Orthodox America



Our Lord came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly (John 10:10). Sadly, the contemporary Orthodox experience more often weighs in on the dull side. For too many of us spiritual life is simply another facet of a mundane existence: our daily prayers are a routine task, church attendance-a weekly obligation whose tedium is reflected by our inattention, our minimal involvement in parish life, the paucity of our almsgiving. Even more to the point is the same list of sins we carry to confession time after time. This is not only unfortunate. It is wrong. What can we do to correct it, to crawl out of this rut, to regain the freshness and vitality that belong to an authentic Christian life?

Our success in many areas of life depends upon our ability to cooperate. This is a crucial ingredient in marriage and it is an essential social skill in business, in politics, in team sports, indeed, in almost every field of human endeavor. It is likewise true of Christian life- most of all in our personal relationship with God. The theological term for it is SYNERGISM, defined as "the doctrine that regeneration is effected by a combination of human will and divine grace," from the Greek, sunergos, "working together". Without this "working together," there is no personal salvation.

This is not some kind of "fifty-fifty" contract with God. As Fr. Michael Pomazansky explains, "Both the spiritual birth and the future spiritual growth of a man occur through the mutual action of two principles. One of these is the grace of the Holy Spirit; the other, man's opening of his heart for the reception of it, a thirst for it, the desire to receive it...in other words, personal effort for the reception, preservation and activity in the soul of the Divine gifts." (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology:)

Many sectarians have followed Martin Luther into error by over-emphasizing the role of grace: By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves... (Eph. 2:8), conveniently glossing over numerous Scripture passages, particularly the Epistle of St. James, which stress the need also for works, without which faith is dead. There are likewise those who err in thinking to "earn" salvation through good works. St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches that vigils, fasting and other ascetic exploits or "works" "should be undertaken not so as to come into the blessed state, but in order to preserve the blessed state which we have received before through Holy Baptism, since this treasure is difficult to preserve." (Homily 2, "The Blessed State")

Our Lord Jesus Christ has done everything for our salvation: He has opened the door and invited us to joy in His presence at the eternal banquet. It is not up to us to merit salvation; we cannot; it's wrong even to try. It is up to us to indicate our acceptance of this offer, our desire to be with God, our gratitude for such a gracious and undeserved gift. Being weak, we have need of the help available to us through the prayers of others and, most powerfully, in the grace-filled Sacraments of the Church. But these are aids; they are not substitutes for our personal efforts, the application of our will to do the will of God. St. Macarius pointed this out in a letter to one of his spiritual children:

Now let us assume that because of God's grace working through the sacraments of Penance and Communion, you yourself do obtain forgiveness for the past. So far so good. But the onslaught of evil will be renewed and, if you are not to fall even more pitiably than before, your will must be keyed to heroic resistance. Therefore, I insist: if I am to help you, your will must be exerted.

God knows well our weaknesses; He does not require a superhuman effort. As one spiritual father remarked consolingly, even a fly's wing has weight before God. St. Macarius continued:

In your letters you go on to say that even when your will is set in the right direction it is still hopelessly weak. That doesn't matter. Let this weakness be a source of humility. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak! (Ps. 6:2) ....Steeling your own will to do His, humbly throw yourself on His mercy. If you do so, my prayers will be of the greatest help to you. (Russian Letters of Direction)

The best efforts are predicated on desire. We must ask ourselves in all honesty: How much do we really desire to be with God? Judging from our efforts, it would seem that we are preparing ourselves for a very mediocre eternity. In order to stimulate a greater desire for God we should take time daily to reflect upon His infinite goodness, His loving kindness. We should read attentively the akathist to our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is-"Unspeakable Love...Sweetness of the heart...Brightness of the mind...Pearl of great price..." The King of kings and Lord of lords has prepared a place for us in His everlasting Kingdom. It would be the height of folly and a most senseless-and irreversible-tragedy if we were to forfeit such a gift through our carelessness and lack of effort.

If these positive thoughts do not provide the necessary impetus to draw us out of our spiritual lethargy, we should heed St. Paul's warning to the Hebrews: How shall we escape [retribution] if we neglect so great a salvation....Let us...fear lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it (Heb. 2:2; 4:1). The Lord Himself gives us fair warning: we have the example of the guest evicted from the marriage feast because he hadn't the proper garment; the fig tree which was cursed because, although rich in foliage, it had no fruit; the five foolish virgins shut out from the bridal chamber because they had neglected to keep filled their lamps. We are told plainly that those who do not the Lord's commandments shall go away into everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46), into the fire that never shall be quenched (Mark 9:43).

The world's standards are demanding: our time and energies are occupied primarily with meeting its requirements for our families, jobs, financial security, material comfort, relaxation. An honest appraisal will show where these can be streamlined or even eliminated, in order that we might invest more effort in improving the quality of our spiritual life. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

God's grace is more than sufficient. It is up to us to cooperate. Let us increase our personal efforts that we might reap the benefits of an "abundant life," now-and for eternity. - Editor