Orthodox America


Up the Down Stairs  


    Every Christian should know that he has a very definite purpose in this life, and that is to prepare himself for the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not some kind of distant place, far removed from our life here on earth. In the Gospel our Lord says clearly: "Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). How are we to understand this? In our own experience we rarely catch even a glimpse of what this means. How can we attain this Kingdom into which we are called, as believers in Jesus Christ?

     St. Seraphim of Sarov, that great spiritual luminary of 19th century Russia, expressed it in another way. He said that our purpose here on earth is to acquire the Holy Spirit, and we knew from St. Paul that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Gal. 5:22). If we were filled with these virtues, we would indeed experience the Kingdom of God within us. Instead, we bear grudges against our neighbor, our tongue wags with gossip, we barely keep our mind on our prayers, we have ready excuses for missing church services or for not being able to help our less fortunate brother. Our hearts are filled with good intentions, we are drawn to that which is good. Why, then, is it so hard for us to make any progress towards the goal which defines the very purpose, the very meaning of our existence?

Since the time of St. John the Baptist, "the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it" (Luke 16:16)

    The prince of this world is the enemy of our salvation, and a very cunning foe. Using the pleasures and riches of this world, he plays upon our weakened fallen nature to draw us down into the dark pit of destruction where lies his kingdom. For this reason the Holy Fathers have compared the course of life to a river. Up-stream lies our goal, the Kingdom of Heaven. If we do not paddle, and paddle hard, we will be drawn rapidly down by the current which symbolizes the ways of the world. If we choose to follow Christ, we must make every effort to struggle in opposition to this current, for Christ Himself tells us that His Kingdom is "not of this world."

    Again, we may think of life as riding on a "down" escalator. If we do nothing, we shall have an easy ride to the bottom. But no, our eternal happiness depends upon working our way to the top. How many of us have seen children, teen-agers, climbing furiously to get to the top of a downward moving escalator? Or tried it at some time ourselves? It requires a lot of exertion, constant exertion, and stamina. The minute you stop going up you are automatically pulled down. And this is how it is in spiritual life. We must constantly push ourselves. The Lord has cautioned us that the kingdom of heaven "cometh not with observation;" it "suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."

     The escalator we are climbing is long. We can see neither top nor bottom. What can help us to succeed in our ascent? Let us take the example of a long-distance runner, He is less concerned about taking off at full speed than he is about maintaining a constant, even pace, always pushing himself but never beyond his strength lest he collapse before reaching the finish line. The runner is concentrated and does not allow images in his peripheral vision to distract him and pull him off track. We, too, should be concentrated on our goal and approach it at a steady pace. Those who race along the spiritual path at full steam without having first built up their endurance soon become exhausted and give up in discouragement. Our efforts should be constant: it is better for us to pray briefly and regularly, for example, than to say lengthy prayers sporadically, The same holds true for spiritual reading, fasting. These most basic elements of an Orthodox life should be made second nature, allowing us to give greater attention to other areas: the ready forgiveness of offenses, thinking before we speak, refraining from anger, acting on an impulse to do a kind deed...

     It is important to realize that while we are called to apply our wills, our strength and all our hearts to reaching our goal, it is by God's grace alone that any progress comes of our efforts. And whether we can discern any progress or not, the important thing is to keep climbing, keep pressing forward, as St. Paul writes: "forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before" (Phil. 3:16).

    We may be tempted to think that we can take a little vacation--from .going to church, from saying our prayers, from fasting, from listening to our conscience.,, in short, from trying to put God first in our lives, from trying to lead an Orthodox way of life. What's wrong with pampering ourselves, with indulging our passions once in awhile? we may ask. If we give in to these suggestions we shall lose ground. And each time we do so we shall find it more difficult to begin again the struggle of ascent. What happens to an athlete who interrupts his training? His muscles get out of shape and it takes him some time before he reaches the level of performance he had previously attained.

    The prospect of spending one's whole life straining one's muscles to row upstream or panting up an escalator is rather grim. And if we had to depend on our own strength we might well give up in despair. But our Creator is a God of Love. He does not demand what is beyond our powers. He knows the cunning tactics of the Evil One and He has provided us with help in our contest against him. And what is this if not the powerful intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God, the saints and the angels? Our society values independence, self-sufficiency, and therefore we struggle and sweat in our pride trying to reach the goal on our own; but this is impossible. If we would only admit our weakness from the start and depend upon the Lord, upon the help of the saints and our guardian angel, we would still have to labor, yes, but we would not find this tiresome, our labor would not be in vain.

     Try to reach the Lord in your heart, cry out to Him, cry out to the saints, grab onto them, and ask them to help you withstand the downward pull of the world and ascend to the heavenly heights. And there you shall experience the glorious meaning of the Lord's words: "The kingdom of heaven lies within you." 

Archpriest Konstantine Fedoroff Kursk Icon Hermitage, Mahopac, NY

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