4 Things Leslie Knope Taught Me About Church Work

There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.
-Leslie Knope

The first episode of Parks & Recreation aired on April 9, 2009. The internet was flooded with thoughtful posts and reminiscences on the 10th anniversary as people shared funny and sweet stories about why the show remains so much fun to watch.

(I’m currently watching it for the third time, and I’m not the only one on our Team who’s rewatched the show. Plus we explored the show on an episode of our podcast, Pop Culture Coffee Hour, a couple years ago.)

As I enjoy Parks & Rec again, I find myself really connecting with the character of Leslie Knope. Leslie is a hard working, energetic, and dedicated public servant. She begins the series as Deputy Director of Pawnee’s Parks & Recreation Department, and during the series finale, we learn that she eventually goes on to serve as governor of Indiana (and maybe even president of the United States).

Leslie is a flawed yet well-meaning person who works in a difficult (often dysfunctional) system that doesn’t always appreciate her. She’s a person who often feels like she’s swimming upstream against the current; yet despite the mistakes she makes along the way, she keeps working to help the people about whom she cares so deeply. 

In short, she reminds me of a lot of the dedicated ministry workers (both clergy and laity, both paid and volunteer) that I’ve met across the Church.

Working in ministry can be tough. And it can help to draw strength from characters that somehow thrive despite setbacks and complications.

So here are four things I’ve learned from Leslie Knope--not just about how to survive as we serve the Church, but about how to thrive as we do so.

1. Honesty is the Best Policy

No one would ever doubt Leslie’s love of Pawnee. Yet she doesn’t view her hometown through rose-colored glasses. She loves Pawnee while being very honest about the town’s many problems.

Leslie doesn’t close her eyes to Pawnee’s serious challenges. She knows that the government can be, not just inept, but downright corrupt. She knows that the people of Pawnee don’t always make the best choices. And when it comes to the town’s vermin problem, she’s very blunt:

The raccoon problem is under control. They have their part of the town and we have ours.

How great can a town be if it’s overrun by raccoons?

But Leslie’s honesty isn’t designed to tear down; it’s meant to build up. She’s honest about Pawnee’s flaws because she wants to work hard to make things better. It might be easier to pretend her town is perfect, but that won’t make Pawnee the place Leslie knows it can be.

And this honesty isn’t directed outwards: both the show and Leslie are honest about her own shortcomings. 

Leslie is clearly one of the good guys in Parks & Rec. Yet she’s also deeply flawed. Her strong vision for the future of Pawnee can sometimes make her steamroll her friends. Leslie is so confident in her convictions that she can sometimes forget to listen to others.

Yet Leslie matures as a person thanks to the people around her and her relationships with them. When Lesie says goodbye to her best friend, Ann Perkins, in season 6, Leslie thanks her for helping her grow as a person. While it may not always be her first instinct, Leslie often (eventually) listens to the constructive feedback of those she loves.

And her friends stick by Leslie even despite that initial friction. Because the truth is that Leslie, despite (including!) her flaws, is pretty great. Take this exchange between Ann and Leslie’s husband, Ben Wyatt:

Ann: Listen, I know she can be strong-willed and difficult, ok. She once made me eat an entire cheesecake at a potluck so she didn’t look bad. But I really think she is ready to listen.
Ben: You ate an entire cheesecake? Why didn’t you just throw it away?
Ann: Because with everything she’s done for me I would eat ten cheesecakes for her. Also because it was delicious and amazing, like everything she does.

Leslie is honest about the ways Pawnee can be better. And, thanks to her friends, she can be honest about the ways she needs to improve as a person.

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

Our communities and dioceses face real challenges. And we as Church workers bring plenty of sins and shortcomings to the table. But repentance is impossible without honesty, and repentance should be our constant goal (both individually and collectively). Whether personally or organizationally, there’s a lot of room for improvement. 

And we won’t be able to work towards that unless we (together) can be honest about it.

Which leads us to our next point:

2. There’s No Substitute for a Great Team

Leslie is an absolute dynamo. Her vision, drive, and relentless energy fuel many of the Department’s successes. 

Yet, as Leslie herself realizes, she can’t do it alone. She needs a great team.

