A Vital Balance

By Fr. Gene Geromel (2011):

In seminary I did two summers of CPE (Clinic Pastoral Education). After my experience the first year I decided to spend my second quarter working primarily in an alcoholic rehab unit. It was run by a wonderful and charming Irishman. His name was Grant. He had a favorite saying, “If you pray for potatoes, you had better grab a hoe.” He understood that sobriety was a spiritual issue, a gift of God, but also, that one still had to work at it. 

Bill W, the co-founder of AA became sober because of an overwhelming spiritual experience. He was drying out in a hospital room when suddenly there was a blinding light. It changed his life and he never drank again. In truth most of us envy that type of Damascus Road experience. Under the glass on his desk he kept a letter by Carl Jung. It had a line in it written in Latin which translated said, “Only the Spirit can overcome the spirits.” Yet years later someone showed him a study that many who tried AA still died from the effects of alcoholism. He pushed the study aside and said, “They quit coming to meetings.” 

All of our life is a constant spiritual tug between letting God do everything and trying to do it all ourselves. Each of us is inclined to drift into one or the other position. Whether this is inherent, a product of our environment or a matter of choice is not clear. Yet each of us has our own particular spiritual inclination or way of doing things. On the extreme, some of us have to do it all ourselves. Others merely sit back and wait for God to do it. Many years ago I worked with a Psychoanalyst who said that complete characterological change is impossible. Yet, each of us must examine, know and struggle to expand his or her spiritual life.

Someone once said that if you scratch an Anglican, you’ll find a Pelagian. You remember Pelagius. He was a British monk who basically taught that man could save himself. By our power and will, he argued, we could bring about our own salvation. He, of course, was opposed by St. Augustine. You can tell by the St. before Augustine’s name that his position was accepted by the Universal Church. In their writing and rebuttals back and forth, their personal positions became harder and more extreme as they pointed out the failings of the other’s point of view. It is obvious that Pelagius was wrong – we cannot save ourselves. Salvation is God’s gift. In his later years Augustine’s writing took on a flavor of predestination. The saved are chosen by God and there is nothing they can do to alter the fact. Obviously this is a simplification of a very involved theological controversy. But the point of this article is not theological nuances, but our spiritual life.

The spiritual harm inherent in either extreme should be obvious. Believing that God will do all the work means that there is no reason to do anything. There were Christians in Thessalonica who believed that since Jesus was coming soon there was no need to do anything but wait and pray. St. Paul suggested that “those who don’t work don’t eat.” (A Scottish variation as told by a friend about his father was, “Those who don’t eat don’t get desert - and them that does, don’t need it!” but that is another article.) On the other hand, there are those of us who constantly keep busy doing “God’s work”. It is almost as if doing more and more good works will assure us of heaven. 

I once had a parishioner who was always trying to “run” things in her small parish. We had a long conversation about her work in the church. As the conversation was drawing to an end she picked up her purse and car keys. I looked at her and said, “You know you can’t buy God’s love”. Before I could finish the statement her keys flew past my head. “It is a free gift”. Undoubtedly, I came too close to the truth. I am not sure she ever heard what I was trying to tell her. 

As Anglicans we believe in the Via Media. We try to avoid extremes and remain in the middle. Aristotle reminded us to choose the Golden Mean. Bravery is found between being foolhardy and a coward. Can spiritual health ever be found on the extremes? Each side may have its own truth. Yet, extremes keep us from developing our spiritual life. 

All of the spiritual life is like walking a tightrope. We await the coming of Christ while at the same time we recognize that he is already present in our life. We know that faith without works is dead and we are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, yet we are justified by faith alone. Yet perhaps these thoughts can lead to false dichotomies. If you play golf perhaps you are great at your long shots, but terrible at your putting. Do you leave it at that? No, you realize that, for whatever reason, you are terrible at putting. You may go to the club’s Pro and ask for advice and guidance. You then go to the putting green and practice your short shots. You know that there must be a balance in your game. In the same way our spiritual life must be developed. Let us say that you are inclined to be a ‘Pelagian’? Do you just say,” that’s just the way I am.” This would be like the alcoholic who comes home drunk and says, “Of course I’m drunk, I’m an alcoholic, ain’t I?” 

No, we don’t want excuses, we want growth. Knowing what you need to work on is the first step. Your second step is to desire a more balanced spiritual life, and decide what you will do about it. The ‘Pelagian’ who spends all their time ‘working for God’ may need to set aside more time for prayer and contemplation. The ‘spiritually slothful’ may need to look for and commit to some form of action which furthers the Kingdom. Working with a spiritual director might be a good way to develop the “other side of your spiritual life”. 

Perhaps during Lent or Advent you could work on being more trusting in God; He has control over all things. During morning prayers you might ask for the grace to “let go and let God”, a simple way to remind yourself that God can handle things. You might promise yourself that each day, at least once, you will step back when you have the urge to “control” something and remind yourself in prayer that you should let God handle it. Your spiritual director might give you biographies of Christians who had a different spiritual style than the one you are currently using. It could be something as simple as Br. Lawrence’s the “Practice of the Presence of God”. 

A few years ago (actually twenty) my secretary at the time, a Roman Catholic with charismatic leanings, said to me, “Things are terrible in the world. I hope Jesus is coming soon!” I looked at her and said, “He can’t come back today I haven’t finished by Ph.D. and I haven’t taken my Black Belt test.” Without missing a beat she looked at me and said, “Father, do you really think that there are lines in heaven; this one for Ph.D.’s and that one for Black Belts?” 

She had a point, but the truth is that merely waiting around for Jesus to come back will neither keep us from any of the world’s pain nor earn heaven. On the other hand, neither will my academic and martial arts degree or any activities assure me of eternal life. If there is a line in heaven, it is filled with prostrate individuals with tears of gratitude in their eyes for a gift they could never earn, yet sought with all their hearts, their minds and their souls. They prayed for heaven and then through alms, good works and love sought to glorify him.

Fr. Gene Geromel is Rector of St. Bartholomew's, Swartz Creek, Michigan

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