The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. [Likewise] the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as whole. -Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Following the paths of St Paisius Velichovsky and St Tikhon of Zadonsk, St Theophan (1815—1894) was one the great spiritual teachers of the Russian Church. His book, The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, consists of 80 letters written to a privileged young lady who, in the midst of the dance floor at an elegant ball, had experienced a powerful vision of the immortality of the soul and the vanity of worldly life. Taken together, his letters to her form a comprehensive “manual” of the spiritual life. The selections here, taken from Chapters 16 and 17, address the same temptation that many face today, of failing to discern the divine call in our everyday interaction with actual persons for the sake of some glorious “cause” that allows us instead to feel we are saving mankind in the abstract.
By St. Theophan the Recluse
What has happened to you? What kinds of questions are these? “I do not know what to do with my life. Should I be doing something in particular? Should I define some particular purpose for myself?” I read this and I was dumbfounded; where could such odd thoughts have come from? Indeed, you already settled all of this when you expressed the desire to stand at the level of human dignity.
I would guess that among your friends are progressive thinkers, or that you have joined a society having such people in it, and they have scattered your good sense. Such people usually rave in this manner. Phrases such as “the good of the people” and “the good of mankind” are always on their tongues.
You ask, “Shouldn’t I be doing something?” Of course that is necessary. Do whatever falls to your hands, in your circle and in your situation—and believe that this is and will be your true work; nothing more from you is required. It is a great error to think that you must undertake important and great labors, whether for heaven, or, as the progressives think, in order to make one’s contribution to humanity. That is not necessary at all. It is necessary only to do everything in accordance with the Lord’s commandments. Just exactly what is to be done? Nothing in particular, just that which presents itself to each one according to the circumstances of his life, and which is demanded by the individual events with which each of us meets. That is all. God arranges the lot of each person, and the entire course of life of each one is also His all-good industry, as is each moment and each meeting.
Let us take an example: A poor man comes to us; God has brought him. What are you supposed to do? Help him. God, Who has brought this poor man to you, with the desire, of course, that you act toward this poor man in a manner pleasing to Him, looks at you, to see how you will in fact act. He will be pleased if you help. Will you help?
If you generalize this instance, you will come to the conclusion that in all instances, and during each meeting it is necessary to do what God wants us to do. As to what He wants, we certainly know that from the commandments He has given us. Is someone seeking help? Help him. Has someone offended you? Forgive him. Have you offended somebody? Rush to ask forgiveness and make peace. Did somebody praise you? Don’t be proud. Did somebody scold you? Don’t be angry. Is it time to pray? Pray. Is it time to work? Work. If, after all of this has been explained, you set about to act in this way in every instance, so that your works will be pleasing to God, having carried them out according to the commandments without deviation, then all the problems of your life will be solved completely and satisfactorily.
The purpose is the blessed life beyond the grave; the means are works according to the commandments, the execution of which is required by each instance of life. It seems to me that all of this is clear and simple; there is no reason to torture yourself with difficult problems. You need to put out of your mind any plans about “multi-beneficial, all-embracing, common-to-all mankind” activity such as the progressives rant about. Then your life will be regarded as enclosed within peaceful boundaries, and leading toward the final goal without hindrance. Remember, the Lord does not forget even a glass of cold water given to someone tormented by thirst.
There is no need to go abroad for this, as the progressives do. Instead, just look around yourself each day and each hour; on whatever you see the seal of the commandment, carry it out immediately, in the belief that God Himself this very hour requires this work of you, and nothing else. Even when you are told to darn your youngest brother’s sock, and you do it for the sake of the Lord’s commandment to listen and help, this will be numbered among the God-pleasing works. Thus each step, each word, even each movement and glance, everything may direct one to walk in God’s will and, consequently, to move each moment toward the ultimate goal.
The progressives have in mind all mankind or at least all of its people lumped together. The fact is, however, that “mankind” or “the people” does not exist as a person for whom you could do something right now. It consists of individual persons. By doing something for one person, we are doing it within the general mass of humanity.
If each one of us did what was possible to do for whoever was standing right in front of our eyes, instead of goggling at the community of mankind, then all people, in aggregate, would at each moment be doing that which is needed by those in need, and by satisfying their needs, would establish the welfare of all mankind, which is made up of haves and have-nots, the weak and the strong. But those who keep thoughts of the welfare of all mankind inattentively let slip by that which is in front of their eyes. Because they do not have the opportunity to perform a general work, and let slip by the opportunity to perform a particular work, they accomplish nothing towards the main purpose of life.
All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.
St Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, trans. Alexandra Dockham, (Platina, CA: 1996), St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, pp. 87—94.