Tuesday, July 11, 2017
And so, the story goes, the robin was sad as it flew over a hill called Golgotha. But suddenly the bird saw something, or rather someone who caught its attention.
A Man covered in bruises and blood was carrying a cross up to the mountain top. The soldiers following were hurling insults at Him and the sight of it all was so heartbreaking.
Finally, the Man was raised on the cross and streams of blood were flowing from His wounds. The robin, ever so slowly, flew in circles around the cross until it perched, bravely, on one of its arms and began to sing.
The Man's agony was showing on His face when He turned and saw the robin who looked at Him intently. The Lord smiled, and the thrush realized that this was no ordinary man, but its Creator and its God!
Oh the horror that it felt, that wicked men could treat in this foul manner He who is Love Itself. The little one's wings began to flutter in desperation, and decidely it flew over the crown and plucked one thorn out of its Master's head. Immediately a drop of crimson red spilled unto its breast, and ever since, a carmin shade adorns the heart of the kind robin.
This story as I remember it, always stayed with me. I am 61 years old and still think about it, especially when I see a red robin fly by and perch on a nearby tree. Of course I dont think it actually happened this way, but the little boy that read the story long ago still finds comfort and consolation in the thought, that mercy and kindness are worth the effort, and that everything that is good and beautiful is a gift from God.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Icon of Christ's betrayal by Judas which is in the Church of Panagia Dexia, Thessaloniki, Greece
Prayer for Enemies
"Lord Jesus Christ, in Your great mercy You prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified You, and You taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Lord, I pray that You forgive those who treat me unjustly and speak out against me, and that You bless them and guide them according to your will. Take away any bitterness I may have in my heart against them. Lord, may Your forgiveness, goodness and love be revealed in all of us, to Your praise and glory. Amen."
from 'My Orthodox Prayer Book' published by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, 1985
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
"HOMILYAbout guarding of the heart
"With closest custody, guard your heart, for in it are the sources of life" (Proverbs 4:23).
In the heart is the will, in the heart is love, in the heart is understanding, in the heart is the face of the All-holy and Divine Trinity. The heart is the home of the Father, the altar of the Son and the workshop of the Holy Spirit. God wants the heart: "My Son, give me your heart" (Proverbs: 23:26).
Let the mountains be overturned, let the seas dry up, let your friends abandon you, let your wealth fail you, let your body be consumed by worms, let the world pour upon you all the ridicule which it has but be not afraid; only guard your heart, guard and affix it to the Lord and give it to the Lord.
From the heart comes life; from where does life in the heart come if the breath of the Lord and Source of Life, God, does not dwell in it?
"A good man out of the good treasure of the heart brings forth good things; and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things" (St. Matthew 12:35).
These are the words of the Lord Who fills the treasury of your heart with His riches. What is that "good man?" That is the good treasure of the heart. What is that "evil man?" That is the evil treasure of the heart. "For out of the heart [of an evil man] proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (St. Matthew 15:19) and from the good heart proceeds "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Galatians 5:22-23).
Do you see how great a warehouse is the heart of man? Do you see what all can fit in the heart of man? O brother, God the Holy Spirit Himself, when it pleases Him, can fit in the heart of man. Not only can He, but He will. He only waits for you to prepare your heart for Him. To convert it into a temple, for God the Holy Spirit only dwells in a temple.
Just as a serpent protects its head so you, also son, guard your heart. Above everything that is guarded, son, guard your heart! For in the heart enters life and from it proceeds life, life which is from the Living God.
O Life-giving Lord, help us to guard our heart for You, for You the Lord!
To You be glory and thanks always. Amen." St Nikolai Velimirovich
From the homily for June 6, Prologue of Ochrid. Source
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Myths about forgiveness
When should we forgive? Can everything be forgiven?
These questions are always raised at seminars and the answer is simple: you can forgive anything. Yet there are many myths concerning forgiveness.
Myth 1: To forgive is to forget.
