Monday, July 30, 2012

In Praise of Powerlessness

       I am, I can cheerfully attest, kept far from the levers of power in the church. (My dear Matushka and others who love me can further attest that this is a good thing.) My situation can be described in the words of the old children's hymn written by Susan B. Werner and published in 1868: “Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light, like a little candle burning in the night; in this world of darkness, we must shine, you in your small corner, and I in mine.” That is, I live in my small little corner of the world, as you do in yours.
       While I sit in my little corner, however, I have access to the internet. That means that I can look far afield and find out what is happening in other little corners. I can learn about the resignation of Metropolitan Jonah, about what is happening in the Orthodox Midwest, about what is happening on Mount Athos, in Russia, and in other Orthodox jurisdictions. I can even learn about what is happening, if I become very bored, in American politics. All of this learning can give me the impression that I now know The Big Picture, and, since I am in fact the fountain and source of all wisdom, I can have an opinion about pretty much everything and pontificate about how everyone can fix their problems.
       This impression that I have The Big Picture would be erroneous though, since I am like the blind man in the story of the elephant. You probably recall the parable: there were several blind men, each standing beside an elephant. One blind man felt the elephant's leg and concluded that an elephant was like a tree. Another blind man felt the elephant's tail and concluded that an elephant was like a snake. You get the idea—because each blind man could only experience one part of the elephant, his conclusion was flawed because his experience was partial. His experience was true as far as it went, but needed to be supplemented by the different experiences of other blind men before it could be of any use. My internet research gives me access to facts and opinions, but these are only partial. To be of any real use, they would need to be supplemented by all the other facts and opinions of all of the other people involved. My researches on the internet, interesting as they are, cannot in fact supply me with The Big Picture.
       This is means, sad to relate, that I am not in a position to pontificate or fix everyone's problems. This does not mean that I cannot do anything. As the child's hymn reminds me, I can still “shine with a clear, pure light”. And part of this shining involves praying for all the problems I read about on the internet. I can pray for the Metropolitan. I can pray for the bishops. I can pray for Mount Athos and Russia and the other Orthodox jurisdictions. I can even pray for politicians and the regions they aspire to govern. Of course this is not as much fun as blogging and pontificating and wading into internet forums to offer my tremendously valuable wisdom. But given the partial nature of my wisdom, it is likely to be the more valuable contribution.
       In short, part of my shining with a clear pure light involves accepting my own powerlessness. I cannot really fix great problems by my words because I lack the wisdom to do so. I can add my voice and make my little contribution to ongoing debates which concern me (assuming that they really do concern me), but I must do so realizing that I lack The Big Picture. At the end of the day, I remained confined to my small corner, as you do to yours. But that is okay, and the realization of it can be liberating. For on the Last Day, the Lord will not demand of me why I did not weigh in on every single debate going and fix His world, but rather how clearly I shone, and how fervently I prayed.


  1. Christ is in our midst!

    Thank you for this reminder Father.
    Can you offer some suggestions how to manifest this sort of 'circumstantial prayer'? When I hear about struggles and sufferings afar, I want to pray but I am not sure the most fitting way to do so.
    Of course I ask God's mercy for the situation and persons involved. But this is a very brief petition. Should I just repeat it?
    I have questioned the value of becoming more specific (trying to spell out all the ways in which God could best help ;)
    But short of this approach I am not sure how to offer "more". More than a single "lord have mercy".

    Also your reflections on the limited nature of our perspective on any large issue, reminds me of another related reason why we do well to refrain from making too much of our presumed "power in knowledge".
    My friend Andrew Klager once memorably pointed out that there is a philosophical problem with the "perspicuity of scripture": it assumes not only that God could somehow 'spell out' clear ultimate truth propositionally, but also (here's the deeper error) that we could actually receive this truth without distorting it!
    In actual fact- if there is any need for salvation at all- the human person must be in no condition to rightly see and understand the truth even if it is laid out plainly before him.
    Planks in our own eyes, and so on.

    -Mark Basil

  2. Thank you, Mark Basil, for your comments, and for passing along the wise reflection of your friend Andrew. I can of course only speak for myself, but like you I am reluctant to offer advice to the Most High. All I do is commend the people I would pray for to God by name, over and over again, imploring that He act according to His own wisdom and love. I am reminded of the example of a monk of St. Tikhon's (Fr. George, if memory serves) who when asked to pray for someone simply stood before his icon corner and repeated the Jesus Prayer over and over for the person: "O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on Your servant N". This monk I think showed true wisdom, and I have always been impressed by his example.

  3. Thank you Father, that is helpful.

  4. But it is so much more entertaining and distracting (and therefore less painful) to attempt to fix the "other's" issues, be it on the global stage or even closer to home, a friend's life. Then I would not be faced with my own life. In doing so, I continue to live a life of unreal because to venture within the real takes courage. And at all costs, that kind of pain is to be avoided. And anyway, what entertainment value is there in being real? Yes, very timely comments. Thank you, papa.

  5. Hello Fr. Lawrence,

    I had constructed a "lovely" letter to you about some of the issues you have mentioned. However, pressing a wrong key on my computer made the whole work "of love" disappear. I think my guardian Angel pulled a trick on me and my mullings. I am, now, grateful. ;-)

    However, I am somewhat disappointed about your statement: "... I am in fact the fountain and source of all wisdom..." since it was my firm conviction that this was my calling on earth.


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