From the time I was little, I’ve loved dancing. I wanted to be a dancer. I dreamed of gliding across the floor in graceful flight. Although I was pretty far from being the prima ballerina I envisioned, there was one part of dancing that I was particularly bad at—“spotting.” This is a technique dancers use when they are turning. It involves moving the head so that the eyes can always fix upon on a chosen focal point. Not being good at this greatly limits one’s ability to do spins. Sure, I could do one or two but if more rotations were required, I usually ended up dizzy and crashing into something.
Here’s the funny thing. The same is true today with my spiritual life. I can be going along nicely in a mystical “dance”—prayers, sacraments, worship, and fasting—focused on God as I move through the day. But as life begins to spin, faster and faster, I lose my bearings. Suddenly my attention is transferred to the worldly cares of day-to-day life. Without God as my focus, these matters appear extraordinarily urgent and, at the same time, completely overwhelming. I start to think these tasks are necessary to diligently care for my family, work, and home. But the truth is, I am largely ignoring the only thing needed.
In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we meet Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. Martha has welcomed Jesus into her home and becomes, the text tells us, “distracted with much serving.” Mary, however, is sitting at the feet of the Lord, attending to His every word. This upsets Martha, who feels like she could use her sister’s help. She complains to Jesus, but He replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
How often do I sit at the feet of our Lord and attend to His every word? How can I expect to keep Him as my life’s center if I don’t really take time to focus on Him daily? I may say I don’t have time, but the fact is I am just disoriented—crashing into all sorts of things instead of focusing on God. Does this sound familiar?
I don’t have time to sit silently with God, but I just…
- binge-watched episodes of This is Us because I’ve “earned” the downtime.
- spent hours scrolling through Facebook or playing Words with Friends because I needed to “unwind” after a rough day.
- complained about being overwhelmed and had a self-pity party where I stuffed myself with food and drink after “sacrificing” so much.
Television, Facebook, video games, food, and drink are not necessarily bad when used in moderation. But when we use them as an escape from the burdens of a life overwhelmed, the food and drink are no longer healthy and the media consumption isn’t such a great form of recreation. Recreation is something done for fun and as Merriam-Webster defines it, “refreshment of strength and spirits after work.” Do you feel refreshed after sitting catatonically for hours in front of a screen? I sure don’t. So how do we refocus ourselves on Christ—even when we want to withdraw from everything?
Food or Foe
The first thing we need to do is recognize what we are doing. “I am bingeing on Hulu because x, y, and z happened and not because I ‘need’ or ‘deserve’ it.” Is frequently hovering over the Instagram pages of old friends from high school—whom you are not in touch with—restorative? Probably not! We need to examine our actions and ask if they are feeding our soul or starving it. This takes vigilance—a watchfulness that examines our actions to see if what we are doing is moving us closer to or further away from God.
Sometimes we might be so disoriented from abusing worldly things that we might not recognize that we are using them to escape from, or soothe, life. This is where the next task comes into play—we need to be still. Sit in front of an icon. Stand before nature. Try to hear the Lord’s voice—“be still and know I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Stillness should not just be physical, but also—more importantly—mental.
Recently, when life was whirling me round and round—and away from God—I complained that I just wanted a retreat to somewhere quiet for a month to refocus myself on God. My spiritual father wisely advised me how unrealistic this was. But he directed me to take a certain amount of time throughout the day to be completely still with God. Actually, he was more prescriptive than that but rather than share the specifics, I would encourage you to seek spiritual counsel to sort out what is appropriate for you. Regardless of the details, we all need more stillness in our lives.
So, how did it all work out? Unfortunately, I was too unsettled and prideful to heed my spiritual father’s instruction. I kept thinking “as soon as I finish this project and that task, I will find time to be still.” When you are dizzy from the mountain of your daily to-do list, being still can be really difficult. The number of incomplete tasks will try to march through your mind, disturbing your inner stillness. When they do—and they will—lift them up to God in prayer:
- ‘Lord, let me be at peace from these worries so I may submit my life to You.’
- ‘Lord, I share with you this trouble I am facing, help me to understand that in all things you are present and working in my life.’
- ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!’
St. Ambrose of Optina recognizes the struggle to make prayer a part of our life; he writes, “If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force (Matthew 11:12).” We will struggle mightily to pray with consistency.
Even in the secular world these days, we hear of the power of gratitude. I remember, years ago, hearing the story of some Christians in a concentration camp. They would gather regularly to pray and the leader would conclude by saying, “Thank you, Lord for the lice you have given us.” This gratitude confused others in the group. Finally, they asked why he thanked God for lice. He explained that because of their lice, the guards wanted nothing to do with them because they feared being infested. Therefore, they were allowed the freedom to pray and escaped many of the abuses that other prisoners experienced. As St. Moses of Optina writes, “We must give thanks for all things to the Lord, Who has rightly given us difficulties that we may learn patience, which is more beneficial than comforts, and ennobles the soul.”
The other day I was looking at my ridiculously long list of things that needed doing. I started wondering what this dizzying pace was witnessing to my son. Do I want my child to know me as a mother frantically rushing to have everything perfectly organized and anxiety ridden, trying to meet standards that will make our life look like some HGTV production? I don’t think so. I would like him to know a mother who frequently pauses to be present with God and those God has put in her life—to be a mother who prays with him and for him each and every day. I’d like him to know a mother who is grateful for her blessings as well as her challenges. Above all, I want him to know a mother who is trying to keep her focus on God in all things.
In conclusion, I want to mention that it is much easier to write and reflect on focusing on God than putting it into practice. Every day is a struggle—but God’s grace is great despite my stumbling through the dance.
Melissa is the associate director of the Center for Family Care. She lives in Tarpon Springs, Florida with her husband, George, and their son, Nomikos.