Practical outline9 January 2012
When one is called upon by the Lord to get to know Him, the first thing one does is to search deep into the depths of his soul. He then sees that many of his actions throughout his life were indeed contrary to God’s will. From this moment onwards repentance begins. Repentance starts when one stops his sinful life; then repentance reaches deification which has no end.
The Lord cannot be described neither has He any ending. When one enters into the bosom of deification with the grace of the Holy Spirit, he suffers all of His attributes which are endless, unfathomable, imperceptible and infinite. That’s why I said that repentance has no end.
I would like to comment on the issue of repentance, because I have seen some things which have driven me to do so and also because I have noticed some issues in my personal life and from life in general.
Particularly during these days of Lent, I have noticed that monks have time to deal with trivial things because of inexperience. When asked about them they say that ‘they had some free time with nothing else to do’. This is some kind of narrow mindedness, if not an indication of little faith. Don’t you have anything to do? You may have finished your assigned task and have some free time. Then, go to your cell. Your cell is the workshop which reforms your personality. Why don’t you go and kneel in there? Why don’t you knock your head on the floor and beat your chest, which is the box of both good and bad notions? Why don’t you knock at our Jesus’ door? Why don’t you ask, demand, and insist until He opens up for you?
Why do you sit idle without doing some reading? Monks are theologians. In the Byzantine era, all faculties were taught at the University of Constantinople; all except theology, which was forbidden. Theology was only found in the holy monasteries. It was not regarded as part of general education. It only concerned the monks. They were the ones who were receiving illumination and revelations and were becoming theologians by coming into personal contact with the Lord. Why should we not then enter our university here day and night and become genuine theologians? I have had the experience and I will insist without letting up that the monk receives almost equal measures of Grace when he is studying in absolute silence in his cell, as when he is praying. I insist on this because I have tasted this not once but several times throughout my life with the Grace of our Jesus.
I would like to stress something else as well. The law of influence, the rule of effect, is absolutely applicable here. It is impossible that the Fathers whose mediation the monk requests and their writings which he studies with faith and fervour, not to have an effect on him. The holy Fathers were fathers and continue to be fathers; they too like the Lord, Whose ‘image and likeness’ they carry, look for an opportunity to convey us the graces they have acquired through their struggle. Rest assured that by reading and studying their writings, their fatherly affection will exert an influence on you.
Let us now return to the issue of repentance. It often happens that the struggler cannot win over his former-self (παλαιό άνθρωπο) despite hating and detesting his passions. According to the tradition of our Church, this state is regarded as ‘repentance’. It stops being ‘repentance’ as soon as the person gives up struggling and says: ‘I cannot go on anymore. There is nothing for me’. This is regarded as ‘despair’. The Church condemns it as ‘a blasphemy’ against the Holy Spirit and severs and rejects this member as rotten and blasphemous, because it turns against the Lord’ kindness.
Under no circumstances must we let our faith diminish. Let no one ever think that it is impossible for him to reach comprehensive repentance which is the state that our Jesus has called him to follow. We will accomplish this with the grace of Jesus. It is not possible to attain to it through human exertion and effort alone. This is selfish and the holy Fathers have condemned it. Makarius, the Great, says that a man’s intention has only enough power to resist the devil. If the devil incites him: ‘Do this’, man can only say: ‘No, I will not do it’. This is as far as man can go. Further than that, it is the job of Grace. This is why our Jesus was stressing with emphasis: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15, 5).
Therefore, you must never let your faith diminish. Never allow yourself to have little faith since ‘we walk with faith’. Never say: ‘We will never attain to impassion; we will never reach deification; we will never be able to imitate our Fathers’. This is blasphemy. We will imitate them because this is what we want and since this is what we want our Jesus will give it to us.
If we remain faithful and do not go back in our intention, we will certainly succeed. This is the truth. Our Fathers accept no other way. Any other way of thinking is regarded as ‘despair’. There is no such a thing as ‘I cannot go on anymore’. Why can’t you go on? We derive strength through our Jesus. ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4, 13). Paul used the word ‘everything’ so that he would not leave any margin for doubt; so that no one would say ‘I cannot’. Since God is with us, who can oppose us? The Lord justifies us, who can condemn us?
