From The Blog

Mission Monthly – August-September 2009

“The joy of this world is bitter. Woe to him who is seduced by it. As a boat is tossed by waves, so is my life convulsed by my misery. Vain joy captures it with the illusion of satisfaction. Be Thou my helmsman and steer my ship to Thy harbor in that great morning when the sentence unto eternity shall be pronounced.”

St. Ephraim the Syrian

Certainly everyone in this country knows that, “America was founded on hard work!” I remember my elders pointing me to this again and again when I was a young boy. Teachers and politicians, both yesterday and today, have emphasized this truth. There is no doubt that our American forefathers, pioneers, settlers, farmers, city dwellers and immigrants alike had hard lives. Family stories of hard work and struggle, from only one or two generations removed, amaze me with their examples of hardship and sacrifice. Why did these determined men and women give so much of themselves? To build a “better life” for themselves and for their children. Some would realize this dream within their own lifetimes, but more often than not the fruit of these sacrificial pursuits were left for their progeny.

I will never be heard criticizing our forbearers for their purpose in establishing a better future for themselves and for their children. I am a recipient of their efforts and I truly appreciate the world into which I was born, nearly 50 years ago. Yet it is not hard to see and discern that this “better life” pioneered for us is also a seductive and tempting one, especially for those who have never known real hardship and struggle. For younger generations, there is nothing greater than that which makes us “happy” and security and comfort are the norm. Those of us who have mostly known only ease of life find it hard to believe in anything that would go against satisfying our urges and gratifying our wants— for we have been taught that this is what defines a man and gives meaning to life!

It should come as no surprise that the topic of this meditation is one of my greatest concerns, not only as a priest but also as a husband and father. More specifically my concern is what I call “the spirituality of materialism.” I recently heard the word “spirituality” defined most excellently as “that which gives a man a sense of transcendence, of something greater than himself.” Therefore, the spirituality of materialism—when a man finds transcendence (something greater than himself) in that which is lesser, his material existence – could be the greatest of ironies. Maybe a simpler way of explaining this disorder is man confusing his physical life with his spiritual life. In wanting to make a better life for themselves and for their children our forbearers aimed at bettering man's physical state: easier accesses to food, greater income, safer homes and neighborhoods, convenience, better health care, free time, and so on; but often at the expense of “the one thing needful,” his relationship with God.

Fortunately or unfortunately I seem to be one of those folks whose body seems to be aging more rapidly as I approach fifty. My doctor professionally and politely explains that my knees and lower back are going through “degenerative changes.” These recent changes have provided me the opportunity to consider the body, and the soul, being reminded (especially every morning!) of the temporary nature of all things. The troparion for Righteous Women (i.e. St. Mary of Egypt) expresses so beautifully our Orthodox Christian view of the body and soul, “By example and precept thou didst teach us to ignore the body because it is perishable, and to attend to the concerns of the undying soul.” Indeed we are challenged by this world caught up in the pursuits of “vain joy.”

I chose this topic as an introduction and opportunity for contemplation while we journey through the present Dormition Fast. Like many characteristics of our Church's life, the summer fast is never an easy one: vacations and relaxation, get-togethers and cookouts—you name it, all are challenging to these brief two weeks of self-restraint (it is important to note that if at all possible we should try to avoid planning a vacation during the Dormition Fast). Yet what could be more important in our constant battle not to fall prey to the spirituality of materialism than remembering how much of our worldly satisfactions, more often than not, are truly an illusion. God guide us through this inner tension and help us to not be seduced by “the bitter fruit and vain joy of this world” and be drawn ever more deeply into the true and authentic joy of His Life, and the true delight of His Kingdom.