A body changes in its activity as a result of contact with another body. How therefore could there be no change in someone who with innocent hands has touched the Body of God.
St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, 28.
I am the father of four adult children, all of them married. In the course of my life-time I have seen them change from infants to people of maturity and character. As all parents will admit – I did not see it coming. The pace of change in a human life happens on a human scale. Those who change rapidly we rightly suspect of disease or some disorder of the mind.
The same is true in the spiritual life. If change happened through our own works, it is possible that we might see more of it in a quicker manner. And yet, for all the change we embrace, it comes slowly. People admire the saints, but they too easily forget St. Seraphim’s silent years as a hermit and his three year’s in prayer on a rock. We wonder at the wisdom of a St. Silouan, but too quickly forget his 15 years of prayer in the depths of the experience of hell.
Such actions are not a means of earning change – but are a means of living before God. It is this simple task that Christ asks of us – to live before God – in His presence – and in the awareness that we are but creatures.
I have often taught (in my parish) as well as writing here, that the greater part of the Orthodox life consists in “just showing up.” I do not mean to minimalize the ascetic struggle – but to describe its true character. Those who “just show up” – who attend the feasts and vigils with children in tow after who knows what kind of nights or days – and who do this week in and week out – those who manage to light a candle and offer a prayer – even briefly but from the heart – and do this year after year – accomplish a truly great podvig – a true athletic feat of the faith.
Our greatest enemies are often boredom and the tedium of the rhythm of our lives. Our patience runs thin and we become discouraged waiting for a change that moves along at a speed proper to our humanity. We are like olive trees – planted in one generation but not bearing fruit until the next. Everyone who plants an olive tree engages in an act of patient hope. So also is everyone who begins the journey towards union with Christ.
I am the father of four children, and now the grandfather of two. The next generation has planted their own olive trees of hope. But I am also the son of two departed parents. And in the perspective of those two lives I can see something of the planting, and the years of storms endured. I see the patient endurance that crosses the finish line of faith. My father, who was received into the Orthodox faith at age 80, said to me after that event, “I feel as though I’ve wasted my life. Here I am at age 80 and only now discovering the faith.” I told him, “The last time I checked, what mattered was crossing the finish line, not how you ran the race.”
In hindsight, I can see vast changes in both my mother and my father – changes that in some cases only bore their fruit in the very last years of their lives. Our culture has great difficulty with patience and even more difficulty under adverse circumstances. It has not always been so. Those who have been tagged “the Greatest Generation” (my parents’ cohort), learned a patient life through the things they endured – deep economic depressions and frightful world wars.
Everyone endures much – even those whose wealth can shield them. The key, however, is “showing up,” learning how to remain in the presence of God from day to day – to live with the constant remembrance of His name. Such showing up brings us slowly into unity with paradise, into life in the one-storey universe, and into the Kingdom of God.
Glory to God for those who remain on the pilgrim’s path and abide with others on the journey. They are companions of grace, and even the body of God. Communion with them is sweet and brings us all to heaven.