Orthodox America

  Letters of Archbishop Theophan of Poltava

On the Difference Between a Naturally Good Life and a Christian Life


You ask, what is the difference between a naturally good life and a Christian life?

    The difference is great. Christian lives a life of grace, whereas a person who is just good by nature is without grace. We see how important this condition is by the fact that we are saved by God's grace, not by good deeds. Good deeds which are performed for the sake of Christ and in the spirit of His commandments make us able to receive the grace of God. Without God's grace, regardless of how good a person is, he cannot be saved. Cornelius the Centurion performed many good deeds, but it was revealed to him that he could be saved only when the Holy Spirit would descend upon him through the Apostle Peter. This concept is developed simply and in depth in St. Seraphim's well known dialogue with Motovilov: "On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit." In essence, without God' s grace there cannot be any truly good deeds. The same may be said in part about tears. While a person is imperfect his tears are imperfect. There are different types of tears. Sometimes they originate in sensitivity, Sometimes out of grief, some-times out of anger--these are not Christian tears True tears come about only when one is grieving over one's sins or out of gratitude to our Lord for His goodness towards us and His mercies. To live a life full of grace one must avoid distractions and pre serve peace of heart. It is therefore more beneficial for one desiring a life of grace to live a more secluded life, rather than to become absorbed in all sorts of worldly activities.


Concerning Fatigue During Prayer and the Purpose of an Epitimia

     You ask: "What should I do so that extreme fatigue does not affect my concentration during prayer?" As you do not specify whether you are asking about private or common prayer, I will answer concerning both.

     When fatigue begins to overcome you during a church service, you should mentally recite the Jesus Prayer. It will help you concentrate in prayer. If you feel yourself getting tired during prayer at home, then you should force yourself a bit. If the fatigue disappears, then it was a temptation from the evil one. If it remains, then you may shorten your prayer; it is better in such cases to pray a bit less but attentively and with feeling.

"At confession Fr. V,… told me to do a few prostrations when I notice that I am sinning or am un-attentive. I wanted to ask you about this previously and now ask for your direction."

     This is beneficial with a proper understanding of the matter. An epitimia is not a punishment for a misdemeanor in the legalistic sense of the word. Iris a spiritual method of healing, having as its purpose a person's deliverance from a spiritual ailment.

November 21, 1929


Concerning Children's Games and Recreation in General 

     You ask: "Which common children's games are acceptable and what can be done so that children don't feel resentment when they are denied this fun?"

     It is difficult for me to answer your question directly. I do not know what typifies "common children's games" in this day and age. As times change so do diversions. But to deny children innocent fun and games would be an unnecessary severity. Everything has its time. Adults have their recreational activities. Even monastics have their diversions. It is natural for children to be happy and have fun. St. Gregory the Theologian makes a remarkable observation concerning adults' a joyous mood is one of the signs of a chaste life (in body and soul). Gloominess and despondency depend to a great degree on the fact that the harmony of chastity is disrupted. To get rid of despondency, one must cleanse one's soul through confession and be united with Christ through the Mystery of Communion--be united with Him Who is our joy!

January 12, 1930 

On How to Keep the Great Lent

      The general order and spirit of this time are beautifully expressed in the services and the typicon. You have only to immerse yourself in it and to follow the external discipline as much as your strength allows; in this way you will fulfill all that is necessary. Your main concern should be to concentrate your life on God. In order to do this, you  must, as far as possible, withdraw from worldly distractions, worldly occupations.

     You must keep in mind that life in God has several stages. It begins with a suffering awareness of one's sinfulness; this is followed by a striving to rid oneself of this sinful state, until finally, one attains blessed communion with God. It is especially fitting to devote the first week of Great Lent to the realization of one's sinfulness, The feeling of blessed communion with God comes to us naturally in the days of holy Pascha--we cannot force this ourselves. The strength of this feeling depends on the intensity of the initial experience--that is, our awareness of our sinful state, The rest of Great Lent is a time of gradual ascent from the first stage to the last.

Jan. 21, 1931