Giving and Receiving

In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each man, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as the priest of his whole life – to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering and a hymn of glory.

Paul Evdokimov in Woman and the Salvation of the World

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Abba Zosimas used to say: “We have lost our sense of balance.”

Reflections, XI, e.

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There is a modern translation of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” is rendered, “Blessed are they who know their need of God…”  It is an insightful rendering even though it is more paraphrase than translation. People often perceive themselves as “needy,” though not always in need of God. The “poverty of spirit” that is most often experienced is little more than an ache generated in the ego (our imaginary self) which always feels threatened in one way or another.

The very nature of the passions, in their distorted shape, is that we become passive – we are acted upon and feel helpless or addicted. I am often struck in conversations with others about various spiritual problems by our general passivity in life. The sin which so deeply infects us is less a matter of the will (with a considered choice being made) than it is a passive reaction. Most anger, for instance, is not a decision but a reaction, flowing from a distorted passion within us. Thus we say such things as, “You made me angry.”  In this manner we experience life as out of control and ourselves as victims.

It is only to be expected that such an experience awakens a desire within us to control the things around us – but it is also the case that most things around us cannot be controlled. And so we sin in yet another misguided attempt to save the ego.

Passivity is never healed passively – there have to positive actions within us to overcome the downward spiral of the passions. We were not created to be passive.

In the Biblical account, man and woman are set in a garden and given everything they need – with the single prohibition regarding one kind of fruit. Thus they were not merely passive recipients of everything in the world – they were also required to actively avoid one thing.

The heart of that Edenic life is summed up in the action of priesthood. Man receives from God and he actively returns to God all that he receives, with thanksgiving. In the Church, this is the action of the Eucharist. But it is also to be the action of everyone at all times. The activity of returning everything to God in thanksgiving is the essence of our communion with God.

The Elder Zacharias of Essex has described worship as a constant action of exchange. God gives to us and we give back to God. What we receive is obviously infinitely more than we can return. We receive the very life of God and in turn offer the life of man.

But this essential action is the opposite of passivity. All that we have is a gift from God – but a gift received without active thanksgiving quickly becomes distorted. Only those things which are given back with thanksgiving have a chance of taking their proper form and role in our lives.

St. Paul quotes Christ as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This is more than a statement of morally superior action – it is a description of life-creating action. To give is more blessed because it is for this that we were created.

What shall we render to the Lord?


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23 Responses to “Giving and Receiving”

  1. Tweets that mention Giving and Receiving « Glory to God for All Things -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Steve L Says:

    Being proactive is hard.

  3. Aitor Says:

    You’re so, so right, F. Stephen.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Steve,
    I agree – but the alternative is slavery.

  5. Steve L Says:

    I’m not arguing.🙂 I’m just sayin’.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Steve, it is hard indeed.

  7. Tim Cronin Says:

    “A person is always a gift from someone. It is demonic to attribute one’s own personal identity to oneself or to an a-personal something.” – John Zizioulas

  8. Yannis Says:

    “Balance”? Did i read correctly?🙂

    While it is imperative to take action, it is however equally important to do so in the right manner, so that the power of the will is exercised appropriately.

    For the ego has two sides: that of passive helplessness and that of prideful eagerness. They are usually manifested in cycles of depression/elation with the one leading endlessly to the other. In order to brake the cycle, there needs to be a series of adjustments in action; initially one is fighting against lazyness and forgetfulness, but as they are overcome, one is fighting against laxity and excitment. With inner watchfulness at work, one can gradually and gently tune his mental attitude between those two extremes to the space in between: alert while relaxing or gently at war.

    I am saying this, because often, one can get carried away in a spree of activity that has the ego at its core, after making the decision to change his life, simply because that is the way one knows. Although the decision to escape passivity is imperative, it is not enough to take one along the Way.

    In light of this, guidance from a priest/elder one communicates with and trusts and participation to the life of the Church within and without the Church can give the helping hand needed. The ego cannot defeat the ego – nor a mentality that creates a problem can give birth to its solution.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Yannis,
    As “An Ignorant Man” I reserve the right to correct myself occasionally – in order to remain in balance. 🙂

  10. Yannis Says:

    That makes two of us F. Stephen🙂

    By the way congratulations for the great new interface of the site of your Church (St Anne’s Orthodox Church Oakridge, Tenesse for those who don’t know: http://stanneorthodoxchurch.com/), its really great (better than the previous one imo).

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Yannis, thanks for the congrats. We like the new one much better and are continuing to build on it.

  12. Don Bradley Says:

    The Church in the pic rocks! Where is it?

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    It is a painting – and I’m not sure the Church building depicted actually exists.

  14. Marjaana Says:

    “For the ego has two sides: that of passive helplessness and that of prideful eagerness. They are usually manifested in cycles of depression/elation with the one leading endlessly to the other.

