Orthodox America

The Road Less Traveled  

 Abide in Me

Thou hast taken me captive with longing for Thee, O Christ, and hast transformed me with Thy divine love. (Ninth Song of the Transfiguration Canon)

     In the lives of the holy God-pleasers one notices that the words of Holy Scripture had a powerful effect on people and helped them to change their ways. Perhaps that will happen also to me.

     My attention chanced to be drawn by the words of the Saviour: Abide in Me and I in you .... If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth. . . . (John 15:4,6)

 These blessed and at the same time terrifying words led me to some serious thinking.

    If, in fact, not a single iota, not a single letter of the Law of God is to remain unfulfilled, is it possible for this warning of the Saviour to be left unfulfilled, i.e., that whoever does not abide in the Lord with heart and mind in this life will be cast away from Him for eternity? But it appears that we are so dull, so senseless, that we do not tremble at these words, we do not try and even don't want to see how necessary it is for us to acquire here, in this life, union with God. And how fatal it is for us if we de not acquire this, for then we shall be eternally cast out from the Lord!

    This unmistakable spiritual law stretches from here to eternity, but it is now screened from us by worldly vanities and our own carelessness. Having understood this law, as though by chance, I have determined to make it my primary consideration: I am going to try to keep it foremost in my mind, to concern myself over it and to use it as a weapon with which to defend myself from all surrounding opposition. And to strengthen myself in this resolve, I shall try to write down those thoughts which come tome in connection with this one thing needful: the uniting of my soul with the Lord!

     ... Thoughts can be very unstable, flighty. When you set them out on paper they become firm immovable. The same holds true for rules governing morality: while they remain unfulfilled they are somehow foreign, but when you act upon them they penetrate within, settle in the heart and lay a foundation for one's character--either good or bad. So teaches Bishop Theophan the Recluse. In a letter he advised someone: "During times of contemplation or when you are making prostrations, suddenly some soul-saving thoughts come to you, whether in the nature of guidance or clarification; you should make note of these and write them down"...

     Here is another example: Bishop Arsenius (of Serpukhov) writes in his diary: "Notice how there are times when good thoughts come into one's head, but unfortunately they are soon forgotten. These thoughts, says Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, are sparks of God's grace which, issuing forth from the fiery throne of God, are thrown into our mind by God's angels, but just as sparks are quickly extinguished, so too these thoughts are gone momentarily from our mind which is wholly occupied by worldly cares. The same should be said regarding feelings. Our hearts are seized from time to time by good and holy feelings, but soon they are replaced by stupid, sensual feelings. One can compare the heart of a Christian who is enlightened by the Holy Spirit to a lantern which sometimes flares up, then seems to die out, then barely flickers, while at other times it burns brightly. Good feelings are those flickerings of grace in the Christian heart·' St· Isaac the Syrian relates that "one elder wrote various maxims and thoughts on the wall of his cell· When asked the meaning of this he replied: 'These are bits of truth given to me by an angel that stays with me. They inspire me with undeceived contemplation of the truth. As soon as they appear I write them down in order that when darkness threatens to overtake me I can occupy myself with these thoughts, and they save me from getting lost·"

     · ..The re-reading of recorded thoughts and the writing down of new 'sparks of grace' develop in the soul of the struggler a wondrous devotion to God; they place before him in full measure his sacred responsibilities, and in this way they support and strengthen his growing union with the Lord· These sparks of love for God, given us by His mercy, are destined to grow into a bright flame that will burn for eternity, if only we will struggle, as is evidenced by the four and twenty eiders of the Apocalypse who sing a ceaseless song of praise to God, saying: 

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created. (Rev, 4:8, 11) 

    We see, then, that union with the Lord is a work of utmost significance, as our Saviour Himself assures us. And it demands our undivided attention· Justly is it called the inner podvig of every Christian· For monastics, who have given a vow to serve God in imitation of the angels, this inner podvig is especially crucial, and for this reason I think it is an absolute must that they keep a journal of these thoughts and maxims.

     ·.. Some of our commentators on, the Gospel parable about the ten virgins rightly say that the oil in the virgins' lamps is the grace of the Holy Spirit which is necessary to salvation; and that to acquire this grace the formal accomplishment of good deeds is not enough, for the aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the attainment of a state of compunctionate union with and guidance by the Holy Spirit .... Out of such a state good deeds proceed as a natural consequence.

    St. Seraphim says: "Everyone must follow his path in life with a reverence for all that is holy, shunning carelessness; he must develop and strengthen in himself a constant spiritual disposition, and bear in mind the true goal of our Christian life, which consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit"...

     Bishop Theophan also writes about this need for constant union with God: "What is meant by monasticism? A cassock, klobuk, prayer rope? These were not initiated by Christ. The power and the spirit of monasticism are revealed by Christ Himself, in His very Person, in the person of the Mother of God, St. John the Baptist, and, one can say, all the Apostles. Together with the renunciation of the world, monasticism consists of being ceaselessly, mind and heart, in the presence of God. He is a monk whose inner disposition is such that for him nothing but God exists; the monk loses his very self in God !

    Some may think that such an understanding of monasticism, such high expectations placed on the monk, are absurd, pie-in-the-sky. But all monastic instructors offer explanations in the same spirit. St. Isaac the Syrian writes: "If you are a layman, spend your time occupied with good works in the world; but if you are a monk distinguish yourself with works proper to a monk. If you intend to occupy yourself with both this and the other, you will succeed at neither .... The Lord left in the world those who would work for Him and take care of His children; and He chose for Himself those who would serve Him exclusively.

    You see how precious, how indispensable is this state of uninterrupted union with God, especially for monastics. And how restful and pleasant it is for the soul when we are blessed with this grace. Equally joyous, valuable and spiritually invigorating are meetings with a truly spiritual person. But, alas! we are but rarely, very rarely vouchsafed such mercies of God.

    Evidently this is our lot; we must not place much hope in another' s help, but, bearing our loneliness, we must lay out before the Lord our own path (as we see in the examples of the Holy Fathers) and strive towards the Lord using the strengths and talents which we have been given and continue to receive from God, for, as Blessed Theophilactus says: 'If you cease advancing, your soul will die altogether, deadened by lack of any motion towards what is good."

 (to be continued)

(Translated from "The Path to the One Thing Needful: the experience of 'self-nourishment,'" in Nadezhda No. 12, Frankfurt, 1985) 

Do not let the soul die; nourish it with tho Word of God, with psalms, chanting and spiritual songs, with soul-profiting reading, fasting, vigils, prayer, tears, hope and contemplation of future blessedness. All this and much else that is similar is the food and life of the soul.

-- St. Ephraim the Syrian

(Continued in Issue 52)