Father, are the teachings of the Saints to be strictly followed?
Luke, you have known me for many years. What have I taught in the past?
Father, I have always been very grateful for your firm teaching. Without wavering, you have always taught us to follow the teachings of Scripture. And whatever the Saints have consistently taught, this is what you have taught us. You also set a good example with your own life, following the teachings of the Fathers.
Then why ask about whether to follow the teachings of Scripture and the Saints?
Father, please forgive me. I trust you. I’m just trying to understand. My friend Stuart recently converted to Orthodoxy, and he was telling me about some spiritual direction that you gave him. He said you talked to him about fasting, about prayer, about marital intimacy, and several other things. And while you have always publicly taught that we should follow Scripture and the Fathers, it seemed like the spiritual direction he received was perhaps not “full strength”. It just seemed like maybe you were a lot more lenient on him than you have been on me in these areas.
Did you tell him that?
No, I didn’t say anything to Stuart. I didn’t want to sow any seeds of doubt or disrespect. But since that conversation, I have to admit I’ve been scratching my head, wondering what you’re up to.
Have you ever been to the doctor, Luke?
Why did you go to him?
Because I was sick, and I wanted to get better.
Did he give you a prescription?
Does he give exactly the same prescription to every patient?
Of course not. Not everyone is sick with the same thing. And some people are allergic to certain medications.
Well, the Church is a hospital, and spiritual direction works the same way. Everyone is infected with sin, but it infects different people in different ways. Some people have great struggles with gluttony. Some people have difficulty opening up and telling the truth. There are some who have to battle sloth and laziness. Others have to overcome sin in their marriages. Each condition presents its own challenges, and requires different forms of spiritual medication.
That makes sense, Father, and I can see where that would apply to a point. Fasting might help a person with gluttony, but might not directly contribute to a cure for laziness. And instruction on proper intimacy could really help a marriage, but might not help a person control food intake.
But that only answers my question just so far, Father. It still seems to me that there ought to be some real underlying consistency in the spiritual direction that is offered by the Church.
What do you mean by consistency?
Well, I just mean that similar symptoms ought to call for similar medications. If two people have problems with gluttony, it seems like they ought to receive the same fasting rules. If two different couples are having marriage problems, it seems like they should receive the same advice for how to approach marital intimacy. I totally understand that the Church needs to offer many different forms of spiritual medication. But it confuses me when two people with identical problems are given two totally different prayer rules, or different fasting rules, or different instructions for what intimacy is acceptable within a marriage. It is as if two people went to the doctor because of migraine headaches, and yet the doctor still prescribed two totally different medications to them. It just looks inconsistent.
Well, it’s funny that you use that analogy, because my wife and I recently had that very experience.
You both had migraines?
And the doctor gave you two totally different prescriptions?
Why would he do that? I mean, whatever medication is the best for getting rid of a migraine, why didn’t he just prescribe that to both of you?
Well, as you yourself said earlier, people have different allergies. The doctor gave my wife the most powerful medication currently on the market. It works really well for her. But I have a thyroid condition that makes it dangerous for me to take my wife’s medication. So the doctor prescribed something different for me. It takes longer for it to get rid of my migraine. But over time, it still works.
Luke, let me ask you a question. Do you believe my doctor is guilty of “going soft” on me, and “watering down” my medication, so to speak? Do you think it would be better for him to give me my wife’s full-strength medication, so that I could get rid of my migraine headaches more quickly?
Because, Father, it would be medically dangerous for you. Like you said, your thyroid wouldn’t be able to handle your wife’s medication. There is more to you than just a migraine headache. A good doctor has to take the whole person into account.
Exactly. And spiritual direction is no different. When I preach, I preach the full-strength medicine. Without wavering, I teach exactly what Holy Scripture says. And when I see that the Saints have consistently taught something, I make no apology for teaching exactly the same thing. But in one-on-one counseling sessions, I have to take the whole person into account. If I sense that a person is ready and willing to receive the Church’s teaching full-strength, then I give the prescription at full-strength. But if I can tell a person isn’t ready to handle that yet, I do what I can. I prescribe whatever medication I believe they will be able to swallow.
Well, that kind of makes sense. But it still makes me a little uncomfortable. If the Saints have consistently taught us that the goal is to drink a full tablespoon of medicine, I can’t see the point of giving them half a teaspoon of it. I mean, even if it is super difficult for a new convert to bear it, wouldn’t it be better just to prescribe the full tablespoon of medicine right off the bat? Give them the Church’s teachings at full strength, including all the fasting rules, prayer rules, church attendance rules, rules for wise stewardship of finances, rules for marital intimacy, etc. If they are truly dedicated to Christ, then they will stick with it, no matter how hard it is.
Any good doctor knows it doesn’t matter how much medicine you swallow. It only matters how much of it you actually absorb into your body. Luke, if the doctor forces a person to swallow a full tablespoon of medicine, and the patient’s body is so shocked that he vomits it all up, how much benefit will that person receive from the medication?
Right. And what is better, to absorb half a teaspoon of medicine, and to get a little bit better, or to absorb nothing because all the medicine has been vomited out onto the ground?
Well, in that case, half a teaspoon is better. At least they are getting a little something to help them.
Exactly. When I prescribe “half a teaspoon” of Orthodoxy to someone, it’s not because I’m trying to water down the Faith. I’m not trying to give Stuart less medication than I give to you. Rather, I am giving Stuart as much medication as I believe he can handle. Once I see his condition improve, then I will increase his prescription.