Pay attention to the limits of repentance as it is revealed in the Scriptures. Peter asked our Jesus: ‘Lord, is it alright if I forgive seven times the one who has wronged me? Peter was at the time imperfect since he had not yet received the illumination of Grace and was thinking like a normal human being. In view of the strict Law of Moses, he thought that he was being lenient. He not only wanted to forgive once but seven times. Jesus, explaining the spirit of the Church, said to him: ‘Not just seven, but seven times seven’. He wanted to stress that repentance is without limits.
Our lives here are repeated every twenty four hours. Even though we are ready at all times to make fresh decisions and have the necessary intention, our spirit is willing, but our flesh is weak. And it is not just our flesh. Along with the flesh we have to face our nature, our habits, places, people, things even the devil, himself. All these factors make up the opposition. All we are left with is our good intention and the mysteriously acting Divine Grace, which is all powerful. In theory all this is easy; in practice it is difficult as each one knows from experience. Every morning, we make a fresh start; we decide that from now on we will not succumb to our passions. Ok. But these passions are neither exorcised nor expelled and they do not leave when we tell them to. In order for them to leave, we need to wage a massive battle and resistance against them. This will be accomplished when Grace wins and not man. Virtues and passions are beyond our human nature. We cannot capture them, neither can we control them. Only Grace can drive them away. It will drive them away and will attract the virtues. When? Once we show persistence.
It is for this reason that our Jesus has stressed the need to show patience and perseverance. ‘By your endurance you will gain your lives (Luke 21, 19). Even when we are praying, He says: ‘Knock, ask’ and ‘pray and not get tired’ (Luke 18, 1). Then He mentions those examples with which He embarrasses us. If your child asks you for some bread, will you give him a stone? If he asks you to give him some fish, will you give him a snake? If you, who are wicked, will give good things to your child, will the Heavenly Father not give the Holy Spirit to those who ask for it? He will give ‘far more abundantly than all that we ask or think’ (Ephesians 3, 20). It is impossible such promises to be abolished. Our Jesus says: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’ (Matthew 4, 35). It is for this reason that the Son of God came to earth. Word God had no reason to suffer ‘emptying’ other than to return man to the bosom of Divine Love. This is the ‘new creation’ which is superior to the previous one.
There is one more secret which our Fathers have handed down to us and which you must be aware of. This is the secret. Occasionally when things are going well, Grace allows a temptation to strike. I explain. Grace never creates the temptation. Wow, this is blasphemous even to say it. Darkness never rises out of light, never. Let me explain this more clearly. I continue to fight against a certain passion which bothers me, against a wicked habit which oppresses me. I want it to leave me. I pray to the Lord to give me what I need. The Lord, in His all-saving providence, which encompasses everything, sees that it is not the appropriate time to oblige. Grace, instead of doing it, ignores me. Grace knows why. God is self sufficient and intervenes in a God- like manner; whatever He does is all-perfect. Whatever the Lord does is complete and not incomplete. Therefore, time is needed in this context. The Lord includes several things in one specific instance. We need to show endurance so that there is ample time for people, causes, places, occasions, even temperaments to be prepared. As soon as these are ready, He comes and completes everything. He accomplishes it.
There are other aspects on the same issue which our holy Fathers have handed down to us. Several times, Grace intervenes and hands out a punishment, leaving one helpless in order to save him from a future temptation which the Lord knows it would have afflicted him because of his inexperience and imperfection. These mysteries are so numerous that they are impossible to comprehend.
At other times, Grace designates a person as a leader for others and permits temptations to afflict him in order to prepare him so that he will be experienced in all respects when the time comes to stand up for the Church and become the beacon, the guide and leader of others. Grace tempts him in a mysterious and unusual way. Do you remember what He said? ‘Doesn’t the potter have authority over the clay? Can not he do what he wants from the same piece of clay? Grace acts in the same way. All the things we have mentioned convince us that we need to show patience and endurance and never have little faith.
Since our Jesus says ‘my words will not pass away’, we must be confident that no one’s faith will be disillusioned. Only humans disappoint each other since they have limited capacity and their knowledge is incomplete. God does not do this. He will give us whatever we ask so long as it has to do with our salvation.
