Life seems too easy.
I had asked a friend how he was enjoying being retired. His words were both a response and a lament. His work life, he told me, had been one of planning and executing plans for large and complex projects. Since retiring, he had done volunteer work, engaged his hobbies, played golf, travelled…the usual things retirees do. However, it all seemed too easy to him; there was no struggle, no challenge as he had experienced in his work life.
I am seventeen months into my own retirement. I confess to having had the same thought on occasion: my life seems too easy. I have a wonderful marriage, a comfortable retirement income, my health is good, I have good friends, hobbies, and a good church. In my work life I had great responsibility: literally holding people’s lives in my hands. Now, I just have to make sure the dog is fed twice a day.
And, isn’t that the point…to have an easy life? Growing up I was told that I should work hard all of my life to retire—and retire early, if possible—so that I can enjoy myself in relative physical and material comfort. And the goal of an easy life in retirement is certainly the main focus of millions of advertising dollars spent on American TV by the financial planning and pharmaceutical industries.
Of course while still in the work force I remember the not-so-subtle shift in the message, that the easy life is no longer just for those retired folks. I now hear that if I become properly educated in a S.T.E.M. profession, have the latest cell phone, am a member of the right social networks, subscribe to the correct kind of shame-cancelling morality, and am properly woke, then I deserve and should expect to have an easy life with perhaps hundreds, thousands, or millions of virtual “friends.” Soma for all!
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it, being the captain of my own ship, the king of my own castle, in full control of my own destiny. Clear skies, calm seas, and flat terrain ahead! Who wouldn’t want that life.
Then why does this idea of an “easy life” bother me so much? After all, by many common measures I was successful in my career and life. I should feel somewhat proud of myself and blessed by God that I did enough “right” things and made enough “right” choices that God rewarded me with an “easy life” in my retirement years. Right? Shouldn’t I?
Then what is wrong with me.
Now I do have to admit to you that some of my angst comes from guilt. From within my “easy life” I see so many others living life that is not so easy. I admit to experiencing a form of survivor’s guilt: why do I have it easy and not them. But there’s more to my angst than guilt.
What if there’s nothing wrong with me. What if thinking that my life is too easy is a giant red flag waving at me. What if I should understand these thoughts as moments when I recognize, even sub-consciously, that the culture is winning within me. What if these are moments in which I am standing at an abyss I don’t recognize, having forgotten that my life is only found in relationship with God.
I was recently reading a book about how the Christian Orthodox Church views salvation, participating in life with God. In it, the author recounts a conversation he had as a young man with St. Sophrony (Sakarov) of Essex in which he was lamenting to Sophrony how difficult his school exams were. Sophrony acknowledged that school exams are indeed difficult, then added:
In this world there is nothing more difficult than to be saved.
This is not the Christian message I grew up hearing. I recall hearing, “say the ‘sinner’s prayer,’ go to church, pray some, give some, and try to be a good person to those around you. God sees you through the blood of Jesus. You are saved.” No one in my Christian world would have talked about it being hard to be saved.
I have been praying, and it can be a tricky thing. You’ve probably heard the old joke about not praying for patience because God will put you in a place where you have to learn it. Well, I have been praying for God to do whatever it takes in my life to draw me closer to Him. So, He opened my eyes and led me to the abyss in my own soul.
Abyss. It seems like such a perfect word for what it is intended to convey, doesn’t it. Hearing the word brings to my mind a chasm of unknown depth. A pit of blackness—blacker than the darkest night. A place of demons and despair; a hole into which were I to fall there would be only falling. Forever.
God has brought me to the abyss within me. It is the place in my heart where my radical self-love and my self-serving passions exist. It is the place where there is little or no thought of loving God…or you. It is the place of Solzhenitsyn‘s line of evil within my own heart. It is where the goats of St Matthew’s gospel graze within me.
It is hard enough to stand at the edge and look into it. One has to bear the shame of admitting that kind of darkness exist within one’s own soul. Standing at the edge is looking at one’s past self-centered behavior and facing it, owning it. Sophrony again says that we should only stand at the edge of the abyss until we can take it no longer, then we must step back and have some tea. It is while drinking tea that I am able to talk to myself about the abyss, coolly offering advice and encouragement and remembering the promises of Jesus and repenting of my thoughts and deeds.
As hard as it is to stand at the abyss and peer in, it is quite another thing to recognize real-time that I am in the abyss. It is being in the darkness and terror of the storm itself. In these times I can feel myself awash in self-serving self-love manifested by one or more extreme passions of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice, and slothfulness—the seven deadly sins. The demons toss me shackles to bind myself to them and I gladly put them on. I experience myself being overwhelmed by my own desires and wanting more while being horrified that I find so much pleasure in it. I may even hear my inner self shouting faintly to me that what I am doing pushes God and those I love most away from me. Still I go on.
As the moment subsides, I am convinced that I am not saved because I have no love for God or neighbor within me. The shame of who I am and the pain of my very existence washes over me.
Accepting the shame without turning from it nor letting it crush me is the most difficult thing. Recognizing that I am falling into the abyss and trying not to let my passions rule me every time is the most difficult thing. Remembering and calling upon God’s mercy in my life is the most difficult thing.
Thinking that my life is too easy should indeed be a giant red flag waving at me. I can and should be thankful for the abundance God has provided. But thinking life is too easy, well, they are the moments of blindness when I no longer see the abyss in my soul. It is the time of greatest danger to my soul.
There are two roads. The road of the easy life is wide and comfortable. The road of sharing life with God is narrow and perilous.
Fierce is the war we rage, yet it is a wise war and a simple one. If the soul grows to love humility, then all the snares of our enemies are undone and his fortress captured. In this spiritual warfare of ours we must see to the state of our ammunition and our provender. Our ammunition is our humility; our provender—the grace of God. If we lose these, the enemy will defeat us…
Here is the easiest and quickest way to salvation: Be obedient and sober, do not find fault, and keep mind and heart from evil thoughts. Think that all men are good and beloved of the Lord. For such humility the grace of the Holy Spirit will dwell in you, and cause you to exclaim, “How merciful is the Lord!”
But if you find fault and are querulous, if you want your own way, even if you pray much your soul will fail, and you will cry out, “The Lord has forgotten me!” But it is not that the Lord has forgotten you—it is you that have forgotten that you must humble yourself, and so the grace of God abides not in your soul.
—St Silouan the Athonite
Lord have mercy.