‘Til My Last Breath

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Abba Antony told Abba Poemen, “We have one great work to accomplish. Before God, we must accept responsibility for our sins, expecting to be tempted until our last breath.”

For myself, as wells as others that I know, the battle against sin and temptation is, as described by the Fathers, a battle ’til our last breath. Most of the battles we fight are entirely inward – not there for anyone else’s observation. I think of the many things against which an individual struggles – usually the same things day in and day out. And most of what tempts us belongs to what modern self-help schools would call “character defects.” It’s not a bad name – indeed it’s quite descriptive. Something within me that doesn’t work quite right – and placed in my daily situation temptation and struggle are the result (if one is fortunate enough to remember to struggle).

I am also quite sympathetic to larger matters that make the struggle all the more difficult. To struggle against sin when one is beset with depression is close to impossible – the depression itself takes all our energy for the struggle.

There is the setting of our modern life as well. We do not live in an Orthodox village but in the strange world of modernity (or most of us do). Most people are miles removed from extended family, frequently miles removed from their parish church. We have not constructed our world with the uppermost question: “What’s the best way to construct a world?” Economics and other factors have frequently designed our world for us (particularly in America).

In the midst of these things the most natural balms to our beleaguered existence are often far removed. Thus when I make an argument from beauty for the existence and love of God – many are too busy to have encountered beauty that day. It has not been the most important thing in our lives. We have not constructed our communities around such a thing.

For years the undeniable beauty for me everyday has been the constancy of my family. From their earliest years to their present maturity my children have been unrelenting sources of joy in the sheer wonder of God’s goodness – even when they have been less than perfect. My wife has occupied the same place. Many times my parishes have offered such a balm if only I would receive it – and the altar has never betrayed me.

I have a sign beside the door of my office – it is a quote from Philo, the Jewish philosopher:

Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

And it seems to me to be true. I assume it was true when Philo wrote it some 2,000 years ago. Thus I need not blame modernity for what seems to have been a perennial human experience.

But I must be kind and pray for the beauty of the world around me that others may see it, and that I may see it. To grasp the hand of God in the midst of prayer is to walk with a steady gait regardless. May God grant us all to see His Kingdom and engage the struggle ’til our last breath.

26 Responses to “‘Til My Last Breath”

  1. lauranee Says:

    …beautiful. Thank you!

  2. faith45 Says:

    Very thought provoking and spoken as from an known, person who has lived and breath his very words. BLESS YOU MAN………..

  3. David Says:

    My wife and I were talking tonight about the struggle against sin. She lives with the consequences not only of her own sin, but of the sin of many other people in her life. The depression makes it almost impossible to even think about struggling against her own.

    However, we struck upon a useful thought. She hurts badly from the wounds of others and realized that she would never want to be the cause of that hurting in other people. I think I had never really loved any enemies in my life until my son died and I realized even my worst enemy should not suffer that. Only then could I love some people in my life whom up until then I hated.

    What a horrible way to learn that lesson! May God offer other people a different school room. I beg it!

  4. William Says:

    David,

    Thank you for your honest and powerful words. May God continue to comfort and lead you and your wife and give you both his strength.

  5. artisticmisfit Says:

    I like what you said, the altar has never betrayed me…

  6. Fr Ron Drummond Says:

    This is exactly what I needed to hear last night when I read these words in the midst of a lonely indulgence of self-pity. Thank you and Thanks be to God for you, dear Father.

  7. The Scylding Says:

    What I needed today…. thanks!

  8. Kristen Says:

    I am wondering if this may be why depression has become so rampant, if perhaps our enemy is aware of how debilitating depression can be to the spiritual life.

  9. artisticmisfit Says:

    Depression is a biochemical problem, not a spiritual problem solely. First and foremost it needs to be treated with medication. Please do not be superstitious. That makes us look bad.

