We have received an email from Glen Barrett (not his real name). With his permission we print it, slightly edited, and provide our answer. However, we must point out that we are not a medical doctor or lawyer and cannot provide personal advice to anyone; our answers must be taken only in the most general terms, as applying to anyone who might be found in a situation such as the one described. Here is the email:
Dear Orthodox Monk:
I have recently discovered your blog and it has been a source of great education and edification for me, so thank you for that. Before I get into the substance of my question I’ll give a little background. Some years ago I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from Protestantism. I did so after reading for some time about Orthodoxy and taking catechumenical classes at the nearest canonical Orthodox Church. I felt drawn toward Orthodoxy then, both spiritually and intellectually, and I still do today. However, at the time I was a member of the US Armed Forces and not long after my conversion I had to deploy to the Middle East and wasn’t able to attend services for upwards of eighteen months. Upon my return, I slowly began making my way back into Orthodox practice during which time I was diagnosed with a series of injuries that precluded my continued service in the military. Not long after my medical retirement from the military I accepted a position working outside the US as an instructor for the military. It pays the bills, and for that I am thankful, but the area I am in is remote and doesn’t offer me the opportunity to take part in Orthodox services, as the nearest canonical Church is several hours away and presents multiple language barriers.
Background offered, here is the substance of my question:
God’s will, as related to an individual, seems to have two aspects: general and specific. In general, as I understand it, God’s wants all of us to live moral lives and grow to know Him. By living moral lives, I mean following morality as it is understood by the Orthodox Church in Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture. But what of the specific, more personal aspects of God’s will? Growing up as a Protestant, I was taught, in as much as generic Protestantism teaches, that God has a specific, particular will for every Christian. Go here, do this, go there, be that; very scripted and divinely managed. Does Orthodoxy teach something similar and, if so, how does one discern God’s particular will for himself? Less abstractly, here is my personal dilemma and the situation I am trying to make sense of.
My background in the military was very tactically-oriented and in that environment I flourished. In that environment, I felt a sense of belonging and accomplishment and felt as though my particular talents were being used to their best. It was a hard life, physically, mentally and spiritually, but I enjoyed the challenge of it. I was sad to leave the military but understood the necessity of it as I had injuries that precluded my continued service. Since leaving that environment I have been listless, to the point of ennui. I would like to rejoin that community or one similar, albeit in a different capacity, but have had great difficulty in gaining admittance. So, my question: how should an Orthodox Christian (i.e. how should I) discern the difference between a door that is temporarily closed and one that is closed permanently? How should an Orthodox Christian discern in himself between persistence and stubbornness?
I understand that this is a complex issue and one that would be best served by working with a spiritual father or Church Elder but as I said those options are not available to me at present. I am hesitant to engage in more advanced spiritual practices to assist with this issue, as I am not actively practising the liturgy and I understand that spiritually speaking a young Orthodox should not run off into the numinous without the guidance of a more experienced member of the Church.
I apologize for laying this burden on you, but I do not know where else to turn in this, as I am the only Orthodox member of my family and, forgive my lack of charity, the pat Protestant answers that served in my youth no longer satisfy.
God Bless and Thank You,
This is a very complex issue. Let’s start from the beginning. A man has found fulfilment in the military in a ‘very tactical’ assignment. In a classic description of the esprit de corps of an elite military unit he writes, ‘I felt a sense of belonging and accomplishment and felt as though my particular talents were being used to their best. It was a hard life, physically, mentally and spiritually, but I enjoyed the challenge of it.’ But now the man has been injured and has been obliged to leave his unit. He wants to return to it in any capacity at all but has not been allowed. Should he keep trying?
We don’t know. We don’t know what injuries Glen has suffered even at a lay level of description. We don’t know the medical and administrative policies concerning medical discharges of the particular branch of the US Military to which Glen was attached. We have no idea whether anything would come of it if Glen were to write to the Secretary of the Army (or equivalent) or to the Secretary of Defense or to the President. Maybe yes, maybe no, depending on the circumstances. Short of a revelation, there is no way we can answer the question.
