Christians often say: “if my fellow men behaved to me differently, if I had better children, if my spouse did not do this or the other, if…,if…, I could probably live a Christian life”. We have the impression that the cessation of external problems would make us better. However many times I say that external problems will never cease. Now we have troubles with our studies and later we are full of anxiety about our career or marriage. Bringing up our children will raise new problems. Afterwards we will be concerned about the future of our children or even finally of our grandchildren…I leave all other problems caused by work and social dealings. Problems will never end. We must overcome them. (The Illness and the Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p. 71)
And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19)
For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)
Archimandrite Zacharias instructs us:
Unless we endeavour to live within our heart, we remain blind to our untamed passions. The inclinations of our heart and mind remain beyond our control. We sin whether we want to or not. Sin can never attract the blessing of God, so unless we keep our hearts alive and alert, we will eventually become strangers to Him. The Scriptures say that ‘the heart is deep.’ God honours this ‘deep heart’ of man. All heaven hearkens to a deep heart athirst for God and ready to receive Him. But if our heart is indifferent to God, we are worth little more than dust and ashes. We must attend to our heart and cultivate it, for the hidden man of the heart is very precious in the sight of God. May God give us such a heart, a deep heart that is capable of divine and spiritual sensation!
We learn to enter into our ‘deep heart’ through personal prayer in our rooms and attendance at church services. And if we take courage and enter therein, we shall behold the great miracle of the union of our life with God’s Life, for this takes place in the heart of man. Indeed, the aim of our entire ascetic struggle – our fasts, vigils and prayers – is to reveal the heart, to unearth it. (Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony, p. 241-242)
“We are aware of a difference between the pleasure we experience in our bodies and that we experience in our hearts. Physical pleasures, when we lack them, arouse in us an all consuming desire for them. As soon as we possess and devour them, though, our satisfaction turns into distaste. Pleasures of the spirit, on the other hand, seem distasteful when we do not possess them, but once they begin to be ours, our desire awakens. The more hungrily we seek them when we have begun to enjoy them, the more do we enjoy them even as we hunger for them.
With our bodies it is the desire that gives us pleasure, not the gratification of our desires with the spirit, as the desire is nothing, the fulfillment is all the more pleasing. Physical desire leads to satiety, and satiety leads to distaste for what we desired; spiritual desire produces satiety, and satiety leads to new desire.
The pleasure of the spirit increases our inner longing even while it satisfies us, since the more we savor it the more we perceive that there is something more to long for.” (St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p 15)
“This day is blessed by God, it is God’s own and now let us go into it.
You walk in this day as God’s own messenger; whoever you meet, you meet in God’s own way. You are there to be the presence of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the presence of the Gospel – this is your function on this particular day.
God has never said that when you walk into a situation in His own Name, He will be crucified and you will be the risen one. You must be prepared to walk into situations, one after the other, in God’s name, to walk as the Son of God has done: in humiliation and humility, in truth and ready to be persecuted and so forth.
Usually what we expect when we fulfill God’s commandments is to see a marvelous result at once – we read of that at times in the lives of the saints. When, for instance, someone hits us on one cheek, we turn the other one, although we don’t expect to be hit at all, but we expect to hear the other person say ‘What, such humility’ – you get your reward and he gets the salvation of his soul. It does not work that way. You must pay the cost and very often you get hit hard. What matters is that you are prepared for that.
As to the day, if you accept that this day was blessed of God, chose by God with His own hand, then every person you meet is a gift of God, every circumstance you will meet is a gift of God, whether it is bitter or sweet, whether you like or dislike it. It is God’s own gift to you and if you take it that way, then you can face any situation. But then you must face it with the readiness that anything may happen, whether you enjoy it or not, and if you walk in the name of the Lord through a day which has come fresh and new out of His own Hands and has been blessed for you to live with it, then you can make prayer and life really like the two sides of one coin.
Abraham, Abba Agathon’s abba, asked Abba Poemen: “Why are the demons doing battle with me so?” and Abba Poemen said to him: “Are the demons doing battle with you? The demons do not battle with us as long as we are following our own wills, for our wills have become demons; it is they that oppress us so that we fulfill them. Do you want to see with whom the demons do battle? It is with Moses and those like him” (Give me a Word,p. 238).
“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
In Orthodoxy, humility is a highly valued virtue. It is opposed to judgmentalism which is born in the sin of pride. Judgmentalism leads to self-vaunting self-righteousness – considering oneself better than others. Humility is what allows us to see our own sins and not to judge our sisters and brothers. It doesn’t mean being blind – we are not taught to be blind to what is really going on – we are to see clearly even the sins of others. It is what we do with what we see and how we react to what we see which shows us whether we live in love.
The wisdom to love rather than judge is found in many spiritual traditions, here is a story from the Islamic tradition:
Sa’di of Shiraz tells this story about himself:
When I was a child I was a pious boy, fervent in prayer and devotion. One night I was keeping vigil with my father, the Holy Koran on my lap.
