Orthodox America


  A Question of Progress


"Among our Russian elders, especially those of Optina, there is a spirit of deep piety, the spirit of Christ...

"The elder guides you, the elder guards your soul so that it won't fall into an abyss of sin-there to perish. He approaches you with kindness, with consolation, courage, wisdom, counsel and blessing for spiritual struggle. An elder draws pictures of the future and points out the sweetness of communion with God, the Most Holy Theotokos, and the saints, even here and now The elder speaks of illness as a ready means of salvation, of sufferings which forge humility, and which are soul-saving even without the addition of good deeds. The elder enters into your joys and your sorrows, his soul inter twines with yours. The elder teaches: prayer is the breath of the soul: where there is prayer, the soul is alive; in the absence of prayer, the soul is dead. There are so many areas in which the elder is skilled, authoritative and experienced. His voice is heard strong, clear, penetrating into the poor soul of the sinner, ashamed of his own self...

"The counsels of the elders are an inexhaustible fount... .Let us be grateful to these seers of mysteries, before whose spiritual gaze are reveal e d all the secrets of our hearts and our innermost thoughts. Although they lived among us, their lives bore the stamp of a life outside time and space. Let us begin with love to learn from them the way to eternal salvation.

(From the essay, "Elders and Their Instructions," in The Awareness of God, by Fr. Nicholas Deputatov)

It is to the great impoverishment of English speaking Christians that so few writings of 19th and 20th century Orthodox Fathers have been translated. Two worthy exceptions are Russian Letters of Devotion by Elder Macanus of Optina, and Christ Is In Our Midst by Fr. John of Valaam. The letter translated below is one of no less than 200 letters written by one of the brightest luminaries in the celestial array of elders which shone so brightly in 19th century Russia. These letters address the most varied questions on spiritual life, philosophy, church affairs-and even purely practical matters. The following letter was written by Elder Ambrose just 100 years ago in response to a question which still troubles people today- what is meant by "progress"?


In your letter of March 24, you addressed to me the following question from your son:

"The duty of a Christian is to do good and to strive to make this good triumph over evil. In the Gospels it is written that at the end of the world evil will triumph over good. How can one try to overcome evil with good, knowing that these attempts will not meet with any success, and that evil will triumph in the end?"

Tell your son: evil has already been vanquished - vanquished not by the strivings and powers of men, but by our Lord and Saviour Himself, the Son of God, Jesus Christ Who for this very reason came down from heaven to earth, was incarnate, suffered as man, and through His tribulations on the Cross and His resurrection defeated the power of evil and the perpetrator of evil-the devil who ruled over mankind; He liberated us from slavery to the devil  and to sin. as He Himself said, Behold, I shall give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy (Luke 10:19)

Now all believing Christians are given power through the mystery of Baptism to vanquish evil and to do good by fulfilling the Gospel commandments. No longer is anyone forcibly under the dominion of evil, unless it be those who are negligent in the keeping of God's commandments, and especially those who voluntarily give themselves over to sin. To desire by one's own strength to conquer evil-which has already been conquered b y the coming of the Saviour-indicates a wrong understanding of the Christian mysteries of the Orthodox Church; it is a sign of prideful self-assurance which prefers to do every thing on its own strength rather than trusting in the help of God, for as the Lord Himself so clearly said: Without Me you can do no thing (John 15:5).

You write that according to the Gospels at the end of the world evil will triumph over good. Nowhere in the Gospels is this written: it is only said that in the last times faith will decrease (Luke 18:8), and for the increase of lawlessness the love of many will grow cold (Matt. 24:12). And the holy Apostle Paul says that before the Second Coming of the Saviour, there will be revealed that man of sin... the son of perdition who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God (II Thess. 2:3-4), that is, anti-christ. But right here we are also told that the Lord shall consume him with the spirit of his mouth, und shall destroy him with the brightness of His coming. Where then is the triumph of evil over good? In general, any seeming triumph of evil over good is only imaginary, temporary.

On the other hand, it is also incorrect to think that mankind is constantly being perfected on earth. Progress or improvement exists only in external human affairs, in the conveniences of life. For example, we make use of railroads and the telegraph which previously did not exist; coal is mined which before was hidden in the bowels of the earth, etc. In the realm of Christian morality, how- ever, there is no common progress. In all the ages there have been people who have attained a high level of Christian perfection, being guided by true faith in Christ and following the t r u e Christian teaching in accordance with divine revelation which God revealed to His Church through God-inspired men, prophets and apostles. And there will be such people at the time of antichrist; for their sakes this time will be shortened, as it is written: for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened (Matt. 24:22). Likewise in all times there have been people who gave themselves over to various sins and wrong doing, or who fell into various heresies and errors, carried away by false reasoning (I Tim. 6:20), and arguing according to earthly wisdom, in spite of the warning of the holy Apostle Paul who says:

Brethren, beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the word, and not after Christ. (Col. 2:8)

Moral perfection on earth (imperfect) is not attained by mankind collectively, but by each believer individually, according to his fulfillment of God's commandments and in the measure of his humility. Final and ultimate perfection is attained only in heaven, in the future eternal life. Our transient earthly life serves only as a preparation, just as the years spent by a youth in school serve as a preparation for his future career. If the designation of mankind was limited by its earthly existence, if for a man everything came to an end on earth, then when. does the Apostle Peter write that the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up (II Peter 3:10)? For, he adds: we look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness (vs. 13). Without a future, blessed, eternal life, our earthly existence would be futile, meaningless.

The desire to labor for the good of humanity is wholly praiseworthy, but it must be placed in its proper perspective. Holy King David the Prophet wrote, First turn away from evil and then do good (Ps. 33). Today people act in the opposite way. Everyone says that they want to labor for the good of their neighbor, and they scarcely give any thought to the fact that one must first turn away from evil oneself, and only then become involved in trying to benefit one's neighbor.

The extensive projects of the younger generation designed to aid the whole of humanity may be compared to the dreams of a schoolboy who, not having finished his secondary education, already thinks that he can be a professor and a great educator at a university. On the other hand, one mustn't think that because we cannot help the whole of humanity to advance, it is therefore useless to labor at all-this is another extreme. It is the duty of every Christian, according to his strength and circumstances, to labor on behalf of others, mindful of the proper time and order for such activity as was mentioned above, and attributing any success in such endeavors to God and His holy will...

In conclusion, I would advise your son not to confuse external human activity with what is spiritual. Me can find progress in external inventions, particularly in science; but I repeat, in terms of Christian morality there is no common progress as concerns mankind collectively.

(Translated from "Orthodox Way" an annual supplement to "Orthodox Russia"; Jordanville, 1977)

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