All my life I’ve admired mastery. It doesn’t even matter what sort of mastery. You could be anything from a virtuoso violinist to a champion marble player; if you’re one of the best in the world you’ve got my respect. Save me the higher degrees and titles and whatnot, I couldn’t give a hoot.
I think this admiration has something to do with the fact that I had a chaotic childhood. Moving every other year, bouncing from one step-father to the next, never having peace amid the competing forces for supremacy between my mother and older sister, it was a mess.
And I could give the typical story of childhood abuse if I dug deep enough, but my story is really more about neglect—emotional neglect. I was acquainted with loneliness at a very young age and I learned to deal with it in a peculiar way. I spent a lot of time in the martial arts as a child and at some point I discovered the warrior-monk life of the Shaolin temple in China. I developed an endless fascination with kung fu, Zen, and life as a monk. These individuals made loneliness into something beautiful. For them it was a tool of self-mastery, for enlightenment. I found in them a reflection of what I could be when I grew up; the possibility of not needing to dodge my issues of abandonment and loneliness, but instead the opportunity to run full-speed into it and use it to my advantage.
All-and-all it worked. I navigated my adolescence without a major hiccup. I never felt the need to get involved in drugs, alcohol, sex, or the typical teenage defiance. I loved discipline. I found my euphoria in art, sports, travel, and most of all theology.
I think this is what eventually led me to Orthodoxy. It pains me to think that I spent 19 years in abject spiritual poverty in the Word of Faith movement when Orthodoxy was there all along. Right under my nose laid the Church—the real Church—and I never saw it; BTW, shame on Orthodoxy for one thing: for not being more evangelical. We really need to get back to our mission mentality and reach out to our communities, but that’s a separate article.
Orthodoxy has always had a rich spirit of monasticism—we practically wrote the book on it for the last few thousand years. Perhaps in the end it’s a good thing that I found the Orthodox Church later in life. Had I found it any earlier I would likely have become a monk and I would never know the indescribably joy of raising my three children and being wed to a wife of incomparable love. Lent is my monasticism (*chuckling quietly to myself as I type*).
This week Lent reminds me of the deep passion I have for casting off the prison of the senses to achieve awareness in the spirit. I’ll admit it was much easier in high school and even college to fast and pray for days at a time. The time regiment foisted on me from family life makes such things seem impossible, as probably anyone with kids can understand. But for the Christian it is absolutely necessary.
Hear what St. Hesychios the Priest wrote sometime during the 9th century: “Since we are human beings, it is not in our nature to pursue birds through the air or to fly as they do. Similarly, without watchful and frequent prayer we cannot prevail over bodiless, demonic thoughts, or fix the eye of the intellect fully and intently upon God.”
Ouch! If the “cannot” in there is for real it is no wonder why so many Christians seem to be overcome with temptation so often.
This echoes the Apostle when he commended believers to “pray without ceasing,” and Christ when He said that certain types of demonic influences could not be overcome without prayer and fasting (see Mk 9:17-31 and Mt 17:21).
This week has helped revive in me the spirit of unceasing prayer. The “Jesus Prayer” is a superb prayer to use; it can be said at all times throughout the day no matter what one is doing at the time. For those unfamiliar with it, it is simply this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me and save me a sinner.” This short prayer at once affirms Jesus as Lord, Christ, and Son of God while also laying waste to self-assurance, reminding the penitent of his or her true place in the cosmos—lost and in need of divine mercy.
Personal mastery—mastery over one’s senses, thoughts, and peace—is within the reach of anyone willing to pursue it. The rich and the poor, the prisoner and the free, the educated and the simple have an equal playing field. It’s amazing how the most important thing in life is something anyone can achieve if they have only the desire to have it. This is exhilarating for me. May God help us all to master our inner world!
Thanks for reading!