Everyone in the Parks Department brings unique talents to the Team. Tom Haverford is the smooth-talking salesman who can make deals when people are put off by Leslie. Ron Swanson is the serious realistic who keeps the Team grounded when Leslie’s idealism runs a bit too far (more on him in point 3 below). And Ann, Leslie’s best friend, is a constant source of kindness and encouragement when Leslie’s energy runs out and she needs a reminder that she, too, needs some love.

This surprising group of people, so different in so many ways, come together to do important work. For instance, in season 4 Leslie faces an ethics investigation. Everyone on the Team is ready to defend Leslie and help clear her name. She has a particularly sweet job for Ann:

I need you to text me every 30 seconds saying that everything is gonna be okay.

It’s this Team, working together, that pulls off incredible projects like the Harvest Festival and Unity Concert. 

Yet, as great as Leslie’s Team is, it could always get better. Even the writers of Parks & Rec appeared to see the need to change things early in the show’s run. So they made some changes to the cast.

Mark Brendanawicz was a main character for the first two seasons. While he was involved in some pretty important plot points, and gave us some memorable moments, most people agree that the show (and Leslie’s Team) was stronger after his departure. 

Brendanawicz was a solid character, but he wasn’t the right fit for Leslie (thank God) nor for Parks & Rec.

Late in season 2, the show introduces two new characters that would prove indispensable to its success: Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger. Chris is the relentlessly positive, health-obsessed City Manager who helps leads Pawnee through budget turmoil and eventually settles down to raise a family with Ann in season 6. Ben is Chris’s perfect partner, a quirky, nerdy accountant with a penchant for details, who eventually becomes Leslie’s perfect partner; the two get married in season 5. 

(Mark Brendana-who?)

Parks & Rec certainly wasn’t bad in the first two seasons, but it also got significantly better with the addition of Ben and Chris (and the subtraction of Brendanawicz). 

And the show’s creative team didn’t stop there. We continue to meet new characters who play important, though minor, roles right up until the finale. Perhaps there’s no better example than Billy Eichner’s hilariously high-strung Craig Middlebrooks, the only character who can plausibly claim to care more than Leslie--or at least more vocally.

The success of both the Pawnee Parks Department and Parks & Rec itself is due, not just to Leslie, but to the amazing Team that surrounds her. They complement her weaknesses and even build on some of her strengths.

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

The Church is the Body of Christ. And just as a body has a variety of different parts, each designed to do particular things, we should never feel like we’re alone in the work God has called us to do. 

The Church is full of talented and committed people. Find them and work with them. 

But that doesn’t mean you have to work with just anyone. 

There are times when you’ll have to make tough decision about who you work with. When we hold fast to a vision of the Kingdom (more on that in point 4), we realize that not every project is worth completing and not every person should be partnered with. There may be times when you have a Brendanawicz but need a Traeger and/or a Wyatt.

Sometimes building a healthy team is also about saying “no.”

But there are some people that we should definitely team up with. Which takes us to our next lesson:

3. Find Someone You Can Learn From

Leslie is a confident and principled person who has a vision for Pawnee and works hard to actualize it. While she’s right about a lot of things, she also has a lot to learn

And she does so from a very unlikely source.

Ron Swanson is perhaps the most out-of-place person on the Team. Ron is the head of Pawnee’s Park Department. He’s also a libertarian who took a job in city government with aspirations of “taking it down from the inside.” As you can imagine, he’s a fantastically enjoyable character. And while Ron certainly doesn’t share Leslie’s vision for Pawnee’s government, he does possess moral clarity that helps Leslie make sense of the many setbacks she endures.

For example, as we already mentioned, Leslie is the subject of an ethics investigation in season 4. It turns out that Leslie isn’t innocent; she bribed someone to keep her blossoming relationship with Ben (her supervisor at work) a secret.

This was a no-no intended to cover up another no-no.

Leslie was deeply disappointed in herself for this moral lapse. Yet, while not condoning her mistake, Ron gives Leslie the advice she needs to keep moving forward:

Leslie: I’m a bad person.
Ron: It’s not that simple. You know what makes a good person good? When a good person does something bad, they own up to it. They try to learn something from it and they move on.

Ron gives Leslie the grace to admit her mistake and the strength to learn from it.

Perhaps Leslie’s most difficult challenge comes in season 6 when, after being elected to the City Council, she faces a recall vote. In the season premiere, Leslie is in London to accept an award from the International Coalition of Women in Government. As the recall campaign intensifies, she is disappointed to learn how much support her fellow honorees receive from their hometowns. What a contrast with the way Pawnee is treating her! Yet, tired and beaten down, Leslie is lifted up by Ron’s wise observation:

You choose a thankless job, you can’t be upset when nobody thanks you.

