Oh Lord, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talk give me not
But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me, thy servant
Oh Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for thou are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen
Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
This is my first Orthodox Lent and I can safely say that I have NOT been perfect. I had two meat-eating episodes (Western Christian Easter and my Pastoral Anniversary), a couple of egg/dairy incidents, and I haven’t developed the habit of reading every last ingredient in the stuff I eat. Due to distance from the nearest Orthodox Church, I have made only one Akathist so far. But, I have put my Jordanville Prayer Book to good use. While I have been blessed with a few more victories over my personal demons have had my share of falls (and maybe someone else’s too).
I will confess that most of my spiritual failures begin with despondency. My financial picture coming out of a winter where I am, essentially, laid off for two weeks in the winter looks like a bus accident. Only by the grace of God do my wife and I manage to keep food in the house. My pastoral salary covers almost all of the mortgage. But, the utilities, medical bills, and old credit cards never seem to go away. So, yeah, loosing heart is very easy for me to do. Sleeping alone might be alright for a virgin monk. But, I am a married man who kinda misses the good old days (and nights) with the wife. Add to that any number of other things that go wrong in my life, and I will throw a my own mental whine and cheese party with the finest Zinfandels and Gorgonzolas.
So, yesterday morning, I was listening to Fr. John Whiteford’s sermon on despondency and found the most effective tools for fighting against this toxic root of so many other sins. Prayer and constructive labor. Fr. John brought up St. Anthony’s struggle against despondency. The answer to his prayers was how his neighboring monks would weave baskets for a while, stop to pray, and resume their labor. I am also reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter R. Wicks*. When he wasn’t doing something directly related to his pastoral or secular duties, he spent many spring and summer evenings in his backyard garden. He used to tell me that was one of his favorite ways to relieve the stress of the world on his mind, think about the mercy of God, and put food on the table at the same time. In the years I was blessed to know him, I have never seen him discouraged and ready to throw in the towel about anything. The wisdom of the great saint, an old Baptist preacher, and a Othodox convert priest made more sense to me than spending my day off wallowing in my sorrows.
I wound up borrowing a push mower from my church to get my yard cut. Pacing back and forth made me re-think about how the Lord is making a way for me to get through my troubles. I also began to ponder how I can use my talents and skills to make a little money on the side until I can get the full employment I want. And if it fails, I know that He who has made a way for me before will do so again. Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount became clearer to me:
Therefore, do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:31-33)
After planting the garden, I sat back on the porch with an iced tea thinking about how to restart my outdoor photography business and promote my secular writing for profit (turned out that I had a little more than I thought). As I do constructive things, I don’t have time to feel despondent. Yeah, I guess I could use one of the simple “catch-phrase” formulas to get me over the blues. “PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens)” or “Speak life to every dry bone in your life” or whatever else is being said by some ministerial celebrity or another. And if any of these things has helped you or someone you know overcome despondency, let God be praised. But, the advice of St. Anthony, “Uncle Red,” and Fr. John has made a major difference in my journey.
*Among the books that I inherited from Grandpa Wicks is a Russian Orthodox Bible, written in Slavonic (I think). Fr. John Whiteford is ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia). I wonder if “the old man” knew something he didn’t tell me before he died.