Once upon a time…
I was young, and a pastor. Now – I’m neither! But for a season in my life I was called, trained, and sent to influence the world for Christ. And as a newly graduated seminarian I was long on knowledge: dogmatics, systematics, patristics, liturgics, exegesis and the parsing of Greek and Hebrew verbs – but very short on WISDOM and EXPERIENCE… probably the most important things one can have in doing God’s work. But it is what it was… and thank God He is gracious and merciful to us, and especially young seminary grads.
In those early years I ran myself ragged. Literally working myself into exhaustion within the first few years, preaching and teaching and wanting to “save” everyone I could find, or at least anyone who would care to listen to me… I was tired, but “I was doing the Lord’s work” – or so I thought.
At about that time, something important happened to me. A divine appointment was arranged – one of those rare but necessary moments in life that God plans all along to actually “save” us from ourselves! I was called on the phone, to visit a dear lady. She was a mentor, a teacher, and a friend – my fourth and seventh grade teacher: Sister Mary Louisine SSND, a nun who taught at St. Isidore’s Catholic grade school.
The SSND is an acronym for School Sisters of Notre Dame, countless numbers of women that gave their lives to God and to teaching, no I should say, to shaping children, into men and women of virtue. Sister not only taught us to read, and write, and do math – but she taught us the most important things like: How to love God, and His Son and the church. She taught boys how to be gentlemen. She taught girls how to be ladies. In fact, when I was courting my future wife, she always noted how I would switch sides when we were walking on a street: “Why do you always walk closest to the curb when we walk along busy streets?” Well I said, “That is what Sister Louisine taught us… she said that a man should walk closest to the street so that if any danger comes, he can sacrifice himself and save the lady from any hurt or harm…” Now some women today might roll their eyes with such a “man-centered” Patriarchal sentimentality…but my future wife saw it as the way of a “gentleman”, and she has walked with me over 20 years, and I’m still next to the street curb “protecting her from danger…”
But to continue the story, the Mother House called and told me that sister was very sick and getting weaker daily. I knew I had to break from my “successful” busyness and visit her. When I arrived she looked at me and smiled. She was not well, and yet had an aura of deep peace, a heavenly restful countenance was on her face. I, on the other hand, was young, healthy and yet deeply “sick” on the inside: she had cancer – and was soon going to heaven. I on the other hand had the cancer of our culture: “hurry sickness” and was terminal. After some small talk she asked me, “Mike how are you?” I took that question as an invitation to impress her with all my work for the Lord, the Kingdom, for Jesus etc. And so I launched into a partly boasting, and mostly “help – save me from myself” monologue. She sat there patiently in the midst of her pain and discomfort and listened intently to me go on about how much I was doing, and yet how tired I was …. It has often been said, that “When the student is ready – the teacher will appear” and this was that Divine moment when the Holy Spirit began to speak (yet again teaching me) through the heart of a woman whose body was filled with cancer, but whose soul was full of peace – who had one more lesson to teach me before she departed: When I said to her, “….things are busy, real busy….” She paused, not in a hurry, not trying to impress – and slowly said:
“Yes, the world is busy – that’s because it’s the world.
The Church is busy too. She continued…
But I wonder, “If she is busy with the right things….?
Wham! There it was… “I wonder if we – I wonder if I – am busy with the right things?” I found the image above called “Defeating Busyness” and it seemed to capture what I felt at that moment. The embrace of someone who loved me enough to hold me, and tell me the truth. In those few words from this godly woman, all of the bravado, insecurity, and workaholism of my life were reduced to utter rubble. Was I busy with the right things? Of course I was, I thought. I was taking care of hundreds of things, and hundreds of other people… but what I forgot was that in “saving” others through my busyness, I was losing my own life and soul.
That is the way of it today. We all are busy. But ask yourself: “Am I busy with the right things?” With external things or Eternal things? Things that matter most, things that feed my soul, that foster my relationship with the Trinity, with my church, with my family? My marriage? Our children? My soul? People?
It’s not easy to ask – and won’t be easy to do. Technology is a cruel and merciless taskmaster. It’s both a friend and a ruthless enemy. It entices us with “ease” but enslaves us to move and live and work…faster and faster. Sure, some would say we’re more “efficient”, but in the end we all wonder if it’s more “effective”? Satan loves to distract us, with technology toys, a 24/7 world of entertainment all to “keep us busy”, to distract us: to take our eyes off of the main thing: Intimacy with what matters most: the Holy Trinity. Our highest calling to love God, and to love others. This is our real vocation! This is our calling here and in the life to come.
For those of you reading this, you’re probably waiting for me to provide the “Three Step Solution” to the problem. For me to suggest an easy to follow, simple step, and “one pill cures all” solution to the tyranny of madness that we find ourselves in. And in former days as a protestant evangelical I could have pointed you to a hundred “How To” books on ridding your life of chaos and busyness – and some are actually pretty good…
But as an Orthodox Christian I know it’s not that simple. In fact it’s not meant to be simple or easy. On the contrary it is through the struggle, through the battle, through the waging of war against the passions of busyness, ego, pride, and greed – that we obtain a better prize, a more valuable return, peace with God, and peace with ourselves. How much of our daily life is lived to please someone other than the God who made us? To be light, salt, sanity, and peace in the middle of our frenetic work culture is to bring the Gospel of grace to the world. I have this quote posted to my computer as a continual reminder of God’s way – versus the way of a running and frantic world:
A humble man is never hurried, hasty or perturbed, but at all times remains calm. Nothing can ever surprise, disturb, or dismay him, for he suffers neither fear nor change in tribulations, neither surprise nor elation in enjoyment. All his joy and gladness are in what is pleasing to the Lord. -St. Issac of Syria
We want holiness. We want wholeness. We want the sacred. And we want them NOW but with little or no effort involved. This may be the desire of our flesh, but it’s not the way of God, and it’s not the path to paradise.
We cannot achieve holiness and quietude overnight. But we can listen to the voices and study the lives of the holy ones who have gone before us. To learn from their ways. To embrace daily, like they did, like Sister Louisine did, the struggle, and to take up the things that matter most. The monastic desert fathers help us frame this journey in the right perspective when they taught:
Remember, you were nine months in the womb of your mother before you saw the light of day, and even then you depended upon her to feed you, to care for you and to protect you: her nurturing and love is constant up until the present day. How much more does Our Heavenly Father feed us and keep us until we grow into the likeness of Christ His Son who is the Light of the World.
“Yes we are busy… but let’s be busy with the right things….”