Orthodox America


   The Strait and Narrow Way


by Bishop Theophan the Recluse

One frequently hears people say: "The Lord, having created man, led him into Paradise and provided him with everything for his enjoyment. After the fall, although man was expelled from Paradise, his capacity for pleasure and the means for pleasure remained: flowers offered the delight of smell, fruits - taste, the starry sky - sight, the singing of birds - hearing. Later, along the same lines, man invented music. Everything in nature speaks of the goodness of the Creator. There are those, however, who, in spite of God's good will, want to place restraints everywhere, limitations. They violate nature; they misrepresent God, holding forth a very distorted image."

A sad state of affairs indeed! And I, having written you in my last letter that even laymen should not shrink from monastic strictness if they want to be genuine Christians, thought that I had convinced everyone and that all your perplexities had been resolved. But what a muddle we have here! Why on earth have you put yourself in such a quandary - as if truth is on their side. You should say to them: "Go ahead, my friends, have fun, amuse yourselves, open wide all the gates of pleasure and delight, and revel at the banquet of this life... No one is holding you back, no one will place any barriers in your way. Live as you want. You are told only, in the words of the Lord, that there are two paths for the sons of men: the narrow path and the broad path, and that the first leads to life, while the latter leads to perdition. Read it for yourself, if you will. Here it is straight from the Gospel:

Enter ye in at the strait gate, says the Lord, for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matt. 7:13-14).

If you want to hear, then hear, but if you don't want to hear, then do as you like. This is not some human invention; it is a command of the Lord, nothing less. Strive to enter in at the strait gate, says the Lord on another occasion, for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able (Luke 13:28) "Strive," i.e., hasten, as if you are racing, competing with others to enter this strait and narrow gate, disregarding others, snatching it away from others: Let me in, let me in! as if fearful that these gates might close.

Why this is so is not for us to judge. The Lord ordained it this way, and that's that! Yes, and what Lord is this? He, Who, for our salvation, Himself went ahead of us along this narrow path and, after all manner of suffering, gave His soul to God from the Cross, saying to the crucified thief, This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise. He is, after all, our Saviour! All those who wish to be saved must follow after Him. And to follow after Him is possible only by carrying one's cross: Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me (Mark 8:34). This is the way of all those who desired salvation: apostles, martyrs, hierarchs, saints, and all those who attained salvation and who now inhabit God's city, the heavenly Jerusalem.

So, what's to be done? Certainly, one cannot be saved otherwise when, among those that are saved, there is not one who attained eternal blessedness by any other path. Is it not better to submit to this necessity, even though it may not be that sweet? After all, to suffer eternally is worse. Let those who wish to be saved somehow constrain themselves, and not seek excuses. It is hard, but what can you do? Not without reason is life called a struggle, a podvig. As Saint Paul says, Fight the good fight (podvigom dobrym podvizakhsya -I Tim. 6:12). As for those who do not wish to submit, they will do as they please. They should know, however, that the various rules and constraints are not man's invention; they are commands of God. A word of explanation might be added here. Why is it that this or that constraint is necessary? Why, for example, do we need to fast, why solitude, why so much prayer, etc.? However, I won't go into this. Those who follow the salvific path know how necessary all this is, while those who shun this path would rather not hear about it. Concerning those skewed interpretations of scripture that you had in your letter, I think I've already written to you. In Paradise, it's true, there were many things that brought man enjoyment, but these constituted but an external adornment of paradisiacal life; they were secondary elements. Man's primary purpose was not to delight in these but to be in communion with God through the voluntary fulfillment of God's will. If Paradise had remained man's dwelling-place, people would certainly have taken pleasure in these externals as well, but they would not have thought anything of it, it would not have been a concern; it would have been a natural adjunct, a shadow of a God-pleasing life.

