Orthodox America

  Narrow is the Way

By New Martyr Bishop Basil of Kineshma

...And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils. And he called them unto him, and said unto them ... Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith so ever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit. (Mark 3:20-30) 

    This passage from the Gospel begins with a brief but characteristic episode that sheds a ray of light on a very sad side of the Lord's earthly life: on the attitude of His closest relatives towards Him. We know that the path of the Lord Jesus Christ was not strewn with roses. It was a thorny, sorrowful path, where boundless grace and kindness constantly ran up against thorns of human ingratitude and misunderstanding. But the twenty first verse of the third chapter of Saint Mark's Gospel, if one examines it closely, is especially grievous, for it reveals a hidden corner of the Saviour's life, where sorrow is imperceptible to the outsider and not easily discerned even by His disciples. It is a sorrow deeply hidden in the secret recesses of the heart, where it is often most painful.

       ...His friends ... went out lo lay hold on Him: for they said, He is beside Himself. Think about it. What does this mean?

      The people, as always, were streaming to the Lord in crowds; they celebrated the Great Prophet who had appeared in their midst and took delight in listening to His teachings. Meanwhile, His close ones, His relatives, were uneasy and went to lay hold on Him, for they said, He is beside Himself, which is as much as to say, "He's gone crazy."

       Crazy! What a simple and easy way of explaining all that was extraordinary; all that did not fit into the ordinary scheme of things; all that was great, miraculous, and bewildering in the life of the Lord. His suffering life of a wanderer, having no place to lay His head; His estrangement from His family, from the spiritual leaders of the people, from the rulers, from the usual way of understanding that existed in the Jewish society; His teaching: lofty, inspired, not readily accessible to mediocrity -- all this could be explained by the simple word, "crazy."

       And notice: from an average person's point of view, this conjecture, that is so fur of suspicion and fear, sounds very plausible. After all, is it not crazy to lead such a life as that of the Galilean Prophet: to leave one's home, abandon one's relatives, refuse the comforts and consolations of a home life, and, instead, to gather around oneself a group of strange, unfamiliar people, to roam through the Patestinian countryside with them, not lingering anywhere for long, subsisting on whatever comes to hand, and preaching something quite incomprehensible and irrational. He could live very peacefully, without bothering anyone, but instead He upbraids the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees, vexing them and subjecting Himself to the terrible danger of their revenge. He could enjoy great glory and use it to advantage, but He seems to avoid this glory, and forbids people to tell about the miracles He performs. He could acquire great power, He could become a king or popular leader -- the people almost compel Him to take this step -- but He prefers to lead the life of a wandering pauper.

      What is this? Is it not madness? And the wild, unusual teaching He preaches! We are all accustomed, if not to thinking about wealth and luxury, at least to take care that we have food, clothing, and a half decent place to live. But He... Listen to what He demands: Take no thought, saying, What shall me eat? or What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? ... Take no thought for the morrow (Matt. 6:31, 34)

       We all think that we can and even must defend our rights from shameless infringement; otherwise people will step all over us, we'll be under someone's thumb. But He says, Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away they coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain (Matt. 5:39-41).

       We all try to live our lives as effortlessly as possible, in maximum comfort and with a minimum of work, and it is beyond us to understand why we should have to deny ourselves, to limit our needs, to take upon ourselves deprivations and sufferings, but He teaches: Enter ye in at the strait gate' for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Bemuse strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life and few there be that find it (Matt. 7:13-14).

      This, approximately, is what many of our Lord's contemporaries must have thought, accustomed as they were to life's familiar routine as it was laid out for them by the Pharisees and lawyers. Doubtless this is the way His closest relatives thought; they could not fathom the depth of His teaching, and did not want to submit to His authority or to accept His words on faith. Finding themselves in His presence more often than others in the preparatory period of His ministry, they, of course, began before anyone else to observe in Him signs of seeming abnormality: love for solitude, pensiveness, incomprehensible utterances, strange actions. For this reason, they had long since harbored in their hearts the terrible suspicion, which now had become a certainty: "He's beside Himself! He's out of his mind?

      /.../Being misunderstood by one's close ones is especially painful. You walk into a room where the family is gathered, and the conversation is abruptly cut short; there's an awkward silence; you sense that they have been talking about you-- perhaps judging, perhaps feeling sorry./.../And there's no way you can convince these people that you are not crazy, that you are a completely normal person, that they simply do not understand what you think and what you say, or that they do not make the effort seriously to consider them.