However, we can make some general observations. There are really two possibilities: either the man should and can, through persistence, return to his unit; or he should drop the matter and move on with his life. That of course is Glen’s issue with the discernment of the will of God for him.
Assuming that none of Glen’s listlessness and ennui is due to his injuries, Glen is essentially suffering from a form of grief. His listlessness and ennui—one might think ‘mild depression’—are the result of his bereavement in being separated from his unit. This is perfectly natural, we think, so long as it does not go on an inordinate length of time. However, we are not a medical doctor.
Moreover we think that the transition from a very intense life to a rather more sedentary life is also causing Glen’s ennui: when we transition from a very intense way of life to a less intense way of life, there is necessarily the feeling of listlessness and ennui that Glen refers to. This again is natural; it is only overcome when we begin to transfer our psychic energy to new endeavours. This can take some time and implies that we find other endeavours which interest us to the same degree that the old endeavours did.
Should Glen write to the officials mentioned above? Assuming that his injuries do not objectively preclude his returning to his unit—he will have to be honest with himself—there is no reason not to give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is that the officials either ignore his appeal or say no.
However, before he writes, Glen might wish to think about the following issues. If we assume that Glen’s injuries do in the final analysis constitute a barrier to his returning to his unit in any capacity, then he has just found out the will of God for Glen: objective circumstances which either impose a duty on someone or prevent him from doing something are the will of God for that person.
Let us explain. Let us suppose in a first hypothetical case that the unmarried Glen has fathered a child with an unmarried woman. Then the will of God is that Glen marry the child’s mother. Case closed.
Let us suppose in a second hypothetical case that Glen is happily married and his wife dies. Then the will of God is that Glen live without his wife. Glen is going to experience grief for a time and then must move on with rest of his life. Glen’s present predicament vis à vis his military service is that he doesn’t know whether he’s in the position of a man who has lost his wife or whether persistence will pay off in his returning to the unit.
Let us look at broader issues that Glen should think about. First of all, conversion to the Orthodox Church by an American Protestant, especially from an Evangelical (including charismatic or Pentecostal) background is very difficult. The basic problem is that such people have a spiritual experience—either being ‘born again’ or ‘being baptized in the Holy Spirit’—before entering the Orthodox Church and that prior experience seems to them to be a touchstone for all further religious experience even in the Orthodox Church. The experience of joining the Church seems to them to have been accomplished in their being born again or in being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Hence conversion to Orthodoxy is often seen as merely the culmination of an authentic spiritual life already lived long before entry into the Orthodox Church.
But that means a number of things. These people bring a lot of evangelical or charismatic spiritual baggage with them into the Orthodox Church. They have a tendency to remake their local Church into an idealized version of what they think the Orthodox Church should be based on their pre-Orthodox Protestant spiritual experiences. They have a tendency to pick and chose from Orthodoxy since they received the Holy Spirit long before they entered the Orthodox Church and have the spiritual discernment to purify Orthodoxy. They tend to impose their will on their fellow parishioners. Much of the disarray in the Orthodox Church in America can be traced to this.
Properly, a conversion to the Orthodox Church implies a spiritual death to all that has gone before and a learning of the authentic patristic interpretation of Orthodoxy. Properly, it entails being ‘born again’ in baptism. Hence, in being born again in baptism, the new convert encounters a life that is Orthodox, and learns how to live that life from his priest and from the Fathers of the Church.
We are not suggesting that Glen comes precisely out of this background. However we want to make clear that conversion from Protestantism in America to the Orthodox Church is problematical.
Now, the issue we would like to pose to Glen to think about is this. It is perhaps possible for you to return to your unit and the Orthodox Church does not forbid military service. However, you have just converted to Orthodoxy and perhaps it is time for you to concentrate not on rejoining your unit but on becoming a mature Orthodox? We don’t have an answer to this. It is conceivable to us that a Spirit-bearing Orthodox Elder might to one person counsel return to the unit and to another person leaving the military to concentrate on the Orthodox spiritual life.
