Monastic Conversations with Father Zacharias (III)

15 June 2020

Question: Can we offend God?

Answer: Of course we can. Even from the beginning of the Bible, God says: ‘My Spirit shall not remain in them because they have become flesh’ (Gen. 6:3) and St Paul says, ‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit’ (Eph. 4:30). We do not accept anthropomorphism in our approach to God, but there is a certain analogy. God is well-pleased when we are humble and perform righteousness, and He is grieved when we sin. Christ had such manifestations while He was with us in the flesh. Saint Sophrony said that the Lord rarely rejoiced while He was on earth. He was always grieving about this world.

Question: How is the fact that we can offend Him compared to His boundless love?

Answer: His nature is mercy and consolation, so His love always prevails. We have chased the Holy Spirit from us through sin, we became enslaved to our passions, and yet He did not abandon us, He did everything to bring us back to Himself without scaring us. He became Man so as to hide divinity in His humanity and be able to approach us, converse with us and drop in us the ‘hook’ of His word, of His love. And when we see that He did everything out of His infinite love, when we see Him extending His hands on the Cross, we come to a sense of honour and are drawn to Him. ‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me’ (John 12:32).

Question: Is there a cataphatic or an apophatic way of praying?

Answer: I think both are acceptable, both are ways of the Church. However, the cataphatic way should always have an apophatic character. When we say that God is a loving, merciful God, His love and His mercy are boundless, beyond description, beyond utterance. We approach God in a cataphatic way because we know Him. He became flesh, He lived among us, He gave us His word, He is a known and beloved God, as Father Sophrony calls Him. We know Him, but we never know the essence or the hypostatic mode of His being. We will participate in the energy, though even there not fully, but always more and more. So we must never lose sight of the apophatic character of this cataphatic attitude and experience that we have in the Church. The apophatic way shows that God is unknowable, inaccessible, beyond anything that man can think of or utter, and it is true. However, if our approach remains only apophatic, Father Sophrony says that it will end up becoming a philosophy. We need the cataphatic attitude because it is the experience of the Church. The union with God has a cataphatic character as a union of love. It is a very concrete union, it is a knowledge of the heart. Therefore, the cataphatic approach needs the apophatic aspect so as to keep its infinite dimension, whereas the apophatic attitude needs the cataphatic experience so as not to become a philosophy.

Question: Do many have a tendency to do only one and not to be so good in the other?

Answer: Father Sophrony emphasised the need of both. Each one of you knows that our God is a God Whom we have in our heart and we love, Who has given us concrete words and precepts. We know Him because He has become known to us and we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). However, all the things that pertain to Him are infinite, boundless. That is why there is an apophatic aspect even in the cataphatic approach. Every human mind can come to the apophatic method and see Him as completely other, for it is natural for the human mind not to accept anything about God which resembles man. However, if God remains completely other, completely unknown and inaccessible, in the end the spirit of His love is evaporated.

Question: If we have a tendency to be too apophatic, how can we become cataphatic?

Answer: Through repentance, in order to get a taste. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps. 34:8), this is the cataphatic approach.

Father Hegoumen Peter: Do we not see this pattern in the Liturgy? We call God invisible and incomprehensible, and then we have Communion with this God.

Answer: Yes, ‘Thou hast brought us from non-being into being and has left naught undone till Thou hast lifted us to heaven and hast bestowed upon us Thy Kingdom to come.’ What a strange expression: ‘Thy Kingdom to come’ is unknown and is really an apophatic concept, but He ‘has bestowed it upon us’ even before it comes. Even in the Liturgy the two aspects go hand in hand.

Question: In God, does the apophatic refer more to the substance and the cataphatic to the energies through which we know Him?

Answer: No, the apophatic refers even to the energies. God is love and this love is infinite, God is goodness, but there is no bound to it, for the energy of God is God Himself but in His energetic form. There was no time when He did not have a nature from which overflows the divine energy and we all came into being through the energy of God, not through His essence. God desired, willed, thought of the world and it came into being through His energy. Through the word of God we came into being (John 1:1-3), and here ‘the word’ signifies the energy of God, it does not signify the Word as a Person, the Son of God, just as also many times ‘the spirit’ is used to signify the energy of the Holy Spirit, not the Spirit as the third Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity. And in the Psalm we read: ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth’ (Ps. 33:6). Vladimir Lossky’s discernments about energy, hypostasis and nature in his book ‘Mystical Theology’ are excellent. He is very clear and very correct. He has a beautiful chapter ‘Union with God’ in which he refers to St Seraphim of Sarov and to the experience he had in the dialogue with Motovilov, in order to speak about man’s possibility to partake in the energetic nature of God.

