Tag Archives: failure

Does a child see herself grow?

Father Michael Gillis describes himself as a grumpy old man who struggles to stay near to God; he evidently succeeds enough to be able to report, in his latest blog post, “…I think God loves so much those who reach out to Him that he tricks me into saying something to help them.”

He shares portions of an email exchange with a young woman who is discouraged at always having to confess the same sins. Why isn’t God changing her? I found it encouraging: “Just” Waiting on God.

Healing in all directions.

“There is never a pain as deep as that inflicted by someone who is supposed to love you. Such injuries echo through the years and the generations. The face that stares back at us in the mirror is easily a fractal of someone whose actions power our own insanity. We can hate a parent, only to be haunted by their constant presence in us.”

The first part of Father Stephen Freeman’s post for today, “Every Generation,” is about that dark side of our human connectedness. But the reality of it works positively, also, as we all know, if not from our own families, then from others who might seem to have received a better legacy.

The older I get, the more time I spend considering all of the people who have gone before who have contributed to my physical and/or spiritual well-being. The Orthodox Church trains us in this perspective by bringing us very close to the saints throughout time whose names we do know, and closer to this earthly home, we often remember in our thankful prayers the “founders of this holy temple.”

No doubt the prayers of my Sunday School teachers and other adults protected me as I grew up; the teachers and friends, my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles gave me so much, in particular behaviors and actions that must remain in large degree a mystery to us who can only see the outward.

In many cases I’m sure that their gift to their descendants was to struggle… and fail; but having struggled, their defeat was not as much of a failure as it would have been. God only knows how they tried, how hard it was just to keep going day after day. If their minds were ignorant of the significance of their lives to the whole of humanity, they were nevertheless contributing:

“If we inherit a burden within our life, so our salvation, our struggles with that burden, involve not only ourselves but those who have gone before as well as those who come after. We struggle as the ‘Whole Adam’ (in the phrase of St. Silouan).

“There is an Athonite saying: ‘A monk heals his family for seven generations.’ When I first heard this, my thought was, ‘In which direction?’ The answer, I think, is every direction. We are always healing the family tree as we embrace the path of salvation, monk or layman. Our lives are just that connected.”

What does all that have to do with Christ’s mother? In her prophecy Mary said, “All generations shall call me blessed.” There is a lot packed into that statement. As Father Stephen writes:

“In her person we see all generations gathered together. Her ‘be it unto me according to your word’ resounds in the heart of every believer, uniting them to her heart whose flesh unites us to God.”

Read the whole article. I didn’t quote quite all of it! When I started to write this post it was still the Feast of the Dormition of Mary, which is a fitting day to think about these things. Now we have passed liturgically to the next day, but that’s okay, because every day is good to remember family and be thankful.

George Eliot and The Paralytic


This Lord’s Day we were remembering the paralytic, who sat by the pool waiting for a chance to get into the water at those times when an angel stirred it, so that he might be healed. After 38 years, Jesus came by and healed him.

Father John in his homily highlighted one aspect of the Gospel story: how we are like that man in our seeming paralysis when it comes to overcoming our sins. Priests often hear in confession the lament of the Christian who continues to battle the same weaknesses and failings year after year, feeling that he makes little progress.

I think a lot about the truism that habits are like a second nature to us. As we read in Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”

It sounds very little like one chipper exhortation you might have read: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Well, yes, why not just start today? When I read that on Tuesday, I remembered the paralytic, and I thought on my own unchanged bad habits. After his 38 years, wasn’t it in fact too late for many things? (The assumption is that one might have been greater; the reverse is probably more true, that it’s never too late to start a downward spiral.)

For myself, let’s see…how many years have I been cultivating certain of my bad habits? More than that, I’m afraid. But it’s a simple thing: “The only thing that stands between me and greatness is me.” (Woody Allen)

George Eliot

George Eliot is credited with having made that bold assertion, “It’s never to late to be what you might have been.” She was the subject of a New Yorker article from February of this year, “Middlemarch and Me,” by Rebecca Mead, who questions the validity of the quote and whether it even reflects the true outlook of the author Mary Ann Evans.

Mead has been a lifelong lover of Eliot’s books, Middlemarch in particular, and she points out some hints that the author leaves in her novels, as well as forthright confessions from her journals, to show that her general attitude was wiser and more modest.

In Middlemarch, we read of the main character,  “Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better.”

Mead writes: “Middlemarch is not about blooming late, or unexpectedly coming into one’s own after the unproductive flush of youth. Middlemarch suggests that it is always too late to be what you might have been — but it also shows that, virtually without exception, the unrealized life is worth living. The book that Virginia Woolf characterized as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’ is also a book about how to be a grownup person — about how to bear one’s share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy moments of hard-won happiness.”

Let’s look back at the Paralytic by the Sheep’s Gate Pool. He must have had some way to propel himself, perhaps one limb that was functional, so that he could sit there for much of his life hoping to get down to the water first. He certainly had patience — and perseverance, to keep trying.

Father John said that even if we feel we have nothing more than a big toe’s worth of strength against our sins, we must keep struggling. Because we never know when Jesus will come to us. When he came to the cripple by the pool, He Himself was the source of the healing, and the man was delivered from his afflictions and was able to walk and carry his bed. For most of us, we will not receive the equivalent healing until we are resurrected in the coming Kingdom.

In the meantime, we will have failures. Maybe we will even think we are failures. It is very discouraging when one realizes what Samuel Johnson found: “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” On another aspect of this human experience, Dorothea said in Middlemarch about her husband’s intellectual labors: “Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.”

The most helpful sort of activity to persevere in, if one wants to be on the path to God, is prayer. “A long perseverance” of this sort would never be disappointing. The very moments of prayer have the potential to be Heaven itself, in the presence of the God Who is Love.

“In patience you possess your souls,” we read in Luke 21, and Mark Twain elaborates: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”

Whether we are being too easy on ourselves is the question. If we are being lazy, of course, that is one of the sins we are trying to overcome. And pride in thinking we are equal to any task, we can be anything we put our minds to — that also must be set aside.

Mary Ann Evans put it this way in her journal: “The difficulty is, to decide how far resolution should set in the direction of activity rather than in the acceptance of a more negative state.”

But I like best the way St. Seraphim of Sarov speaks about this, and will close with his gentle words: “One should be lenient towards the weaknesses and imperfections of one’s own soul and endure one’s own shortcomings as we tolerate the shortcomings of our neighbours, and at the same time not become lazy but impel oneself to work on one’s improvement incessantly.”