Are We Seeking God or Self-consolation?
-Some Thoughts Inspired by a Saying of Elder Macarius of Optina
I wish I had come across this bit of wisdom many years ago, while I was drifting away from God and His holy Church…. It definitely applied to me, and in the course of man’s shared brokenness, I think it is true for many others as well. How many of us equate the love or presence of God or God’s healing / healing mercy with immediate consolation and feel-good vibes? How many of us mistake or have mistaken the lack of a sense of emotional comfort or a lack of being at ease within our hearts as the absence of God or the lack of “getting something fulfilling” out our faith, church, God, etc… “it just isn’t doing it for me”….
Perhaps it isn’t “doing it” for you- but that’s not for the absence of God or the seeming failings of the Church. Rather, it is because in our brokenness, you and I may be looking for an immediate emotional gratification or a bit of pleasant escape, instead of the real, deeper salvific healing that we should otherwise be seeking. One may argue that if God’s Church were the hospital of the soul (a truth of which we are often reminded), shouldn’t we feel better, more joyful, more at peace, more……… in our distorted thinking, we not only fail to see things clearly and we mistake temporary happiness and a “feel good” moment for true, deep joy.. we mistake the consolation of our self for true spiritual healing and a bigger picture of seeking salvation and the ultimate union with God.
One point that many of us (yes, I’m admitting guilt here) may have failed to consider in the grand scheme of things is a simple truth that no one promised us an easy, emotionally comfortable life. In our distorted thinking, we somehow think that our religious path should free us from the bitterness of the world, or the effects of its fallen nature -the pain, sorrow, disappointment, etc. But why are we so entitled? Did not Christ himself suffer in his humanity….did not / do not the countless martyrs of the past and today? Why would we then think we are so entitled to uninterrupted bliss? Our distorted thinking is at the very root of that. After all, our Lord himself tells us (Matthew 16:24), “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
Where are we to follow Him- to a picnic? …to a relaxing day of sunbathing by a beautiful, tropical sea? No. We follow Him into hardship, into suffering, into that which brings us through the morass of the world and into salvation….a far cry from a temporary, immediate, and artificial sense of joy, comfort, and the narrow perspective of a worldly consolation of spirit. In many western circles, suffering is all too often erroneously mistaken for God’s punishment or a withdrawal of His grace and blessing. But this is a gross departure from the teachings of the true Church which reminds us that suffering is not a punishment at all, but a way of overcoming that which afflicts us in this fallen world- we “crucify the flesh” in overcoming the passions that would sever us from God’s grace, threaten to keep us mired in our brokenness, and joined to that which separates us from Him. We need to resist the urge to gain the temporary consolations of the immediate, lest we forsake the eternal joys of our salvation and ultimate union with God.
The quoted scriptural passage was taken from the New King James Version ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We are dynamic people, living dynamic lives. As a Catholic man with more than a few decades under my belt, I have made the acquaintance of a large variety of folk, and have developed an assortment of friendships over the years- not every person with whom I’ve come to know (to whatever degree) has shared my same outlook or religious beliefs, but there has mostly been some level of mutual respect or appreciation for what one or the other held to. Really, you cannot have a true friendship if you need to hide a part of yourself, or if something that you find as part of the core of who you are is such an affront to your companion(s) that there is an unhealthy tension or some manner of disdain. It just won’t work- and if it does for a time, it won’t last for long.
Friendships are integral to life. Generally speaking, we can’t go at it completely alone or isolated from one another (in typical social settings). We are meant to live and thrive within a community. That, necessarily, takes us beyond the microcosm of immediate (or even extended) family, and into macrocosm of society, where we develop connections of all manner with others outside of the scope of kin. While it can be argued that not every person with whom we connect needs to be on the same footing in every regard, it does remain essential that our closer circle of friends (at least) are on that same footing- especially where moral or religious outlook is concerned. In other words, it’s important for the devout, Catholic man to have the friendship of other (likewise devout) Catholic men.
Let me briefly share an example that I feel illustrates this need rather well:
When my family first moved to Florida, we were very lucky to find a great neighborhood of folk and would all quickly become good friends. Our kids played together, and we adults shared enough common interests to enjoy many fun times, lively talks over a couple of beers, and just simply hanging out with one another. We could count on each other in times of need, and we all shared in keeping an eye on the kids when they were outside, playing…. you get the idea.
One evening, we (adults) were enjoying laughs and companionship, as the setting sun painted the sky in brilliant hues. One of the guys suggested a quick run for a bottle of wine an a twelve-pack of beer (we weren’t looking to get hammered, just share a few adult beverages between four or five couples). So, I and a few of the guys jumped into one of the cars and set off for a nearby supermarket. As soon as I shut my door, my friend (who was driving) turned and informed me that we weren’t heading to the market straightaway. Rather, that errand was just the excuse for setting out on the real quest: the nearest strip joint. I politely excused myself, and went back to those of the group who had remained behind.
I am no man’s judge, so I’ll leave it at that. The point to which I would rather return is that Catholic men need to have the friendship of other Catholic men. We need to know that those guys in whom we place our comradeship and trust will not be a catalyst for temptation or for falling into serious error and grave sin. We need to be able to be fully relaxed in the security of friendly trust- in a world in which we must be constantly guarded, we need to have companions with whom we can enjoy true leisure, free from the cares and worries that otherwise gnaw at our souls. Troubles will find us easily enough in this life- we don’t need the guys we’d otherwise rely on for support to be inviting such in our down-time. Having the friendship of other Catholic men ensures against falling into such snares. So too, it gives us the firm reassurance that men of like mind and moral outlook really do “have our back” in our times of distress and need. We know we can turn to our Brothers in Christ in trust, and not be led astray or along the dark road into sin. We are after all, the company we keep.