Orthodox America

  Correcting the Heart

by Bishop Theophan the Recluse

    Sons of the fallen--conceived in iniquity and coming forth into the light with corruptible natures --we are born anew in the font of holy Baptism into a holy life. Therefore, if no one can boast of being immaculate or sinless and at the same time cannot, without violating his conscience, reject the holy task of presenting himself before God as holy, then what must a person enkindle and warm within his heart if not an inspired determination towards self-improvement and a divine zeal for cleansing the heart from anything and everything which is not pleasing to God? But to educate oneself in what is holy is a task which is exceedingly difficult and complex. The path towards righteousness lies through many hidden crossroads, and anyone embarking on the commendable podvig of self-amendment must unfailingly make a preliminary tracing in his mind of what he is to correct and how. He is to constantly bear this sketch in his mind and heart in order that with this as a faithful guide, he might without hindrance and more certainly bring his task to a successful conclusion.

Therefore; 1. What is it we must correct in ourselves? Almost everything there is within us. Sin loves absolutism. If it finds a place in our heart, then already it is in control, spreading its evil power throughout our entire being. For sinful man and sinful humanity it is the same: "There is no purity...from the feet even to the head" (Is. 1:6). Each person can easily prove this to himself by closely examining his sinful heart. There he will discover the kernel of evil, the initial awakening of sin, and also how it manifests itself when it surfaces.

    The seed of all moral evil is--self-love. It lies in the very depths of the heart. Man, according to his calling, should forget about himself--his life, his activities; he should live solely for God and for others. In consecrating all that he does by elevating this as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God the Saviour, he should offer his life and all its activity entirely for the benefit of his neighbors, and shower upon them all that he receives from the Bountiful One, i.e., God. One does not exist without the other; it is impossible to love God without loving one's neighbors, just as it is impossible to love one's neighbor unless one loves God. Likewise, in loving God and one's neighbor it is impossible not to sacrifice oneself for the glory of God and the good of one's neighbor. But when a person separates himself from God--in his thoughts, his heart, his desires --and consequently also from his neighbor, then naturally he comes to dwell upon himself alone: his "I' becomes the focus towards which he directs everything else, to the neglect even of the divine precepts and the good of his neighbor.

    Here, then, is the root of sin. Here is the seed of all moral evil. It conceals itself deep within the heart. As it grows, however, it spreads and draws to the surface, emerging in three forms, three trunks, as it were, all permeated by its power, its energy. These three are: self-exaltation, self-interest and love of pleasure. The first causes a person to say in his heart: "I am number one;" the second: "I want to have everything;" the third: "I want to live for my own enjoyment."

    "I'm Number One." What soul has not experienced such a thought? Not only those who by nature are gifted with superior talents, or who have managed to accomplish something important or beneficial are prone to mentally exalt themselves above their fellow man.. self-exaltation is found in all ages, ranks and circumstances; it shadows a person through all the mental and moral stages of perfection; it does not depend on any external conditions. Even if a man should live alone, in anonymity, far removed from everyone and anyone, he is never and nowhere free from the temptation of self-exaltation, From the moment he received into his heart the first flattering suggestion of the serpent: Be as Gods. From that time forth man began to exalt himself above his fellow creature; like a god, he began to place himself above that position in which he was placed by nature and by society. This is a sickness common to each and all of us. It seems there's nothing dangerous in indulging oneself with the thought that one is superior to someone else, to another, a third. But just look at how much evil, how much darkness is generated by this seemingly--to us --insignificant thought!

    He who exalts himself above everyone else in his mind and heart, if he undertakes something, does so not according to the voice of reason and conscience, not according to the counsel of wisdom and the inspiration of the word of God, but according to his own understanding. He undertakes something because he desires to do so: he is self-willed, self-assured. If he should succeed in his undertaking, he attributes it to himself alone. This causes him to be high-minded, proud, pretentious, ungrateful. In his relations with others, he wants his will to be done in everything and at all times; he wants everything to be subject to his control, he loves to exercise authority and is inclined to be coercive. In his relationships with others he cannot tolerate someone else's advantage, no matter how minor its expression. He is disdainful and intractable. On encountering any transgression of his will, he is beside himself and becomes enflamed with revenge. If he possesses a strong character, he thirsts after glory and honor; if he has a weak character, he is hypocritical and vainglorious. He is audacious, capricious, haughty, inclined to gossip...

    Here, then, are the various forms in which self exaltation appears, and the many sinful movements which are indebted to self-exaltation for their genesis! And there is scarcely anyone who can not convict himself of this sin in one or another of its forms. 

(Translated from Pisma o Kristianskoi Zhizni: Moscow, 1908)

(To be continued)

When we hear anything bad said of anyone, then, inwardly comparing him with ourselves, we say in our heart I am not such; I am perfection in comparison to him..., This is the pride of Satan; this is the stench of carnal, sinful man. May such thoughts fall from the soul! Let us consider ourselves as the worst of all men Let us sigh when we hear anything bad said of anyone, and say to ourselves: we arc worse, a hundred times more sinful than this man,' and let us pray from our whole soul for the convicted brother.

-- Sr. John of Kronstadt

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