A truly devout person told me once that from the moment he began his struggle the Lord had shown him His mercy and pointed out the true path to him. While struggling, he prayed to the Lord to absolve him of some difficult situation which seemed impossible to bear. Even though he had prayed extensively, he found no solution to his problem. Forty two years went by. Then Grace told him: ‘Remember you had asked me to reveal my will on that specific issue? My will was for you to do what you have done all those years’. My friend asked Grace: ‘What if I hadn’t done it, and done something else?’ Grace replied: ‘You would have lost your soul’. This is how these mysteries work. Therefore, we must show patience.
We read in the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov that some Russian called Motovilov was asking him to explain what Grace was. Even though he was praying for this, the Lord did listen to him. Twenty five years later, when he had forgotten about it, St Seraphim called him and said: ‘Come, I will show you the answer to the query you had so many years ago’. The Lord may take His time but does not forget.
Once we have decided that we want to be saved, we struggle to get rid of our passions and honestly wish that the Grace of the Holy Spirit dwells inside us and show us what She wants us to do. Our Jesus said: ‘First ask for the Kingdom of Heaven’ and everything else will be given to you. When we walk on the straight path, we will accomplish more than we had imagined. Therefore, you must keep up your good work even if you have tried a thousands times and failed. Do not imagine that something has gone amiss. Neither have we changed our intentions, nor God has changed and obviously not the devil. The phrase ‘ask and it will be given to you’ is genuine. If we have asked, they will give us; if we have sought, we will find; if we have knocked it will be opened to us. It is possible that the sun may not rise but it is not possible for us to fail.
It is not a matter of coincidence that the Lord has called us to follow Him. Who brought us here? Who has given us the strength to deny nature, become everyone’s laughing stock and commit ourselves to exile? And not only that, but we also fret whether we had relaxed our self control a little, or whether we had slept a little more, or shown a little disobedience! We worry about these things. The reason we worry is because the operating Grace of the Holy Spirit resides in us and convinces us about these issues and informs us. This is the truth. It is not just idle words. We hold the proof of the mercy of our Jesus’ in our own hands.
He has given us the ‘major’ gift. Will He not give us also the ‘lesser’ one? ‘While we were still sinners, He died for us’. He has been crucified and through the Cross has abolished sin and has signed the permit for our entry into the true life, by absolving us of our sins. Now it is up to us to show a little patience; not to turn back but as good servants stay awake and expect our Lord to ‘return from the wedding’. He will return and He will call each one of us. And we will reply with pride: ‘We are here, Lord. Ever since you have called us we have been waiting for You to come and keep Your promises’. Then we will hear Him say: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25, 21). These matters are true. You are already experiencing them and you will experience them even more if you pay a little more attention to studying the Scriptures and concentrate on your spiritual work.
You ought to carry out your assigned task conscientiously and obediently. You ought to be able to see the true presence of the divine will in the face of your Elder. Each one of you ought to think that only he and Christ exist. As soon as you finish your assignment you should be happy and not be moody, avoiding each other. You ought to be polite and eager to please. However, do not talk without reason. It is said that no one can ‘avoid sinning’ when idly talking. The wise Sirach says: ‘As a stick can fit between the soil and the stone, in the same way sin creeps among those who deal with give and take’. According to the Fathers ‘prasis and agorasmos’ is the ‘give and take’. In other words it means ‘to hear this and that’. Are these fitting for us? Idle talk is only appropriate for those in the world who have nothing better to do than talk about ‘this and that’. What is it to us if they want to do this? We are only concerned with the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are only concerned about Heaven. ‘Lift up your hearts’. Where is up? It is the Holy place where our Jesus has ‘entered as a forerunner on our behalf, having obtained eternal redemption’ (Hebrews 6, 20 and 9, 12). We should look to the Heavenly Altar, where our permanent abode is. ‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Hebrews 13, 14).We are citizens of Heaven. Abba Isaiah says: ‘Remember the Kingdom of Heaven so that you will slowly begin to desire it’. This memory increases the zeal in us.
This is what I wanted to remind you during this time of comprehensive repentance (i.e. of Lent).Therefore, let us proceed looking ‘to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12, 2); to the One who is the subject of our love; to the One who has called us and given us to taste the fragrance of His call and guided us to walk the path of the saints.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
Question: Elder, you mentioned Peter’s imperfection before Pentecost. Was this the reason for denying our Lord?