Some people (this is one of the myths) argue that forgiveness means to say that “nothing happened” and that we should “cover everything up.” Nothing terrible happened and we did not do anything serious at all. But what if you actually did do something? We often like to justify everything and call white what is actually black. This has nothing to do with forgiveness. To forgive does not mean to “erase” the sin or devalue the act. Forgiveness does not depreciate the harm or evil someone has caused us. We forgive a person or individual. Remember the saying: “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” This statement is entirely relevant here.
We should not close our eyes to sins, offences, and malicious acts towards us because of servility or the desire to save a relationship. Consequently, it is vital to distinguish between forgiveness and reproof. Moreover, when you reprove someone, you have to call things by their real names. It is not simply a matter of subjective feelings, but rather of an objective situation in which it is obvious that you have been deceived, betrayed, or that someone has really let you down.
Myth 2: “I will not forgive until you apologize.”
Another myth is that forgiveness is possible only if it has been asked for. This is not at all the case. We forgive not for the other person’s sake – we forgive for our own sake.
What is an offence? It is when I carry antipathy for the person who offended me in my heart. And this high degree of dislike literally lives physically inside me. The question of whether it is in my mind or my heart is a rhetorical one; the main thing is that I carry this feeling inside me.
Forgiveness does not depend on whether the other person recognizes that what he did was wrong or whether he wants me to forgive him. Forgiveness depends on whether I want to continue to carry this loathing in my heart. Moreover, not his loathing, but my own: my anger at him, my judgment of him, my rejection of him.
For the heart and the soul this anger at another person is a very heavy burden. When a person does not forgive there is an element of self-destruction. People can be resentful for decades, thinking that by so doing they are punishing those who wronged them, but in actual fact they are punishing themselves most of all.
Myth 3: Those who forgive are weaklings.
What are some more myths? That the act of forgiveness shows weakness. That if you forgive you will show yourself to be a spineless softie. Yet in actual fact forgiveness requires a great deal of courage and inner strength. After all, we need to make an internal effort to release the pain we experienced from the other person. That is, the pain may linger because it is sometimes impossible to forget. A painful trace may remain for life, but this does not mean that we did not forgive.
We do not remember the nail we stepped on as a child, but we have the scar for life. We may not grow angry or condemn, we may have long ago forgiven, but a trace of the incident may remain and occasionally make itself known. We must bear in mind that forgiveness does not always mean erasing the inner pain. If there is a memory of what happened, or some pain, this does not mean that there was no forgiveness.
Forgiveness as simply a decision – “I decided and I forgave” ¬– is impossible. Without feelings and inner emotional work forgiveness will not take place.
Myth 4: The pain will go away by itself.
Similarly, the opposite view that “when the painful feeling goes away, everything will be forgiven without my will” is untrue. Nothing will be forgiven on its own.
Forgiveness is a combination of will and emotion. I make the decision and then carry it out emotionally. On this basis, we can see that forgiveness is a process; it is not a matter of immediately “forgiving and forgetting.” In some situations it is a lengthy process, because it depends on the degree of injury and damage that was made. I really like the expression that forgiveness is one-sided responsibility and one-sided openness. Ideally, forgiveness does not expect reciprocity. And forgiveness does not automatically mean reconciliation or that I will continue to communicate wonderfully with that person. A person may do something that makes further communication with him impossible.
So if I forgive, it does not mean that we will continue to be friends as before or that our relationship will not change. Sometimes the relationship changes, and changes radically.
Forgiveness as a gift
Forgiveness is my free gift to someone. I forgive without expecting anything in return. Yet what is it we expect? We expect someone to change, to fix his mistakes, to repent. No, this is not required; it might not happen. But it might. By accepting the other person as he is, our forgiveness will help him a little. But this does not guarantee that he will change. Forgiveness is both generous and risky: it is generous because it really is an act of the soul and risky because you cannot guarantee where you will end up. The result of my forgiveness is unknown either to me or to the other person.
