Daily Meditations

A Layman in the Desert (Preface, Part III)

When we see life in the world as amounting to a series of responsibilities that get in the way of real Christian life, then a spiritual break-down becomes virtually inevitable. If we think we are being saved only in those times that we can get away from work, family, society and the like, then we will find our faith is slowly extinguished by the demands of those things upon us, or marked by continuous despair, or even worse (and even more common )–both. Indeed, many are the Orthodox Christians today who continually neglect the spiritual “side” of their lives, and, when pressed, feel real regret and shame in face of this neglect, while nonetheless thinking themselves powerless to reverse it. To be assaulted all at once by spiritual malaise, guilt, and despair is an agonizing state of affairs indeed.

In the same way, when tacitly operating on the assumption that we are something like “sub-novices,” we tend to find ourselves frustrated as we read the Church’s great monastic literature. This should come as no surprise. Such literature calls us to so much more rigor than we think ourselves capable of cultivating that we can be forced to conclude one of two things. Either we are awfully lazy as Christians given how little we are able to model our lives after the spiritual masters, or those masters were different from us as people in some fundamental way-like angelic beings as compared to mere mortals. In the first case we grow despairing, in the second we toss monastic literature aside and tail to learn from its wisdom.

As such, if we are to make any use at all of the great spiritual classics, we must first shake off the temptation to see ourselves as “sub-novices” while reading it. We must, instead, recognize that for lay life to be a life in which we struggle seriously for our salvation, it must be understood as a life profoundly and genuinely lived in the world. Rather than seeing the work of salvation as what happens in those moments stolen away from our worldly cares and devoted to worship and prayer, we must see the work of our salvation as taking place mainly through our daily lives-through the things we spend most of our time doing. We must seek not merely to pray more, and, for instance, work in the evening less-but rather to find ways to be seeking our salvation by way of things like work, or chores, or raising our children. This is not to say that we should abandon things like prayer-far from it. It is, rather, to note that if we assume that those things on which we spend the vast majority of our time contribute nothing to our salvation, then our lives will, indeed, be mostly occupied by wide spiritual waste-lands, and no amount of wisdom from the monastic classics will be capable of helping us to turn such lives into green pastures.

In order to make monastic literature useful to us, then, we must first recognize that modern lay people and the monastic authors who have written most of the Church’s spiritual classics struggle for salvation in fundamentally different arenas with different rules and different requirements. They are not combatants in the same location, some of whom have a lot more time for the battle than others. Instead, each finds herself in a separate place of contest. Each arena provides the Christian with tremendous opportunities for growth in Christ, and each is riven with its own brand of temptations and opportunities to fall further from God. If we are to read works by people struggling in one arena, then to go out and apply them in another, we must, quite obviously, think a lot about what is the same and what is different between these two spaces. We do not do enough of this in the English-speaking Church today.

~ Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert