The temptation of Sunday morning
A few years ago, an Orthodox priest was asked by a faithful woman, “Why is it that my family always seems to have arguments on Sunday mornings? We never argue any other morning.” Putting aside the obvious outward variables of time and stress, the priest replied, “The devil simply doesn’t want you to be at church.”
While Sunday mornings are seen by most people as the day on which religious folk affirm their beliefs, the reality is, Sunday mornings are the time at which Christian faith is most tested. The appeal of the New Age Movement provides an exact contrast to Orthodox life in this respect: while the New Age permits one to do anything one likes, any time one likes, Orthodox Christianity reminds us that our exterior life (i.e. the things we do) plays the most important part in shaping our interior life (i.e. the things we believe, and who we are). Lex orandi, lex credendi, as the Church Fathers say – the law (or way) or worship is the law (or way) of belief.
Several years ago, we were in the habit of driving along the Toronto waterfront each Sunday morning. In a scene that mirrors the picture in cities across the country, drivers could view literally hundreds of runners, out for an early morning exercise, as part of their weekly routine. Speaking with our priest one day, I ridiculed the runners. “Why aren’t they in Church,” I asked. “Don’t they have any self-discipline?” The priest answered, “Yes – more than we do. They’re devoted to their religion. Are we?”
Are we indeed? One of the Fathers of the Egyptian desert once praised a prostitute for taking such care of herself that she attracted the attention of every man around her. “We should be like this,” the saint remarked, “adorning ourselves with the virtues, that we might attract the blessings of God and the attention of the angels.”
Unlike the runners or the Egyptian prostitute, Orthodox Christians do not have the support of society in our chosen path. We are working against the grain, with every step we take. Canadian society has made Saturday night a party night; for the Orthodox, this means setting aside Saturday nights to attend Vespers or the Vigil, to Confess, and to quietly prepare our hearts for Sunday morning.
Work days provide a financial incentive for most adults to get up early to go to work. Yet even for those who are financially well-off, such efforts can never provide lasting results. In particular, they can never provide joy, or peace of heart. Without exertion toward spiritual things, every other effort is wasted: they simply won’t make us happy. The spiritual temptations holding us back on a Sunday morning are known to many of us. Yet it is in reviewing them that we are able to provide for ourselves a defence against them. Tiredness is ready ground for excuses on Sunday mornings. Bad weather goes along with it. As the Proverb tells us, “The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets,” (Proverbs 26:13). Any excuse will do. Could it be the fact that Sunday is the Day of Christ’s Resurrection is simply so far from our minds most of the time that we forget that’s the reason we gather together on Sundays? Are we so easily cheated of the benefits of exerting ourselves a little in the spiritual life, that we will so quickly be deprived of the blessings of the holy services? Have we fallen to the level that we have become the spiritual equivalent of a couch potato, consoling ourselves with crumbs of spiritual junk food, while neglecting the small labours that will make us spiritual whole? Are we so fat with worldly things that we have forgotten God?
The temptation of Sunday morning is designed to keep us off balance, vulnerable to the anger, confusion, doubt, and the spiritual assaults we will face throughout the week. We prepare ourselves beforehand for journeys; we prepare ourselves and our children for work and school. Does it not make simple sense to struggle valiantly in an effort to prepare ourselves spiritually each weekend to face the journey and the work of the week ahead?
Could it be that our faith can so easily become an outward thing, that when it is tested by, say, having to forego sleeping in on Sundays, or by taking a day off with pay for a holy day, our faith collapses like a house of cards? It is tempting to find the shortcomings of others: those who do not believe, or who fall into moral lapses. But the Church fathers are very clear that the interior life of the Christian starts not with them, but with me. Outward discipline – not legalistically following rules, but simply ruling our own passions of laziness – is the centre of this struggle.
It is in resolving to do these things – the little things – that we begin to actually live the Christian life as something more than an idea, or a hobby.