    The ego cannot defeat the ego – nor a mentality that creates a problem can give birth to its solution.”

    Thank you, Yannis, for this. I recognize myself in this so well. But the question still remains, how does one get out of this cycle.

    Father Stephen, do you have any recommendations on this, or appropriate reading? I seem to have come to a point where participation in the Church does not seem to make a difference in my handling the issue and always whining about the same thing (since nothing is changing) to my priest does not seem like the right thing to do. I would like to just accept the situation as God’s will for me, but I don’t know how to do it. I pray and ask for either guidance to act, change of circumstances or acceptance, but my prayers seem to be in vain.

    Where to turn? Is there any reading I could do that would guide me?

  15. Patrick Says:

    This is really a helpful way of viewing things, father:
    “worship as a constant action of exchange. God gives to us and we give back to God. What we receive is obviously infinitely more than we can return. We receive the very life of God and in turn offer the life of man.”
    Thank you.

  16. Yannis Says:

    Marjaana,
    the thing that works for me is inner watchfulness. Watching my inner patterns, and reckognising the pivotal points in which i enter the cycle.

    These are broadly of two categories:

    The ones when one is doing fine;
    these generally involve a tendency to slack (overconfidence), to give in to temptations as a “reward” for doing well – (usually causing procastrination and even destabilisation from one’s duties and falling away). The remedy is to reckognise the “reward” pattern before temptations, and bring back one into line – however this needs be done with gentleness – punishing the ego is another egoic trick. What one is after is constancy – not underperforming (or overperforming). Moderation is needed to tuning oneself into one’s practice.

    The ones when one is doing badly;
    these create overbearing guilt, to the point one is drowned by helplessness. This is the flip side of the ego – and needs to be reckognised as such. A gentle exerting of the will is necessary (again punishing oneself is an egoic trick), in order to set oneself in motion.

    The only things that taught me inner watchfulness are prayer and endless mistakes – not discoursive prayer, but contemplative prayer. In this form, while repeating the Jesus prayer, one learns to watch his thoughts stream, learns his patterns and then finds out remedies; this is then gradually exended to all of one’s life. The prayer acts as a metaphysical metronome, for one to come back from his ego ramblings into the ever present moment the only Real – again i underline that gentleness is required and not bute force.

    I am afraid that while others can help by pointing and directing, they can provide no direct aid – it is a job one must do by himself. It is a job also that one self is best suited to do.

    One final word of advice: be patient. Buddhists have a particular saying: “invest in lost” they say. This means that when one has discovered that how he does things/lives is not adequate anymore and new ways are required, the poccess of finding them first and then internalising them is a long and painful one. It needs patience and a spirit of perseverance and faith in order to be complete.

    This is why it is imperative to place one’s faith in God rather than oneself – the faith one puts to oneself is immediately used by the ego (either for taking all the credit or all the blame). Salvation is a συνεργεια (synergy-collaboration) according to the Fathers of human effort and Divine grace. Wilfulness and Receptiveness are required in equal measures in practice.

    Books that can help from the Orthodox litterature imo are:

    The Power of the Name, by Metropolitan Kallistos of Diocleia
    On the Prayer of Jesus by Ignatius Branchianinov
    Thoughts and Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian
    The ladder of divine ascend by St John Climacus (avoid the english translation that is advertised by catholic bookstores)
    In the Heart of the Desert by John Chryssavgis
    Advice to the serious seeker by James Cutsinger
    Philokalia, Vols 1-5

    Regards and all the best

  17. Marjaana Says:

    Thanks, Yannis!

    To quote a friend: “Please Lord, send me patience, NOW!🙂

    I have read The Ladder, but it certainly is worth a 2nd read. I don’t feel ready to tackle the Philokalia yet, but I will definitely look into the other works you suggested.

    Thanks!

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Marjanna,
    This is probably the most basic stuff that we engage in as spiritual beings. I would suggest Fr. Meletios Webber’s Bread, Water, Wine, Oil, as a good book to start with.

  19. Robert Says:

    Ah Yannis that is nice, thank you.

  20. Marjaana Says:

    Thank you, Father. I have read it. It is a wonderful book.

    There are many things that I really do understand and believe. It is just that my emotions don’t seem to fall in line. It is exhausting.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Marjaana,
    I think it can indeed be exhausting work. The emotional noise, judgments, anxieties, annoyances, etc., are the sounds of the ego. I think we should remember what they are and not take them too seriously. We give ourselves to God, and keep giving ourselves to God, and these things do change. What I think is most important especially as we take up this struggle, is that we not confuse our emotional noise, judgments, anxieties, etc., with genuine needs – that other people or other things need to change so that I will be more comfortable. It will never happen – it’s a project we should renounce on a daily basis. Giving thanks for all things, at all times and in all places, is better battle plan.

  22. Yannis Says:

    Marjaana, Robert; you are wolcome.

  23. Marjaana Says:

    Thank you, Father!

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