Ron’s words are convicting yet encouraging. Leslie realized what she was up against and emerges from the disappointment ready to get back to work. 

When Leslie stumbles, Ron is always there to lift her up again. Ron is a guide and mentor that helps Leslie take her first steps in a career that does a lot of good for the people of Pawnee.

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

We often talk about the importance of spiritual fathers in the Church. But we also need mentors, especially if we’re involved in ministry work. We need people who can help bring out the best in us and help us do the work that God has called us to do.

This is especially true in the Church, which is a unique target of the evil one. If Leslie’s work in city government faced challenges, how much more opposition will we face in the Church when our goal is the salvation of souls? Ministry work demands a particular form of resolve and a particular form of guidance and grace.

Which takes us to the final lesson:

4. Find the Courage to Keep Going

Leslie’s career in government wasn’t fair. The recall vote in season 6 is perhaps the best example of this. Right after being elected to the City Council, fulfilling her lifelong dream, the people of Pawnee turn on Leslie: not on corrupt Jeremy Jamm or perpetual pervert Bill Dexhart, but on Leslie Knope. 

This could have crushed her (and it almost did). 

Yet Leslie bounces back from this setback, and every setback she faces in her long career of public service. And there are two things that were always there for Lesie during times of trouble; two things that consistently give her the courage to keep going: her Team and her vision.

People like Ben and Ron and Ann, her friends and coworkers in the important work of building a better Pawnee, are always there to help Leslie remember who she is and what she was called to do. As Leslie herself reflected:

In times of stress or moments of transition sometimes it can feel like the whole world is closing in on you. When that happens you should close your eyes, take a deep breath, listen to the people who love you when they give you advice, and remember what really matters.

Lean on the people who love you, and let them remind you of the vision. 

What Does that Mean as a Church Worker?

We will encounter difficult times as Church workers; it’s inevitable. No matter how daunting the challenges ahead may seem, we will always have brothers and sisters in Christ that we can turn to.

And we can remember why we work: not for personal success or glory but for the upbuilding of the Church and the coming of the Lord’s Kingdom

This is what really matters

In the series finale of Parks & Rec, we take a look into the future to see where our favorite characters end up. In one scene, we see Leslie address an auditorium full of graduates. Her words are a fitting way to end this reflection:

I started work more than 30 years ago in the Parks and Recreation department here in Pawnee, Indiana. I’ve had a lot of different jobs, including two terms as your governor, and soon a new unknown challenge awaits me, which to me even now is thrilling because I love the work. Not to say that public service isn’t sexy because it definitely is, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing, alongside a team of people you love. So I thank those people who’ve walked with me, and I thank you for this honour. Now, go find your team and get to work.

 

***

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM. He and his Team are working on a new ministry training course, Effective Christian Ministry, which will help Church workers develop a Christ-centered vision for ministry and implement it with the core practices of formative and transformational ministry. 

Meet Demetra Ganias Soterakis: An Oratorical Teen turned News Anchor and Mom

 

Similar to many first-time Oratorical Festival Teens, Demetra Ganias Soterakis decided to participate in the event alongside friends and classmates because it was an annual Sunday School tradition at St. Spyridon Cathedral in Worcester, MA.

 

Taking that initial step to take part in the event ended up changing her life in a big way. While Demetra was nervous to present her speech at first, she quickly recognized the power of the spoken word and developed an affection for public speaking that shaped her career path.

 

After graduating from high school, Demetra pursued a career in broadcast journalism. She began her career in upstate New York and ended up working as a news anchor and reporter in New York City. Now, Demetra’s daily life is spent doing what she is most proud of, being a mother to her three amazing children, Iakavos, 6; Konstantina, 5; and a new baby, Peter.

 

Demetra participated in the Oratorical Festival in the 1990s and made it to the national level in Pittsburgh in 1994. She currently lives in Greenwich, CT, and is still involved with the event today as she mentors participants at the Church of Our Savior in Rye, New York. In addition to her work with Oratorical Festival participants, Demetra is active in the Philoptochos, teaches 4th grade Sunday School, and runs the Mommy and Me program.


