I was recently blessed to listen to the recordings of a three-part series offered by His Grace, Bishop Irenei (Steenberg), Ph.D. These talks are both inspiring and challenging, pressing us into deeper love of God and obedience to His commands. Ancient Faith Radio has made this three-part series available for free at the following links. I offer them here for the edification of my readers.
One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.
The main character of the film named John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer. He is tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.
The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed into believing that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, most of the citizens in Libria willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.
“If only someone would tell me what to do!” I often thought as I lay awake at night, going over and over the same problemsa in my mind.
The situation I found myself facing was different to the struggles I had faced earlier in my Christian life. In the early days of being a Christian, my focus had been on cutting out sinful habits and coming to terms with the claims of Christ on my life. It hadn’t been easy, but at least my marching orders had been straight-forward. By contrast, after many years as a believer, I increasingly found myself facing situations—sometimes on a daily basis—where I had no idea how God wanted me to behave. In the minutia of daily life, I encountered problems at work, problems with my teenage children, problems in the lives of those who looked to me for guidance, problems in my finances and health. I often found myself baffled, stumbling along without a clear sense of direction. On big decisions, I could go to my pastor for advice, but it simply wasn’t possible to get advice for the dozens of small problems that cropped up every day.
A couple years ago, while doing some work in London, I found myself with an eight day gap in my schedule. I decided to take the train to the quiet countryside of Essex where I had heard there was a Christian monastery that offered free accommodation to spiritual seekers.
As I sat in the train, watching the English countryside whiz by, I thought of a conversation I had a couple days earlier with the receptionist at the London hotel where I had been staying. The receptionist, a young Italian lady named Francesca, had a sharp elegant-looking Roman nose offset by soft dark eyes. She told me she had immigrated to the UK just a month before, after the severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.
In our culture, the main distinction we tend to make about emotion is between emotions that are pleasant vs. emotions that are unpleasant. But that isn’t the healthiest way to think about emotion, not least because it can lead to the assumption that unpleasant emotions should be avoided and pleasant emotions sought. Instead, it is better to think about emotions that are rightly orders vs. emotions that are disordered. Some rightly ordered emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions can be either pleasant or unpleasant.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) helps us to understand the distinction between rightly ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role in correct thinking as well as in helping a person’s appetites be regulated by virtue. Accordingly, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. Rightly ordered emotion is thus integral to the concerns by which we perceive the world as moral agents. But it is also possible for disordered emotion to obscure our perception of the world. For example, if I feel envy at the good fortune of another, then my ability to rightly perceive the other person’s situation has been obscured. The goal of education, especially the education of children, is to cultivate proper habits, including the habit of responding to situations with the right emotional reaction. Without properly ordered emotions, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated happiness but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.
Jason and Kaitlyn would never have said their marriage was unhappy. However, throughout the fourteen years they had been together, they gradually drifted apart. They rarely had arguments and to outsiders they looked like the perfect couple. However, as the years went by, they seemed to have less and less in common.
Without giving it much thought, Jason instinctively assumed that the reason he had grown distant from Kaitlyn was because she had changed. It wasn’t simply that Kaitlyn’s had lost her youthful beauty, although it did bother Jason that he was no longer physically attracted to his wife. It was also that she was no longer as fun to be around. She used to be the type of person you wanted to share everything with, but over the years she seemed to have become different. It was hard to put his finger on it.
Kaitlyn tried not to think too much about the growing distance between Jason and herself. A few years ago she had begun to suspect that Jason was using his computer at work to access pornography, but she quickly dismissed the idea from her head. The sense of distance between them was probably just because they were so busy with their kids that they rarely had time to do things together anymore. Whenever they did have a free evening, it seemed Jason preferred to spend it watching sports with his friends from the software firm where he worked. During football season, Jason didn’t even come to church with her and the kids. Kaitlyn reflected that maybe if she and Jason could go on a vacation together, just the two of them, they might be able to rekindle what they had lost.
“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.
“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”
My friend, who we will call Trevor, pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his more general struggles with Christianity.
