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A Hymn to the Lesser Good

Archbishop JOHN (Shahovskoy) of San Francisco

Many believe living in faith and fulfilling God’s will is profoundly challenging. Yet, in truth, it is remarkably simple. The essential lies in paying attention to the minutiae, the seemingly insignificant details, and striving to eschew evil in even its most minor manifestations. This approach is the most straightforward and reliable means of entering the spiritual realm and drawing closer to God.

Commonly, people perceive that God demands grand sacrifices from them. They have notions the Gospel mandates total self-denial or the eradication of individuality as prerequisites for faith. Such daunting expectations lead many to fear engaging with God, deter them from exploring His teachings, and result in avoidance of spiritual contemplation. The thought, “If I cannot contribute something monumental to God, I might as well distance myself from spirituality, cease to ponder eternity, and live aimlessly,” becomes a barrier.

At the spiritual journey’s outset, individuals often encounter what might be termed a “hypnosis of great deeds”: the belief that one must either undertake significant actions or do nothing at all. Consequently, many people do precisely nothing for their souls or God. Intriguingly, those most attentive to life’s minor aspects frequently resist maintaining honesty, purity, or faithfulness to God in these small matters. Yet, embracing the proper perspective towards these trivialities is essential for anyone seeking to draw nearer to the Kingdom of God.

Navigating this path represents a significant challenge in religious life. Many harbour the desire for an instant, almost miraculous admission into heaven or believe entrance can be earned through monumental deeds. However, neither sudden transformation nor grandiose acts pave the way to the divine. Divine presence is not attained through spectacular means while ignoring earthly contributions to God’s kingdom, nor can one’s place in heaven be “bought” with singular acts of greatness, regardless of their scale. Instead, cultivating a higher existence, goodwill, a penchant for goodness, a celestial mindset, and a sincere heart necessitates consistent, small acts of virtue.

These minor deeds and daily actions instil and fortify such qualities within an individual. Just as a parched flower does not require an ocean but thrives on just half a glass of water, so does the human spirit rejuvenate with modest nourishment. There’s no need for a famished person to consume excessive amounts of food; a modest portion suffices to revitalise the body.

A Hymn to the Lesser Good

A person must emphasise the profundity within the simplicity of acts of kindness, underscoring the significance of minor yet essential deeds. To demonstrate this point, Jesus assures us that even a modest act such as offering a cup of cold water in a disciple’s name will not go unrewarded (cf. Matthew 10:42). This gesture, seemingly small within the context of a fertile and well-watered Palestine, gains immense value when considering the challenges of travel in that era. Yet, Jesus’ message extends beyond the mere act; He highlights the act's intention, “in the name of a disciple,” urging a deeper reflection on its implications.

Living a life in Christ’s name imbues every action, no matter how minor, with everlasting worth. The love we embody and extend to others, inspired by Christ's ultimate sacrifice, imbues our every interaction with deep significance. Jesus elucidates that acts of goodness, even those performed in the name of His disciple, hold tremendous eternal value. This notion of acting “in the name of a disciple” serves as a foundational principle of Christian fellowship, fostering a bond with the Divine through acts of pure, selfless kindness.

This principle invites all, even those yet to fully grasp the depth of fellowship found in Christ, to engage in genuine, altruistic interactions. Such acts of kindness are the initial steps towards experiencing the profound connection offered through life in Jesus Christ. Christ’s words encourage us to actively seek ways to assist others, assuring us that no act of kindness, no matter how small, is overlooked by God, much like He cares for each small bird (cf. Luke 12:6). This teaching not only champions the impact of small deeds but also calls for a life led in the spirit of Christ's love, promising that such acts forge a lasting legacy in the fabric of eternity.

A Hymn to the Lesser Good

Salvation hinges on the transformative power of even the most minor acts of kindness, akin to grafting a tiny cutting from a fruitful apple tree onto a wild one or adding a small amount of yeast to leaven an entire barrel of dough. This principle underscores the profound impact of minor deeds, emphasising the importance of not dismissing the value of small acts of goodness with the notion that only grand gestures count.

The detrimental effect of minor evils on a person's spirit further illustrates the potency of small actions. Just as a tiny speck can impair our vision, a slight wrongdoing can profoundly disconnect a soul from the essence of life. Removing such a speck, whether it affects the physical eye or the soul's eye, represents a modest yet indispensable act of kindness.

Indeed, humanity's survival depends more on these small acts of goodness than grandiose deeds. It is not the absence of monumental goodness that leads to mankind's downfall, but rather the scarcity of these minor acts of benevolence. The edifice of great good rests upon the foundational bricks of small, everyday kindnesses.

A Hymn to the Lesser Good

The Creator has entrusted us with the task of performing these small, simple acts of goodness, reserving the grand schemes to Himself. Through our seemingly insignificant actions, the Divine works His greater purposes. Our Lord, who created the expanse of the universe from nothing, is adept at manifesting grandeur from the minuscule. Yet, even the smallest step towards goodness encounters resistance, akin to the natural forces that oppose physical movement. This resistance to spiritual progress is encapsulated in Christ's parable, highlighting humanity's reluctance to embrace the new when comfort is found in the old, as reflected in the preference for old wine over new (Luke 5:39). This teaching invites reflection on our openness to the transformative potential of small acts of goodness in the grand tapestry of life.

The belief that the familiar is invariably superior to the unfamiliar is common among those yet to be enlightened. Spiritual growth and a yearning for Christ's truth mark the beginning of a journey away from complacency and stagnation. Breaking free from the chains of habit poses a challenge for humanity, yet it also safeguards against the reckless pursuit of malevolence.

Engaging in minor, seemingly effortless acts of kindness, individuals gradually align themselves with the essence of goodness, embedding their existence in a realm characterised by benevolence. This transition to a life rooted in the soil of goodness is natural and becomes indispensable for the soul, illustrating the adage that significant outcomes emerge from minor beginnings. He who is steadfast in little things will exhibit fidelity in grander matters (cf. Luke 16:10).

A Hymn to the Lesser Good

Cast aside grandiose ethical dilemmas, such as the permissibility of mass violence. Focus instead on the minute: refrain from diminishing your neighbour through casual remarks or dismissive gestures. Avoid provoking unwarranted anger (cf. Matthew 5:22) and eschew deceit in daily interactions. These small acts, though seemingly inconsequential, have the potential to transform.

Prayer, too, may seem daunting. Yet, integrating prayer into the rhythm of your daily routine, like reciting the Lord's Prayer during moments of tranquility, can sanctify even the most mundane activities. At day's end, entrust yourself to the Divine with simplicity.

Moreover, extend a gesture as essential as offering a glass of cold water to those in need, embodying the purest form of empathy. Such acts of kindness are abundant and within everyone's reach, promising endless reserves for those willing to share.

I extol the path of minor deeds, urging all to embrace acts of kindness that weave a tapestry of gentle feelings, benevolent thoughts, and simple acts that enrich without cost. Let us forsake the daunting in favour of the accessible, for we are yet to find joy in grandiosity. The Divine bestows upon us small yet persistent acts of love, as vital as water or air, igniting an eternal flame within the temple of our souls and sustaining the very essence of our being.

Archbishop John (Shahovskoy) of San Francisco and the Western United States

March 06, 2024
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