Want to become an Oratorical Teen? Learn more by reading the Participant Packet. Were you an Oratorical Teen? Share your story with us by emailing [email protected] for more info.

Women Who Bloom: The Intersection of CSW63 & Women in the Church

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was established on June 21st, 1946 to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The Commission, supported by UN Women, establishes multi-year programs to promote discussion and action worldwide with annual priority themes. This year’s priority theme for CSW63 is: “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” This blog will give an overview of the priority theme areas and notable achievements around the world.

 

Infrastructure

Imagine you urgently need hospitalization, but there is no road on which to travel. Infrastructure is a crucial organized structure for transportation, electricity, water, and other public services. Around the world, many people travel on dirt roads to get to work or school, travel long distances at night without light and are subject to violence, or do not have access to transportation because of a physical disability. CSW63 demands strong infrastructure for women to feel safe and empowered to prosper through paved roads, lights at night, accessible transportation, and safe community spaces like parks.

 

Social Protection

Social protection systems are in place to shield people from poverty, injustice, and exclusion. CSW63 commends States for new policies which protect women as equal parts of society. In Albania, victims of domestic violence are given access to affordable housing or rent bonuses to establish themselves. In Guatemala, new laws aim to improve working conditions for domestic workers with set pay and time off. Denmark encourages women to take almost 300 days of maternity leave, without the fear of job loss, to spend time with their child.  

 

Public Services  

Public services are offered equally for all people in a State by their government. Around the world, women do not have access to banks and financial services, water for farming, or affordable childcare. The CSW has worked alongside local women to improve the lives of women with childcare in Georgia, financial services in the Philippines, farming water in Kyrgyzstan, and financial banks in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 

Women in the Orthodox Church

Women are a vital part of the Church. The Mother of God is the ultimate example and icon of humility in surrendering her human will to God’s. What worldly honor can surpass the honor we give her as “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim?” During this time of Great Lent, we celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy established by St. Theodora the Empress and we learn from the witness of women saints as we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt on the fifth Sunday. We will experience the sorrow of the Virgin Mary and her lament at Christ’s tomb and the unfailing love of the Myrrh Bearing women who became the first to preach Christ’s Resurrection. We turn to the women saints of our Church as examples and models of how we can unite with God and become Saints. St. Paul reminds us that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, male or female” because we are all One in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Both women and men are called to be united with God. In our parishes and in personal interactions, we are reminded of living icons in the God-loving women who sacrifice themselves to serve others by offering their talents for their church and who carry Christ in their personal and professional lives. We are surrounded by incredible women.

 

Orthodoxy & CSW

Infrastructure, social protection, and public services contribute to the wellbeing and prosperity of people. CSW63 illumines the lack of strong structures for women worldwide and advocates for better protections to allow women to prosper. In the Church, women are vital because of their historically equal role in proclaiming, witnessing, and preserving the Faith during persecution. Our women in the Church today, especially young women, need to be given the support, empowerment, and tools to offer their talents and bloom. Our women need to feel empowered in our church communities to ask questions, to allow healthy doubt, to advise and build ministries, and to deeply share in the community of the Church. The work of CSW63 reminds us to be grateful for the powerful presence of women in our Church and to encourage each woman blossom as members of Christ’s Body.

 

Other Resources for CSW63:

 

Photo Essay adapted from UN Women photo exhibition at the UN Headquarters in New York

Official Documents of the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women

PALM SUNDAY -- MAKE THEM WANT TO COME BACK!

Palm Sunday is fast approaching. Our churches will once again be filled with the faithful we love, but don’t see as often as we would like. Our first inclination may be to scold or at least lay on the guilt. But maybe laying on a load of “you shoulds” is not the most effective way to get people to come back on Sundays throughout the year.

It’s good to remember why people come to church in the first place. Research has shown that people are generally seeking three things from their church: Transcendence - experiencing the presence of God, Significance - service to our fellow human beings and Community - connecting though meaningful relationships  (Source: Lost in America by Clegg & Bird). So, on this Palm Sunday, when we see many of our less regular attendees, maybe we can do our best to provide a prayerful, undistracted divine liturgy, offer an update on parish charitable activities and create an opportunity for fellowship of our faithful.

