“All the suffering borne by persons is none other than the abundant healing that eternal Mercy offers to save them from eternal death. Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober mankind up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace-filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.” +St. Nikolai Velimirović
Sobriety— What can this virtue offer a world scrambling to salve its wounds with virtual esteem, boundless acquisition, and sociopolitical tribalism? In the hands of a drunkard, tools of modern psychological sophistication have little lasting effect and can even lead to further destruction, delusion, and chaos. Knowing the destruction that can arise out of physical drunkenness, imagine the potential damage incurred by an inner life clouded with the addictions to vanity, avarice, envy, anger, and sundry passions.
For any humble seeker of truth in this life, a truth that cannot be relativized into oblivion apart from practice or tailor-made to suit the inclinations of the false self, the sobriety of our inner lives is a lamp in which the light of Truth can take up residence. In the dawn of my journey for truth, an impetus for sobriety came without warning. An unknown tumor in my brain discovered after a series of inexplicable seizures unmasked my many illusions, many of which I hadn’t been aware.
“Normal life” vanished as I emerged from emergency surgery to find the left half of my body paralyzed. Emotionally, I regressed to a nearly sociopathic state as a result of both the neurological and psychological trauma of the surgery. Increasingly, I found little solace in the worship practices of my church. In this upending of my external circumstances and internal self-orientation, I couldn’t help but find “3 songs and a sermon” severely lacking in their ability to reach and heal a subterranean suffering. I could no longer shake the conviction that I was covering over a certain spiritual poverty with the distraction of emotionalism and generalizations of the Divine into tightly packaged truisms.
Upon encountering Orthodox Christianity through relationship with a friend and fellow sojourner, I collided with something totally unexpected in the wisdom of the church and writings of fathers of the faith— This wisdom does not speak, but in a dialect of the human heart. In this dialect, salvation is no mere concept to be fondled by the intellectual mind, but a life-long journey of growing in love and likeness to Christ. The Christian life is not a series of mental affirmations shored up by behavior modification—but a process of reconciliation, repentance, and healing.
Furthermore, the church exists not simply as a common gathering place for our assimilation of knowledge and community. The church exists as the very hospital in which we can reckon with our humanity, see our obsession with self-absorption, and begin to engage with the “medicines” and mysteries of divine services, confession, fasting, alms-giving, and many more.
In the midst of having my heart, mind, and soul transformed by the church, I also began to encounter a virtue seldom discussed, and to me, sorely missing in my experience within the American protestant tradition—spiritual sobriety. As a virtue, spiritual sobriety may certainly seem intangible, and yet, when encountered, it is profoundly palpable. Fasting, self-accusation, and ceaseless prayer that takes up silence and inner stillness, or hesychia, as its principal tool, all further the cultivation of this spiritual sobriety.
To the small extent that I have encountered it, spiritual sobriety places the Truth, in the person of Jesus Christ, above all other philosophical concepts, ecstatic experiences, or notions of status in this world. In a spiritually sober state, the most divine image within us emerges and is willing to forsake all admiration and bear any wound in order to commune with the Divine.
It was the practice of silent prayer that ultimately gave me a renewed “dialogue” with God following years of spiritual starvation. After sickness had unmasked my “performances” in worship with their external demonstrations of zeal, and my predominantly transactional prayers (“Dear God, I just ask that you do XYZ.”), I was bankrupt of approaches to God that didn’t strike me as utterly self-manufactured, self-serving, and thus counterfeit in nature. It eventually struck me that interior as well as exterior silence before God was the only way I could be assured that I was not “buying my own snake-oil”. I began to read about and practice silent prayer daily. Of course, I immediately collided with the chief obstacle of any neophyte practicing stillness— one can be externally quiet and remain internally chaotic. In fact, it is nearly always the case that the mind will revolt against any attempt at inner stillness by assaulting us with literally ANY thought imaginable. However, in my persistence I began to notice and follow a divine fragrance that always seemed to be present beyond the thoughts and clutter of my mind. I found that God uses silence as a primary language. He speaks into what, to us, is a void. Our mind writhes in the absence of its preoccupation, and yet, every so often with persistence, will surrender to this void. In this stillness we are knocking at the door of what the fathers of the church and hesychasts (true life-long practitioners of prayer in stillness) would call prayer of the heart. From a place of greater sobriety, free of prelest and vanity, we encounter grace, which cannot be earned nor exhausted. This grace urges on and sustains the struggle against the passions that would have us enslaved— we have only to lay aside our desires, preconceptions, and pride to abide in it.
As a child of God and tenderfoot in the Apostolic Faith, I speak of a great beauty immersed in mystery, of which I have only stolen a glance at a shadow. And yet, Christ has illumined my path thus far, in both blessing and in struggle. It is through His mercy that what was once painful loss has been refashioned for beautiful purposes. For from Him, through Him, and to Him are all things, and to Him be glory now and forever. Amen!