St. Sergius: living close to God

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever. – 1 John 2:15-17

Once I spent a winter in a remote log cabin, a primitive structure without electricity or water. The single-room interior boasted a single bed, a table, shelves and hooks for storage and a wood burning stove of the most rudimentary design. I read by the light of an oil lantern and got up in the middle of the night to stuff the stove, since when it was full it only burned for five hours at a stretch. Though some weeks were quite cold – temperatures never rising above zero degrees Fahrenheit – it was a toasty little dwelling so long as I paid diligent attention to my supply of wood.

On the days when I had to work I would ski two miles out to where I had parked my car in a turn off along the highway and then drive into town. At the end of the day I would haul my laundry and my groceries back to the cabin in a little toboggan I had for the purpose. The dry goods got stored in plastic bins on my shelves and the perishables in an ice chest near the door. Leaving them in any container outside would have invited raccoons, skunks and bears to take a swipe at them.

One of the biggest lessons I learned that winter is how much time and energy it takes to live so simply. Before the dirt road that led within a half mile of my front door had been snowed in, I had gotten several cords of wood delivered there. But even so, hauling it to the cabin a few logs at a time on the little toboggan and then chopping it into usable chunks took hours and hours. Hauling water from a nearby creek and boiling it, cooking on the wood burning stove and then doing the dishes afterwards took hours more. I had expected to be able to spend lots of time in quiet contemplation, writing and drawing. While I did enjoy that luxury, I also did a whole lot of hard physical labor.

80px-Vasnetsov_sergij_radonezh.jpgReading about Sergius, the 14th Century hermit who became a Russian national hero, I found myself longing for the solitude and hard, simple work of a deep forest cabin. Sergius withdrew from the world to just such a place and lived there alone for several years before his reputation as a spiritual teacher led to his being joined by a group of followers. Such a life, while not easy, can strip away all the illusions we have about who is in control in this world. Unlike me during my winter in the woods, Sergius didn’t have the job that got him groceries, the car to take him places, nor the logs that had been delivered in a huge already-cut-up pile. He was right up against life and death issues like finding enough to eat, keeping warm and not getting injured by wild animals. He relied on God for everything. And as he was listening to God, he chopped a whole lot of wood and carried a whole lot of water.

This brings to mind the old Buddhist proverb. “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” The passage from the First Letter of John for Sergius’ feast day, quoted above, is about just that. Renouncing one’s love for the world does not mean that you turn away from the exquisite beauty of snowfall in a winter wood at sunset. It does not mean that you quit listening, with a quick, numb-lipped smile, to the sharp crack of the axe as it breaks the ice so you can get water for your morning coffee. It does not mean that when the bear comes into your clearing you refrain from sharing your bread with him. It means giving up the illusion that anything more highfalutin is important. God is in the moments, in the details, in the brief instances when you are paying attention to what is right in front of you.

Perhaps it doesn’t take retreating to a hermitage in the woods for one to begin to let go of love for the world in favor of love for God, but it takes something dramatic. Something has to interrupt the usual ways in which the synapses fire, in which thoughts travel through us, sparking knee-jerk reactions.

What we have grown up believing about success and security is a lie. This world is God’s show entirely. What lasts, what does not pass away, is the love of the Holy One – God’s dream, God’s beautiful, joyous desire for us, and that which God has made and continues to make in the breath-taking and unfathomable universe around us.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.

“Vasnetsov sergij radonezh”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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