So you see, even in Paradise, they didn't discuss or fuss about pleasures, while we, who have lost Paradise, want to set pleasure as the principal goal of life. If delights could lawfully have been the lot of fallen man, the Lord would not have expelled our forefathers from Paradise. By expelling them, He showed that a life of ease and pleasure does not befit fallen man. As you know, through the fall the entire order of things was changed. To man's life was added a brief period of earthly existence, full of sorrows and troubles designed to enlighten, correct, and cleanse man, to make him worthy of eternal enjoyment in a different, eternal paradise. Man's true life comes after the grave, or, more precisely, after his resurrection; while the present life is merely a threshold, a preparation for that future life. It is in the nature of this present life, as ordained by God, to have various external sorrows and misfortunes, and He prescribed for it various strictures as means of cleansing. Martyrs were flayed with iron claws, and thereby prepared for Paradise. This is an image of man's present life, in which, through these cleansing restrictions or constraints, like scourges, he is prepared for a blessed eternity! If you can get a man to understand well and to take to heart the brevity of this present life and how much benefit there is in its restrictions and confinements for the future, unending life, he will not only cease to shun them but, on the contrary, he will ask for them and strive for them as after something good and positive. This is how all those proceed who properly understand the meaning of this present life.

The fact that, after his expulsion from Paradise, man was not deprived of all means of pleasure, does not mean that there is no place for constraints in the order of the present life. In reaching for an explanation of this point, there come to mind the words of my dear teacher, Y. K. Amphiteatrov. One day I was walking with him through a grove, and I asked him in passing, "Why are there such disparities in nature? Here is a lovely flower, and next to it is a stinging nettle or jimsonweed. And the sky: sometimes it's clear and sometimes it's overcast and dreary." "Silly fellow," he replied. "These disparities are no trifling matter in the economy of God's providence concerning our salvation. The merciful God thereby says to you: It is only right that the sweat never leave your brow; it is your lot to be wearied by toil; but I sometimes give you to taste the sweetness of life, I allow your eyes to fill with light, your brow to be smoothed of furrows, and a smile to play upon your lips, so that you not lose hope and fall into despair. It is only right that the earth bring forth thorns and thistles for you, but I have ordained that it sometimes produce for an abundance of delights so that you might not lose the assurance that there still exists the possibility of recovering the lost blessedness. It is only right that in the air above your head and all around you should be nothing but storms, thunder, lightning; but you often see bright sun and enjoy the pleasant coolness of morning and the delightful tranquility of evening - so that you would remember that heaven is not altogether closed for you, that My embrace is always open towards you, and that I am ready to receive you into the heavenly habitations."

This, then, is the reason why certain enjoyments remain in nature, and not so that we might make these crumbs into a life-long party, or build out of these fragments a temple of happiness on earth! But our pleasure-seekers think otherwise. In their opinion, every constraint, every barrier to enjoyment is a violation of man's nature and is contrary to God's will. I have already said that this is not so, that God Himself ordained that man walk the narrow path. That this is in no way a violation of human nature may be understood from the following.

When man fell, he not only fell below his dignity, he also accepted internally some principles foreign to his proper nature, the seeds, as it were, of every kind of evil. Consequently, in fallen man we must differentiate what is proper to his nature and what is alien to it, although this, too, is found in man. All constraining rules and measures, prescribed and established by God, are exclusively aimed against these alien and evil seeds, in order to crush them, to suffocate them, and thereby to set at liberty man's true nature.

So, constraints are not a violation of nature but are like beneficial tools or means. They are what an operation is for the surgical removal of a malignancy, or a plaster for the drawing out of harmful matter. Our nature is in bondage. By placing various restraints upon us, the Lord want to free our nature. But we resist: "Don't touch! Don't hedge us in with rules!" And thereby, instead of defending we calumniate ourselves. Pleasure-seekers are lost souls. It's not to say that there is no place in life for pleasure; we should accept everything from the hands of God with thanksgiving. At the same time, we should not strive after enjoyments, nor, all the more, rebel against all kinds of restraining precepts. This is not why the lord Himself prescribed them. Such rebelliousness manifests not only a lack of understanding of the matter in question, but even a militant antitheism. You see where it all leads! But they think lightly of it. For the present they may be all right, but what will they find in the next world? Straitness and, against their will, a bitter and wretched straitness, for then it will be of no benefit. Lord, have mercy and save us!

Translated from Pis'ma o Khristianskoi Zhizni, Moscow 1908.

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