I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”
“It’s not that, Robin. I still believe in God. But I’ve been at this Christianity thing for over six years now, yet I’m still struggling with the same sins and addictions as when I converted. People keep telling me I need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me, but however much I pray and ask for help, it never gets any easier. I just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”
As Trevor continued to share, I learned how well-meaning Christians had been telling him that he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria these Christians were using to determine whether Trevor had fully “let go.” Trevor had also been told that because he kept sinning this was proof that he was struggling in his own strength. Moreover, he had been told that the difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, since a life defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will be characterized by rest not difficult struggle.
One of the most intriguing characters in all of literature is Dr. Alexandre Manette from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.
For eighteen years, Dr. Manette had been imprisoned in the Bastille, during which time he progressively descended into a state of chronic depression. The trauma of almost two decades of solitary confinement eventually resulted in Dr. Manette losing his mind and becoming merely a shadow of his former self. Upon his release, the doctor’s senses gradually returned to him under the gentle care of his daughter, Miss Lucie Manette. Even after being restored to health, however, he continued to struggle against the fruit of his long captivity, a struggle that involved occasional relapses. Throughout his quiet and relentless struggle, the doctor was completely absorbed with serving his family and friends, and even risking his life to meet their needs.
What role does self-care play in the spiritual life? Earlier this year someone suggested to me that self-care is basically selfishness. I can understand why someone might think that: after all, Christianity teaches that we find our true self, not by grasping good things for ourselves, but by giving our self away (Luke 9:24). The message of the gospel is that we become more truly ourselves when we strive to fulfill the needs of others, preferring other people’s wellbeing to our own (Romans 12:10; Matthew 20:16). But does that mean that we should eschew any focus on our own wellbeing and self-care?
I don’t think so.
One of my favorite books is the letters that St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407) wrote to Saint Olympia (c. 361/68–408). These letters were written after the Saint was exiled from Constantinople where he had served as a pastor. Through the correspondence, St. John continually admonished St. Olympia to attend to her emotional self-care, and to take care of her own needs in order that she can be effective in helping others.
The Eastern Orthodox psychologist and professor, Dr. Albert Rossi, made the same point in his book Becoming a Healing Presence.
“On an airplane, as a flight prepares to depart, the flight attendant tells the passengers that, in case of an emergency, oxygen bags will drop from overhead. Those passengers with infants will receive two masks. The adult is to put his or her own oxygen mask on first, and only then put a mask on the infant.
For me, as an Italian grandfather, those instructions are counterintuitive. I want to give my life for my grandchild, to care for her first, and then myself. But—and this is a big but—if I truly love my granddaughter, I will put my own oxygen mask on first, then hers. The sequence is vital to my granddaughter’s survival. If I don’t take care of myself first, both of us might be lost.
The oxygen mask example is a model for becoming a healing presence to others. If I don’t take care of myself first, I have nothing to give to others. People seek me out as a counselor and expect that when they come into my office, I have time and energy for them. They don’t need a tired, grumpy, sleep-deprived, inattentive, and self-absorbed counselor. The only way I can have something to give is if I have allowed Christ to care for me first and foremost. There is no other way.
I begin to care for myself by centering my being, my soul-mind-body. I allow Christ to center me by gradually becoming still inwardly, which is no small task in today’s environment.”
Last year I received an invitation to speak at a conference for professionals in the caring professions. The conference, which was attended by doctors, nurses, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, hospital and army chaplains, missionaries, marriage and family therapists, surgeons and students, was on the topic of pain and suffering. The conference organizers asked me to give a seminar on the topic “Gratitude During Times of Suffering” and my marching orders were simple: explain how it’s possible to remain thankful in the midst extreme of suffering.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at being thankful when things are going wrong. If I have trouble sleeping, I grumble the next day. If I don’t have enough money to buy something I want, I whine and complain to whoever will’; listen. If I have a physical injury, everyone in my circle of friends is sure to know about it. So expecting me to give a talk about practicing gratitude during times of suffering would be like asking ask John Wayne to dance Swan Lake, or asking Justin Bieber to sing the part for Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
To put it bluntly, I found my assignment daunting. How could I teach other professionals a lesson I had not even mastered myself?