St Gregory Palamas (d. 1439) reminds us that sometimes experiences we do not like are in fact both necessary and helpful for our spiritual growth. We don’t want to suffer, and yet we can benefit from suffering. Forget suffering – let’s be honest, most of us hate inconvenience. We become enraged and wrathful when we experience the slightest inconvenience even when any real suffering is almost non-existent. The tiniest wrinkle in our planned experience of the universe causes us to fly into a rage. Palamas reminds us that many fruit bearing plants will not give us any fruit if there is no cold winter and hibernation. The dead of winter is necessary for the abundance of the fruits of the earth. We, however, completely ignore the benefits to the planet and to all living things of winter cold as soon as the temperature drops to any temperature we hate.
“Then in truth you will be poor in spirit and will gain dominion over the passions and clearly be called blessed by Him who said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
How, indeed, can those not be called blessed who have absolutely no truck with material wealth and place all their trust in Him? Who wish to please only Him? Who with humility and the other virtues live in His presence? Let us, then, also become poor in spirit by being humble, by submitting our unregenerate self to hardship and by shedding all possessions, so that the kingdom of God may be ours, and we may fulfill our blessed aspirations by inheriting the kingdom of heaven. The Lord has left us certain synoptic statements that express in a succinct manner the Gospel of our salvation, and one of these statements is the beatitude of which we have been speaking. By including so many virtues in that single phrase and excluding so many vices, the Lord has conferred His blessing on all those who through these virtues and through repentance prune the aspect of their souls that is vulnerable to passion.
But this is not all; for in that phrase He also includes many other things, analogous not to pruning but rather to the activity of cold, ice, snow, frost and the violence of the wind – in a word, to the hardship that plants undergo in winter and summer by being exposed to the cold and heat, yet without which nothing upon earth can ever bear fruit.
What are these things? The various trials and temptations that afflict us and that we must gladly endure if we are to yield fruit to the Husbandman of our souls. If we were to feel sorry for earthly plants and build a wall around them and put a roof over them and not allow them to suffer such hardships, then although we may prune and otherwise tend them assiduously, they will bear no fruit. On the contrary, we must let them endure everything, for then, after the winter’s hardship, in springtime they will bud, blossom, adorn themselves with leaves and, covered with this bountiful foliage, they will produce young fruit. This fruit, as the sun’s rays grow stronger, will thrive, mature and become ready for harvesting and eating.
Similarly, if we do not courageously bear the burden of trial and temptation – even though we may practice all the other virtues – we will never yield fruit worthy of the divine wine-press and the eternal granaries. For it is through patient endurance of afflictions deliberately entered into and those that are unsought, whether they come upon us from without or assault us from within, that we become perfect. What happens naturally to plants as a result of the farmer’s care and the changing seasons happens, if we so choose, to us, Christ’s spiritual branches (cf. John 15:5), when as creatures possessing free-will we are obedient to Him, the Husbandman of souls.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 45781-45888)
Praise the LORD from the earth …
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!