Busyness and Askesis: An Advent Reflection
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The Advent season in the United States is typically ransacked by shopping, parties, visits with family, and the like. Perhaps worst of all, it can seem impossible to avoid the bombardment of holiday and Christmas-themed advertisement. People work overtime in order to earn a little extra to buy gifts for friends and family (and themselves). The ethos of the season can seem to be emite et labora, buy and work. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to affirm the understandably natural, knee-jerk condemnation of busyness as such.
It is true that this time of year is a challenge for those of us who seek to live the ecclesiastical calendar, especially the Orthodox like myself, for whom the Advent fast begins before our national celebration of Thanksgiving. Thus, for most of us the fast is immediately interrupted with a national, non-religious feast. Then there is party after party before Christmas, and usually nothing after Nativity (i.e. during the actual twelve days of Christmas) other than New Year’s Eve, another typically secular celebration.
For example, Protopresbyter Bratso Krsic recently commented on this Orthodox experience of the season, writing,
I am not sure … what this “busyness” is really all about when according to the Church calendar we are called to fast (pray more frequently, intensify our almsgiving, minimize our worldly activities in order to elevate our minds to the level of the Church, practice our obedience to the Church by following a [sic] dietary restrictions, i.e. abstaining from meats, dairy, etc., participate in the services and the sacraments, etc.). However, it seems that we somehow forget about the Church calendar and follow the worldly calendar of holiday “busyness” and frenzied way of life. This could not be more contrary to the teachings of our Holy Church.
While I would not disagree that the seasonal ethos can be contrary to that of the Church, I also think it is worthwhile to add an additional level of nuance.
That is, despite being an avid advocate for the great spiritual potential of simplicity and solitude, I would argue that busyness is as busyness does, i.e. busyness can be either good or bad depending on its use.
In particular, busyness itself can be a form of askesis, an ascetic labor. In the recent Russian bestseller Everyday Saints and Other Stories, Archimandrite Tikhon tells the story of one “difficult Father Nathaniel” of the Pskov Caves Monastery:
The finances of the monastery were completely under the control and management of Father Nathaniel. And there were plenty of funds that needed to be spent: every single day up to 400 pilgrims and 100 monks sat down at our tables to be fed – and fed well. An incalculable quantity of repairs and construction and restoration to the monastery always needed to be conducted. On top of this, our brotherhood had constant daily needs. Moreover, we needed to help the poor, to receive our guests, and to give gifts to officials and bureaucrats… There were innumerable further expenses.
How Father Nathaniel, all by himself, without assistants, without computers or accountants or calculators, was able to deal impeccably with these numerous financial problems was something that no one could understand. Furthermore, he alone was responsible for all the many businesses conducted by the monastery, and all their paperwork. On top of that, he was responsible for the creation of the schedules and programs for the long daily services, for setting forth the duties of the monastery secretary, for answering the many letters of persons who were in correspondence with the monastery, often for all kinds of different reasons. As if this were not enough, he shared, together with the abbot of the monastery, all the generally unpleasant work involved in dealing with the official organs of the Soviet government. All of these tasks and duties, the mere listing of which would make a normal person quail and grow faint, Father Nathaniel faithfully executed with such inspiration and such scrupulous attention to detail that some of us sometimes doubted whether there was anything left of this man other than the consummate ecclesiastical bureaucrat.
Archimandrite Tikhon further adds, “in addition to all of these duties, our Father Treasurer was also responsible for the general supervision of us, the novices.”
He continues to detail how “difficult Father Nathaniel” was an austere ascetic, eating very little and drinking only cold water, no tea (even in the Russian winter!). Refusing to allow himself to sleep lying down in his cell, the novices once witnessed him lie down in the snow and sleep for about an hour. Lying down in a warm bed was a luxury he would not allow himself. He would sit in his cell and sleep in a chair or, if he must, make for himself a bed of snow.
Now, I’m not so sure how many of us are called to the level of asceticism that entails sleeping in the snow, but many of us, especially during Advent, find ourselves incurably busy. Certainly, a more deliberate and faithful adherence to the Church calendar and fasting requirements goes a long way to mitigating the negatives of busyness. However, as the example of Father Nathaniel shows, sometimes busyness itself can be askesis.
And, in fact, some of the busyness of this holiday season fits the liturgical, holy day season as well. Giving gifts is a form of generosity, even almsgiving in certain cases. Working extra to afford to buy more just as easily may be a symptom of altruism as consumerism. The image of the magi bringing gifts to the Christ Child, who “though He was rich, yet for [our] sakes … became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9), ought to serve as the proper inspiration for our own giving and almsgiving.
Furthermore, no one would deny the potential ascetic value of labor itself, so long as it is conducted prayerfully and in a spirit of thankfulness. Did St. Joseph have to work overtime to afford the trip to Bethlehem? Would such busyness necessarily be ruin to his soul?
Time with family, friends, and coworkers, albeit at times in a spirit somewhat out-of-step with the season’s ideal solemnity, practiced with a heart of love, hospitality, and service can reflect the Advent journey as well. We may recall how the Mother of God visited St. Elizabeth, her own family, or how the journey to Bethlehem was a journey toward family due to the census of Caesar Augustus. It was even a journey toward all the busyness that comes with childbearing and rearing, the busyness of family creation.
Busyness can be the adversary of Advent, but it need not be. Instead, the Advent season can be a time for us to examine and practice how our busyness itself can be transfigured by the life of the Church, how our worldly work also may be liturgical labor, how when transfigured by the kingdom of God our busyness can also serve the common good.
Then, perhaps, what Archimandrite Tikhon says of difficult Father Nathaniel may describe us (however imperfectly) as well:
I had the happiness of visiting Father Nathaniel not long before his demise, and was amazed by the ceaseless goodness and love now pouring out of that elder. Rather than hoarding the very last ounces of his strength, this incredibly miserly man (in all other aspects of his life) and dry ecclesiastical pedant gave the very last ounce of himself to whatever person who, even for a few minutes, had been sent to him by the Lord God. Actually, come to think of it, this is how he had lived his entire life. Only we hadn’t understood it at the time.