      This must have been very hard, and the lord had to endure all this.

      It is this upsetting and bitter tragedy, unnoticeable from the outside and deeply hidden, that lies at the heart of the twenty-first verse.

      However, the Lord Jesus Christ had to listen to still more crude, more caustic remarks from the scribes and Pharisees.

      And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth He out devils (v. 22)

       The Jerusalem scribes were known for their erudition, and their word held weight among the people. Taking advantage of this influence in order to destroy the people's fascination with the person and miracles of the singular Galilean Prophet, they brought against Him an even more serious and fantastic accusation than His relatives: They declared Him to be possessed by an evil spirit.

       This lofty, inspired teaching; these wondrous parables, full of inexplicable inner appeal; these moving lesson of moral conduct; this implacable scourging of falsehood and seeking after truth--all this is nothing but demonic delusion. This beauty and nobility of character, kindness, meekness, co-suffering towards the weak, burning love for truth, boundless self-denial---all this is the work of an unclean spirit. Finally, these marvelous works, in which there is so much love for suffering man and so much divine power--this is the gift of a demonic king, Beelzebub.

       Such a charge is much more painful and difficult to bear than a reproach of madness. In influencing the people and arousing their suspicions, it hindered and delayed the development of Christ's mission. The accusation of madness was too obviously absurd for those who listened to the wise---although sometimes perplexing--talks of the Lord. The accusation of demon-possession seemed more plausible arid therefore could more easily be accepted, repelling many of His followers. This charge not only retarded the work of mankind's salvation, so dear to the Lord; what was even more painful, it reflected upon His relation to and love for God. A suspicion of madness could be offensive to Him personally as a man. The charge raised by the scribes was an offense to God, acting in Him. The Father that dwelleth in Me, He doeth the works (John 14:10), testified the Lord Jesus Christ concerning Himself. He knew the mystery of His might, He knew that the works He performed were worked by the power of God, and He saw in this proof of His divine mission, which should convince people to believe in Him (John 10:37-38). And suddenly, the power working in Him was being called the power of Beelzebub; that is, they want to compel people to regard His supernatural nature to be not of God but of Satan. This must have grievously offended the Lord's boundless love for God, the love of the Son for the Father. And it was because of this that He replied so harshly to His slanderers:

       Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith so ever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.. Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit (Mark 3: 28-30).

      Matthew and Luke's rendering of these words convey still another shade of meaning:

      Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come (Matt. 12:32; cf. Luke 12:10).

       From these words, it is evident how hard it was for the Lord to hear the slander that the Pharisees had advanced against the Holy Spirit operating within Him, trying thereby to draw upon Him the suspicion of demon possession.

    The Lord, however, had already foretold to His disciples and followers that He would be the victim of slander, misunderstanding and all manner of offense:

      The disciple is not above his master, He said, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? (Matt. 10:24-

       Therefore, whosoever decides to follow after the Lord Jesus Christ and to be faithful to Him, must be prepared: persecution, offenses, mockeries -these are unavoidable.

       Is there not a profound, sorrowful truth in this warning? How the world rises up in arms against anyone who thinks to forsake it in favor of the path of evangelical love and truth! If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not o~ the world, but I have chosen you out of the world~ therefore the world hateth you (John 15:19).

       Today you still belong to the world, you live with its interests and tastes, you bow before its idols--luxury, wealth, glory, recognition; you wallow in a maelstrom of vainglory, sensuality, self love, and other passions; like everyone else, you wear a mask of hypocritical propriety; you have so called clever and interesting conversation, full of concealed cynicism and poisonous judgment; you dare not mention God, eternal truth, strict laws of virtuous life; to speak of them is considered laughable and tiresome in polite society, and everyone finds you agreeable. You can be the life of the party, everywhere you are warmly received, people are glad to listen to you, they flatter you, they speak well of you, they readily forgive your poorly concealed ~ins or they laugh at them good naturedly. Everyone likes you: you are your own person.