The benefits of being offended
So when we talk about being offended, it is important to remember that the essence of our offence is unjustified expectations. The first thing we should do when we feel pain inside is to ask ourselves: were my expectations adequate?
If the expectations were adequate, then we can try to understand what went wrong. If the expectations were inadequate, the question of offence is withdrawn. The expression “let not the sun go down on your wrath” is correct only if the offence is not so much an emotional reaction (and no longer performs a signaling function), but has become a way of life, a manipulative tool that we use to build relationships with others.
There are many benefits to being upset with someone. Being hurt and being a victim result in a “halo” or in “wings” spread behind our backs. This is self-assertion against the “bad” and “horrible” others who are so cruel and unfeeling.
An interesting sociological experiment was carried out. People were asked: “What would you like to change in others?” Most of them responded that we would like others to be more tolerant, friendly, sensitive, and understanding. “And what qualities would you like to cultivate in yourself?” Of course: confidence, commitment, perseverance, and strength – very different and opposed qualities.
When we act offended we often use others as objects of self-affirmation. And this becomes a way of building relationships.
What to do with grievances
How do you know that you have forgiven with all your heart?
To understand if you have truly forgiven, it is important to have internal criteria. Furthermore, these criteria are different for each person. The internal criterion is a sense that I do not hold malevolence in my heart. For one person this will be a feeling of lightness and freedom, in contrast to tension, gravity, and unpleasant feelings; but for another it will be the ability to talk freely with the offender without an unpleasant aftertaste or distorted perceptions.
For some, genuine forgiveness means ending that unceasing inner dialogue during which we constantly argue, justify, blame, explain, or judge the other. If these dialogues suddenly stop and there is peace of mind, then perhaps it means that you have sincerely forgiven.
It is imperative that each person find out for himself how he knows within that he has completely forgiven. There can be no external standard; no other person can help you find this criterion. This can be understood by self-observation and careful attention to your inner world. There is no other way.
Should we tolerate rudeness – for example, at the store or post office?
If we are talking about our reaction to the rudeness we face on public transportation, in stores, or in other places, here it is not offence that we feel. Offence is more related to personal relationships and emotional ties. On public transportation and in stores there is the fact of depersonalization: the insult may not be directed at me personally, but rather at me as a member of society, as a passenger, or as a costumer. Therefore it is likely that there will be no offence, but rather a reaction of irritation or rejection.
It is quite normal to react negatively to injustice, bullying, and rudeness. What is important is how we react. Of course, being rude in response is unacceptable. We can also say nothing, because we are unequal in strength and we are scared. It might be that the risk is too great, that there is the literal physical threat that the person might hit or continue to insult you – and here it is wise not to ask for trouble. Heroism, naturally, is welcome, but not in all situations. In a violent situation it is best to ask for help if we are unable to cope on our own. Ask for the store manager or write in the complaints book. Do not leave the situation unaddressed.
Why not? Because by addressing the situation we can help that person. You may fear that we will offend or upset them. But if we do not react we give them impunity. They feel that they can continue to behave in this way, which leads them into temptation. By encountering no resistance to their negative behavior, they begin to think it normal. It sometimes happens that people do not consider their behavior to be rude.
I often give the following example during lectures. I was traveling by train, and next to me sat a husband and wife talking to each other using obscene words. They communicated this way. They were not intentionally cursing; they were just having a conversation. I was sitting next to them along with two young girls. Listening to this was awful, and I understood that if I did not say something right then I would have to listen to this for the entire trip. So I reminded them that they were in a public place and that they should not express themselves in this way. They were quite frankly surprised, agreed with me, and apologized. It turned out that they did know regular words. They just somehow forgot that they were not at home.
I do not want to discuss the moral character of these people or their way of communicating, but it is important to understand that sometimes people do not realize that they are breaking the rules. And then, indeed, we can just ask them to stop without any aggression, anger, or frustration.
