Kyrie eleison

I first discovered the School of Life when I was teaching composition and literature at my local university. I found their short, concise overviews of major philosophies, literary careers, and intellectual traditions especially useful for introducing my students to new ideas. Over time, I began following their YouTube channel and enjoying their other content, too: videos that featured thoughts on big topics like love, work, and the meaning of life, most of them narrated by Alain de Botton’s unusually calming voice. Sure, the School of Life’s output is perhaps overly therapeutic in its concerns, narrowly concerned with the lives and problems of people living in post-industrial capitalist societies. These videos certainly lack the depth of, say, a philosophical monograph. But in the media toilet bowl of YouTube, the School of Life offers refreshingly thoughtful and at times challenging (if at other times too soothing) explorations of issues that should concern everyone living in, well, post-industrial capitalist societies.

I particularly enjoyed this video, released last week:

This video helped me to connect some dots that I’ve been struggling with lately. If you’ve ever attended an Orthodox service or scanned an Orthodox prayer book, you’ll notice an unusual emphasis on humankind’s sinful nature. For a branch of Christianity that basically claims to reject the doctrines associated with human depravity, Orthodoxy really emphasizes sin. (More on Orthodoxy and original sin here.) Nearly every Orthodox prayer book you find will feature Psalm 51 prominently among its morning prayers: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Here are a few of the other lines I repeat in my prayers almost every morning:

“Rising from sleep, I thank thee, O Holy Trinity. For in the abundance of thy goodness and patience, thou hast not been angry with me, idler and sinner though I be, nor hast thou destroyed me together with my iniquities….”

“We thank thee that thou hast not destroyed us with our sins…”

“I am bound by fetters of sin…”

“…[I] am slain by passions.”

“…enlighten my blinded soul.”

“Make me not a joy of demons, though I am guilty of many sins.”

“I have grown old and unfeeling in my sins.”

“Though my hands and lips are defiled by sin, nevertheless I raise them in praise of thee….”

“O my Lady, most holy Theotokos, through thy holy and all-powerful prayers, drive from me, thy humble and wretched servant, despair, forgetfulness, indiscretion, indifference, and all filthy, evil, and blasphemous thoughts, removing them from my wretched heart and darkened mind.”

“Deliver me from my many wicked memories and plans….”

I don’t know about you, but making daily reference to my “wretched heart and darkened mind” has an effect on me. When I was beginning to pray regularly using an Orthodox prayer book, these allusions to my own depravity were…disturbing. (I was using a Russian prayer book at first, which contains even harsher language regarding one’s own propensity toward sin). I didn’t particularly enjoy regularly castigating myself for sins that, according to Scripture, were forgiven and forgotten. In most other respects, Orthodoxy seemed brighter and more full of grace than, say, Calvinism (I’m not knocking Calvinism, which is frequently and regrettably misunderstood by its most severe critics—but few can deny the, uhm, dour aspects of Calvinist theology). Why, then, this constant refrain: “Lord, have mercy”? Why this constant preoccupation not with sin itself, but with my own sinfulness? What was happening here?

In response to these questions, I think the School of Life video on goodness is illuminating. What I began to realize, after months of prayer, was that my attitude toward myself was changing. I wasn’t actually castigating myself—I was reminding myself, each morning, of my constant failure to not sin. In truth, I sin constantly. I am not a slave to sin, thanks be to God, but I do it willingly. In the past couple weeks, I’ve been struck not merely by the degree to which I am perpetually a sinner, but also by the utter flagrant and almost comical nature of my sinfulness. I will commit to avoid a particular sin in the evening; by morning, I have already committed that specific sin. I am replete with failure. I am always doing what I hate.

Two lessons to draw from this: first, to constantly remind oneself of one’s own total and utter sinfulness is to constantly remind oneself of the magnitude of God’s grace. Orthodox Christianity is always calling attention to God’s mercy. Hence the refrain, “Lord, have mercy.” Our sin need not be constantly before us, but there’s no object lesson in grace quite as stark as measuring one’s own failure against God’s boundless love.

Second, to constantly remind oneself of one’s own total and utter sinfulness is to cultivate a radical sense of humility. One thing that my priest has emphasized over and over in my catechism class is the irresponsibility, the danger, the downright sinfulness of judging others for their sins. It’s one thing, as within some Protestant traditions, to advertise the universality of sin and to confess that “all have sinned.” It’s quite another to be confronted with one’s own unique, customized depravity each morning. And it’s quite another to regularly confess your sins to a priest or spiritual father/mother. Such acts render oneself almost incapable of judging others. Such acts, I believe, are absolutely central to the Christian experience.

Freedom from judgment—not from judgment of oneself but from judgment of others—is a remarkable freedom. The refrain “Lord, have mercy” reorients us toward ourselves, toward our own flaws and fallenness. If we can learn truly and genuinely to tend to the plank in our own eye before tending to the speck in our brother’s, we become a more powerful conduit for God’s grace.

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