Our culture celebrates the ability we have to choose – and so we think a lot about choices. We are told every four years that we get to “choose” our leaders (though the choices given to us might not be suitable in either direction). As I look back and think of my preaching over the years I can see a change – and not just a change wrought by my conversion to Orthodoxy. In many ways it has been a change wrought by the fact that I am not a young man any more (though I do not think I am yet an “old” man).
But I can recall a lot of sermons from my late 20’s (I was first ordained and assigned to a Church at the age of 27) that were primarily concerned with choices. The thought that anything was simply a given, or that anything impinged on my freedom was uncomfortable.
As years have gone by and I have watched my children grow up, leave home and settle into their own lives, it seems to me that I have fewer choices – or rather that the most important thing in my day may not have much to do with choice at all.
The vast majority of fundamental things in my life were completely beyond any choice I made. My gender, my nationality, my race, my language, my genetic inheritance – are all matters that I have to live with and come to terms with, but not matters that I choose. Part of the madness of our modern world is that things which do not belong to the realm of choice are being turned into options: do I have this baby; do I want this gender; etc.
Fr. Thomas Hopko is very fond of quoting his father-in-law, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as saying: “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.”
This comes much closer to my present experience. So much of my life has always been beyond my control and only delusion has made me think otherwise. There are fundamental choices – to yield my life to God and acknowledge the fact that He is Lord of my Life. But it is also true that He is Lord whether I choose to acknowledge that or not. The choice I make is whether to remain delusional or to embrace the truth. That is a large choice, indeed, and one to be made moment by moment, but it is still a far cry from the power I once thought I had.
It is interesting to have more than one child. It is certainly interesting to have four, as we do. I can recall that when we only had one, we were able to imagine that this darling little girl was largely “darling” because we were wonderful parents. The second girl came, and she was darling, too, but not in the same ways as the first. How is this possible? Because people are different from the moment of their existence. The other two (a boy and a girl) have only ratified this understanding. They belong to God, not me. He created them, even if the “stuff” of their creation was consubstantial with me and their mother.
Of course, as they grow up, they have to learn that their lives largely consist in how they deal with what they have been dealt. And thus we all pray, “Lord, have mercy!”
We are more powerful than we imagine, but not in the ways we imagine. We are utterly weak in matters where we think we are masters. Day by day, prayer by prayer, we feel our way forward. Learning to choose what God has chosen for us and in so doing find the salvation of our souls.