Some of the criticisms we often hear from those that have fallen away from church are: “It’s all about the money,” “It’s too long” and “I don’t understand the worship service.”  Maybe we don’t need to pass extra trays just because we see the church filled to capacity. Maybe we could pick up the tempo of the Liturgy, showing people that liturgy doesn’t have to be so long. And maybe we could use more English in order to better connect with our American-born parishioners and the non-Orthodox family members.

One priest makes it a practice to come out at the end of Palm Sunday liturgy, welcome the people, thank them for coming and then address these usual criticisms of church, saying, “Thank you for being with us today. I know many people don’t come to church because it’s too long, or it’s too Greek, or it’s all about the money.” But today we completed the liturgy in an hour and 20 minutes, we did the liturgy mostly in English and we passed only ONE tray. So, please come back!

Some resources provided by our Department that help in your outreach efforts this time of year are:

Engaging our faithful and inquirers in the life of the Church requires a deeper understanding of the Divine Liturgy. This 26-page booklet provides an engaging summary that may be read cover to cover or consulted as questions arise. Suggested for the pew rack, literature table and parish bookstore.

An inspiring pamphlet intended for distribution at the Resurrection service on Saturday evening of Holy Week that encourages individuals to let the light of the Resurrection be lit in their hearts, to grow in their faith and to rediscover their calling as Orthodox Christians.

 

 

Towards Compunction: Opening Our Hearts to the Grace of God

Note: Steve delivered this talk on March 11, 2019 (Clean Monday) at Archangel Michael Orthodox Church in Port Washington, NY.   

Is it possible for any of us to change?

We seem to live in a world that is both more stubborn and more lonely than ever before. Perhaps that is no coincidence; perhaps these two trends go hand in hand.

Stubbornness and Loneliness

This stubbornness and loneliness may be easiest to see online, where most of our social interactions tend to happen. Despite being connected to virtually every bit of knowledge ever assembled, and virtually every person currently alive, loneliness is becoming an epidemic (at least here in the United States, and perhaps in the Western world as a whole).

The health insurer Cigna recently conducted a survey that began to measure just how serious this problem is. Among their findings, they discovered that:

  • 46% of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.
  • 43% of Americans say they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.
  • 20% report that they rarely or never feel close to people.
  • Only 18% say they feel like they have people in their lives they can talk to.

You may say that, despite being incredibly connected with the outside world, we feel increasingly trapped within ourselves.

And that’s why I think loneliness is connected to stubborness. Not just because stubborn people are less fun to be around (and best avoided), but because stubbornness is a different way of being trapped within ourselves.

Of being resistant to outside influence.

Of being resistant to change. 

Why Things Are Worse Online

This definitely manifests in the way we interact online. There, interactions are not dialogues or conversations or even mutual exchanges of information: they are shouting matches, the trading of insults and accusations. 

No one changes their mind on the internet. If anything, these overly combative exchanges simply serve to confirm how right we are...and how wrong everyone else is. And when we retreat from these online battles, we enter into echo chambers that further reinforce the rightness of our preferred point of view.

On the flip side, our call-out culture takes delight in bringing up mistakes that other people have made (no matter how long ago). The purpose of digging through a person’s old tweets or interviews isn’t to spur some kind of change or repentance, but to embarrass. To demean. 

To humiliate. 

Which puts us on the defensive. And makes us all the more stubborn and isolated as we fend off attack.

It’s a vicious cycle that leads us further inward, feeling trapped within ourselves. 

So is it possible for any of us to change? We tend to act like the answer to that question is “no.” Possibly because, in our pride, we don’t need to change. 

While others can’t; or at least, even if their change was possible, our attacks would make it unlikely. 

A New Possibility

Yet on Clean Monday, at the beginning of Great Lent, the Church offers something radically different. The Church offers us the possibility to change. The Church offers us the possibility to repent. 

In fact, Great Lent is designed to inspire some level of repentance in us as a means of preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Yet there’s something else that the Church also calls us to experience, particularly now during Great Lent. Something the Church calls compunction.

I’d like to suggest to you that there are two types of compunction. We experience one kind of compunction emotionally, on a very human level. But there’s another kind of compunction; an even deeper kind of compunction.

And I’m excited to share that with you.

But first, some quick definitions. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page. 

What is Repentance?

Repentance is a term we’ve all probably heard before. It comes from the Greek word μετάνοια and it means a change of mind. 

Repentance is a new way of thinking; a new way of being. Repentance is a new direction for our lives: away from sin and towards Christ and His Kingdom.