  10. Reader John Says:

    As one in the psych field for over 20 years I would argue that depression can be biochemical and/or spiritual. At times it is difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins, endogenous vs. exogenous, etc. The use of antidepressants like SSRI’s is therapeutic in some cases and worthless in others. Although all thoughts have a biochemical basis/formula I think it is dangerous to just blame everything on poor brain chemistry. It is as simple as that and, since all chemistry is ultimately mysterious patterns of energy, as complicated as that. Some depressions resolve on their own, some need ECT. We aren’t robots. If only it were always so simple as finding the right medicine…

  11. artisticmisfit Says:

    Reader John, may I ask what jurisdiction you serve? I am wondering if I know you. I doubt it, but one never knows. I am sorry, but I don’t think you can treat the spiritual malaise unless you treat the mental illness first. The Orthodox church is really backwards in this regard, and thinks people are possessed when they simply have a brain chemistry problem. The Orthodox church is really judgmental and ignorant, horribly so, of mental health issues. I personally am really disappointed in the Church regarding this issue.

  12. William Says:

    I would second Reader John’s comments. I don’t want to sound overly polemical here, but the idea that medication is the only or always-primary answer to depression smacks of superstition. That said, medication is important. I’m not an expert, but research that I’ve read seems to indicate that chemistry can be cause or can be effect. Chemistry, troubled circumstances and environments, anxiety, coping difficulties, real or perceived isolation, nutrition, sleep difficulties, and, certainly, spiritual factors are all at work in the multiple kinds of depression that people experience. The biochemical reality is not the only one to be addressed.

    As Christians, we also have to recognize that all biological and psychological problems have spiritual roots and so also require spiritual balms. This is not superstition, and it doesn’t hinder us from incorporating insights from science, medicine or psychology.

  13. artisticmisfit Says:

    I am sorry William, I also disagree with you. If one does not treat the physical problem, one can not treat the spiritual problem. As I said, I think you have it backwards. Have you read The Spiritual Life by St. Theophan the Recluse? He supports my position. The body comes first. Have you read The Ladder of Divine Ascent? He also supports my position, the body comes first. I am not sure if I am Christian based on your comments because I am totally at odds with them, and that’s ok. I don’t mind being a misfit in regards to this issue. Does anybody know Fr. George Morelli? Perhaps they can invite him to comment? He writes on Orthodoxy Today about these issues and he is the expert in the Orthodox field to my understanding. There is also an Orthodox organization that deals with these affairs, the name slips my mind at this moment. There is also NAMI, and they deal with faith, in fact they have a newsletter about faith.

  14. William Says:

    Please do not interpret my comments as challenging your Christianity or as branding you a misfit (though you brand yourself one). Also, please do not read more into my comment than is actually there. Are you really “totally” at odds with everything I said. I am not describing an “order” of treatment, in which spiritual problems must be dealt with before physical ones can be addressed. I’m writing in more broad terms. A lifetime of medication is not a cure, and for some people, that is exactly what is being prescribed.

    I have not read this work of Theophan. I have read The Ladder more than once. I’d like to hear more of your view on how these two (or at least Climacus) pertain to this topic. I’m not sure that the body comes “first” but I do recognize that body and soul are a unity.

    All the same, I think I can sympathize with what I believe you are challenging in the Orthodox Church, but I’m not sure you would agree.

  15. William Says:

    I should amend to my “lifetime of medication” line to read “that for some people that is ALL that is being prescribed.”

  16. artisticmisfit Says:

    St. Theophan, remember he is a saint, wrote about the levels of the spiritual life. The body comes first. Therefore, the physical problem comes first. St. John Climacus deals with the physical passions first: gluttony. Once again the body must be treated first. May I take it that you are not Orthodox? It seems you are not by how you speak about the saints, but I could be wrong and I apologize if I am. Actually my pen name comes from a seeker who perceived I am an artistic misfit within my faith. I am an artist, and I don’t fit into my faith. That’s the truth. I believe that spiritual solutions will not work until physical problems are addressed. Excommunication, for example, is not going to help someone suffering from mental illness.

  17. artisticmisfit Says:

    Well we are talking about people within the Church only, so for some, the sacraments won’t help, as they are not believers, although sometimes in the wrong bishop’s hands, the sacraments can be used as a political weapon, and they lose all grace, or become destructive.

  18. William Says:

    Another amendment, to be more clear: I mean to say that I think I can sympathize with you as you make your challenge to the Orthodox Church.