Everyone else in the room began to slumber and soon was sound asleep, so I said to my father, “None of these sleepers opens his eyes or raises his head to say his prayers. You would think that they were all dead.”
My father replied, “My beloved son, I would rather you too were asleep like them than slandering.” (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 107).
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-12)
“And the taskmasters forced them to hurry, saying, “Fulfill your work, your daily quota…” (Exodus 5:13)
“The mistake we often make with our inner life is to imagine that if we hurry we will be in our future sooner – a little like the man who ran from the last carriage of the train to the first, hoping that the distance between London and Edinburgh would be shortened as a result. When it is that kind of example we see how absurd it is, but when we continually try to live an inch ahead of ourselves, we do not feel the absurdity of it. Yet that is what prevents us from being completely in the present moment, which I dare say is the only moment in which we can be, because even if we imagine that we are ahead of time or ahead of ourselves, we are not. The only thing is that we are in a hurry, but we are not moving more quickly for this.” (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, p. 50)
“These are the divine prodigies behind the present festival; what we celebrate here, on this mountain now, is for us, too, a saving Mystery. This sacred initiation into the Mystery of Christ, this public solemnity, gathers us together. So that we might come inside the ineffable sanctuary, and might enter the place of Mysteries along with those chosen ones who were inspired to speak God’s words, let us listen to a divine, most sacred voice, as it seems to invite us from the peak of the mountain above us inviting us with strong words of persuasion and saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, on the day of the Lord – in the place of the Lord and in the house of our God.” [Our hope is] that, bathed in a vision of him, flooded with light, we might be changed for the better and joined together as one; and that, grasping hold of the light in light, we might cry out: “How fearful is this place! This is nothing other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!”
This is the place towards which we must hasten, I make bold to say, since Jesus who dwells there and who has gone up to heaven before us, is our guide on the way. With him, let us also flash like lightning before spiritual eyes, renewed in the shape of our souls and made divine, transformed along with him in order to be like him, always being deified, always changing for the better – leaping up the mountain slopes more nimbly than powerful deer, soaring higher than spotless doves, lifted up to the summit with Peter and James and John, walking on clouds with Moses and Elijah – so that the Lord might say of us as well: “There are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of man coming” to them “in the glory of his Father” (Anastasius of Sinai, Homily on the Transfiguration, Light on the Mountain, pp. 167-168).
There are many images and metaphors of the spiritual life, some more poetic than others. Sometimes we find even among non-Christians descriptions of the spiritual life that show that indeed God distributes His words to all people on earth.
Mevlana, who lived in the thirteenth century writes:
“Become like the sun in your compassion and generosity;
Like the night, cover up the shortcomings of others;
As the rushing waters, reach out to the entire world;
During moments of anger, at times of rage, become like a dead man;
Become like the earth (humus) so people can stand firm on your foundation;
And either become that whom you manifest, or manifest who you really are.”
(Mevlana Rumi, from Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 95).
“Those who follow the path of God often experience times when the holy peace, that glorious inner seclusion of calm detachment, and the freedom they love are interrupted-when, in fact, they withdraw. Sometimes movements within the heart raise such clouds of dust within that one cannot see the path one must follow.
When we happen to experience something like this, we must realize and recognize that God allows it to happen for our own good. This is precisely the warfare for which God has rewarded his saints with radiant crowns. Remembering this, then, let us not lose courage in the trials we face. As in any other trouble, we may look to the Lord and say to Him from our heart, ‘O Lord my God, take care of Your servant, and let Your will be done in me. I know and confess that Your words and promise are true. I put my trust in them and stand firmly upon Your path.’ Blessed is the soul that surrenders to the Lord each time it experiences trouble and hardship.
If, in spite of this, the struggle persists and we are unable to attune and unite our will with the will of God as quickly as we wish, let us not mourn or lose heart, but continue to surrender ourselves to God, bowing willingly to His decisions. Through this we will gain victory. Remember the battle our Lord Jesus Christ had to fight in the garden of Gethsemane, when he cried, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.’ But he immediately added, ‘Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will’ (Matthew 26:39). For He indeed faced all we have to face.
When we are faced with difficulties, it is best not to take any step til we raise our eyes to the crucified Christ our Lord. There we will see written in large letters how we too should behave in the hardships which face us. So let us copy it for ourselves – not in letters and words, but in actions. That is, when we feel attacks of self-loving, self-pity, we must not pay attention to them nor crawl down from our cross. Let us rather resort to prayer and endure with humility – striving to conquer our will and to stand firmly in the determination to desire God’s will to be done in us.
If we emerge from our prayer with this fruit, let us rejoice. If we fail to attain it, our soul will be left fasting, not having tasted its natural fruit.
We must try to let nothing dwell in our soul except God – even for a short time. In the meantime, do not mourn or be distressed by anything. Nor should we turn our eyes to look at the evil of others or to bad examples. Rather, let us learn to be like a little child, which, in its innocence, does not notice such things, but passes them by unharmed.” (Jack N. Sparks, Victory in the Unseen Warfare, pp. 111-112)