On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Aug 26, 2022

This past week, I was with an Associate at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. He shared with me a story that stopped me in my tracks. He came across the story in this podcast, which is a lecture by Heiromonk Irenei Steenberg, an Eastern Orthodox mystic. The story comes from the Q&A after the lecture, which is perhaps even more rich than the lecture itself.

During the Q&A, someone from the audience asked: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start to grow in the spiritual life?

I wonder if you’ve ever asked that question before? Maybe you’ve been a Christian for a while, but feel like your spiritual life has stagnated, and you’re not really sure what to do next. Maybe you’ve asked: Isn’t there more than this? Or maybe you’re new to Christianity, and want to know how the path ahead looks. You’re asking: What does it look like to really be a spiritual person? Or maybe you’re starting to be aware of a destructive pattern or habit in your life, and you want to rid yourself of it, but this pattern or habit feels too deeply engrained to break.

The father gives three pieces of advice, in which he pulls no punches, and each piece of which dropped me further to my knees.

(1) First, he said: Close your mouth.

Oof. If you’ve ever sat in a class with me (or for that matter, read any of the other cover letters I’ve written!) you know—I like to talk. As a teacher by trade, and as someone who has a bit of education and training, I often think I have something important to say. And I confess—I don’t think I’m alone in this. We live, after all, in a city of experts and high performers, surrounded by 24/7 information sources, which has allowed many of us to feel like we’ve developed pseudo-expertise in just about every issue under the sun. (Some of us may make this our goal).

But the father’s point was simple: the wise listen more than they talk. Listen to others. Listen, most of all, to God.

And we can’t learn to listen until we first learn to stop. talking. (I’ll let you know when I’ve accomplished this).

(2) Second, he said: Stop judging other people.

I was surprised by how much this one struck me. I tend to think of myself as a pretty non-judgmental person. But when I heard it as a follow up to the first point, it hit me differently. So much of the “talking” we hear (and do ourselves) is really “analyzing”—which may be a little short of judgement, but only just. “Figuring people out” can often be a way of trying to gain power over them, and once we think we’ve figured them out, we’re often not open to any better they might show us. It also struck me as important in the midst of the political climate we live in. Many in our world have reduced all people into two “types”—or, at minimum, will see them through the lens of their position on a particular issue. Once we have “figured out” where they stand on that issue, we think, we know who they really are.

But we don’t. And of course we don’t. We barely know ourselves. How can we really know what’s in their hearts?

So the lesson here, I think, is: Be open. Remain curious. And hold a sense of generosity in your heart toward others. They will likely surprise you. In fact, they will likely have something to teach you. And allowing yourself to remain open to what they will teach you is one of the best ways to keep growing.

(3) Finally, he said: Root out the evil in your heart through prayer.

Wow. This one really floored me.

I’ll tell you something you already know––I’ve got a lot of flaws. And, I hate to break it to you––you do too.

Given the sort of things that sit atop of the New York Times bestseller list of “self help” books, it seems we’re generally prone to one of two strategies as we try to deal with those flaws. Either, we think we can muscle them out of ourselves through effort, hard work, and discipline. Or, we think we can heal from the things that cause those flaws by being released from the need to do effortful hard work, and instead, learn to accept and love ourselves.

This father’s advice is different from both these strategies. Simply put, he’s saying: You want your heart to be filled with better things? Fill it with God. Be with God. Spend time with God. Saturate your life with God. Immerse yourself in the life of God. And as you do, you will find that the strength of God’s goodness will overwhelm and consume all the vices that live within you.

I can say two things from my experience. First, this is absolutely true. It’s so often when I stop trying to change my life by my own determination and effort––and instead bring my life in tune with God’s life in prayer––that I do less bad––and sometimes even, do more good. Second, even though I’ve experienced this is in deep and powerful ways, it’s so easy to lose sight of this, and rely instead on my own strength and ideas. So yes, it does in fact take focus, intentionality, and discipline.

Close your mouth. Stop judging other people. And root out the evil in your heart through prayer.

As I think about this mystic’s words, I have to wonder: How might our world be transformed if Christians really did these things…