Holy Ground With the Stoics

Sermon for New Song Episcopal Church in Iowa on August 30, 2020:

Moses and the Burning Bush (1833) by John Martin (Wikimedia Commons image)


“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground.”

This verse comes from our first reading for this morning, that wonderful passage from Exodus in which God speaks to Moses from out of the burning bush. It’s one of my favorite passages in the Bible, in part because I’ve been to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the middle of the Sinai Desert, where they have a tree that’s said to be descended from that very burning bush.

Now one of the things that’s obvious when you visit the Sinai is that it doesn’t look much like holy ground. It’s hot and dry and barren of nearly all vegetation. The sun is merciless. It’s a place that can kill you in a multitude of ways, including dehydration, starvation, and poisonous snakes.

But God called that place holy ground. Because any place is holy ground in the presence of the divine.

So what does it mean for us to stand on holy ground? I’ve been thinking of that question this past week, which brought yet another wave of troubling events and bad news. They include, of course, violence in cities that include Kenosha and Portland, the continuing aftereffects of the Derecho storm in the Midwest, and the ongoing anxieties about Covid. What does it mean to stand on holy ground in the midst of what often seems more like UN-holy ground?

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been searching for ways of dealing with anxiety and anger about what’s happening in our world today. This morning I want to talk to you about one of the things that’s been most helpful to me in searching for holy ground in the midst of it all: Stoicism, a school of philosophy founded in the third century BC by people who also lived through tumultuous times.

One of the first things I learned about Stoicism is that its popular image is almost totally wrong. You know, the bit about keeping a stiff upper lip, not whining, and not showing your emotions. Stoicism is actually far more complex, and helpful, than that simple-minded approach. It’s also quite compatible with Christianity. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was deeply influenced by this ancient school of thought. Another example is medieval monks, many of whom read and discussed Stoic writings in their monasteries, finding that it gave them insights into Christian practice.

Part of what has drawn me to Stoicism these days is the parallels between our world and that of its first practitioners. The world of Classical Greece, and later first and second-century Rome, was often brutal and harsh, with political turmoil and economic oppression, vengeful rulers and devastating plagues.

Epictetus (Wikimedia Commons image)

I think it’s telling that two of the most famous Stoics came from opposite ends of society. One was Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor of Rome in the second century. The other was Epictetus, who was born a slave. But both found that this philosophy gave them meaning and direction on how to live a good life.

If I had to sum up the essence of stoicism, it would be this: we should try to cultivate tranquility no matter what happens. This doesn’t mean suppressing our emotions—in fact, just the opposite, because the Stoics sought to cultivate joy, true, lasting joy, not just ephemeral happiness.

If you’re interested in learning about the Stoics, I recommend a lovely book by William Irvine called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In it he gives an accessible overview of why Stoicism can help us. According to Irvine, one of the most important techniques taught by the Stoics is something called negative visualization. It was used to help people create a desire in themselves for the things they already have. Writes Irvine: “[The Stoics recommend] that we [regularly] spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would….It is, I think, the most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological toolkit.”

When we say goodbye to a friend, for example, the Stoics advise us to silently remind ourselves that this might be our final parting, because our friend may not survive until we can meet again. That applies to our own life as well. Each day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that this day could be our last. The goal is not to change our activities, but instead our state of mind as we go about those activities. We still need to plan for tomorrow, in other words, but we must also remember to appreciate today.

The goal is not to live life in a state of perpetual gloom, but instead to revitalize our capacity for joy.

The second technique recommended by the Stoics helps us deal with the negative effects of desire. Whenever we desire something that is not up to us, our tranquility will be disturbed, the Stoics recognized. If we don’t get what we want, we will be upset, and if we do get what we want, we will experience anxiety in the process of getting it and then will worry about the prospect of losing it.

To combat this, the Stoics advise that we use a kind of triage in relation to our thoughts. We should clearly identify the things we have total control over, the things we have partial control over, and the things we have no control over. You might think of this as a variation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer, the one about accepting the things we cannot change and changing the things we can, but I think it goes deeper.

Marcus Aurelius (Wikimedia Commons image)

To the Stoics it makes no sense to waste one minute of worry or care over things over which we have no control. On the other hand, if it is something over which we have partial control, we should do our best, an action that we can control, but then give up all expectation of the result, which we cannot control.

And then there’s the third category that includes things over which we have total control. For the Stoics, that includes our opinions, our impulses, and our desires. In other words, we can control our inner landscape. And that is true whether you are a slave or an emperor.

Now this may sound too simplistic, I realize. But there’s no denying that Stoicism has helped people survive the harshest of conditions. One of the most famous contemporary examples is William Stockdale, who credited his knowledge of Stoic philosophy for helping him survive seven years as a prisoner of war during Vietnam. During those years he was repeatedly tortured, kept in solitary confinement, malnourished, and denied medical care, but he drew courage and strength from the words of the philosophers who had lived and died many centuries before him.

Stockdale realized, as the Stoics had before him, that no matter what our external circumstances, we can have control over our values. And if we live in accordance with our values, and if we’ve chosen values that are honorable, then we can have tranquility and peace and flashes of joy, even in the midst of the hardest circumstances.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, put this in terms of what we would call character. We are, he said, the only ones who can stop ourselves from attaining goodness and integrity. We have it entirely within our power to prevent viciousness and greed from finding a home in our souls.

Epictetus, the philosopher who was born a slave, also spoke of the power we have to control our minds. He said this: “If someone in the street were entrusted with your body, you would be furious. Yet you entrust your mind to anyone around who happens to insult you, and allow it to be troubled and confused.”

In reading the wisdom of the ancient Stoics, I can’t help but think of all the ways in which I allow my mind to be captured by externals, whether it’s the national news or social media or whatever irritation floats through my consciousness. We all would do well, I think, to remember another piece of advice from Epictetus: “You become what you give your attention to…If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.”

The more I learn about Stoicism, the more I realize why those medieval monks read and valued these ancient writings. There is profound wisdom here, just as applicable now as thousands of years ago.

Because the goal of the Stoics, ironically, is not a dampening of emotion, but rather a cultivation of joy. Joy in the small things of life. Joy in claiming internal freedom, no matter what our exterior circumstances. Joy in living with integrity, knowing that we cannot control the outcome of our actions, but we can control our inner landscape.

And even though Stoicism and Christianity are very different in some ways, I think there’s a connection between the Stoic sense of inner freedom and the Christian idea of standing on holy ground. Both recognize that every moment is a potential gateway into reverence and joy. We can stand on holy ground, no matter where we may be.



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