When I was in Ontario giving talks at a few different venues back in November, I received a variety of questions, good questions. In fact, I was quite impressed with the questions I was asked. I think good questions demonstrate the audience’s seriousness, their desire to learn and be instructed. I tried my best to offer good answers to those good questions. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried.
Among all these questions there was one scribbled on a piece of paper that stood out to me because I believe it revealed an opinion many of us have our ourselves – an opinion, I would venture to say, which is misinformed and misguided.
The question went something like this: “How can we deal with the low spiritual level of others?”
I was a little taken aback by this and without a lot of thought I immediately responded: “By saying: Gee, I wish I was as spiritual as that person!” But truth be told the person asking the question was verbalizing the silent and unspoken thoughts many of us have from time to time, or at least have had in the past: that is, that we are more spiritual than others and that it is toilsome to have to “deal” with what we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the “low” spiritual state of others.
I went on to explain that if we think we are more spiritual than anyone else then we know, right off the bat, that we aren’t spiritual because a true spiritual person doesn’t think themselves spiritual. A true spiritual person knows how carnal, how flawed, how fumbling, and how sinful he or she is, because true spirituality – and by “true” I mean Orthodox spirituality – gradually opens the eyes of the heart to see one’s sinfulness, one’s mistakes, shortcomings, and more than anything one’s attachment to this world, this body, and the passions associated with the body, the “lesser pleasures” as they’re called: food, sleep, etc. revealing us to be far more carnal, in fact, than spiritual.
A spiritual person follows the rules of fasting set down by the Church; he prays a consistent amount everyday; he bridles his tongue, has humble thoughts; thinks he hasn’t yet made a beginning; feels, sees and understands his own worth, that he is nothing without Christ. A spiritual person looks at everyone beside himself as more spiritual, more holy, more worthy of Christ’s love and mercy.
(Source) St. Anthony the Great once prayed: “Lord, reveal to me how the faithful person in the city among the noise can reach the spiritual level of the ascetic who dwells in the deep desert.”
He had not even finished this request to the All-good God when he heard a voice tell him:
“The Gospel is the same for all men, Anthony. And if you want to confirm this, how one who does the will of God is saved and sanctified wherever he is, go to Alexandria to the small cobbler’s store, which is simple and poor. It is there below the last road of the city.”
“To the cobbler’s store, Lord? And who there can help shine some light on my thought?” replied the puzzled Saint.
“The cobbler will explain to you,” replied the same voice.
“The cobbler? What does this man know about struggles and temptations? What does the poor toiler know of the heights of faith and of the truth?” He wondered.
His objections however could not be straightened [out] by the divine explanation. Because of this, at dawn he traveled to the city. As God had shown him, he stopped at the small cobbler store that he found.
Happily and reverently the simple man welcomed him in and asked him: “In what way could I be of use to you, Abba? I’m an illiterate and uncouth villager, but for the stranger, whoever he is, I will try to help, whatever the need.”
“The Lord sent me for you to teach me,” replied the ascetic humbly.
The poor worker jumped up in wonder. “Me? What could I, the illiterate one, teach your holiness? I don’t know if I have done anything good or noteworthy in my life, something which could stand unadulterated before the eyes of God.”
“Tell me what you do, how you pass your day. God knows; He weighs and judges things differently,” replied St. Anthony.
“I, Abba, have never done anything good, I only struggle to keep the holy teachings of the Gospel. And further, I try to never forget to never overlook my shortcomings and my spiritual fruitlessness. Therefore, as I work during the day I think and say to myself: O wretched man, all will be saved and only you will remain fruitless. Because of your sin, you will never be worthy to see His Holy Face.”
“Thank you, O Lord,” the ascetic said raising his weeping eyes towards heaven. And as the cobbler remained puzzled at this, the ascetic embraced him with love and bid him farewell saying: “And thank you, O holy man. Thank you, for you taught me how easy it is with only a humble mind, for someone to live in the grace of Paradise.”
And as the poor cobbler continued to stare uneasily, without at all understanding this, St. Anthony took his staff and departed for the deep desert.
He walked, his only companion being the sound of his staff. He walked and his prayer burned like the the sands of the desert, rising towards heaven.
He traveled all day and prayerfully reflected on the lesson that he received that day from the poor cobbler.
“Humility! This therefore is the quickest path to the gate of Paradise,” he said in his thoughts. “Humility is the robe which God clothed himself with and came to earth as man,” the Saint said, and he struggled to perceive the greatness of this holy virtue.
He walked, praying in his nous, and he brought to mind whatever God had taught him, until immediately before him he saw thrown underfoot a countless number of traps. Traps of every sort, terrible notions, machinations never before seen.
“My God,” he exclaimed and turned the frightened eyes of his soul towards heaven. “Who could ever flee, O Lord, from such traps and ruses?”
“Humility, Anthony. This can singularly deliver [one] from all of these [traps],” [the Saint] again heard the sweet, beloved voice [say] deep within his heart. And this was the response which instilled light within him and gave him courage for the new battles which he experienced within the deep desert with the eternal enemy of man.
So, I guess the simple answer I could have given to that question back in November would have been: Humility. Humility is how we deal with the “low spiritual state” of our neighbour.
May we make an effort, as Great Lent approaches, to struggle for such God-pleasing thoughts and opinions as the holy cobbler had, both regarding our own spiritual state and that of others!