Answer: According to our holy Fathers, Peter denied our Lord because it was God’s concessionary Will to do so ( κατ’ οικονομία θέλημα). It was not like Peter who was with our Jesus the whole time and had shown such zeal and such humility, to deny our Lord three times. This is not reasonable. Remember Peter’s declaration? When Jesus asked them: ‘Who do you think I am?’ Peter declared: ‘You are Christ, the Son of the Living God’. Our Jesus turned to him and said: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16, 17). Peter was by nature very zealous and uncompromising. After his declaration, the Lord in His All-Wisdom made him the foundation of the Church. However, since the Church was going to encompass the entire human nature, not just the zealous and the strong-willed, but also the weak and the ailing, the Lord permitted this triple denial to take place. There is not even one person in five who will be so strong that he will love the Lord totally and show such self- denial because of the fervor of his love. Therefore the Lord has made a concession for the rest of us who are weak. However, Peter, who was zealous and strong and had no sense of concession in him, would not have understood the weak. Therefore the Lord makes a concession and permits Peter to deny Him. Then, He Himself heals him. He approaches him and says: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”(John 21, 15), ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me? (John 21, 16) Peter was grieved because he did not understand Him. Nevertheless, the three questions meant to heal the triple denial. By his triple confession, Peter had eradicated his quilt. He also learnt through experience that even zealous people were in need of clemency.
The Lord does the same thing to Paul. Because Paul was to become the backbone of the Church, He let him become a persecutor and an enemy at first; afterwards He caught him. And Paul, in true humility says: ‘I am not worthy to be called an Apostle since I have persecuted the Church of Christ’. However, I do have an excuse, ‘I have done it out of ignorance’.
Did you see how the Lord’s wisdom acts in order to console us as well? Had these leaders entered the Church with the force of their initial zeal, how would they have known that we, the weaklings, could not bear it? Divine Mercy condescends in the face of human weakness, so that we may reach Divinity. The Lord comes down to us, so that we may rise.
Question: Elder, sometimes when we get tired from our assignments we may squabble amongst ourselves. What are we to do in this case?
Answer: When you are tired you must be more careful. The love you have for one another must always come before anything else. Nevertheless, if some disagreement arises, you must try to convince your brother in the spirit of genuine and not pretentious love that you have inadvertently made a mistake. ‘Forgive me, my brother, I lost my temper’. When there is solidarity amongst you and you pray for each other and generally speaking you are cultivating unity and love this will make Satan powerless, because you will create a very strong bond.
There are many examples from the lives of our Holy Fathers which show that those who have been struggling with the grace of love for the sake of others became the reason for their release from their weaknesses. Let me remind you the example of the brother who faced a fierce struggle of the flesh and could not take it. He was living with his spiritual brother and one day he told him: ‘Forgive me my brother; I cannot remain here any more. I have tried as much as I could but I cannot do it any more. I am going outside to the world to get married’. His co ascetic tried to dissuade him to no avail. When the time came for him to leave, he told him: ‘I will join you. Since we have lived so long together as spiritual brothers, I do not think that it is wise to let you leave you alone now’.
-‘Are you crazy? I am going to find a woman to commit a sin with and you want to join me?’
-‘I will not sin with you, but I will come with you. I will not leave you alone’.
Indeed he followed him and when they reached the place of sin, his brother went inside to satisfy his desire. The other monk remained outside and was praying to the Lord. ‘Lord, even though it is the last hour, You are the only one who can still help him’. Indeed, when the monk went inside, he changed his mind. The Lord had stopped the onslaught of the temptation and he came to himself and said: ‘What am I doing? All these years in the desert I never had enough bread or water and now for a brief moment of pleasure I am about to forsake my Lord, taint myself, abandon all those efforts and join the devil in Hell!’ And he turned back. He did not commit a sin. He went outside to find his brother and said: ‘I have changed my mind. I will not sell short my salvation for such a trivial thing’.
They returned to their dwelling. One of the Elders revealed to them that the Lord stopped the temptation for the sake of his brother’s effort. See what happens? When there is love between you, it becomes a safety net for your rescue. The love we have for other people protects, shields, and covers whoever is away and whoever is weak. Thus the enemy can not realize his evil schemes. Love is such a significant issue. Indeed it ‘never gives up’.
source: Translated by Olga Konari Kokkinou from the Greek edition: Γέροντος Ιωσήφ Βατοπαιδινού, Διδαχές από τον Άθωνα, Εκδόσεις ‘Το Αγιον Όρος’, Θεσσαλονίκη, 1989.