Square Zero

Vain Pursuits

Posted by Eric (February 20, 2006 at 5:00 pm)

St Isaac of SyriaYesterday I bought a small icon of St. Isaac of Syria. I didn’t know anything about St. Isaac, but I was impressed by the words on the scroll to which he was pointing:

This life has been given to you for repentance. Do not waste it in vain pursuits.

Could there possibly be a sentiment more out of step with our times? It must have been a challenging statement in the seventh century as well, when St. Isaac lived, or he wouldn’t have bothered to say it.

We didn’t invent vain pursuits, but we’re the only culture since the late Roman Empire—which by Isaac’s time had passed away—to so devote our culture to them.

But I didn’t buy this icon in protest of contemporary culture, nor did I decide to write about it here to offer a social commentary. If such were my purpose, I would be missing St. Isaac’s point entirely; that would indeed be a vain pursuit.

Isaac's scrollI bought the icon because I recognized on that scroll a piece of wisdom that I need to have near at hand during the Great Fast*, which begins in one week’s time. The purpose of the Fast is repentence; Isaac reminds me that the purpose of life itself is repentance. So by entering more deeply into the Fast, one is entering more deeply into the meaning of life itself.

The Eastern Fathers are always saying things like this—things that make me feel like a slacker. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure exactly what counts as “vain pursuits.” I remember when I first came back to the Church nine years ago I used to be concerned that activities like watching a Bull’s game (the Bulls were champions back then) were a squandering of precious time—time I ought to spend working for the Kingdom.

Of course, our Father wants us to enjoy the gifts of this life—to appreciate the majesty and marvel of of Michael Jordan’s play, for example. Then again, it becomes all too easy to justify anything you feel like doing as an appropriate response to God’s great gifts—almost as if you’re doing Him a favor by watching a game on TV, or, say, mountainbiking or blogging.

I’m not going to try to answer the question here; perhaps I don’t want to adopt too rigorist an attitude, or perhaps I’m afraid I would discover that it is indeed a vain pursuit to drive an hour each way in order to ride around the woods on an expensive bicycle, risking injury; or to spend hours tinkering with the layout and design of one’s weblog.

St. Isaac of Syria

I’ve learned a little about St. Isaac since buying this icon (which is now propped up against my monitor). He was for a short time the bishop of Ninevah, and New Advent tells us he was a Nestorian whose writings were later viewed with suspicion by the Nestorians for being too Catholic. Orthodox Wiki doesn’t mention the Nestorian connection. In any case, he was a holy monk who had a tremendous impact on Syrian monasticism and is venerated as a saint by the Orthodox and thus, it seems, by we Byzantine Catholics. His feast day is Jan. 28.

As to the issue of vain pursuits, St. Isaac offers another piece of wisdom that may help:

A small but persistent discipline is a great force; for a soft drop tailing persistently, hollows out hard rock.

That’s a consoling phrase— “a small but persistant discipline.” I can only guess—with fear—what St. Isaac, who went blind through long study and vigorous asceticism, means by “a small discipline.”

But taken at face value, they are consoling words for one who is disinclined to adopt any discipline at all let alone with persistance, “for a soft drop tailing persistently, hollows out hard rock.”

O Isaac, since thou hast great boldness with the Lord, intercede with Him for all of us who sing thy praise and who cry to thee!
—Kontakion of St. Isaac of Syria

* The Great Fast, also called Great Lent, or simply Lent as in the West, begins a sundown on the Sunday seven weeks before Pascha, or Easter, two full days before Lent begins in the Latin Rite on Ash Wednesday. [Back to Text]

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3 Responses to “Vain Pursuits”

  1. Mindi Wilhelm says:

    I enjoyed your thought provoking entry. It was all new information to me. Of course, I found square zero during my vain pursuit of checking out blogs etc.

    Sweet reproof!

    Comment posted February 27th, 2006 at 9:42 pm
  2. Eric says:

    Thanks for the kind remarks. Now that you’ve found Square Zero, I hope you’ll visit again; though perhaps by now you’ve moved on to Square One . . .

    Comment posted February 28th, 2006 at 4:24 pm
  3. James Fitzgerald says:

    Hey – just seen this blog. Love the icon! am actually dealing with a bit of holy envy that you seem to have several ‘proper’ icons and I have just mere prints! – Oh for just one….
    One comment about your post Eric – you talk about driving 1 hour away to go cylcing in the woods and stuff. My mind is boggling….how on earth do you find the time??? 7 kids? and homeschooleded? huh?? so what is your job that gives you so much free time – and time on your own too? sorry for the questions – just feels like a different world to me. with my three, I barely have a moment to blow my nose undisturbed.

    Comment posted March 12th, 2006 at 4:04 pm
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