The Temptation of Sunday
16 Δεκεμβρίου 2010
I talked further with this simple brother who gave me shelter and he told me about his life and his ideas. “I had quite a good position in the life of our village,” said he. “I had a workshop where I died fustian and linen and I lived comfortably enough, though not without sin. I often cheated in business. I was a false swearer, I was abusive, I used to drink and quarrel. In our village there was an old dyachok who had a very old book on the Last Judgement. He used to go from house to house and read from it, and he was paid something for doing so. He came to me too…
Give him threepence and a glass of wine into the bargain and he would go on reading all night till cock crow. There I would sit at my work and listen while he would read about the torments that await us in hell. I hear how the living will be changed and the dead raised; how God will come to judge the world; how the angels will sound the trumpets. I heard of the fire and pitch and of the worm which will devour sinners. One day as I listened I was seized with horror and I said to myself: What if these torments come upon me! I will set to work to save my soul. It may be that by prayer I can avoid the results of my sins. I thought about this for a long time. Then I gave up my work, sold my house and as I was alone in the world, I got a place as a forester here and all I ask of my mir is bread, clothes and some candles for my prayers. I have been living like this for over ten years now. I eat only once a day and then nothing but bread and water. I get up a cock crow, make my devotions and say my prayers before the holy icons with seven candles burning. When I make my rounds in the forest during the day, I wear iron chains weighing sixty pounds next to my skin. I never grumble, drink neither wine nor beer. I never quarrel with anybody at all and I have had nothing to do with women and girls all my life. At first this sort of life pleased me, but lately other thoughts have come into my mind and I cannot get away from them. God only knows if I shall be able to pray my sins away in this fashion, and it’s a hard life. And is everything written in that book true? How can a dead man rise again? Supposing he has been dead for over one hundred years and not even his ashes are left? Who knows if there is really a hell or not? What more is known of a person after they die and rot? Perhaps this book was written by priests and teachers to make us poor fools afraid and keep us quiet. What if we plague ourselves for nothing and give up all our pleasure in vain? Suppose there is no such thing as another life, what then? Isn’t it better to enjoy one’s earthly life and take it easily and happily? Ideas of this kind often worry me and I don’t know but that I shall not some day go back to my old work.”
I heard him with pity. They say, I thought, that it is only the learned and the clever who are free thinkers and believe in nothing. Yet here is one of ourselves, even a simple peasant, a prey to such unbelief. The kingdom of darkness throws open its gates to everyone, it seems…
– The Way of a Pilgrim, p. 32-34
A few years ago, an Orthodox priest was asked by a faithful woman, “Why is it that my family always seems to have arguments on Sunday mornings? We never argue any other morning.” Putting aside the obvious outward variables of time and stress, the priest replied, “The devil simply doesn’t want you to be at church.”
While Sunday mornings are seen by most people as the day on which religious folk affirm their beliefs, the reality is, Sunday mornings are the time at which Christian faith is most tested. The appeal of the New Age Movement provides an exact contrast to Orthodox life in this respect: while the New Age permits one to do anything one likes, any time one likes, Orthodox Christianity reminds us that our exterior life (i.e. the things we do) plays the most important part in shaping our interior life (i.e. the things we believe, and who we are). Lex orandi, lex credendi, as the Church Fathers say – the law (or way) or worship is the law (or way) of belief.
Several years ago, we were in the habit of driving along the Toronto waterfront each Sunday morning. In a scene that mirrors the picture in cities across the country, drivers could view literally hundreds of runners, out for an early morning exercise, as part of their weekly routine. Speaking with our priest one day, I ridiculed the runners. “Why aren’t they in Church,” I asked. “Don’t they have any self-discipline?” The priest answered, “Yes – more than we do. They’re devoted to their religion. Are we?”
Are we indeed? One of the Fathers of the Egyptian desert once praised a prostitute for taking such care of herself that she attracted the attention of every man around her. “We should be like this,” the saint remarked, “adorning ourselves with the virtues, that we might attract the blessings of God and the attention of the angels.”
Unlike the runners or the Egyptian prostitute, Orthodox Christians do not have the support of society in our chosen path. We are working against the grain, with every step we take. Canadian society has made Saturday night a party night; for the Orthodox, this means setting aside Saturday nights to attend Vespers or the Vigil, to Confess, and to quietly prepare our hearts for Sunday morning.
Work days provide a financial incentive for most adults to get up early to go to work. Yet even for those who are financially well-off, such efforts can never provide lasting results. In particular, they can never provide joy, or peace of heart. Without exertion toward spiritual things, every other effort is wasted: they simply won’t make us happy. The spiritual temptations holding us back on a Sunday morning are known to many of us. Yet it is in reviewing them that we are able to provide for ourselves a defence against them. Tiredness is ready ground for excuses on Sunday mornings. Bad weather goes along with it. As the Proverb tells us, “The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets,” (Proverbs 26:13). Any excuse will do. Could it be the fact that Sunday is the Day of Christ’s Resurrection is simply so far from our minds most of the time that we forget that’s the reason we gather together on Sundays? Are we so easily cheated of the benefits of exerting ourselves a little in the spiritual life, that we will so quickly be deprived of the blessings of the holy services? Have we fallen to the level that we have become the spiritual equivalent of a couch potato, consoling ourselves with crumbs of spiritual junk food, while neglecting the small labours that will make us spiritual whole? Are we so fat with worldly things that we have forgotten God?
The temptation of Sunday morning is designed to keep us off balance, vulnerable to the anger, confusion, doubt, and the spiritual assaults we will face throughout the week. We prepare ourselves beforehand for journeys; we prepare ourselves and our children for work and school. Does it not make simple sense to struggle valiantly in an effort to prepare ourselves spiritually each weekend to face the journey and the work of the week ahead?
Could it be that our faith can so easily become an outward thing, that when it is tested by, say, having to forego sleeping in on Sundays, or by taking a day off with pay for a holy day, our faith collapses like a house of cards? It is tempting to find the shortcomings of others: those who do not believe, or who fall into moral lapses. But the Church fathers are very clear that the interior life of the Christian starts not with them, but with me. Outward discipline – not legalistically following rules, but simply ruling our own passions of laziness – is the centre of this struggle.
It is in resolving to do these things – the little things – that we begin to actually live the Christian life as something more than an idea, or a hobby.