About ten years ago during a stay in Florida, I found a tiny orange tree with a large, plump orange on it. I picked it and excitedly bit into the orange only to find that it was terribly bitter – to the point of being inedible. Disappointed, I tossed it and asked the native Floridians with whom I was staying about it. They advised me that some orange trees grown from seed are bitter in the first years.
Ten years later, I remembered that experience and thought of its lesson for me. While some produce bitter fruit, most fruit trees produce no fruit in the first several years. Instead, they quietly grow.
I think the spiritual life is very similar. It is easy for us converts into Orthodoxy to read about the lives of the saints and think, “Why can’t I be like that? Why can’t I find freedom from the passions so quickly? Why do I keep confessing the same sins, over and over again?”
Many fathers of the church frequently address this very topic. Novices of the spiritual struggle will do just that: they will struggle. They’ll get frustrated, they’ll wonder why they haven’t overcome the passions, and some will even quit. While many do not quit, I think most of us are tempted to do so. We sometimes forget that even St. Mary of Egypt struggled as a solitary hesychast in the desert for seventeen years before overcoming the passions.
Growing up in Protestant churches, the impression I received was quite the opposite. It seemed we were meant to convert and then “get involved” with various ministries and help produce growth for the church. Charismatics sometimes look at Acts chapter two and see how 3,000 were added to the number of the apostles after the coming of the Holy Spirit. The logic seems to be: get “filled” with the “Holy Spirit” and then you’ll be set free from everything bad – and you’ll evangelize like an apostle. One song we sang in my church as a kid went something like this:
I will never be the same again,
I will never return, I’ve closed the door.
I will walk the path, I’ll run the race,
But I will never be the same again.
Yet, no direction was ever given to us on how to not be “the same again” except that we should get pumped up during church services and get “filled” with the “Spirit.” But not many of these experiences carried over for more than a day because they were nothing but emotional hype.
Coming in with that mindset, the path of Orthodoxy almost seems stifling to new converts. Many desert fathers advised young novices, “Go to your cell and weep for your sins,” or “whatever you do, do not leave your cell.”
In the same way, many of us are counseled by spiritual fathers, “Read this book, say these prayers with all of your heart, come to church, confess the same sins over and over again, partake of the sacraments, and repeat as often as necessary.” It can be frustrating because we wonder: where is the fruit in my life? Why haven’t I been able to put off the “old man” in order to become saintly?
I would once again point out the fruit trees: most of them, when growing under healthy conditions, never produce even one speck of fruit in the first several years. Some of them do produce fruit, but it is bitter and nasty.
I see in the fruit trees – that do not produce fruit – those pious Christians who are living the Orthodox life the best they can, but they feel little to nothing. Invisibly, roots are growing beneath the surface; trials and difficulties faced with a positive attitude are producing a stronger, healthier tree. But there’s little external evidence that things are changing.
The fruit trees that produce bitter fruit are like the people who do various good works but, if they closely examine themselves, will find that their fruit is not good: their good works are tainted with pride, a desire to be liked and accepted by others, or any other passionate motive. Delicious looking fruit is produced, but it is not even edible. For these Christians, it seems that if they will admit to the Lord that the fruit they produce is no good, then they will continue to mature and eventually the Lord will find that their fruit is acceptable.
In summary, whether you see no fruit in your life or, upon close inspection, you see that your good works are tainted with passionate motivations, continue the struggle. Know that this is nothing unusual, that like anyone else, you simply need time to mature. And it seems to me that maturing process is best experienced through the mysteries of the Church and reading the fathers.
Further Reading: Confronting Temptations, wisdom from Elder Ephraim of Arizona.
Orange tree photo by RetroDevil