Orthodox America

  From My Youth….

From my youth have many passions warred against me, but do Thou Thyself defend and save me, O Saviour. -- from the Hymns of Ascents, Fourth Tone 

    In the life of the Russian New Martyr, Bishop Basil of Kineshma, we see a remarkable thing: as a boy, his strict parents did not allow him to go anywhere outside his own yard and the temple of God--not to concerts, not to the theater, not to youth gatherings. "Nothing worldly," we read in his Life, "neither among their possessions, nor from the spirit of worldly culture, was to be found in their house." They even postponed his formal education, considering it more important to lay in the soul a firm foundation of prayer, spiritual struggle, and piety. And what became of this "deprived" child? Not only did he finish school with honors and go on to law school; he became a magnetic spiritual personality, a missionary preacher, bishop ascetic, and confessor for the Faith. For his success as measured by Orthodox Christian standards--he was indebted largely to his parents, whose paramount concern for their children's moral upbringing is an instructive example for Orthodox Christian educators--parents and teachers--of today. 

The parents tried in every way to protect the children from worldly influence, knowing how difficult it is to extract from the heart the thorns of sins and passions once they have fully matured. (from the Life of Saint Basil, Bishop of Kineshma)

       In the Lives of the Saints, we see all kinds of people, for true repentance and the Kingdom of Heaven are available to all. A large number of them are converted sinners or unbelievers, like many of the early martyrs, like Saint Cyprian the former sorcerer, or Saint Moses the former bandit. These serve as good models and intercessors for most of the adult Orthodox of our generation, who, unfortunately, often share with them a similar background of unbelief or immoral behavior, with all of the attendant consequences for the soul, including a painful and often halting and confused working out of our salvation.

      But another kind of saint gives us a different model, and one which we should hold up to our children. This is the kind of saint who, like New Martyr Bishop Basil, grew up in an Orthodox environment, was shielded strictly from all sinful influences from an early age, and with such a firm foundation in the Christian life was able to attain a great height of purity and sanctity, as well as the power to work miracles and bring spiritual healing to others. Other great examples of this "type" of saint are Saint Nicholas, Saint Sergius of Radonezh, and, in our own time, our newly-revealed wonderworker, Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

      Just imagine a life in which Christ, the Church, and the Holy Mysteries are everything. Imagine a life in which the world of the Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints is that world which is most real to the mind and heart. Imagine being free of the deadening care foisted upon us by the passions and by worldly ambition. Imagine someone who deeply, almost instinctively believes that the holiness and feats of the Saints are normal and normative, and that God's grace is as abundantly available to us as it was to them. The person who lived this life would certainly not be without sorrows (he would probably attract them), but he would also frequently experience overflowing, abundant joy, the joy which the Lord gives to the pure in heart.

      Is this not what we want for our children? How deeply, how bitterly do we regret the sins of our youth and the ignorance of our dark years of unbelief or imperfect belief. To the same extent do we most earnestly desire that our children be spared these things. How much joy then will they have in their lives! How greatly they will rejoice in the Lord, not only in the Kingdom to come, but even in this present world. And what fine parents and monastics they will prove to be, able to stand up to the trials of their generation, even unto martyrdom, if it be God's will. Let us not doubt that this is what our children can be.

      Unfortunately, we are often discouraged by the modern view that man is but a speck in a vast and impersonal universe, and we unconsciously pass this nihilistic perception on to our children. This pessimism robs us and them of the zeal for moral and ascetical podvigs. "What's the use?" it whispers. Let us not give in to such discouragement, but exult in what Christ has revealed man to be. Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (+1809) writes:

      God first created the invisible world and then the visible world. After everything else He creates man, of an invisible soul and a visible body. Thus He renders him like a cosmos--not a small cosmos within a great one, as the philosopher of Nature, Democritus, has said, and as other philosophers opine, calling man very pettily only a micro-cosmos and limiting his dignity and perfection to this visible world; no, God renders man a great cosmos within the small one. Man is a megalo-cosmos through the multitude of powers which he contains, especially intuitive and discursive reason and the will, which the physical universe does not have." (from Handbook of Counsel, as quoted by Constantine Cavarnos in St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite).

       So, simply in virtue of the powers of the soul endowed him by God, man is already much greater than the entire physical universe. He was created, after all, in the image of God. However, he can achieve his true potential only through the grace of God and the unremitting struggle to preserve the purity acquired in Holy Baptism. The mind which is kept pure and uncorrupted recovers the radiance of its original brightness (before the Pall), and sees reality exactly as it is without distortion. Therefore, the fundamental duty of the Orthodox Christian educator is clearly to ensure that his students are kept free from all morally corrupting influences. Methods, curricula, organization, good materials---we all know how hard these are to find or manufacture. But all of our efforts to put these together will be wasted if we do not shield our children from moral corruption. May the first goal and firm foundation of all our teaching of our children be the preservation of this purity.

       Our Orthodox faith holds out to us a radiant hope, if only we do right by our children, for those who achieve their potential can become a marvel to angels and to men.

Priest Steven Allen

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