True, this is not always helpful. You might hear something unpleasant in response. Nevertheless, we must expose sin. We are called to do this as Orthodox Christians. Do not leave this unaddressed, because someone might simply not see the problem.
Do we need to talk about our offence to others or is it a personal matter?
When we are offended, we are faced with the question of whether or not to voice our offence. It depends on the situation, because we are responsible for our emotions. And the other person may be deliberately hurting us. So blaming them for hurting us is not always possible.
The next question is how close our relationship with that person is and whether I am going to continue communicating with him. This will determine my reaction to his words and actions. If I want to continue our relationship, then I should let him know what is painful to me, what words can hurt me, or why I do not react. Of course, do this in the form of an “I-message”: “I want to say that when someone does this, I do not like it (or it hurts me, I feel bad, I detest it).”
What do we do when it comes to serious things like our health? Here is a simple example. A man sitting next to me, without asking permission, began to smoke. I get a headache from tobacco smoke. He did not intentionally want to hurt me. Should I sit and suffer, smelling the cigarette smoke, and then suffer a headache? Or should I say to him: you know, I have a headache, so could you please not smoke?
Such a response to someone’s actions is not judgmental; I simply stated that I did not like it. I am not saying that I was offended. Therefore, in this case we can talk about our feelings and our reactions, but we should remember that sometimes our emotional response is inadequate to the situation. This inadequacy may be due to our being tired. We might not have gotten enough sleep and we might feel unwell, which just increases our sensitivity at that particular moment. So sometimes we can overreact to a common situation: how could this be, why is this so? This, however, does not mean that the person actually did anything wrong.
How should you react when someone deliberately hurts you?
If I understand that someone is hurting me on purpose, then I begin to question our relationship. If a person offends and hurts me knowingly, then what kind of relationship is that?
Or perhaps I provoked this action? That is also possible.
But even if I did provoke someone, that is still no reason to respond with “evil for evil”; there are other ways to solve problems. I unintentionally hurt someone and he reacted. But it is needless to multiply hate; the problem can be understood and the negativity stopped.
In any case, if you are not related, but just friends, then the questions of distance, trust, and sometimes the discontinuation of the relationship come up. Why do I need be with someone who intentionally hurts me? That is, if I am not a masochist.
It is more complicated with relatives.
How should we deal with touchy people? Should I always be cautious and please them or can I directly express my point of view?
Often when we are dealing with touchy people we become hypocritical by trying to please them, thinking that we are displaying our virtue and showing care for that person. When we please them and serve their touchiness, we think we are doing a good deed for them. This is not the case.
Hypocrisy and servility cannot be virtues, no matter what our motivations.
What is the difference between tolerance and patience? Tolerance is when all my inner emotions feel squeezed. What are these emotions? They are feelings of discontent, to say the least, of rejection and sometimes even of hatred. I do not show these emotions; I nod, smile, and agree; I do not have anything against it. But this has nothing to do with the virtue of patience. Patience is an internal decision with no traces of indignation, anger, or condemnation of the other person.
The result of tolerance is often gossip. Because here I have kept my feelings to myself, but then I go somewhere where I feel more secure, and there I will say everything I think about someone’s behavior. Therefore this “servility” does not lead to a favorable outcome.
It is important to remember that one bears responsibility for one’s own emotions. I cannot offend someone and someone cannot offend me. I can take offence. It is my choice how to react and how long I will be offended. Either I analyze and react, or I take pleasure in the offence. We have already discussed how being constantly offended can be a wonderful means of manipulation and self-assertion. So it makes no sense to indulge in this.
Sooner or later, someone will find out that we did not really agree with him at all and that we were only tolerating him the entire time. Who will tell him this? We will. The period of tolerance will come to an end and we will passionately express all that we have accumulated within. For the other person this will be terribly shocking and disappointing. It seems like we are suffering for the sake of the relationship, but a relationship built on hypocrisy gradually destroys itself.
