“Once you recognize that the Lord’s judgments “are in all the earth” (1 Chr. 16:14), then everything that happens to you will teach you knowledge of God.” – St. Mark the Ascetic, “No Righteousness by Works,” sentence 66
We are potty training our almost three year old son, Declan, and it’s been all-consuming. My husband and I prepared in advance, buying a special Elmo potty and big boy underwear, making a sticker chart, plotting the best day to start. For days, all I’ve done is potty train: reminding him every five minutes to tell me when he has to go to the potty, rushing him there myself when he forgets and begins to pee on the floor or furniture, celebrating with him when he successfully pees or poops in the potty, telling him again and again how much I love him and how proud I am of him for being a big boy and learning something new. Right now, it’s our whole world.
And God is indeed teaching me knowledge of Himself through this experience, revealing it as a metaphor for those times in our spiritual lives when we encounter an area of unfreedom, when God invites us to let go of something or take something on in order to grow in our knowledge of and love for him. St. Mark and the other writers of the Philokalia speak often of the passions, and I think potty training is like taking on one of the deeply entrenched passions in our lives.
In the same way that I waited until my son was ready and it was the best time, God waits until we are ready before he reveals what He desires us to let go of, anything from seeking the esteem of others or giving up that last half hour of TV and spending it in prayer instead. Whatever the invitation is to, it will be something that has come between us and God in some way, something that is clouding our vision and blocking our growth into the person God is creating us to be. For my son, right now, that’s learning to use a potty. Mastering that skill is an important step to becoming who he is meant to be.
Suddenly, that area of unfreedom becomes difficult and messy. We notice it in detail for the first time. Ugh, we may think, I feel so gross now that I’ve had that third beer. I’ve never noticed feeling like that before. Declan was never bothered by his wet diapers, but he hates the feeling of wet underwear. If he were to continue in his old behaviors, he would be wet, uncomfortable, maybe embarrassed. Something he was never even aware of is suddenly a big deal. It is like confronting a passion, when suddenly we see all the harmful ways it is affecting us, the ways it is blocking our growth in the Lord. We become hyper-aware of this area, and it takes our focus, our mental and spiritual energy, to not give in to temptation and to stand by the change we desire to make, to let go of what we need to release in order to draw nearer to God.
St. Mark writes in “No Righteousness by Works” of the choices we make, of the ways we can choose to pursue holiness and the challenge that this is, but he is clear that this only happens by grace. Any spiritual progress we make we are invited to by the Lord, and it is only through the Lord that we have the strength to carry on. Declan didn’t decide to potty train on his own. Nor is he teaching himself how to use the potty. Although at the end of this journey we will (some day) say, “Declan, you’re potty trained! You can do it all by yourself, you’re such a big boy!” it has happened because of the invitation we gave him and the loving framework that we created for him to learn within. And if we have been loving and gentle with our son as he grows in this way, how much more so will God be with us? We can trust him to provide whatever we need for the challenge ahead (be it stickers, an Elmo potty or big boy undies!).
But loving and gentle is not the same thing as easy and comfortable. The other day Declan pooped in his bed and then fell asleep. When I went in to get him up from his nap, both he and his bed were covered in filth. As I was cleaning him in the bathroom, scrubbing all the parts of his precious body, he became agitated and said, “That’s enough, Mommy! I’m good now, that is enough!”
“No,” I gently but firmly said, “there’s still more, but it will be ok.”
That’s ENOUGH, we sometimes say to God, when it becomes too difficult, too painful to change, when we don’t know if we even want to pursue whatever hard thing He has called us to. And gently but firmly God so often says, “No, it’s not, I want more of you, but it will be ok.” And it will be. Some day, using the potty will be second nature for Declan. We won’t talk about it all the time, work towards it all the time. We will be able to celebrate his accomplishment. There is celebration as we conquer a passion as well, as it moves to the background, creating space for the Holy Spirit to fill. Mark writes, “what a house is to the air, the spiritual intellect is to divine grace. The more you get rid of materiality, the more the air and grace will come in of their own accord.” (116). Declan and I will experience that freedom as he has matured, and there will be a time when what we’ve been called to take on will become a part of us, when we will be more of who God desires us to be, and we will rest and celebrate, knowing that some day there will be a new invitation. For Declan, maybe it will be eating at least three servings of vegetables a day. For me, maybe it will be greater prayer, fasting, serving. We will both have to wait and listen.