“I propose to you that Traditional Orthodoxy is not about the pursuit of happiness. It is about the pursuit of holiness.”
This quotation is taken from remarks given by Fr. John Moses at the Southern Missions Conference of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, on November 8, 2003. The complete text is here. Fr. John is the priest where my brother attends and where I ran into some folks I had not seen in more than 20 years.
The short version of the story is this: I was visiting family in Virginia and looked up the closest Orthodox church. That church was All Saints of North America. I arrived too late to attend the liturgy, but while standing in the parking lot with my brother and sister, neither of whom at the time had any knowledge of Orthodoxy, I heard someone calling my name. It was the sister of an old girlfriend of mine! We started talking, and I quickly realized that she and her sister (the old girlfriend) both attended All Saints. Even more amazing, their oldest brother John, was the priest. Needless to say, none of this was coincidence.
The point of this long rambling introduction is to say that the pursuit of holiness has been much in my thoughts lately. Especially that we are to always respond with love. It is the state of the heart that matters, not any outward display of peity.
Fr. John uses the words of St. Theophan the Recluse:
People concern themselves with Christian upbringing, but leave it incomplete. They neglect the most essential and most difficult side of the Christian life and dwell on what is easiest - the visible and external. This imperfect and misdirected upbringing produces people who observe with the utmost correctness all the formal outward rules for devout conduct, but who pay little or no attention to the inward movements of the heart, and to true improvement of the inner spiritual life. They are strangers to mortal sin, but they do not heed the play of thoughts in the heart. Accordingly, they sometimes pass judgments, give way to boastfulness or pride, sometimes get angry (as if this feeling were justified by the rightness of the cause), and are sometimes distracted by beauty and pleasure, sometimes even offending others in fits of irritation. Sometimes they are too lazy to pray, or lose themselves in useless thoughts while at prayer. They are not upset about doing these things, but regard them without any significance. They've been to church, or prayed at home according to the established rule, they carry out their usual business, and so they are quite content and at peace. But they have little concern for what is happening in the heart. In the meantime, it may be forging evil, thereby taking away the whole value of the correct and pious life.
Let us now take the case of one who has been falling somewhat short in the work of salvation. He or she becomes aware of this incompleteness and sees the incorrectness of their way of life, and the instability of his or her efforts. And so they turn from outward to inward piety. They're lead either by reading books about spiritual life or by talking with those who know what the essence of Christian life is, by dissatisfaction of their own efforts, by a certain intuition that something is lacking and that all is not going as it should be. Despite all of his correctness, he has no inner peace. He lacks what was promised true Christians-peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.... He comes to understand that the essence of the Christian life consists in establishing himself with the mind in the heart before God in the Lord Jesus Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In this way, he is enabled to control all inward movements and all outward actions so as to transform everything in himself whether great or small into the service of God and the Trinity, consciously and freely offering himself wholly to God.
I stand convicted. I have long struggled with too many times putting myself and my own wants ahead of the needs of others. Many times I have been blind to those around me and lived my life with no thought to the consequences. To those on the outside looking in I was a considerate, decent man who loved his family and was successful at his job. In reality, I was a fragile shell of goodness around a seething inferno of anger and hatred.
Several years ago, for reasons not relevant here, I began a conscious and (hopefully) fruitful journey to re-make myself, to put aside the old me and become someone I would be proud of, to be a worthy husband, father, son and brother. My journey to the Orthodox faith is the continuation of part of that process and yet the very beginning of a different and more rewarding journey.
I am beginning to realize just how much the struggle is within me. Part of the struggle (for me) is to not respond in kind to evil, not to keep track of wrongs, intentional or unintentional. I can feel the change in myself as I try to respond as I should, not as I want. With each day I realize more and more that I must decrease. It is so joyful to let go, to simply love and yet so easy to hold on, to grasp the wicked desires and hold them close.
In Orthodoxy I have the daily reminders, the emphasis on prayer, the structure that helps me stay focused on what is good, on doing (and thinking) what is right. In other faith traditions (Baptist and Lutheran) I found other sincere loving people who wanted to deepen their spiritual walk, but were ill-equipped or too consumed by the issue de jour. In Orthodoxy I have come home and I find myself becoming complete.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.