Repentance is, of course, incredibly important. Yet (and this might be a little challenging for us to fully appreciate) it’s not the whole story. 

It’s not enough.

St Athanasios the Great was a very young deacon in the Patriarchate of Alexandria when he wrote his classic work On the Incarnation. It’s an explanation of why exactly the Son of God took on flesh and became human. 

After all, why did the Son of God take on flesh? Why is the Incarnation part of our salvation?

Shouldn’t repentance be enough to save us from sin? Shouldn’t a new direction in our lives (away from sin and back towards God) be enough to save us?

St Athanasios answers that question in the negative: no, it isn’t enough. 

Was [God] to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression [human beings] became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again... [But] repentance [does not] recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. 

(Saint Athanasios, On the Incarnation, §7)

That was a lot, so let’s break this down to make sure we all get it.

Why Did the Son of God Take on Flesh?

St Athanasios begins by stating that, of course, humanity had fallen into sin. And God, who wanted the salvation of the world, *could have* simply asked people to repent of their sin. Just like sin led us into death and corruption, repentance could have led us out of death and back into life. 

But, as St Athanasios says, that’s precisely why repentance isn’t enough by itself. Our problem, as people, isn’t simply sin. It is death. It is the corruption of our nature. 

(Or at least it was, until the saving work of Jesus Christ: His birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc.)

Ethics, in other words, isn’t enough to save us. The fundamental problem of our existence can’t simply be fixed by acting differently. 

As St Athanasios says: “no, repentance could not meet the case.” 

(As a brief aside, this should challenge all of us who work in ministry, especially ministry with young people. Whether we’re parents or youth workers, do we sometimes assume that our primary job is to keep kids from doing drugs or having sex? Do we view our job as ministry leaders as nothing more than managing behavior and keeping kids out of trouble? Because St Athanasios tells us very clearly that ethics, by itself, isn’t enough.)

And of course, as you can guess from the title of the work, the solution this great saint points to is the incarnation: the solution was the Son of God taking on our flesh and becoming one of us. 

It was healing our broken and corrupted human nature from the inside, so to speak. It was joining us in death so we could join Him in life. 

Not just survival but real life. True life. Life without end.

And compunction is the way we begin to sink into this mystery. Or rather how we begin to allow this mystery to sink into us and change us from within.

What is Compunction?

So what exactly is compunction? I’ll begin with the words of St Porphyrios the Athonite, who describes the word very simply:

The root of the word κατάνυξις, ‘compunction,’ is the verb νύττω, ‘to puncture or pierce,’ κατανύττω, ‘to stab or wound repeatedly.’

(Saint Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 120)

So compunction is, you might say, an attack: a repeated stabbing or wounding.

But why do we need compunction? What does this attack have to do with our stubbornness and isolation, the great problems of our modern age? And what does it have to do with our salvation, the great problem of human existence?

Why do we need compunction? 

Well, because our hearts have grown hard. 

You’ve probably heard this phrase before: hardness of heart. I want to describe it with two examples from literature; one very classic, one newer yet (I think) no less moving.

These examples can help us get a sense of the first type of compunction: a powerful human experience that can open our hearts to change. 

Compunction in "Crime and Punishment"

In the novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky presents us with Raskolnikov, an intelligent and passionate young man who is swept away by the currents of sophisticated, modern thought. He writes a paper, titled “On Crime,” where he paints himself as a Napoleon: someone who is above the constraints of conventional morality and capable of greatness. 

Yet he’s also a former student who lives in poverty, unable to support himself. So he decides to rob and kill an elderly pawn-broker, and use the money he steals to build a new life and live up to his greatness. 

But the murder doesn’t go as planned...

It turns out that it’s far more difficult to kill than Raskolnikov initially thought. He emerges from this act shaken, physically ill. Raskolnikov never seemed like the picture of spiritual health; yet after the murder he sinks into even deeper spiritual sickness. 

He descends into an ever deeper isolation and anguish. 

Raskolnikov, an isolated and bitter loner, falls even deeper into isolation and bitterness. His heart, which was already hard, hardens even more. 

Just like us, he sinks into further stubbornness and further isolation. 

And what finally pulls him out of this darkness and despair? What finally brings him back to himself? 

A simple look.

At the end of the novel, Raskolnikov encounters the tragic character of Sonya. At the beginning of the book, Sonya decided to become a prostitute in order to support her impoverished family. She is a figure of great sadness and suffering.