Translated from Russian by Sophia Moshura
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
In our presentation we will touch upon an issue which may not be readily acknowledged by those who are not initiated in the existence of divine Grace. We would actually say that it quite ‘heavy going’ as its title reveals: ‘God-forsakenness’. However, it is a particularly important, “a crucial”, element in spiritual life. When many people, perhaps most, will hear what we have to say they will respond: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”(John 6, 60) However, Elder Sophrony stressed that God wishes to see us become perfect just as He is perfect (See Elder Sophrony: We shall see Him as He is). The path to perfection necessarily passes through the Calgary of God-forsakenness.
During the crucial moment of his life when man will adopt a positive stance in the face of the Lord according to His providence, the Lord will reveal Himself in a way which is beyond nature. Having devoted his entire freewill in obedience to the divine commandments, man “walks in newness of life” (Romans 6, 4) and enters a special spiritual realm in which he meets with the Lord, communicates with His Grace and experiences conditions beyond “words and meanings” which he could not previously even imagine. It is at this moment that the Christian beings to experience the spiritual “new life”, life in Christ.
In line with earlier Fathers of the Church, Elder Sophrony describes three stages in spiritual life. He writes: “The total regeneration of the fallen man into the “new” man is accomplished in three stages: The first, the initial, is the stage of the calling and inspiration towards the present battle. The second is the stage where the “perception” of Grace is withdrawn and man is experiencing God-forsakenness…And the third is where the perception of divine Grace revisits and man holds on to it” ( Elder Sophrony: On prayer).
This last stage where divine Grace revisits the faithful is a period of spiritual delight, of perception of Christ’s love and His proximity and of wonderful sentiments in the heart which are inexpressible with worldly, created words. Nevertheless, Elder Sophrony views this gift which was given according to the Lord’s pleasure as the “mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16, 9) ( Arch Sophrony: We Shall see Him as He is). The faithful is not able to assimilate divine Grace during this period so that his nature is united with it unto eternity. The faithful must enter into the second stage which is a protracted period of God-forsakenness. (Above: “We shall see Him as He is). The stronger the experience of the first visitation by divine Grace, the more powerful becomes the experience of its desertion. Even the spiritually perfect experience God-forsakenness in a perfect degree, but they recognize and accept the discipline by the Lord and do not grow weary.
In Patristic writings and especially in treatises written by Saints Ammonas, Macarius of Egypt, Diadohos Fotikis, Isaac the Syrian, Maximus the Confessor, John of Karpathos and Simon the New Theologian we encounter the corresponding terms “desertion by Grace”, “loss of Grace”, “diminishing or withdrawal of Grace” or “spiritual change” as indicative of this second stage. It is a rare occasion when the Fathers use this single, strong term: “God-forsakenness”. The first to use this term was Abba Kassianos in the beginning of the 5th Century in his work “Conversations with the Fathers of the desert”. The second one, as far as we know, is Elder Sophrony sixteen centuries later; we believe that he did this in order to stress the painfulness of this condition. In his writings Elder Sophrony also uses the corresponding terms ‘departure’ or ‘loss’ of Grace. We are not able to find any systematic teachings about this stage of “the departure” of Grace in patristic writings. Elder Joseph the Hesychast, St Silouan the Athonite and then Elder Sophrony were the first to extensively describe it.
How one does experience this phase? The Elder writes that the Lord, Who has initially wounded the heart with His love, recedes afterwards. A long stage of struggle opens up in front of one, which lasts for years, even decades (Above: We shall see Him as He is”). He says: “After the first visitation by Grace, battles and wars begin. A long time needs to pass before one assimilates the experience of the first visitation by Grace. The assimilation is accomplished through fortitude and determination during the times when divine Grace departs”. Grace revisits for a while, reinforces faith, regenerates the inspiration to continue the struggle and departs again” (See Elder Sophrony above). The times when divine Grace departs are moments of self-emptying, of spiritual indigence and of experiencing the anguish of being God-forsaken which lead us to some kind of despair. We feel as though we have fallen under some terrible spell. It is possible that our entire being is in anguish; our mind, our heart, our soul and our body. While in the beginning all the prayers offered and all requests made were immediately and miraculously fulfilled by the Lord, now everything has changed; the heavens seem to have closed off and every supplication falls in the Lord’s deaf ears.
