Today is the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It’s the start of a season, a kind of forefeast. With this we can be certain of a few things. Namely, the time of trials and tribulations is upon us. This is one of the things that we can be certain of when we come upon any feast of the Cross.
I remember back when I was a novice, just about every Great Lent, with the coming of the Sunday of the Cross, our beloved Abbot Fr. Seraphim would warn the brethren to be vigilant, because with the coming out of the Cross the demons would get stirred up and cause all types of temptations. Now for us, especially at this season with this particular feast of the Cross being our patronal feast, we can expect lots of temptations. There will be the obvious physical ones with the added labors and work-schedules. Additionally, spiritual ones will ensue too with distress, heaviness of heart, and lack of patience which will unfortunately lead to petty squabbles between the brothers.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t focus on these things. As it has happened in the past with many of us when we were novices we were tempted with the thought, “if the Cross is about to come out and there will be temptations then why bring it out? Just leave it in there! Don’t provoke the demons. I’ve got enough problems with my own temptations; why add to it?”
But this is exactly what the demons want. The Cross is a reminder to the demons of their ultimate humiliation and defeat, and there is nothing a proud man likes less than to be reminded of his defeat. This wasn’t just a mere defeat though, and the Devil wants us to forget what the Cross really means. There was a time when the Devil had the authority to bind all men, righteous and unrighteous, in the depths of Hades. He causes such a commotion to make us think that he still has such power over our trembling souls. However, we must remember that Christ laid His adversaries low by His death on the Cross and utterly stripped them of the power and authority that they had over man before His coming, and how His true servants have time and time again overcome the demons through the power of the sign of the precious Cross.
There was a time in the life of St. Anthony the Great where he was struggling to encourage his young monks who were be overcome by thoughts and despair inspired by the temptations of the demons. So, he related to them a story of a time that he saw the Devil himself. The account goes as follows:
One day a demon knocked at the monastery doors. I opened, to find a giant whose head seemed to touch the sky. “I am Satan,” he declared.
“What do you want with us?” I demanded.
“You Christians, and especially you monks, damn me in vain.”
“We do well,” I retorted, “for you often lead us astray.”
He replied “I do nothing of the sort! You tempt one another. I am doomed and stripped of power. Did you never hear the Scripture; “the sword of the enemy has utterly failed, and his cities Thou hast destroyed?” Throughout the world towns have slipped from my authority, and I am weaponless. Every nation glorifies Christ, and the deserts are infested with monks. Look to yourselves and leave off slandering me!”
I was astonished at the power of God’s grace and told him, “You are a deceiver and have not admitted this freely. The mighty God compelled you, the father of lies, to speak the truth. Verily, Christ’s coming laid you low. Having lost the last trace of angelic glory, you are condemned to wallow in mire.” At this the demon disappeared.
With these words the venerable one convinced the brethren that the evil spirits had been subdued by Christ and were quite enfeebled. They should not fear the demons but resist them boldly in the Lord. The brethren rejoiced in their father’s teaching and were greatly edified. Some redoubled their labors, others felt their faith strengthened, others expelled insidious thoughts, and others lost their fear of demonic illusions. All were filled with determination to outwit the devil and marveled at the grace and discernment of spirits bestowed up on Anthony.
In remembering this account, I thought it appropriate to remind us that truly Christ came and conquered the Devil and his minions through the Cross whose glory we are about to celebrate. All these things the devil stirs up are just momentary trifles which are meant to distract us from what really matters. The Cross is the glory of Christ and our salvation.
It is important to be reminded of the temptations that come with the feast of the Cross. However, it is my hope not just to encourage you in the struggle of this season but to help us keep these things in our hearts.
As we know, many of the Fathers said in the end times the monastics will no longer be able to do great ascetical feats, no longer able to work miracles, or to acquire noetic prayer. They won’t be able to do much at all, mostly just be pathetic. However, they will be saved by the patient endurance of afflictions. For us this is salvation. This is the Cross. It is what is left to us. Some might be inclined to think that maybe these aren’t the end times. After all, every generation has thought this. Maybe we aren’t those monks. However, I think none of us will dispute the fact that we are broken monastics coming out of a broken society. We don’t have a history of podvig or God-bearing elders like other Orthodox cultures, but what we do have is the Cross.
I believe that it is significant that the Lord named us after the Cross and gave us this as our feast day. That for us who are so weak we must endure all these trials that come with this feast and also the ones that come every day. We should be encouraged to run to the cross and imitate the Lord. The devil is hoping to use the Cross to cause us to slander it since he can’t do much more than that. For he has been made powerless by the Lord. But in so doing he unwittingly simultaneously offers us salvation.
In the writings of St Anatoly of Optina in his collection of letters to nuns nearly the whole book is dedicated to this idea. To patiently endure the sufferings that come to us, these momentary trials, is our salvation. In one of his letters he writes to one of his spiritual daughters and tells her, “You always complain and say how you don’t want to struggle. What you don’t realize is that this is your Bridegroom coming to you. These sufferings, these momentary little afflictions are a dowry that your Bridegroom is offering to you. By not accepting them you throw them back in His face.”
This is what the devil is hoping we will do at these times. That we will not take up the Cross. That we will not patiently endure. That we will not imitate our Lord, who mounted the Cross in humility love and obedience, thus opening salvation to us. So, let us rather imitate our Lord, both during the feast of his glorious Cross and everyday, struggling to bear our Cross unmurmuringly with love for God our bridegroom, that we may find the salvation of our souls that has been opened to us through the doorway of the Cross. Amen.