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Self-assessment in the Christian Life

May 12, 2013

The saints often remarked how people manage with great enthusiasm, creativity, and intelligence to get ahead in worldly affairs, but often fail to make a comparable effort when it comes to the spiritual life. Saint Seraphim of Sarov in his conversation with Nicholas Motovilov used the analogy of acquiring money to help his spiritual child understand how one should strive to acquire the Holy Spirit. With respect to a detailed examination of how one has spent one’s day in terms of actions pleasing or displeasing to God, “Saint Theophan the Recluse even suggests that it be done with ‘the mathematical accuracy of a business ledger’” as I mention in Ancient Christian Wisdom. But how are we to go over our day in a way that can help us to crystalize our spiritual goals, to identify our strengths and our weaknesses, as well as to use this knowledge ultimately to become better Christians, to confess more fully, to pray more earnestly, to receive Holy Communion more worthily, and to love less selfishly?

mandylion_11For the sake of performance assessment in many occupations, industrial psychologists suggest considering productivity, absenteeism, peer-ratings, and supervisor-ratings. Starting with the premise basic to Ancient Christian Wisdom, it occurs to me that some of these same approaches may be usefully applied in the most important job of all, the job of being a Christian.  In terms of productivity, we can look at our prayers. The fathers of the desert used prayer ropes to be sure that they said the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” a certain number of times each day, sort of like a spiritual quota. Although one might dismiss such concerns as not particularly spiritual or deep, most monks will be able to tell you that they experience a palpable difference when they pray less, even when their prayer happens to be dry. We can also consider the quality of our product, which provides a window into the deeper, spiritual dimension. Is our prayer from the heart or are they just words? We can likewise consider productivity in terms of almsgiving (that is particularly quantifiable), in terms of acts of kindness, in terms of forgiveness, in terms of filling each and every commandment in the Gospel of Christ. Looking at our productivity as Christians does not seem to be out of place in a sincere effort to assess where we are in our journey towards Christ.

Psychologists providing employers with assessment guidance also suggest considering absenteeism. In the context of the spiritual life, at a base level, we can ask about our attendance at Church and our presence there from the moment the bell rings. Psychologists consider specific categories of absenteeism such as justified versus unjustified, sickness versus non-sickness, voluntary versus involuntary, explained versus unexplained, and certified illness versus casual illness. Some of these same categories can be applied for absence from Church in terms of why we made the choice and our spiritual commitment underlying that choice. But even more important than absence from Church is being present before God in Church, being present not just in body, but also in mind, in spirit, and in heart. And given that Christianity was never meant to be a Sunday only affair, one can also consider absenteeism from willingly striving to be in God’s presence throughout the day.

A final useful tool is peer-ratings and supervisor-ratings. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mention that “Saint John Chrysostom notices that philautia blindfolds us with blinders that can only be removed by those who are hostile to us. ‘Under the influence of philautia we do not see our own failings, while those who are hostile to us often see them quite accurately.’ Although it may be too threatening to ask someone who is not kindly disposed towards us about our failing, we can still choose to ask a close Christian fellow-struggler who dares to be honest with us for some precious feedback about where we need to strive more earnestly. Finally, in confession, we can also ask for guidance about which weaknesses we should struggle to correct, which strengths we should build on, and what is the ideal model of the Christian we desire through the grace of God to be. There do seem to be spiritual analogues to productivity, absenteeism, peer-ratings, and supervisor-ratings. May we use them to move forward in the spiritual life as they are used to move forward in the secular world.

 

 

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