And here we get to the substance of Glen’s question—how can we discern the will of God for us? God’s will is not quite as rationalist as Glen’s description of the Protestant understandings of the will of God that he encountered in his youth. However, as part of a personal relationship between the Orthodox believer and God, God does have a will for each person. Sometimes we learn the will of God situationally, as we described above, and sometimes we learn it charismatically—but charismatically from an Orthodox Elder. This usually involves Life and Light. That is, when in discussion with an Orthodox Elder we discover the will of God for us, the experience is that of meeting the Light and Life and Love of God in the person of the Elder. One common problem Westerners have in meeting such an Elder is that they tend to over-interpret his words as if the Elder were an oracle. What must be received is the sense of what the Elder is saying as he is illuminated by the Holy Spirit concerning us. The Spirit gives life. The letter kills.
(Update 22.11.2011: Here is what we wrote in an older post:
Let us look at the full definition that St John of Sinai gives of discernment, to be found in Step 23, 1 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent:
23, 1 Discernment, first, is in beginners the true deep knowledge of things which pertain to themselves; in intermediates, then, the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad); in the perfect, finally, that spiritual knowledge existing within the perfect which comes about through divine enlightenment and which is strong enough to illuminate that which exists darkly in others.
O perhaps most generally this is known to be and in fact is discernment: the sure possession of the will of God in every time and place and thing, which exists only in those who are pure in heart and body and mouth. Discernment is an unspotted conscience and a pure sense.
First, it should be obvious that the degree of discernment that St John assigns to the perfect is rare.
Next, from what we have said it should be clear that this has nothing to do with the exercise of reason by the mind or nous, although the mind or nous certainly has the faculty of reason. However, what is involved is a higher faculty of the mind or nous, what the philosophers call ‘intuitive cognition’. That means ‘seeing directly without using the reason’. So when the Holy Spirit illuminates us, we see directly what it is that we see. This seeing is knowing. It is a spiritual seeing that becomes a spiritual knowing.
We can further see that there are stages in the evolution of the charism of discernment in the man as he proceeds on his spiritual road, and that personal purification plays a very important role.
Wounded by Love contains spiritual reminiscences by Elder Porphyrios, who had the gift of clairvoyance in power. Elder Paisios of Mount Athos is quoted as remarking about his own gift of clairvoyance in relation to Elder Porphyrios’ gift: ‘I have a black and white television set, but Elder Porphyrios has a colour television set.’
On pp. 27 – 33 of Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios describes his reception at the age of 16 of the Holy Spirit in power, his resulting illumination, and his simultaneous reception of the gift of clairvoyance. These things were transmitted to him through another Athonite Elder, Elder Dimas, without Elder Dimas’ having anything to do with it: the Holy Spirit ‘jumped’ from Elder Dimas to the young monk without Elder Dimas’ knowledge. Why? How? Who knows?
The translation of the Greek text of the passage has a few problems, but the essential message gets through. Note that ‘clear sight’ in the text is clairvoyance; the original Greek is to dioratiko.
Here we have an account by a modern Elder of how he received the gift of clairvoyance, and if what he says isn’t clear, we are not in a position to make it any clearer.
Let us return to the present post:)
There is another way to learn the will of God which is more difficult. That is to pray. Not to hear a voice or see a vision—God forbid that Glen should do that—but if we pray sincerely and insist, then God will hear our prayer. We will understand our way. It is important to be decisive and to insist—not with arrogance as if God owes us great guys something but rather like the widow in the Gospel Parable. Remember the widow who hassled the wicked judge until he gave her justice—her persistence is what paid off. The wicked judge figured that she wasn’t going away and that to be done with her he had to give her what she wanted. God tells us that we have to do the same with Him. We think that Glen should do this humbly and without getting into an anxiety state. The very act of praying is in some sense an answer. Even if objectively the answer takes time, God knows what he’s doing by delaying. Remember, in the ‘Our Father’ we pray, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.’ Given that Glen has a job at the moment that keeps food on the table—not to be sneezed at in this day and age—we would think that he should continue doing what he is doing while he prays.
Additionally, since Glen is living overseas, he might consider visiting Mt. Athos. Who knows, maybe a conversation with a Spirit-bearing Elder will happen and he will see what he is to do.
We give him our best wishes.