St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Move Forward Gracefully One Step at a Time

I like to watch the children at our church as they work on new behaviors. To watch Annie pull herself up to stand, when only a few weeks ago this was an impossible task, is a joy to behold. Baby steps are so amusing. Georg Konrad, a Hungarian writer, wrote his memories of learning to walk. He said it was like falling only just as you thought you would fall over, you put forward a foot and stopped yourself. And you would continue, teetering and almost falling but yet moving forward. Walking. What a triumph!

Spiritual growth is made up of small victories like this. We don’t wake up one day thoroughly changed from what we were yesterday; small changes enable us to improve over time. In the end, the result may look like massive change from where we began, but on a day-to-day basis we fight the demons and, once in a while, overcome one by baby steps.

We would like our lives to be transformed from selfishness to selflessness, even as a child wants to move from standstill to walking. Changes happen not at once, however, but by increments. In other words, we make a decision to act differently in one instance and thus we alter our behavior toward what we believe is better. So, instead of engaging in road rage when somebody cuts us off, we make a conscious decision not to respond by word or gesture. We reach inside and deny our selfish ego the pleasure of feeling smug against another driver, and we simply let the incident go. As a result we feel better about ourselves and we decide to try that behavior again.

Notice, therefore, that spiritual growth is not distant or mysterious or separated from the everyday. The transformation occurs in everyday situations. The person seeking spiritual growth is different because she develops insight to avoid the traps and pitfalls that lie in wait, the everyday temptations that are so difficult to bypass. Spiritual growth is not some other, better, or bigger life that awaits us on the far side of the one we live from day to day; it is that daily life, transformed. We pray “give us this day our daily bread” to remind ourselves, first of all, that each day’s bread is a gift from God and, secondly, that our daily bread is precisely where we receive God. This is nothing extraordinary.

The Old Testament prophets were not interested in exploring mystical realms beyond the ordinary stuff of living day to day. Their understanding and proclamation of God is down-to-earth. They call us, again and again, to tasks small and great that enable righteousness to “flow like water.” Of all the religions of the ancient near East, Hebrew religion tied people to compassion and mercy, values of this world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that, for the prophets, the greatest sin is not our failure to perform religious rites; rather, it is our callousness toward our fellows. To know God we are not required to scale the heights of mystic splendor; we are “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). And this we do one small baby step at a time, because it takes so long to root out self-centeredness.

St Mark the Monk, who lived in Egypt in the 5th century, wrote that three “giants” block our spiritual path: forgetfulness, laziness, and ignorance. These enemies lock us into our own passions and they prohibit us from living toward God and our fellow man. Remembering to respond to situations in small but novel ways can free us from these enemies.

Published 5 November 2010