St. Paisios on Busyness

Earlier this year, for the first week of Great Lent, I had the opportunity to go to the Saint Herman of Alaska Eastern Orthodox monastery in Platina, California. It was a beautiful setting nestled in the mountain wilderness southwest of Redding. Here are some pictures from the week I spent there.

While at the monastery, I had the opportunity to think and pray about my addiction to busyness and productivity, and why I find it so hard to practice the type of spiritual leisure I discussed here and here and here. As if in answer to my prayer, I found the following passage from a book in the monastery library. Eastern Orthodox readers will be familiar with St. Paisios of Mount Athos, perhaps the most well-loved of all the 20th century saints. This passage is from one of his books, titled From With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels, Vol. 1.

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People today do not live simply and for this reason they suffer from too many distractions. They open too many fronts of activity and lose themselves in endless solicitude. As for me, I just try to take care of one or two things, and then I start thinking about something else. I never try to do too many things at the same time. Let’s say that I am thinking or doing this particular thing. Well, first I finish it, and then I start thinking about doing something else. For if I do not finish what I have started, I cannot find peace. When someone has too many things to do at once, he loses his mind. Just thinking about all of them at once can cause someone to become schizophrenic….

If you lose yourself in earthly pursuits, you will also lose your way to Heaven. You do one thing, and then you want to do yet another and another. And if you get stuck in this gear, you’ve lost your way! Lose yourself in the world and you will lose Heaven. As our heavenly pursuits are endless, so too are the affairs of life here on earth. You have a choice: either you get lost on earth or you get “lost” in Heaven. Can you imagine what it means to lose yourself in heavenly pursuits? Oh, how I would be absorbed by the Jesus Prayer! Has that ever happened to you?
When we work too hard and in a hurry, the result is fatigue and distraction, and neither will help us in the spiritual life. For they displace our vigilance and agitate our soul. Under such conditions, one is not only incapable of praying, but he cannot even think. He cannot act with prudence and therefore his actions are not right.
So be careful not to waste your time aimlessly, leaving no time for your spiritual life, because you will reach a point of being so agitated inside that you will no longer be able to do your spiritual chores. Instead, you will try to get involved with some work, or start a conversation, or even look to create a problem to keep you busy….
When we reduce the number of our chores, there will come, naturally, bodily rest and a thirst for inner spiritual work, which comforts and never tires us. Then the soul will breathe an abundance of spiritual oxygen. Fatigue from spiritual work does not make us tired; instead, it rests and refreshes us, because it lifts us and brings us closer to our Loving Father, where our soul rejoices.
When physical fatigue lacks a spiritual sense, or rather, when it is not the result of a spiritual need and therefore justified, it rouses anger in man and makes him rough. Even the most tamed and good tempered horse, when over-worked, will start kicking and developing a bad temper, despite the fact that normally they are supposed to become more gentle with age….
What you seem to be lacking is patience. And the reason you cannot be patient is that you undertake too many things. You spread yourself too thin and you tire easily. This makes you nervous because you have philotimo, and when you cannot do something well, you get anxious…. There are some things that can always be left out, so that spiritual matters may take precedence….There are some people who have limited abilities and can do only one or two things well. When they get involved in too many activities, they end up doing nothing right and drag others along too. As much as possible, one should do one or two things only, complete them correctly, and then, with a clear mind and a rested body, get started on something else. For a scattered mind will not be able to do quality spiritual work. How will he be able to remember Christ?
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