The blessed Elder gives a significant description of this period of spiritual trials, which is a time for bearing one’s cross in all aspects of a Christian’s life, both internally and externally. “To the zealous Christian everything in his life becomes difficult. Other peoples’ behavior deteriorates; people stop appreciating him; what is tolerated in others becomes reprehensible for him; he gets paid almost always less than others; his body is easily afflicted by illnesses. Nature, various circumstances, people, everything turns against him. He cannot find favorable conditions to utilize his natural qualities even though they are not inferior to others. In addition, he suffers plenty of assaults by demonic powers and lastly he has to endure the unbearable pain of being forsaken by the Lord. Then his torment is amplified, since his entire being is afflicted in every way. The soul descends to Hades” (Arch. Sophrony: St Silouan the Athonite).
The Elder confesses that God forsakenness creates the impression of a paradox. When the Lord abandons us we feel a void in our entire existence. The soul is distressed since it does not know whether and when “the departed” Christ will return. The soul perceives this horrid void as death (Arch. Sophrony: On prayer). It is possible that the Lord will appear merciless to the soul. Not being able to find the Lord’s mercy despite the effort and strive which is beyond his power and which he undertakes unto the end, man suffers so profusely that if he could, he would have denied his existence” ( Arch. Sophrony: St Silouan the Athonite). This experience is so horrid and occasionally so ferocious that this great and experienced ascetic reveals that “the soul is afflicted by such thoughts and feelings that it is best to keep silent about” (See St Silouan above).
What is really happening though? Does the Lord truly abandon the faithful? Does the Lord withdraw his Grace from one’s soul and leave him completely alone? St Diadohos Fotikis says that the devil is precisely counting on this; namely to convince one believing that God’s Grace no longer resides in his heart and not take up the arms against him with the memory of God ( Diadohos Fotikis: Thirty Three chapters). Therefore, what is truly happening? The Elder stresses that the Lord withdraws “the perception of Grace” but His ontological communion with man is not severed. It is not a matter of an objective, total withdrawal of Grace, but the soul subjectively experiences its shrinkage and withdrawal as God-forsakenness (Above: On Prayer). During this period, the energy of Grace remains secretly with the faithful and not perceptively. Thus, God-forsakenness is noticeable. “Those belonging to Christ experience God-forsakenness through their spiritual perception and not their faith. The spiritual perception, which during the initial visitations by Grace has been developed to offer the faithful experiences of Paradise, now becomes the carrier of conditions from Hell”.
The Elder stresses: “The stronger the joy experienced from his union with the Lord, the more painful is the suffering from the separation from Him” (Above: “We shall see Him as He is”). The faith in the Lord’s providence, namely the faith of contemplation, cannot vanish. This does not mean that the experience of God-forsakenness is not real; but in spite of this, the Christian has faith that God is with him and hopes that he will experience the perception of His Grace once more. This is the meaning of the words uttered by Christ to St Silouan: “keep your thoughts in Hades but do not despair” (Above: St Silouan the Athonite). The faithful spiritually experiences and shows fortitude in the face of the horrid Hades of God-forsakenness, but does not despair because he is being supported by the faith of contemplation. St Paul refers to this kind of faith when he writes: “We walk by faith not by sight (i.e. not by our feelings) (B Corinthians 5, 7). “Elder Sophrony believes that the stations of God-forsakenness are necessary for ascetic progress; in reality they are paradoxical expressions of divine love. “The experience of God-forsakenness contains the life-giving power of the Lord” (Fr Nicholas Zakharov: I love therefore I am).
