The problem of a sticky soul

“If we desire to be in good things after the death of this body, let us take every care that our soul does not become glued to the body, nor mingled with it, staggering around as if drunk with the passions of the body, trusting itself to bodily pleasures.” — Saint Ambrose of Milan.

I sometimes picture the soul covering itself with velcro hooks, which are the passions, so that the soul tends to stick to stuff. In conversation or when walking down the street, we see or remember someone’s betrayal, their car that's nicer than ours, or their shapely body, and ZIP! our attention is stuck on that image or word. We walk around, even into church or daily prayers, our souls completely covered in velcro-stuck food, drugs, nice houses, sexy people, and imaginary arguments (which, of course, we won.)

It’s like showing up for a sprint race wearing a scuba mask, air tanks, fins and speargun, plus a parachute and a hazmat suit over it all, our arms full of kettle-bells and bags of candy corn.

“Let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race…” (Hebrews 12:1).

In a few hours or decades you and I will step out of this body… how easily? I’m afraid of finding myself in that life, awaiting the future resurrection, with my soul starving for all the connections it has learned to crave. Where is my pizza? Where is the new Star Trek episode? Where is my Facebook? I have hungered and thirsted for these things, and for a while I was filled, but now I am only hungry and thirsty and nothing will ever fill me!

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

Saint John Maximovitch, in a sermon on the judgment seat of Christ, said:

When “the books are opened,” it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a pervert.  When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul. And if the soul has not repented and has not become free from that sin, it will come to the Last Judgement with the same desire for sin. It will never satisfy that desire, and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition; it will hate everyone and everything. “There will be gnashing of teeth” of powerless malice and the unquenchable fire of hatred.

It is easy enough to diagnose the human problem of compulsion and distraction, a life controlled by our stuff; the Buddha figured out that much 2500 years ago.

But together with the diagnosis, the Church offers a prescription.

Our first response when we see how controlled, compelled, and obsessed we are with stuff is to try and reduce the amount of stuff. Cut down on TV and gadget time, quit drinking or using, move out of the girlfriend’s house… And these are good, maybe necessary things.

But the thing to note is that these are not only habits, but passions. That word comes from the same root that gives us pathology, psychopath, and pathetic — it means a suffering or infirmity. (That’s also why we call Christ’s suffering The Passion.) The passions are spiritual illnesses. And that is good news, because illnesses can be treated and even healed.

Along with changing our behavior, by our own willpower with God’s help — perhaps avoiding buffet restaurants or liquor stores, or biting our tongue when unhelpful words want to come out — we have the possibility of uprooting and healing these “sticky” places in our soul.

That healing therapy is outwardly seen on a moral level. We can’t simply fight our impulses and programmed behaviors by white-knuckled denial. Gritting our teeth and yelling "Not gonna do it!" just invests our attention and identity even more in the temptation. We start to see ourselves as The Person Who Has This Temptation. Our sin or trauma becomes our identity, and we transform ourselves into its image.

Instead, we have to plant new behaviors with which to displace the old. If we are prone to judge and condemn, then we need to learn mercy by giving alms and serving others. If we are compelled to use alcohol and other drugs, then we need to write new scripts for our stress to follow: patterns of behavior that include meaningful conversation, forming non-dependent relationships, confession and absolution, and healthy ways to identify and address our stress before it takes the wheel. Others outside the Church know this: Twelve-step programs and counselors will all tell you the same thing.

What is unique in the Church is the healing of the soul, which begins to straighten the inward brokenness underlying our passions.

Remember your basic Orthodox Catechumen 101? At the very beginning, your priest probably introduced you to daily prayer, a rule of fasting, frequent confession and communion, reading scripture, almsgiving. These things are not regulations; nobody will deduct points from your score for failing to do them, and Christ will not judge you based on your merit badges. These things are therapy and discipline.

If you’ve got a broken ankle, you need more than ice bags: Your doctor will prescribe some exercises: physical therapy. If you don’t do the exercises, you probably won’t go to hell… but you won’t get well, either. If you want to walk then you’ll follow the therapeutic prescription.

If you’re a pianist, or an athlete, or a martial artist, and you ask an Olympic coach or master musician or sensei to help you excel, then he may prescribe some specific ways of eating, times for sleeping, and a lot of inconvenient, repetitive exercises that cut into your TV and party schedule. These are called “disciplines” (and if you don’t have disciplines you aren’t a “disciple.”) The Olympic coach or sensei sees potential in you, and all his rules and corrections are there to form in you the image that he sees you can become. What potential does Christ see in you, that he calls you to take his yoke upon you? He calls all of us to become saints. He sees that potential in you: he put it there.

We Orthodox often want to talk about rules, or miracles we heard about, or why we are smart for having picked the Right Church. We are quick to post memes and quotes from the Fathers. And we have so many opinions about ecumenism, tollhouses, and canons. We are experts on Orthodox trivia.

Now if we could all just go back to Catechumen Basics 101, review the part about simple weekly fasting, daily prayers, almsgiving, forgiving and forbearing, guarding our lips and our eyes… and do these things… then the Orthodox Internet might be a less septic environment. And more importantly, we would begin to be healed.

Imagine, not only having fewer distractions for our shattered attention, fewer compulsions driving us into unthinking scripted behaviors — but beyond this, having a firsthand, personal, here-and-now experience of the mercy and peace of God that makes us less “sticky,” and more ready to cooperate with the action of God in us.

At Gethsemane, the Lord said, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (John 14:30). The tempter owned no territory in Him. There were no passions in Christ for a temptation to stick to.

That is what all our disciplines and canons are for. That’s the Olympian gold-medalist that the coach sees in us. The Church will continue pointing us all back to these basics – which are practiced daily by monks, nuns, and every Christian being perfected through faith — “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man [completely-grown adult], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).