When Raskolnikov looks upon her at the end of the novel, he sees her despair. Her piercing look stabs his heart, and he makes a full confession. 

He is a murderer, and he is ready to accept his punishment. He no longer sees himself as an ubermensch, someone above conventional morality. He is a broken man, and he is finally open to healing. 

Consider this powerful exchange, after Raskolnikov has confessed to the murder:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) 

“Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes.

He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy. “So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

Raskolnikov, who begins this exchange a stubborn and isolated man, descending deeper into spiritual self-destruction and darkness, emerges both connected to Sonya and ready to begin the process of change. 

That moment, the moment that opened the door to this, the way Sonya’s look pierced Raskolnikov’s heart, gives us a sense of what this first type of compunction is: a powerful experience that can open the door to change.

Here’s another example:

Compunction in "Harry Potter"

In her Harry Potter series, JK Rowling introduces us to the character of Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard who threatens the world with terror and darkness. Voldemort, as we learn in the series, is such a terrifying figure because of his self-inflicted spiritual wounds. 

He is terrified of death, and he insures himself against the possibility by magically creating what are known as “horcruxes”: little pieces of his soul that he contains within assorted objects. That way, even if one piece of his soul is destroyed, the other piece will survive. Some fragment of him will continue to exist.

As you might expect, horcruxes are terrible bits of dark magic. They shatter the soul, in the most literal sense of the word, and grant their makers a perverse parody of life: many years in a fractured, less-than-fully-human state.

As the great Albus Dumbledore uncovers Voldemort’s plan, he realizes (to his horror) that the Dark Lord hasn’t just created one horcrux. No, he’s done the unthinkable, what people didn’t even realize was possible: he’s created six horcruxes. Meaning that he’s split his soul into seven fragments. 

How can anyone return from such a place of spiritual destruction?

Yet Rowling herself, in an interview, said that “if he had repented, [Voldemort] could have been healed more deeply than anyone would have supposed.” The Dark Lord’s redemption was, in fact possible.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione stumble onto this possibility in the seventh and final book of the series, The Deathly Hallows:

"…It warns in this book how unstable you make the rest of your soul by ripping it, and that's just by making one Horcrux!"

Harry remembered what Dumbledore had said about Voldemort moving beyond "usual evil."

"Isn't there any way of putting yourself back together?" Ron asked.

"Yes," said Hermione with a hollow smile, "but it would be excruciatingly painful."

"Why? How do you do it?" asked Harry.

"Remorse," said Hermione. "You've got to really feel what you've done. There's a footnote. Apparently the pain of it can destroy you. I can't see Voldemort attempting it somehow, can you?" 

Hermione, tragically, is correct. In their final encounter, Harry gives Voldemort one last chance to show a bit of remorse. But he is shocked by this request. As we read:

Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this.

Voldemort guarded his hardened heart. He refused the connection that Harry offered, and the opportunity to return from his fractured spiritual state. He refused to step back from the brokenness into which he had so thoroughly sunk. He attacked Harry, trying to kill him, and ended up dead himself. 

Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse, and Harry stood with two wands in his hand, staring down at his enemy’s shell.

Towards an Even Deeper Compunction

Raskolnikov and Voldemort both experienced the possibility for something similar to compunction: a powerful experience that would pierce their hardened hearts and open the path to healing; to wholeness; to a recovery of themselves. 

One opened himself to this piercing, and took his first step towards redemption. The other didn’t. 

These literary examples give us a sense of the first type of compunction: a powerful experience that can crack open our hardened hearts and open us to the possibility of change. It tends to be something visceral, something deep and powerful: Sonya’s dramatic look of despair, or the deeply felt remorse one would need to recover from a horcrux. 

But the Church points us to an even deeper kind of compunction; a second kind of compunction. To explore this let’s use, not literary images, but some commentary from the Fathers. 

Because yes, emotions and remorseful experiences with other people can certainly pierce our hearts, shatter our stubbornness, and reconnect us with others. It can open to us the door of repentance, and put us back on the path towards God.

But compunction, in the deepest and most mystical sense of the word, doesn’t come at the beginning of our repentance. It comes at the end. It is more than something that leads us back to God: it is something that God does to us when we have found Him.