Immersed in great sorrow, the struggler tries with all his might to discover the reasons for the withdrawal and loss of Grace and looks for ways to enable it to return and be recaptured. Some possible reasons for the withdrawal are some slack in the spiritual effort, negligence and even acquiescence to an evil thought” (See above: St Silouan).
Elder Sophrony does not particularly refer to these causes nor does he talk about the kinds of God-forsakenness. However he concentrates on pride, as the root of all evil and the main cause for the loss of divine Grace. He stresses that “when we succumb to the spirit of pride or self-satisfaction—we fall pray to God-forsakenness. According to his spiritual father, St Silouan, this imperceptible passion of pride “drains the soul from Grace”.
Nevertheless, Elder Sophrony insists that when we undergo the withdrawal or reduction of Grace after its first visitation, this is in accordance with the providence of the Lord; God-forsakenness is inevitable even for the most disciplined ascetics. “God-forsakenness is not just one way to perceive the presence of the Lord but also a gift from God”. “It is a gift of God’s love” (See N. Sakharov: I love therefore I am). The main reason why God-forsakenness takes place has nothing to do with man, but occurs in accordance with God’s wisdom and his disciplinary providence. It is what Elder Joseph the Hesychast was describing as “the law of the Lord”. Elder Sophrony says: “Initially one receives the Lord’s Grace, then Grace recedes and man goes through the Lord’s discipline. Everyone must go through this discipline. Otherwise if he receives Grace without the necessary discipline, he may be harmed and may be eternally condemned. One must go by humility”.
Elder Sophrony compares the stage of God-forsakenness with the biblical times when the Jews had to wander in the desert before they were given the Promised Land. This course is painful but also astonishing. Its deeper meaning will be revealed to the one who will endure unto the end. Elder Sophrony goes on: “The essence of God-forsakenness is to prove that we are still immature; that we have not yet reached the end of the road; that we must drink from the cup He has drunk unto the end” ( See above: We shall see Him as He is).
“The Lord abandons us so that our free will is expressed”. At this stage “man is given the opportunity to exercise his free will and his faith in the Lord”. Through our self-emptying and our self-degradation to nothing, “we are cleansed from the cursed ‘inheritance’ of pride”. Through the tribulations during this stage, the Lord wishes “to establish the ascetic as His image- as lord and king- and convey to him sanctification and the fullness of divine existence” (Above: St Silouan the Athonite).
The reason for the protracted God-forsakenness is for the faithful to receive the genuine wealth of Grace as his indefeasible and eternal possession at the end of hard and long trials. Namely, to unify Grace with man’s created nature so that they become one; to deify man and convey to him the divine, uncreated form of existence (Arch. Sophrony: On prayer).
Elder Sophrony establishes God-forsakenness theologically in the face of Christ. “Jesus Christ as man” lived though the absolute God-forsakenness at Gethsemane but mostly on the cross when “Jesus cried with a loud voice … my God why have you forsaken me?”(Matthew 27, 46) The faithful must taste this same kind of God-forsakenness to some degree, as the image of Christ, in order to receive his deliverance (See above: We shall see Him as He is).
Usually after long periods of God-forsakenness, the Lord abundantly consoles man, as in the case of St Silouan, when he had been overcome by the dark spirit of despair. Indeed, having accepted the thought that it is “impossible to plead fervently with the Lord” he saw Man-God Christ alive. For this reason Elder Joseph, the Hesychast, stressed that “the Lord’s Grace reveals itself perceptively to man at the end of exhausting fortitude”.
During the times of God-forsakenness the afflictions injure the heart with a kind of metaphysical pain, which according to Elder Sophrony, was “the refrain of his life in Christ”( Above: We shall see Him as He is). Through the experience of such personal afflictions man is able to comprehend the suffering of the entire human race and feel the misery of every single person. “Through such afflictions man’s existence expands” and thus he is able to pray for the entire human race. Also with this kind of prayer which is beyond nature and takes place face to face with the Lord, the hypostatic principle is revealed. The purpose of the life of the orthodox Christian is to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Man assimilates divine Grace after many years of ascetic struggles, having experienced her presence and withdrawal many times. This kind of assimilation takes the form of spiritual comprehension, which the elder calls ‘dogmatic conscience’ (Above: St Silouan the Athonite). Therefore, the authentic authority of the orthodox dogma does not hail from academic circles but from such places where empirical theology is cultivated and developed, in accordance with Patristic Tradition. Monasteries are mostly such places.
