Wednesday, September 13, 2006

shut up and listen

There's a lot of good stuff in Letters from the Desert (answers by Barsanuphius and John to questions from their spiritual children), but two excerpts really hit me yesterday. The first is part of a rather lengthy response that doesn't actually answer a direct question but addresses a monk who refused his abbot's instruction that he should ask forgiveness in a conflict. Barsanuphius writes in part:
For, a submissive person submits in everything; and such a person is carefree about one's salvation, since someone else will give account for him, namely the one to whom one has submitted and to whom one has confided oneself. So, if you want to be saved and to live in heaven and on earth, keep these things and I shall give account for you to God, brother. But if you are neglectful, then you are on your own. . . . And the Father and Son and Holy Spirit bear witness to me, that I bear all of your care before God; and he will seek your blood from me, if you do not disobey my words.
Kind of scary for the spiritual father, I would imagine, but what a relief for the child! In my situation, where I can't find a priest to convert me (at least on my timetable), it's encouraging to think this way. My Evangelical impulse to view salvation as something between me and God says that I could get hit by a bus on the way home and go to hell, all because this silly priest was puttering around instead of dunking me in the nearest cup of water. But if I understand properly what the Old Man is saying here, my responsibility is just to obey what I'm told to do. If I get hit by a bus, it's the priest's problem, not mine! More specifically, if he said, no, it's not time to convert, but do this and this for now, I'm only accountable for doing what he said. I suppose, though, before I sit back too comfortably, I'd better make sure I have that kind of relationship with a priest :-)

The second excerpt is about staying out of theological debates. It's part of a series of questions and responses that run along similar lines, and John encourages this monk to keep quiet whenever possible. In this particular letter, the man asks:
If the heretic is arguing better than the Orthodox brother during this discussion, is it then good perhaps for me to support the latter as much as I can, lest he be harmed in the Orthodox faith by losing the debate?
John replies:
If you enter into the conversation, and speak before God and people, then you are seen to be as one who is teaching. And, if one teaches without having the authority to do so, then one's words are not inspired by God but remain fruitless. So, if there is no benefit in your speaking, why is it necessary to speak at all?
He goes on to advise that if the monk feels he must say something, he should speak in his heart to God, since God can do more in response to his prayers than he can do in his own strength to resolve the situation. I realize these letters are written to specific individuals for specific situations, but keeping silent in theological discussions is clearly something that I need to work on. I usually can't keep my mouth shut (or my fingers still) for very long. It doesn't necessarily speak to the situation with my wife, where I do have a responsibility for our family, but even there, I still might need to shut up more than I do. Generally speaking, my attempts to explain Orthodoxy just make things worse.

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