Thoughts In A Coffee Shop on Sunday Afternoon

While the post title is at least a bit poetic, the same cannot be said for my thoughts.

Today will be a very long day for me. I left the house at 7 this morning and hope to be home by midnight tonight. Some days are just like that I guess.

I’ve spent the last hour or so catching up on the emails that have stacked up on me this week.

This is a good thing I think.

My wife Mary tells me that correspondence is a very valuable part of my work as a priest. At first I wasn’t certain I agreed with her—but I’ve come to see more and more the value of correspondence, and really writing in general, in my own ministry and for me personally.

While I haven’t always been the smartest kid in the room, I have usually have been able to think faster than the smartest kid in the room could. Actually, I could usually even talk faster than the smartest kid could think. And while I’m better, I think I’m better anyway, I can be intellectually just this side of aggressive.

Writing is good because it slows me down—it helps me become more deliberate. And because I put my thoughts down on “paper” (okay, a computer screen) it’s easier for me to see my msitkese, I mean my mistakes.

It’s odd really, but though the Orthodox Church has an amazing tradition of what in the West is called contemplative prayer, we often seem to value the business of the intellect more than the inner stillness of the Hesychast. Speaking with two inquirers this morning I mentioned that the intellect, reason in both its practical and speculative modes, is given to us to guard the heart. Too often I think I have allowed instead the intellect to lead my heart.

This isn’t a good thing at all.

Allowing being lead by my intellect is like letting a junkyard dog slip his leash or jump the fence. A guard dog is only useful when it is properly limited and even restrained. So too the intellect needs to be kept within its proper limits as the guardian of the heart.

Left unguarded, the heart will embrace anything, it will allow anything, any notion no matter how aberrant to take root and grow. When this happens then I am deformed not simply in the core of my being, but from the core of my being. This illness is profoundly crippling. Untreated, it becomes increasingly more difficult to heal, worse still even then a life lived from the intellect.

Princess Illeana (later, Mother Alexandria) writes:

And Jesus taught that all impetus, good and bad, originates in men’s hearts. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45).

The intellect serves to keep sinful images from being planted in the heart. But to abstain from sin, while good, isn’t enough.

I need to cry out to God in prayer. One way to do this is by reciting the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”). St. Hesychois the Priest says that “‘The more rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, Christ’s holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it.” In the oldest traditions of the Church what is important are not the words of the prayer, but that we cry out frequently, in good times and bad, to Christ and ask for mercy.

It is somewhat ironic that, in some circles at least, the Jesus Prayer and the trappings of what people imagine to be monasticism, have become less a living experience and more a mere idea. For many, a life of inner quiet has become an ideology, one rich with trappings and affectations to be sure, but one without existential, personal, substance.

What does it say about my commitment to Christ and the Gospel if I can’t find inner quiet and stillness in the coffee shop in the middle of a busy Sunday? Not that I won’t have busy, stressful days, I will. But if being busy and being stressed become the whole story of my life, or even my day or hour, well then I think I have to say I’ve fallen rather short of the ideal.

Liturgy, personal prayer, asceticism, all of these we do to soften the heart as St Hesychois says.

And the sign of a softened heart? St Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13).

The true test of my inner stillness, my commitment to Christ and the Gospel, is found in charity.

And if I cannot still my own anxious strivings and intellectual speculations on a busy Sunday afternoon in a coffee shop, so that I can practice charity, or at least not offend against it, can I really say that I have even begun to live the life of faith?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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