Orthodox America

  The Unchanging Call to Perfection

A call to lay people to be zealous for the Lord's glory 

     Since the dawn of Christianity, our Holy Fathers have given us examples of the God pleasing life that leads to salvation and eternal joy. This life is not based on human logic or reason, but on personal struggle, that is, asceticism and a deep internal life in the heart, where each movement contrary to the commandments is crushed and, with God's help, eventually uprooted from the soul.

    The path of asceticism is not limited to a chosen few whose exceptional spiritual capabilities lift them high above ordinary mortals. To walk this path does not demand what is beyond the limits of human endurance. All Christians are called to lead an ascetic life according to their strength--a life of struggle against the passions, sin and the spirit of worldliness which so easily diverts those inexperienced in the spiritual life from the narrow path to salvation.

     Such a call to spiritual struggle and an adherence to the age-old traditions of the Church, is often challenged by contemporary Orthodox youth with the question: "But isn't this the twentieth century?" The implication here is that the demands of Christianity must be adapted to the changing times. It is clear, however, to anyone who carefully examines the world that the changes witnessed by the passage of centuries have been minimal. Only the scenery, tike a backdrop in the theater of life, has become different. It is true, the widespread amorality and disregard for religion in the world today often undermine the best of intentions. But a study of ancient Rome would quickly prove that the task of Christian perfection was no less challenging at that time than it is today. The struggle against the world--with all its dazzling enticements-is a timeless battle waged by each and every Christian desiring the crown of eternal life. Only consider: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Not a single letter of our Lord's commandments has changed over the centuries, and it never will.

     One excuse after another is offered by those who attempt to justify their avoidance of the ascetic path: "It is only for monastics and clergy; laymen shouldn't be so fanatic." We have only to look at the writings of the Holy Fathers to see that this is a lame excuse indeed. Writing in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom "used to say constantly that the life of the monks does not differ from the life of married people. God's commandments are common to all, and the call to heavenly blessings and the Glory of God in the Kingdom of Heaven is directed to all people, monastics and married. When the Lord spoke to the multitudes, those who were listening to Him were not monks. Purity of heart, humility, spiritual mourning, almsgiving, fortitude during times of persecution and grief in order to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven are the features of the way our Lord indicated to the Israel of grace and were directed to farmers, fishermen, simple folk, and heads of households who brought with them wherever they went their children and their problems, which were just like ours today."*

    Centuries later, another Holy Father, Bishop Theophan the Recluse, wrote: "Marital life does not close the gate of Heaven. It need not create obstacles to spiritual perfection. Perfection lies not in any external regime but in interior dispositions, feelings and intentions. Try to plant them in your heart. Read the Gospels and the Epistles and consider how a Christian should live, then do the same."

    There are some who decline to step onto the ascetic path for fear of stumbling: "We cannot struggle today; there are no sure guides; we will only fall into delusion ." Such reasoning can hardly be justified. Although we cannot pretend to have the personal guidance of God-bearing elders, we have today a wealth of spiritual books. Let us benefit from the rich spiritual treasures they contain. Even secular knowledge is not without benefit when put to proper use. Modern science and philosophy teach an important lesson: despite all the advanced technology and progress, our understanding and control of the natural world--let alone the spiritual (psychic) world--is superficial and limited. No reasonable scientist would dispute the fact that today far more is not known than is known and that the gap is increasing. Progress has opened our eyes to our ignorance and insignificance. Glory be to God! Yet the answers to all questions concerning life, death and eternity are contained in the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and are explained for us by the Holy Fathers.

     Those who boldly take up arms in the battle for spiritual perfection are often accused of being prideful, it must be admitted that the demon of pride is one of the most tenacious. Those who feel this passion inflame their hearts as they strive to please God, should, however, not be discouraged into abandoning the struggle, for this is often its disguised purpose. Hear what St. John of the Ladder says:

    "I am vainglorious when I fast, and when I relax the fast in order to be unnoticed, I am again vainglorious over my prudence, When well-dressed I am quite overcome with vainglory and when I put on poor clothes l am vainglorious again. When I talk I am defeated and when I am silent I am again defeated by it. However I throw this prickly-pear, a spike stands upright."

    This "prickly-pear", this passion of vainglory is never far from us. Recognizing this, we have all the more reason to beg the Lord' s mercy, seeing how far we are from perfection. At the same time, just because we are plagued by prideful thoughts does not mean that we should surrender from the bat fie until such a time as we have, in our opinion, made sufficient progress on the path of righteousness. Such thoughts arise either from laziness and false humility, or from the envying devil who, seeing an Orthodox Christian take up the unconquerable weapons of prayer and fasting, pounces on the struggler in a bid to divert him from this honorable course.

     Let us not be ashamed to be zealous for the Lord's glory. To desire spiritual perfection is praiseworthy. Our Lord Himself calls us to this: Be ye perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:~8). Those who step boldly upon the ascetic path to perfection must, however, be prepared to encounter many obstacles.. When this occurs it is comforting to recall the countless numbers of men and women who have been confronted by similar--and much greater--obstacles: criticism, slander, ostracism by friends and relatives--even imprisonment, torture, and shameful death. Such seemingly insurmountable difficulties are conquered most easily by a spirit of meek acceptance of God’s perfect and holy will, by the patient carrying of one's cross. Here is the path which leads most swiftly heavenward.

    Now is the time of our salvation. Now is the time to put on our armor: the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:11-17). Pray that the Lord deepen your understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Read the Holy Fathers. Try to increase your concentration during divine services. Prepare yourself regularly to communicate of our Lord's Body and Blood. Tern per your desires, for worldly distractions: theater, television, parties... Avoid books or pictures which incite impure thoughts. And if you feel oppressed by the spirit of the world, take courage in knowing that where evil abounds, there Grace abounds still more (Rom. 5:20).

     The time is drawing near when there may no longer be spiritual books, priests, open churches. We must fortify ourselves now while there is still time; this will give us the necessary strength to resist the pressures to conform to the ways of the world.

    Our life is short. Let us rouse ourselves to answer the call to perfection and be an example inspiring others to join us on the path to salvation. St, Seraphim of Sarov said, "Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved." Our Lord Jesus Christ, His Most Holy Mother and all the Saints stand on our side. If they be for us, who can be against us? 

An Australian Reader