       But then you experience a radical change: you begin to think more seriously about life and its meaning; something stirs in your conscience: you feel restless, dissatisfied. Long forgotten words of holy writ and sermons come floating into your consciousness; there appear thoughts of God and His righteousness; all the noisy vanity and insignificance of worldly life come sharply into focus before the mind's eye. You feel that there is no satisfaction there and that it cannot be found there, and you decide to make a break with the world, with its customs, with your friends and acquaintances, and, turning your back on your old life, to follow after Christ. There is a revolution in your life... And just look how quickly and radically society's opinion towards you changes. From all sides one hears howling, hissing; boos, hoots. Your former friends avoid you; when they do meet you, they feign unfamiliarity. You become the subject of badgering, gossip, slanders, talk...

       "Have you heard what happened with (N)? He's withdrawn from society, he's abandoned everything... They say he's planning to become a monk."

       "Poor fool! What, has he gone mad? You know, I always noticed something strange about him. Pity. He was such fun! What's behind it? Was he jilted?"

       "No, he's just a pharisee, a holier than thou! He puts on such airs... Hypocrite!... He's no different from the rest of us. We know him through and through."

      And so on. But have no fear! Do not let all this noise cause you to step back. There is no real danger here'--yet. This is only the first, relatively small test of your will and of the seriousness of your decision. You must overcome it, toughen up.

      Have no fear! All this howling and hooting is coming from a chorus of demonic powers who are sore at losing their hold on one of their former slaves. They are scaring you in order to make you abandon your intent. Ignore them. Remember, as a rule, demons always make a lot of noise and scare their victims, but they seldom do any real harm. Without God's allowance, they can do nothing.

      Have no fear! You are not alone. The Lord is coming to meet you, stretching out His arms towards you. Trust in Him. For in that He Himself suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted (Eph. 2:18). You can count on this. You hoard what a wondrous promise He gave to His faithful followers: Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and my mother (Mark 3:35).

How much joy and spiritual encouragement are in these words! To have such a brother – is this not a guarantee of victory? Could such a brother possibly abandon you without help and support in a difficult moment? What does it matter that your former acquaintances turn away from you, that your friends speak ill of you, if you have acquired such a brother?

      However, in order to be entitled to this, there is one condition: you must do the will of God. The Lord recognizes as His brother, His sister, His mother only those who do the will of God. From the moment that you took the decisive step, you should have no other aim besides coming to know what is this will and fulfilling it in your life.

      In earlier discussions, we already said that when a person is able to fuse his will with the will of God, submitting to it unconditionally, he acquires enormous strength and secures his victory in the war with evil. And there are other serious reasons for a Christian to cut off his own will and to make his aim in life the fulfillment of the will of God.

     After the Fall, man's will became defective, his desires -  sinful and irrational, because now they were ruled by his passions. There is an old Greek legend about King Midas, that represents a typical example of the irrationality of our usual desires. In reward for some service, Midas was granted the fight to ask for the fulfillment of one wish. The king was greedy for gold, and he demanded that whatever he touched would turn into gold. He received this magical gift, and fantastic things began to happen: the chair in which he sat down suddenly became gold, the table on which he leaned his elbow turned to gold. He went into the garden, and each step of the stairway leading there turned to gold the moment he set foot on it. In the garden he had only to touch any of the trees and they became covered with gold leaves. At first he found this all very entertaining. Everything that he could touch he turned to gold, and soon everything near and around him dazzled and glittered. When, however, the king's young son ran out of the palace and, throwing himself into his father's embrace, suddenly turned into a golden statue, Midas reflected that perhaps this was not such a wonderful gift after all. And when he sat down to eat and saw, to his horror, that the bread, vegetables, fruit, all the food with which he tried to satisfy his hunger turned to gold and that he could not swallow so much as a bite before the accursed gift took effect, he fell into despair. Alas! It was too late to repent of his wish.

      True, this is only a legend, an edifying tale. But while we may have enough sense not to demand such an obviously dangerous gift, our desires, in essence, are rarely any better. From a moral standpoint, they very seldom surpass the desire of that anecdotal gypsy, who wished to be king se that every day he could eat gingerbread with honey. Is it not true? Are not the vast majority of our desires characterized by a narrow egoism and sensuality? They axe all generated by our passions and, in trying to satisfy them, we invariably undermine our physical health and poison our soul, for each passion is ruinous and pernicious. Ultimately, if each of us were offered the privilege of King Midas, it is more than probable that we would choose a gift no less dangerous and ruinous. The harm that comes from our choice is not as evident; the poison that infects our desires is more subtle, but it operates just as effectively, and it is just as fatal. One person desires wealth; another, delectable food and rare wines; a third, success in sexual exploits, and se forth. In their deleterious consequences, all these desires are no better than the desire of King Midas. They may do it more slowly, but they act similarly, killing the person and his soul. 

