I was going through the used books section of Goodwill the other day when a title popped out at me. It was by a well-to-do Christian businessman, titled How to make a Hell of a Lot of Profit and Still Go to Heaven. It was a guide for ethical money making. Whether his argument is good, I can’t say, but it certainly hearkens to Christ’s words today regarding those who are rich, and the seemingly impossible task that rich people have in obtaining salvation. Christ isn’t mincing word here, there’s no explaining it away, and a preliminary assessment seems to support the claim.
It’s not that having a lot of money is inherently evil, but one thing that an increased income provides is an increase in material wealth and other opportunities. I know several folks in the area who are gone every weekend and rarely come to Church. They’re shopping in Columbus or Cincinnati, flying to Chicago or New York, or at a beach. At a previous place I lived a couple didn’t come to Church on a Sunday because there was a painter coming on Monday morning and they still hadn’t settled on a kitchen color.
This increase of income tends to come with an increase of job or life stress. When a person is under the burden of greater levels of stress they’re naturally less inclined to stop and take time for someone or something important let alone reflect on God and their relationship to Him. This coupled with having a nice house, car, whatever also can insulate people from being confronted with the serious suffering in the world, or even something more simple like volunteering in the church.
But this isn’t piling on of doctors and lawyers and successful business people. The fact is that here in America we’re all well to do in comparison to a lot of people around the world. We might not be able to afford everything we want, but how many of us get lured into sitting on the couch all night and watching TV? Anyone get into a solid Netflix binge to watch the entire series of Gilmore Girls? Anyone get visibly angry when they can’t get cell phone services in these hollers? I feel frustrated when I’m going to exercise and forget my phone and *gasp* I’m now forced to lift weights, being confronted by my own thoughts! There are so many things that distract us from being present in the world and keeping our souls open to God!
What does the Church have to say to us about this? It’s reflected in the hymn we sign during Artoklassia:
Rich man became poor and suffered hunger, but those who seek the Lord shall never lack any good thing.
Or another hymn that we sing for several ascetic saints:
You taught us by example to disdain the flesh, a passing thing, but to see the soul which is immortal.
We also remember Christ’s words Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Brothers and sisters, if we wish to obtain the salvation so generously offered to us we need to embrace our spiritual poverty. If we want to experience the richness of Christ we have to be poor in spirit. And this requires a deliberate approach, just as we are deliberate in our earthly work.
We must recognize that we need salvation, and thatwe’re in need of the Grace to accept it. We can achieve many things on this earth, but the only thing that will clean our souls and mend our hearts, the only thing that will save us is Christ alone. Having recognized this we can fully embrace the loving arms of the Orthodox Church which, in her wisdom, has given us all sorts of practices, outside of regular participation in the Divine Liturgy, which can keep us present in the world.
The absolute most simple is the Jesus prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’ with its many variants. I keep a prayer rope in my pocket, small or large depending on what I’m wearing, and when I’m sitting with some down time (for example, last week while Adeline was getting her braces on) I take 5, 10, 20 minutes to beg Christ for his mercy. I make it an immediate and recognizable fact in my life, that I need Christ’s mercy. You don’t need a rope, but the tactile feel of the knots helps with focus.
But you might say you can’t commit to that right now. For a lot of people committing 5-10 minutes in the middle of the day for prayer is an extreme jump. But there are any number of short prayers we can read upon waking, at midday, before meals, or before bedtime. And you don’t need a seminary education to use them! They’re all available on the Archdiocese mobile app, they’re available on the archdiocese website, or in the little blue prayer book that I’ve given to some of you. You can choose to be deliberately conscious of God and give him thanks, and it doesn’t require mindboggling amounts of effort. But, you might also say, you’re so busy and you forget. Let me share with you something that happened last week. And I did ask permission before sharing this with you.
Last week a woman I know was so concerned she was going to forget there was an eclipse on Monday and, maybe slightly panicking at the darkening of the earth, look straight up into the eclipse and harm her eyesight. So, what she did to ensure this didn’t happen was create a dozen alarms on her iPhone with several hilarious titles to keep her grounded in the reality that there was an eclipse and to not look up at it. What if we took an approach like this to our prayers? What if we picked a random time or a couple of random times to alert ourselves that it’s time to stop whatever it is we’re doing and give thanks to God? What if we took steps with the technology we have to help us enrich our spiritual lives? I counsel a lot of people to get up out of bed when waking up and immediately venerating an icon to start the day. A lot of people forget about this when waking up. What about making an alarm to be the worship bells we hear at monasteries and other Orthodox churches so that way, upon rising, we remember right away who gave us this day and whose mercy we must rely on?
Brothers and sisters, in order for us to truly embrace the salvation offered to us we need to first embrace our spiritual poverty. But we have to deliberately choose to cut through the chaos of the day, or the lethargy of our relaxation, and then make the appropriate response. Christ says that he stands at the door and knock; take the time to hear it, and take the time to respond.