To Find Peace, Let Go

To Find Peace, Let Go December 6, 2022

St. Poimen Greek Orthodox Broterhood Arizona: St Poemen/  Wikimedia Commons

We are made for greatness. We are made for righteousness. However, it is important for us to realize that to be all we can be, we must embrace true righteousness, true holiness, and not the similitude of it which we often make by the rules and obligations we demand for ourselves and others. We are to be holy even as God is holy (cf. 1 Ptr. 1:16). Such holiness is not established through laws and religious obligations, but rather, by a way of life, the way of love, for God’s holiness is revealed in and through love. When we confuse holiness with the laws which we create, we go astray. Righteousness will never be in our grasp so long as we accept such confusion. We will wear ourselves out trying to live out impossible expectations, allowing us to have no peace in our lives. And yet that is what Jesus came to bring – peace. It is a spiritual trap which suggests we should engage performative piety, thinking externals alone indicate who is and is not holy. For one who seeks holiness in this fashion will always have to put on a show, and in doing so, they will ignore their own spiritual needs. No one can engage such performance forever, and as they wear out, not only will they find themselves tired and exhausted, they will find they have attained little to no peace, the peace which would otherwise sustain them in their exhaustion. Abba Poemen, like many other great spiritual masters, learned the truth of this, and so was able to impart the wisdom of his experience with Abba Isaac, saying: “Let go of a small part of your righteousness and in a few days you will be at peace.” [1]

We will know no peace in our souls so long as we have the wrong perception of holiness, and with it, the wrong belief concerning what we should be doing. So long as was think we can and should do all things ourselves, we will be trying to do things we can’t do; this will lead us to find ourselves constantly struggling and grasping after things beyond us, leaving us wondering what is wrong with us that we can’t do what we think we should be doing. If we don’t give up on our false sense of what is expected for us, this will only lead to despair.  There will be no peace in the soul so long as we ignore the foundation of our holiness lies not with ourselves, but with God. What we have to learn and accept is that the only way we can attain the holiness which God has, to be holy as God is holy, is to unite with God, and then let God work in and with us through that unity.

“He [Poemen] also said, ‘Everything that goes to excess comes from the demons.’” [2]  That is, we can say demonic powers try to influence us, to have us try to do things which are excessive, in order to break us down. They help us create, as it were, a holiness code for ourselves, encouraging us to embrace it with legalistic determination, so that we then seek to follow it as well as enforce it upon others without exception, and so, without mercy. We end up becoming too demanding upon ourselves and upon others. Such expectations will destroy the spirit, as eventually, it will be seen that they cannot be followed, even if they logically all seem sound and should be easily embraced. The thing is, the more they are lived out, the more any and all moral systems will show their imperfections, as various obligations and expectations will end up conflicting with each other, making it impossible to follow all of them at once. This is why demonic powers often seem to encourage us to do what is good, because they want us to embrace an unbalanced moral code, one which will lead us to exaggerate some aspects of the good while ignoring others

Once we have embraced the exaggerated expectations of false piety, we not only lose our sense of peace, so long as we continue to embrace those expectations, we lose our hope of ever getting it back. This is where sloth comes into play, for the deadly sin of sloth is not about any and all kinds of laziness, it is inactivity borne out of despair. Legalism, which at first seems to promote active work and engagement with the world, ends up being the foundation for sloth because in the end, those who embrace legalism will see how impossible it is to fulfil legalistic expectations. Instead of seeing the problem is found in their moral system, they will continue to promote that system, expecting others to fulfill it, while giving up on themselves. They will find such discord in their soul, due to their inability to follow the rules which they believe should be followed, they end up having a great amount of discord in their soul, a discord which will lead them to the despair needed for them to become listless and inactive.

All of this is why demonic powers promote extreme legalistic ideologies, and use elements of the good to do so, for in the end, it leads to disengagement with the good. When we fall into such  listlessness and despair, into such apathy, we will have a chance to change, to accept that we can’t do all things all by ourselves. That is, we will have a chance to see through such legalism and change our life. We will be able to find peace once we realize we are not expected to do all things all by ourselves, that we can and will be helped along the path towards holiness, Then we will be able to properly engage the grace we have been given and through that grace, find ourselves growing in holiness, until at last, we become even holier than we could have ever imagined, transcending, indeed, what legalism would have us believe we should be like. Thus, when we find ourselves tempted to give up, that should be a sign that we have come to a juncture in our lives. We should see legalism, and the moral code we established for ourselves, is the problem, that it is the source and foundation of our listlessness, our accidie, and use that recognition as a means to overcome it. Then, embracing the grace which transcends all such legalism, and using it to truly transform ourselves so we can be holy as God expects us to be, we will be able to gain the sense of peace that such legalism has taken away from us:

A brother asked Abbe Poemen about accidie. The old man said to him, ‘Accidie is there every time one begins something, and there is no worse passion, but if a man recognizes it for what it is, he will gain peace.”[3]

We need to stay active, but we also need to understand the limitations of that activity, not trying to force ourselves to do things which we are not ready for (or might never be expected to do). We need to give up ideological constructs which are used to create legalistic expectations, to give up a little of our pretense of righteousness, so to speak, for it is only in giving up and dying to the self in this way will we be able to truly find it. Then, the peace which we lost, but so desperately need, can and will be restored to us, and once it is, we will find that our journey is only just beginning, and what lies next is even greater, more joyful, than anything we have yet to experience.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 187 [Saying of Poemen #143].

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 185 [Saying of Poemen #129].

[3] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 188 [Saying of Poemen #149].


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