Question: So the experience of grace at the same time enhances both our cataphatic and apophatic understanding of God?

Answer: Yes and without this experience we cannot understand theology. Father Sophrony said that the ideal is to study theology after a certain time of experience in prayer and repentance, for then you have a different understanding, a different concept about grace, about salvation in general. Through this experience we know both the action of grace and the death of sin. We know that when we humble ourselves and truly repent, God fills us with His ineffable consolation, with that enthusiasm and inspiration which is an uprush to eternity. And we also know that if we accept even one wrong thought of pride or some other passion, we immediately see our heart in pieces, we receive the wages of sin which is death (Rom. 6:23), we become desolate and earthly when we lose that grace. Even from the negative point of view we know that God is true.

Question: Could we say that the apophatic dimension keeps us humble and the cataphatic dimension keeps us out of despair because we know God?

Answer: Correct, but even in the cataphatic character we are humbled because we have not got that love to the end that the Lord revealed to us.

Question: When we humble our spirit by keeping our mind in hell, could we say that this is an apophatic aspect of life?

Answer: No, it is not apophatic. It is fulfilling a commandment, but the depth of it is indescribable.

Question: God says that ‘he that shall humble himself shall be exalted’ (Matt. 23:12). Can we say that every time we humble ourselves, we experience this ascension of the Lord?

Answer: Well, we all have experienced that. Sometimes you are in the Liturgy and you struggle to pray, but suddenly a humble thought comes and the heart is liberated, tears come and you receive a very inspired prayer which brings you very close to the Lord. Then you speak to Him with a boldness which you did not have before. Just one humble thought and the shell of the heart is broken, and new life is ‘hatched’.

Question: So we could say that the thought of hell is a gift in this life, because whenever we go this way we have an ascension.

Answer: Yes, in the same way as every hardship is a gift, if we use it to humble our spirit and to express gratitude to our Redeemer in order to make room for Him in our life. Any hardship or illness, any sort of suffering can be beneficial, because the dimension of suffering is in the very act of Christ’s economy for our salvation. Suffering and death entered into the world because of Adam’s transgression of the commandment. God told him: ‘With the sweat of your face and with pain and labour you will gain your bread’ (Gen. 3:19). Now, when we voluntarily labour for the bread of life which is His word, we are pleasing to Him and we are restored.

Anything that can make our heart humble, crushed and able to relate with the God of mercy and every consolation is beneficial. Self-condemnation to hell is very helpful. When I voluntarily consider myself worthy of hell, of the desolation in which I am in this life and I say this to God from my heart – ‘Keep your mind in hell and in your heart,’ says Saint Silouan – then this voluntary self-condemnation makes the heart contrite and I find a connection with God. There are many ways of connecting with God: through voluntary asceticism, and self-condemnation even to hell which is its highest form; and through involuntary asceticism when we suffer illness, shame, persecution or slander, and we humble ourselves, hanging everything on the mercy of God, putting our confidence in His justice, that He will bring us out of the pit of destruction. Saint Isaac the Syrian writes that no one ever ascended to heaven with comfort. The Fathers say that the true wisdom, especially for monks, is to have voluntary asceticism in their life, by continually saying the prayer of repentance with tears, by fasting, doing good and labouring for your fellows.

Question: Father, why has Christianity not been really understood throughout the centuries, as Father Sophrony says? Is it too high for humankind?

Answer: Yes, exactly. For Father Sophrony, Christianity is what he saw in his Staretz: to have a heart that embraces the whole universe and presents the whole world in the prayer of intercession before God at all times with big tears, as Saint Silouan says. For Father Sophrony a Christian is an imitation of Christ.

Question: And why are some more able than others to grasp it in its depth?

Answer: Well, we find this question in the Gospel of St John (see John 7:1-7). It is because our works are evil and we prefer darkness more than light (see John 3:19). When we read the lives of Saint Silouan, of Saint Joseph the Hesychast and of others, we see that this is true Christianity, this is the admirable spirit of sanctity which is a true light for the Christian. They had their confidence in nothing but Christ. Education – almost zero. Culture – hardly. At least not what people consider culture and good manners. Yet, they had such an inner culture, such a zeal and such a mind which knew divine boundlessness.

Question: So, can we say that we see true Christianity only in the Saints?

