Some look at my life and think I’ve had it easy. I finished college early; I earned three graduate degrees at the expense of the state and a fourth I paid for myself; I’ve had good jobs and success in three different careers; I have a good home, a wonderful wife, good friends; I’m a deacon, and a writer.
I admit, I’ve had it easier than some; but I’ve also had more trials and troubles in my life than many.
I was born premature and nearly died at birth. I was often sick with bronchitis during childhood.
When I was growing up, my Navy Chief father and telephone operator mother had to cut corners to make ends meet, which in grade school meant I ended up with a mouth full of cavities, shoes needing new soles and heels, frayed collars, and pants too short.
At the age of eight, I lost a front tooth in a pickup baseball game. By the age of fourteen, I was self-conscious about my false tooth, a self-consciousness that lasted into my mid-thirties.
Because of fear and pride, I failed to attain my dream of becoming a professional baseball player despite being an all-league player in high school and the encouragement of scouts and pro players who said I had the skills to make it.
Five times I worked for managers who put one obstacle after another in my way with the desire and hope, it seemed to me, that I would fail in my work and they could then let me go. All were church-going Christians. Two were Catholic.
Anger and rancor slowly seeped into my heart. By my mid-twenties they had taken hold of my life and I left the Church. My anger and rancor worsened in my thirties and forties and remained a sharp thorn until I began to live as a Christian and as a Catholic who, in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, thinks with the Church.
Without the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Bible, the Church, and writers like Bishop Ignatius, I would not have endured the obstacles of my Catholic managers, or accepted the difficulties in my life for the past fifteen years.
I don’t always see the trials and troubles in my life as blessings, but I handle them better each day. And each day, I notice that the path I walk gets harder and narrower and narrower. And I pray that I can persevere and endure to the end.
There are books of spiritual counsel that have bolstered and led me along the way. They may have been written for monks but their insights and teachings apply to all of us.
The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life is a book of instruction for monks, as its title indicates.
But like all books written for monks – John Cassian’s The Conferences and The Institutes and John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent come to mind – The Arena offers excellent guidance for Christians seeking to develop an inner life with the Bible, Christ, and the commandments at the center.
Written by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867), a Russian Orthodox saint, The Arena was first published in the year of his death with the title of An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism.
Yet as Bishop Kallistos Ware explains, Bishop Ignatius wrote The Arena with the understanding that:
“… monks and lay people are both following the same ‘narrow way’ and are engaged in the same ascetic battle” and so his book is “an offering to every Christian.”
Following the commandments of Christ’s gospel is the path all Christians must take, Bishop Ignatius reminds us. Those who follow the commandments will attain heaven; those who do not will be cast into hell.
The Arena is divided into two parts: One containing fifty chapters and topics such as living by the commandments, reading the Bible like the Church Fathers, solitude, humility, prayer, and temptations; the other consisting of rules for novices in fifty sections that still offer insight for the average Christian.
Each of the chapters is worth hours of reflection, but one has become of particular interest to me: chapter thirty, “The Teaching of the Holy Fathers Concerning the Narrow Way,” which is filled with illuminating passages from writings of Church Fathers and commentary by Bishop Ignatius.
If you wish to understand fully the meaning of the trials and troubles in your life, pay close attention to this chapter, as I have. When you see the trials and troubles in your life in the proper light, Bishop Ignatius says, you will walk the path of saints. He emphasizes that:
“The way of God is a daily cross. No one has climbed to heaven by living a life of pleasure.”
If you read The Arena, you may find other chapters of deeper interest to you. But for me, this chapter has helped me make sense of my life — its disappointments, my anger, and my period of disillusionment — leading me back to the home of my faith and my Father.