Compunction and Communion

If we keep our eyes and ears open, we’ll find references to compunction all over the Church. For example, as you probably know, there’s a short service of preparation for Holy Community. We can read it as part of Compline the evening before Liturgy. 

Here’s the instruction that we find at the beginning of the service:

When preparing to receive the Immaculate Mysteries, first read the service of Small compline to the end of the creed, and then say the following Canon with compunction.

(Canon of Preparation for Holy Communion)

So, before we receive Holy Communion, we should prepare with compunction: with this piercing of our hardened hearts that will open us to the presence of Christ.

But this piercing, in the deepest sense of the word, is not something we do. It is something that is done to us. Which is why it’s so instructive that this word, compunction, is tied here with Holy Communion.

Think about what normally happens with the things we consume. When I eat or drink something, my body acts on it. My body transforms it. My teeth and stomach physically break the food down, my body metabolizes what I consume and then uses what I consume. My body turns it into energy, so I can move and think and act in the world. 

Or my body turns it into more of me: new hair that’s always growing on my head, new skin cells to repair a scratch, new blood cells or muscle cells or whatever. 

Normally, when I eat something or drink something, I turn that thing into me.

But that’s not at all what happens when we receive Holy Communion. 

Consider what St Nicholas Cabasilas says about what happens when we receive:

While natural food is changed into him who feeds on it, and fish and bread and any other kind of food become human blood, here it is entirely opposite. The Bread of Life Himselfchanges him who feeds on Him and transforms and assimilates him to Himself.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, Book 4 §8)

In other words, when I receive the Body of Christ, I don’t turn that into my body. Instead, I am turned into a part of the Body of Christ. Normally I act upon my food, and transform my food. But in the case of this eternal food, this heavenly food: I am acted upon. I am transformed. 

When I am acted upon in this way, there is no stubbornness. There is union with the will of God. Thy will be done, o Lord, on earth as it is in heaven.

When I am acted upon in this way, there is no isolation. I am not acted upon as an individual Christian: the Lord acts upon me as a member of His Body, united as I am with Him and all in Him.

This is deeper than the act of my repentance. This is deeper than the effort of my change. This is God Himself acting in and through me.

More Than Our Effort

Of course, this isn’t to discount our effort. Our effort is important. St John Climacus, for example, wrote an entire book about our efforts. In fact, the Church dedicates the fourth Sunday of Great Lent to St John and this incredible book: The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Yet even St John, who spends so much time talking about the importance of our spiritual effort, makes sure to keep that effort in its proper place. When he writes about the ways we work to inspire remorse and compunction in ourselves, he is honest: it is not as great as the compunction which results when God Himself pierces our hearts.

Consider these two sentences in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. They are from Step 7, which deals with repentance. First, St John stresses the importance of our work and our effort:

Keep a firm hold of the blessed joy-grief of holy compunction, and do not stop working at it until it raises you high above the things of this world and presents you pure to Christ.

(St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7, 9)

And then, just a few sentences later, he says that this effort (as important as it is) is nowhere near as great as the compunction that is given to us as a gift by God:

Great is the power of this compunction—greater than that which comes as a result of our effort and meditation.

(St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7, 25)

Go Forth With Humility

So here, at the beginning of Great Lent, it’s important for us to begin our ascetic struggle with joy and zeal and dedication. We will work hard to attend the services as much as we can; to give alms as much as we can; to pray as much as we can; to direct our hearts back to Christ as much as we can. 

Yet it’s important to do this work with humility. We don’t simply commit ourselves to being better, to trying harder, to do more. A few Sundays ago we read about the Publican, who prayed more than us and tithed more than us and did more spiritual things than us. 

Yet he congratulated himself for all this spiritual work, and had no room for God in his heart. His heart was incredibly religious, yet also incredible hard: stubborn, proud, and isolated. 

No, we commit ourselves to allowing God to act in and through us.

We work, in a sense, so that God will work in us.

At the begin of every Liturgy, the deacon prays a very short and simple prayer. He says “it is time for the Lord to act.”

As Christians, we know that it is always time for the Lord to act. 

May the Holy Spirit pierce our hearts and fill our hearts. May the Holy Spirit act in us and through us, for the glory of God alone.

Amen.

***

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM. He and his Team are working on a new ministry training course, Effective Christian Ministry, which will help Church workers develop a Christ-centered vision for ministry and implement it with the core practices of formative and transformational ministry. 

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