The person who experiences God-forsakenness must be aware of this route- i.e. God’s discipline-and not give up, hesitate or retreat. The Elder stresses that many people had experienced the first visitation by Grace, but because they were not aware of the path to spiritual growth, they stopped striving and fell from the eyes of the Lord, when Grace withdrew. They also regarded the first visitation by Grace as “a temporary spiritual excitement” and not as an ontological experience (Above: We shall see Him as He is).
If the faithful is to win over this stage of God-forsakenness he must practice self-condemnation; he must ask for Lord’s mercy with genuine heartache and a humiliated heart and realize with all his might that the Lord’s words: “‘Without Me you can do nothing’ are true”. Self-condemnation leads to self-perception and to the recognition that we have an internal ailing condition which is the abode we have personally prepared for eternity. It also leads us to experience the personal torment which is taking place in the realm of the inner places of our heart. Thus, finally we acquire an internal hatred for ourselves- ‘the self-hatred’ as the Elder used to say- which abolishes all passions”.
He, who is being tested during God-forsakenness, must not deviate from his commitment to the commandments and to obedience; he must have the faith of contemplation, not subdue his conscience and show endless fortitude. He, who shows absolute obedience to his spiritual father, walks along the path of God-forsakenness with fewer hardships and more protection. The Elder underlines that eventually despair does not prevail over the ascetic. Even though the soul is hanging over the abyss of Hades and shudders, “nevertheless hope nests deeply inside. The cloud of God-forsakenness clears and the sun rises again” (Above: On prayer).
According to the Elder, the faithful must behave as though Grace is still with him during the times of God-forsakenness, even if he fills empty inside. “He must do whatever Grace had taught him whenever it had visited him” (Above: We shall see Him as He is). That is, the Elder assimilates the teachings by St Macarius the Egyptian, who prompts whoever experiences such conditions “to force himself to do good even when his heart is objecting, forever expecting the Lord’s mercy without any doubt” (St Macarius the Egyptian: Homilies). “It is natural and pleasant to love God when Grace dwells perceptively inside someone. However, if one is entrusting himself to the same kind of love when he is being crucified during the second stage of God-forsakenness, means that his love approaches the fullness of perfection and becomes stronger than the death he experiences by the withdrawal of Grace and by his self-emptying”( Arch. Zachary: A reference to Elder Sophrony’s Theology).
Those who experience Christianity as a moral or intellectual philosophical or theological system do not experience God-forsakenness. Such people have no empirical communion with the Lord. They are ignorant of the existence of and the participation in divine Grace, its advent and its departure. They may believe in the existence of God but they do not possess the living faith, the faith of contemplation. Such faith is missing from the moralists and the intellectuals. This is what the Elder means when he writes that “those who do not believe in God have not been acquainted with God-forsakenness” (Above: We shall see Him as He is).
I humbly pray that we all manage to keep our good and steadfast confession towards Christ when we arrive in the desert of God-forsakenness, so that we will finally reach the Promised Land, the final stage. This is the stage where as blessed Elder Sophrony says, the depressing exchange of conditions will cease and Grace will love us and will not desert us anymore.
source: Translated by Olga Konari Kokkinou from the Greek edition: Αρχιμ. Εφραίμ Βατοπαιδινού Καθηγουμένου Ι. Μ. Μ. Βατοπαιδίου, Αθωνικός Λόγος, Ιερά Μεγίστη Μονή Βατοπαιδίου, Άγιον Όρος 2010.
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