Orthodox America

Sacred Tradition, Part IV

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Monk Anthony

The Art of Saving One's Soul

The goal of our life is the salvation of our soul, i.e., the attainment of eternal blessedness. It is for this that God created us, that we might rejoice in His presence (dwell blissfully with Him). T

The person who saves his soul fulfills his calling in this world. Concerning the man who did not attain salvation and lost his soul in perdition, one can say that he as born in vain. Salvation is attained only by one who, denying his self-will, compels himself in all things to do the will of God. Now every one that saith unto Me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter into the Kingdom of Heave; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in Heaven (Matt. 7:21). Such a one is a true servant of God and will not be abandoned by Him. The will of God is expressed in the Gospel commandments. The work of our salvation consists in forcing ourselves to act upon Christ’s commandments.

It is a difficult path. We have a flesh, an antagonist of the spirit teeming with diverse passions, accustomed to sin and finding pleasure therein (Rom 7:18-25). And we have another enemy, the world around us, i.e., people who do not know God, those who, not understanding the true purpose of human existence, try by various means to turn us aside from the soul-saving path. Finally, we have countless fleshless foes – the demons, who inspire us to commit all manner of sin in order that we might inherit together with them the torment prepared for them. In view of the extreme difficulties encountered on this path to God, this path is called narrow, and not many desire to take it. The majority choose the wide path, which consists in doing as they please.

As if it were not difficult enough to compel ourselves to the doing of Christ’s commandments, countless dangers await us on this path. Evil constantly clothes itself in the image of good: Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light (II Cor. 11:14). Some activity appears to us to be good and beneficial, but in essence it is harmful and its end is sometimes ruinous. The passions themselves can give the appearance of virtues. We have the example of the pharisee, who regarded his passion for judging others as zeal for piety (Luke 18:10-14). And there are other dangers. Vainglory often makes us undertake struggles beyond our capacity. We think that we are serving God, whereas we are in fact serving this vainglory which only delights in our supposed good deeds. Such a path usually leads us to an exalted opinion of ourselves, to pride and disdain for our neighbor; sometimes, when these struggles are extreme, they destroy one’s health. The dangers which lie in wait for us on our path are innumerable and multifarious. It’s sometimes very hard to distinguish the true path, leading to the Kingdom of God, from all sorts of diverging paths which can lead the lost soul to the depths of hell. These wanderings are called prelest, or spiritual deception.

Here, too, the Church comes to our aid. The Holy Fathers, who themselves took the narrow path of salvation, left us in their writings a detailed description of this path and all the dangers met upon it. They teach how we should begin our struggles, how and how much to pray, how to fast, how to battle sinful thoughts and repel them. They teach how we must gradually cleanse ourselves from passions and seed our souls with virtues, to make of ourselves a "new creature". They explain in detail how we must fight against each of the passions against anger, against gluttony and adultery, against pride, so that our struggle would be fruitful. In our spiritual battle thoughts often come to us which are seemingly good, but which contain a hidden poison. The Holy Fathers teach us how we can discern them. When we begin to make progress in prayer, they instruct us in the path of true prayer, and indicate the deviations from this path – forms of false prayer – prelest.

The Fathers wrote whole books about this inner warfare with evil, books which contain the art of self-perfection. This art is so difficult and vast that the Fathers called it the art of arts. Everyone who desires to attain Christian perfection must read the teachings of the Fathers. If someone begins to struggle, trusting in his own intellect and powers alone, he will either perish as a victim of demonic delusion or he will remain his whole life without any spiritual fruit. And this is understandable. If a person goes into a dark, unknown forest, he must either take a guide or at least inquire of those who know the roads in that forest. Otherwise he can easily get lost and perish.

Rules for Outward Behavior

The teaching on the soul’s salvation is principally concerned with our inner man. Here the various movements of the soul are identified, study is made of the various thoughts and passions, invisible to outsiders. But besides our inner man, we also have an outer man, whose actions are visible to all. The Church gives us a whole series of precepts in order that our outward behavior be profitable for us and edifying for others.

Apostle Paul, in many passages in his epistles, advises the faithful to imitate him and his co-laborers: I beseech you, be ye followers of me (I Cor. 4:16); Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you (I Cor. 11:1-2); Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example (Phil. 3:17); Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do… (Phil. 4-9), etc. The Apostle speaks of the need to follow him, but says little about how this is to be done; we are taught all this by the tradition of the Church. The Apostle’s disciples strictly preserved his tradition, for which he praised them: Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances , as I delivered them to you (I Cor. 11:2). Later similar apostolic traditions were written down by their followers, the Holy Fathers.

Although there are in Scripture various directives for the proper conduct of a Christian and his relations with his fellow believers, this subject is treated inconsiderably more detail by the Holy Fathers and later church writers, up to our own time. They write how one should behave in church and outside the church; they write about the importance of modest attire; they write about various forms of entertainments - –hat is acceptable for a Christian and what is note; then, they pay considerable attention to the proper relationship between people: between authorities and their subjects, between husband and wife, children and parents, etc. All such teachings and counsels regarding the outward behavior of the Christian comprise yet another branch of the Sacred Tradition of the Church

(Translated from Vechnoe, Paris, August 1963)

To be continued