Answer: Yes, in the Saints of God. This is why we keep singing in the Liturgy: ‘O Son of God, Who art wonderful in the Saints, save us who sing unto Thee, alleluia.’ It is in the Saints that He is wonderful. And we, by economy, we try to follow the Saints. Even the Holy Ecumenical Synods have that humility and say: ‘Following our Fathers, we believe and dogmatise this or that.’ The Saints, these are the Christians who make Him wonderful, that is, who prove the veracity of His revelation, of His truth, who are a true likeness of Him. Forgive me, I am a very low category Christian, but at least by living next to Father Sophrony we caught a glimpse of what true Christianity is. When he was alone and thought that nobody could hear or see him, Father Sophrony would always lament that he could no longer live that life that he had known in the desert on the Holy Mountain when he was delivering his life to death at every moment and at all times. This is Christianity: to be able to keep yourself at the threshold of death without fear. Even Saint Symeon the New Theologian says something which condemns us, the spiritual fathers: ‘The spiritual father is he who delivers himself to death at every hour for those who are entrusted to him, for their salvation and spiritual profit.’ Who of us truly does that? Hardly ever are we able to keep such a measure. However, this is the true standard and whenever we kept a little measure of it, we saw the difference immediately, even in the people.

There was a very popular and gifted preacher, who knew and interpreted the Scriptures very well, he had an amazing understanding. He was very inspired because of his love for Scripture and for Christ. But once a thought came to him to leave his parish and preach Christ all over the world. As in his church there was no tradition to ask for the confirmation of an Elder, he left his parish to preach to all the world. Later someone found him in a foreign country sitting behind in a church in depression and refusing to celebrate the mass which someone else was asked to perform. I think his gift was real, but because there was no tradition to have a point of reference in the Church, which would confirm him in what he was doing, he followed his thought and he lost it. We read in St Paul that we must stand there where God has placed us (1 Cor. 7:20, 24).

If we are not vigilant, even we, Orthodox priests, may suffer depression or failure after years of successful ministry in the Church, although we may live in the bosom of Tradition. Those who live arbitrarily and with pride, and cut themselves from Tradition by detaching themselves from their spiritual father will always suffer harm. We are not protected when we have no point of reference, when we put our trust in our own thinking. We are asked, as Father Sophrony says, to crucify our mind and our reason, to accept a certain death of obedience and then we see the miracle. He who has voluntarily made his will dead and his mind foolish for the sake of obedience, will know the leap over the wall (Ps. 18:29). I had a fellow student who mixed with some holy monks that lived with us at that time. He acquired zeal and in a short time he became like an angel, praying all night. However, he did not humble himself to connect to one of those monks and acquire a spiritual father. For a few years he kept his freedom and had no point of reference, but then he lost it. Later, they lamented over him because in the end he did not manage to become a priest. If he had related to one of those holy hieromonks that we had there, he would have made it. Whereas some others, who were less gifted but trusted their spiritual fathers, managed much better.

This is much known in monasticism. I have seen Elders who were rather ordinary people and yet they had disciples who showed diligence and were obedient to them, and they became great. Because of their obedience and proper connection, grace found them and they became very rich. A Father said to me once: ‘The Church is a very strange institution. Some people with no career in the world go to the monastery and they find the way of salvation, they find grace and finish their lives beautifully. And there are others who have made a tremendous career in the world, but when they go to the monastery, they do not manage to find that way’ and that is because there is this question of humility and obedience. If you find a real Staretz who has discernment, you can have everything. You can have obedience which is the highest virtue, the one virtue that ‘forces’ God to come to you, and also you can have every freedom and every luxury to be carefree, to devote yourself only to prayer. In the Church this is what we need more than anything, more than cleverness or education: the instruction of our Fathers. God is the God of our Fathers and we are the children of our Fathers in order to become the children of God. If we do not understand this, we gain nothing. Those who sense the inner power of the mystery know this truth. Often people tell me that by one invocation of the prayers of their Fathers, their state changes immediately and they catch fire, and that happens because this is what is well-pleasing to God. Father Sophrony knew this very well, for this is how his heart was connected with St Silouan, this was his strength. The strength of Saint Symeon the New Theologian was his connection with Saint Symeon the Pious. He was so privileged. He saw Christ and on His right hand side his Father kneeling and praying for him. How to disbelieve his Father, when Christ gave him such a blessing to see that?

You are all younger than me so do not waste your time. Now that you are young try and become rich so that when you become old you live with the interest of your capital, as Saint Paissios said. ‘Whoso readeth, let him understand’ (Matt. 24:15).

Read the second part here