good wife and mother. This has a lot of implications. Sarah wonders, for example, whether she should avoid wearing make-up and the latest fashions. The first thing she is going to have to do is discuss this with her husband. What does he want? He might not like make-up; he might like it. Sarah is going to have to be psychologically available to her husband. This is what it means to please her husband. Similarly with the latest fashions. Sarah might not need to wear Prada—after all the Devil wears Prada—but there is a lot of room between wearing Prada and being dowdy. Sarah’s husband might be relieved that Sarah doesn’t want to wear Prada—it’s expensive—but he might prefer a little stylishness so that he’s proud to walk down the street with his wife. Sarah is going to have to have a serious discussion with her husband about these things. This cutting off of her own will is what will cure her of her pride—over a period of years; it is not something that happens in a day.
Moreover, with three babies, Sarah has to be available to her babies not only psychologically but physically. There’s a lot of obedience in responding to infants’ needs. Infants don’t understand, they want what they want NOW.
Is that all Sarah can look forward to? No. There’s more.
First of all, even in marriage each person has his or her own interior life. Although Sarah is to be psychologically available to her husband and her family in every way, that does not mean that her husband is her ‘Elder’ or ‘Confessor’. He has his own spiritual life and she has hers. He might go to Holy Communion; she might not; and vice versa. We are united in marriage but we continue to be separate, autonomous human beings before God. As the Gospel says, the husband and wife become one flesh. It does not say they become one soul.
Moreover, although the husband and wife become one flesh, that does not mean that the one partner should sin because the other partner wants to. Our road to God is to keep the Commandments. In cases where there is a tension between the wish to please the spouse and the requirement to keep the Commandments of God, one must keep the Commandments.
So in the context of pleasing her husband, Sarah should work on her personal spiritual life. Now we don’t know Sarah. We don’t know how educated she is, how intelligent she is, what aptitudes she has, her underlying psychological strength, her emotional maturity, her basic spiritual maturity. We don’t even know whether she has become Orthodox by Baptism, something we recommend. So what we are going to counsel Sarah is subject to the cautions that we don’t know the facts about Sarah and that Sarah has to be guided by someone who knows her. We can only enunciate general principles.
Now one of the things we don’t know is whether Sarah and her husband are living in a nuclear family or whether they have their parents and in-laws and relatives close at hand. From a practical point of view, if Sarah and her husband are getting along with their relatives and they are close by, Sarah could do with some assistance in the home. Three babies is a lot for a 25 year-old woman.
Next, it would be good for Sarah to have some private time each day. Subject to our cautions, it would be good for Sarah to have a private space where she would do something with her hands—paint icons, sew vestments or something. We would recommend something that is not an intellectual endeavour so that Sarah can pray the Jesus Prayer while she is doing whatever she is doing with her hands. But as we said, we don’t know Sarah’s aptitudes. The main requirement is for Sarah to have some time to herself every day, time that is quiet and non-intellectual, time that can be filled with the Jesus Prayer while she is working. This is apart from actual prayer time. That is something different. Of course, this raises the question of who is going to look after the kids.
Next, not only do we not know Sarah’s aptitudes, we also don’t know Sarah’s personal or the family’s more general economic circumstances. Are they poor? Rich? Getting by? Barely getting by? We don’t know. If there is an economic issue, Sarah’s quiet time could be used in an activity that might bring some income into the family. Does this sound crass and mercenary? The wisdom literature of the Old Testament praises the wife who works with her hands, accumulating linens she has woven, and so on. So while Sarah could be praying the Jesus Prayer while she works, she could also be helping the family out economically.
Moreover, it would be good for Sarah to have a skill to fall back on should something happen in the family and she needs to work to support herself or the family.
Of course, if Sarah has a Ph.D. in physics, from the economic point of view it might make more sense for her to get a job as a researcher, perhaps even by computer from home. But working with her hands she will be able to pray the Jesus Prayer in her quiet-time job.
Next, with the cautions we have expressed above, there is no reason that Sarah couldn’t be praying the Jesus Prayer while she goes through her day changing diapers for three babies, making breakfast for the family and so on. But this requires guidance. It simply is impossible to do this without danger and someone has to guide us. This is where we get back to the problem of becoming Orthodox in America. Where is Sarah going to find a guide? We don’t know.
Moreover, we would caution Sarah that it is not the way to go to refuse to kiss her husband because she is practising the Jesus Prayer all through the day and doesn’t want to lose the thread of the Prayer. This is the road to divorce court.
However, subject to our cautions, there is no reason that Sarah couldn’t practise the Jesus Prayer all through the day, being available to everyone in their time. It is possible to do this—to pray the Jesus Prayer continually, interrupting it to respond to the other’s needs, then to resume the Jesus Prayer.
But someone will insist that this is very advanced. And here is where we come back to the issue of ‘moderation’ in contemporary American Orthodoxy. There are two issues. The first we have already alluded to, that American Orthodoxy is not a ‘peak’ expression of historical Orthodoxy. It has problems. One of the consequences of the problems is that American Orthodoxy is at a very low standard spiritually, with a dearth of balanced confessors that can guide a zealous soul in the right direction.
There is a second issue of moderation here. ‘Moderation’ really means ‘the right measure at the right time for the person in question’. Moderation avoids extremes either of slackness or of over-zealousness for the person in question. But only a clairvoyant Elder can with assurance guide a person in moderation, since only a clairvoyant Elder has clear insight into the actual spiritual condition of the person being guided.
Let us make an analogy. As we said, we don’t know Sarah so we don’t know whether she is a born klutz or a born athlete. Let’s suppose, however, that Sarah has an interest in running. She likes running. She runs all day long. Now she thinks that it might be good to get a little professional training—maybe she might be able to compete in a local contest. Now depending on Sarah’s aptitudes, she might be an intrinsically lousy runner or she might be Olympic stuff.
Let’s suppose that Sarah lives some place where there are no professional athletes and no professional coaches. People around Sarah say, ‘You got to be moderate, Sarah! All this running is going to damage you!’ But Sarah wants to run. And run! The only solution is for Sarah to find a professional running coach and work with him. The coach might say, ‘Sarah, you’re a klutz. Run a couple of miles a day for relaxation and leave it; you’re going nowhere; it would be criminal for me to take your money to coach you.’ Or he might say, ‘Sarah, you’ve got potential; you’ve got to work on it but I can see you going places.’ In the first case, the coach’s advice for moderation would be for Sarah to run a couple of miles a day and to get on with the rest of her life. In the second case, the coach’s advice for moderation might be for her to run only 20 miles a day and to avoid performance-enhancing drugs. It depends on who you are.
The same holds for the spiritual life. This is the second issue concerning moderation. Moderation is keyed not only to our environment but to who we are.
So we would say that Sarah should make an attempt to find ‘a professional spiritual coach’ and get assessed. Hopefully she will be able to receive guidance on an ongoing basis from that coach.
In general, Sarah should express her zeal in the context of the Orthodox Church and in the context of her psychological availability to her husband and her children and in the context of her actual potentialities and weaknesses as assessed by the professional spiritual coach.
Finally, we would like to return to Sarah’s comment that she feels completely proud and self-centred. Sarah, we see this as a good sign. If we are not mistaken—and we usually are—this is a sign of God’s grace in you. It is when we don’t feel that we are so far from God that God has left us to our own devices. When we feel that we are so proud and far from God, it is often because the grace of God is upon us showing us what we have to do.
May God bless you.