    If our desires are so irrational, how can we trust them? Who can say where they will lead us? How often it happens that, after considerable labors and effort, a person finally attains the fulfillment of his desires only to realize, to his surprise and disappointment, that he was chasing after shadows, and that the dazzling dream that had so captivated him, once it was realized, lost all its charm. It is like a soap bubble: once a prism of beautiful colors, when caught by the hand it bursts, leaving only a slimy mess. At best, time and energy are lost; at worst, instead of happiness and satisfaction, one acquires a vexing burden, harmful and totally useless. Like moths, we often fly towards a flame only to burn our wings. I knew one very talented young fellow, who imagined that his happiness lay in a career as an actor. He was intoxicated with the glare of the footlights, with the flamboyant costumes, the magical beauty of life portrayed on the stage, with the noise of applause, the adulation of the crowds. And in order to capture this "happiness," he gave nearly his whole life and all his considerable talents. He attained that which he se desired: he achieved great success in the theater world--and only then did he realize that he had made a grave mistake, that he had absolutely no use for the stage or for success, and that the backstage life of an actor was loathsome to him. It was well nigh impossible for him to change tracks: the dissolute life of an actor had consumed his strength, his health, his talents, and it was already too late to make a new start. His young life, so full of promise, was ruined.

    Saint Nilus of Sinai, a man of profound spiritual experience, said the following about his desires:

        How many times have I prayed for what seemed a good thing for me, and persisted with my petition, foolishly importuning God's will, and not leaving it to God to do what, as He knows best, is useful for me. But, having obtained (what I had asked for), I found myself in great distress, and precisely because I had not asked for it to be, rather, according to God's will; for the thing proved not what I thought it to be. (Philokalia, 153 Texts on Prayer, ch. 32) 

      Here is the valuable testimony of a great ascetic, who through experience learned the full deceitfulness of man's desires.

      How much better it is wholly to give oneself over to the will of God, to reject one is own desires and strivings! After all, God's will is good, pleasing, and perfect; His will is for our good, for He is our Almighty, loving Father, "Who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." We can trust implicitly in the Lord, for He knows best what we really need and what is really good for us, and He can best guide us. He cares and loves us more than we ourselves.

      If the Lord said, I seek not Mine own will but the will of the Father Who sent Me; if the angels, mighty in power, always submit to the word of God and perfectly fulfill His will (Ps. 52:20-21), then how can we, who are without strength (Rom. 5:6), who have turned aside from the true path (Rom. 3:12), who have lost Him from sight and who are unable in and of ourselves to attain unto Him--how can we not desire to draw near to the Light that enlighteneth every man (John 1:9), and, having learned what is the will of God, as revealed to us by His only-begotten Son, not do it to our best abilities, for herein lies all that is good in our life. Listen to what Saint John of Kronstadt writes: 

        Adam and Eve were given one specific commandment in order that by fulfilling this one commandment-which was, moreover, a very easy one---men might acquire the habit of fulfilling the will of God, the fulfillment of which constitutes the whole well-being of creatures, and might be strengthened in the love of God. If we turn our attention to the contrary - to the non-fulfillment of the will of the Creator and the fulfillment of our own will, in opposition to the Creator's--we observe that little by little a man changes for the worse and perverts his own high nature, created after the image and likeness of God, and becomes God's enemy. So important is the fulfillment of God's commandments, and so destructive is their non-fulfillment! By giving to the first men His definite commandment not to eat the fruits of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Lord God revealed Himself as the Guide of the newly-created reasonable creatures, of His children by adoption. Whose fault was it that this guidance was rejected, and that man preferred to be governed by his own will? Even until now, notwithstanding all the treasures of human wisdom, neither the man of ancient nor of modern times can educate himself, because he rejected even from the beginning the guidance of God; for, say, who but God should be our guide? And both at present and in the past only those men successfully completed their mental and moral education who trusted in God and lived in accordance with His commandments, or who now live in accordance with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, submitting themselves to her guidance. (My Life in Christ, p. 400) 

      Lord! Teach us to do Thy will, for Thou art our God, for in Thee is the fountain of life! 

Translated from Besedi na Yeevangeilye ot Marka, Sviatitel’ Vasili Yepiskop Kineshemski, Moscow 1996.