  19. William Says:

    Perhaps you’re referring to my failure to write “St.” Theophan and “St.” John Climacus? Forgive me. I’m Orthodox, but I didn’t start out that way. One mistake I think you (might) be making in your reading of these two saints is that you are projecting 20th or 21st century knowledge into their 7th and 19th century words. It may be that they would agree with your assessment if brought up to speed on current psychological research, but it may be that they would address the problem differently. Inasmuch as they had ideas about psychology and depression, their ideas were certainly different than ours. I can’t comment on Theophan, but Climacus and other writers didn’t seem to be treating the passions as merely physical problems.

    In any case, I think you and I might be talking past each other, because you mention excommunication being used as some kind of way to address mental illness, as though it were a “solution.” Be assured that I am certainly in agreement with you that this is no solution, though in some cases it might be necessary (but not as a solution). I also do not perceive the sacraments to be some kind of “cure” for mental illness.

    Suffice it to say that my only challenge to your original comment here was to the notion that medication is the only or always-primary way to deal with depression.

  20. artisticmisfit Says:

    Thank you William. It is not my only challenge to the Orthodox church, although now I retract my challenge regarding the celibate episcopate. I think its a good idea, and I think the celibate priesthood in the Catholic church is also a good idea. I did not start out as Orthodox, or even as Christian. Excommunication can be used as a means to restore boundaries or heal the possessed, or as a means to judge and persecute someone. As I said, used in the wrong hands, it can hurt rather than help. I think you misread me as well and I apologize. I said the medication must be the first part of the solution, before the spiritual solution can be applied. Perhaps we have reached the end of the discussion?

  21. William Says:

    Thank you as well for your graciousness, Artistic Misfit. Perhaps we might pick up the discussion again in another context. God bless you.

  22. artisticmisfit Says:

    I try.🙂 Please join me on the next discussion on this blog. I pulled The Ladder off the shelf and am reading it as I prepare dinner. I think I need to work on anger personally, I have a lot of malice in my soul…
    Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on us!
    If you write anywhere else, I would be happy to join you there as well, those are possible other contexts too.

  23. David Says:

    I feel a bit timid in adding to the mess. But personally (and I mean that I apply this only to myself, not just that it’s my opinion), depression isn’t always something to be cured at all.

    Some of the depression I suffer from isn’t a malfunction, but in fact the very proper function of both flesh and breath in response to sin and its consequences in the world.

    My son is separated from me. This, in fact, should suck. I shouldn’t “get better” until we are reunited in Christ at the end of all things. I’m sure that Fr Stephen might have some comment here about my 2nd story thinking but I really don’t mean to imply any 2nd story.

    I just got done listening to an CRLT archive of Fr Hopko talking about Death and I was both enlightened and relieved to hear from him the truth. The separation of the spirit from the flesh is a tragedy. It is unnatural.

    Anyone who wants to medicate me or spiritually guide me in such a way as I loose the knowledge (that is the knowing by experiencing) of how horrible the death of my son was will find my opposition formidable.

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    David,

    Fr. Hopko is right. I will always feel the loss of my own son with a poignancy that is correct. Years have changed somethings but never removed the mystery, or the fact that death is not “natural”. No argument from me.

  25. artisticmisfit Says:

    David and Fr Stephen,
    I am both sorry for your losses and thankful for your contributions to this discussion. It is interesting to learn about the evolution of thought on death, from Fr. Tom to his spiritual son, Dr. Albert Rossi. I imagine Fr. Tom got his ideas from Fr. Alexander Schmemann of Blessed Memory, no?
    And I totally agree with you David. I personally lost my marriage and I think that depression is also a natural reaction to that.
    J.R.R. Tolkien dealt beautifully with the effects of a father having to bury his son in The Lord of the Rings…
    There is so much in these two comments, I see another blog entry coming out of them. At any rate, I am reading Dr. R’s lecture notes on death and I will see if I have something to contribute later. They are very challenging, perhaps the most challenging paper someone has emailed me in a long time!

  26. In Light of Last Night’s Whine « Deb on the Run Says:

    […] to find this exact quote online (I have misplaced my Desert Father’s book – again) I found this helpful reflection from Fr. […]

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