“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” How shall we, who have gone off into a far country, like the prodigal son, sing hymns and chant psalms with understanding and joy?
We have to constantly enlighten our minds with spiritual reading, patient meditation on psalms and Scripture, striving to fulfill the righteousness that is found in them by constant prayer; if we don’t, we easily become lost in a negligent way of life.
Negligence leads to an inattentive and distracted life, scattering the senses; scattered senses confuse the thinking; confusion leads to agitation and anxiety; anxiety leads to anguish and sorrow; sorrow to bitterness; bitterness to wrath; wrath to hatred; hatred to spiritual death; spiritual death imprisons a man in dark and wicked despair, causing loss of feeling, carelessness.
This numbness moves us to seek quick and easy pleasures that excite the flesh in an immediate and noticeable way: gourmandizing, drunkenness, lust, mindless amusement, worldly talk, thoughtless babbling, materialism, laziness, aimless wandering of body and mind and earthly ambitions.
These passions cast out from our soul all fear of God and reverence for others; then, steadfast and living faith in God disappears, which brings coldness of heart; then this gives place to arrogance, ambitious striving against others, and pride; and demonic pride fills us with hard-heartedness, disdain, envy, stubbornness, self-will, harshness, slander, sharp reproach, condemnation and critical judgment of others; these things blind and harden a man completely; and this demonic state shuts out the glorious and most gentle light of the grace of God.
Cut off from the awareness of this divine light, we are cut off from the life which is in God, imprisoned within ourselves, cut off from others, made subject to the whims of the demons, and are torn apart in every which-way by countless painful passions.
All this comes to pass in us simply because we neglected the very small duties that are given to us for our spiritual nourishment and salvation. Neglecting them, we wander into a faraway and strange land, suffering from the famine that is there; “not a famine of bread, but a famine of the word of God.”
We are blessed with a second conscience which corrects our blind and insensitive consciences: many various books of Scripture and Patristic writings, and the Church’s wealth of psalms, hymns and prayers; that we might think on them, mentally chew on them, digest them, be filled and nourished by them, turning them into prayer; that we might grow into God.
St. Isaac says: “There is nothing so capable…of driving away those active memories which rebel in our flesh and which produce a turbulent flame, as to immerse oneself in the fervent love of instruction, and to search closely into the depth of the meanings of divine Scripture…if the mind swims on the surface of the waters, that is, of the sea of the divine Scriptures, and its perceptions cannot fathom the great depth so as to be able to grasp all the treasures in its deep, yet even this practice in itself, by the power of its fervent love, will suffice the mind firmly to pinion its thoughts by a single thought of wonder, and to prevent them from hastening toward the body’s nature…if the heart is not occupied with [this] study, it cannot endure the turbulence of the body’s assault.”
The Three Great Hierarchs, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom, swam day and night in the word of God. They could recall and expound upon the most ambiguous proverbs…they could dive deeply into the ancient histories of God’s chosen people, and draw out the inner meaning of these histories in order to illumine us with active faith in God’s providence over our own spiritual lives; and they have given us the most penetrating insights into the Gospel and the incarnate dispensation of Christ. Not only this; but they imbibed all these things so deeply that they themselves became eternal, living and active words of God for the whole Church to read by contemplation and imitation of their amazing, Christ-like lives.
On the other hand, there is a simple story about Abba Pambo: completely uneducated and illiterate, he went to one of the lettered fathers in order to learn Scripture. The first words he heard from him were the first verse of psalm 38: “I said: I will take heed to my ways, lest I sin with my tongue.” Upon hearing these words, he left, and tried to fulfill these words in practice. Six months later, his teacher met him and reproached him for not returning to him. But, Abba Pambo said that he had not yet learned to do what he was already taught. Later he was asked if he had fulfilled this verse; and he responded that after 19 whole years of struggle, he had finally just barely fulfilled these words.
Elder Anatoly of Optina, in one of his letters to a nun who was downcast that she could not remember what she read, counseled her to focus on one commandment: particularly, love for neighbor. He told her to always try to fulfill this, and this would be of greater profit than knowing every word of Scripture and the Fathers without any struggle for the virtues they teach.
Our constant struggle, then, is to gather our scattered senses into the harbor of an attentive mind through reading, watchfulness, attentive service to others, the cutting off of evil thoughts and passions, constant repentance, and unceasing forceful prayer and seeking of God. This is the truest asceticism: the constant effort to enter into our heart.
But, the soul that has wandered into the strange and faraway land of the passions, and is left empty and in anguish, and realizes its great mistake of wandering there, cries out to the Lord: “My soul hath thirsted for Thee. How often hath my flesh longed after Thee, in a land barren and untrodden and unwatered…as with marrow and fatness let my soul be filled!”
When we finally wake up, and see ourselves stooped over like a wild, ravenous and unreasoning beast—taking our fill of fleshly pleasures, vain entertainments, mindless distractions, ambitious strivings against others and arrogant fits of inhuman malice—when we come to ourselves, and behold the evil stench that we are consuming and being consumed by…then we cry out to God with remorse and pain, heavy laden as we are by our guilt.
We are brought low to despair…but, nonetheless, deep down within us, a small spark of hope is still lit…and we cry out from our most inner depths to God—or rather, the Holy Spirit intercedes from within us, where He has been secretly planted since our Baptism or Chrismation, and He Himself cries out in our hearing unto the Most High Father—“Men and beasts wilt Thou save, O Lord! O how Thou hast multiplied Thy mercy!”
St. John of Karpathos says: “Sin itself drives us towards God, once we repent (that is) and have become aware of its burden, foul stink and insanity. But, if we refuse to repent, sin does not drive us towards God. In itself it holds us fast with bonds that we cannot break, making the desires which drive us to our own destruction all the more vehement and fierce.”
What do we love instead of God? What do we covet, idolize and place above that priceless inner treasure: a peaceful soul, a mind illumined by the simple and gentle light of God’s grace, and glorious spiritual thoughts which ignite divine longing within us?
What do we value above that priceless stillness of heart, that blissful awe of silent gazing upon God’s incomprehensible glory, and that partaking of His eternal life, light and love which dwells within, and pours forth without measure upon all the world of angels and saints, from the Three Divine Persons, our One God?
What are we living for? What are we striving for? Why have we entered the Church? Why have we come to the Monastery? What do we breathe and live for? What are we truly seeking? What do we love?
Is God our treasure? Is the Holy Spirit our constant love Whom we covet above all else? Do we comprehend that Jesus mystically dwells within our hearts? Do we not know that our very bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit? Do we not know our own selves: that Jesus Christ is in us? Do we not understand that God is closer to us than we are to our own selves? Do we not seek to enter into ourselves, and from there into God? Do we not understand this most great mystery?
If we truly understood it, then we would constantly cast off all distractions and every hindrance, and try to regain custody of our selves, and strive to enter within ourselves, circumcising the foreskin of our hardened hearts grown course through earthly-mindedness by the sword of the Spirit, the All-Holy Name of Christ and the many, various words of God. Cutting through all this coarseness, which surrounds our hearts and keeps us from entering therein, we would hack our way through the veil of the passions and find that calm harbor, the Kingdom of God which is within us wherein Christ our King dwells in peace and great glory with His bright angels.
This mystery has been hidden within God’s mind and heart since before the ages; no angel knew of it; but now, the Church, this lowly race of Christian men and women, we have revealed it to the angels! The angels marvel; but we seek distraction. The whole world is in anguish and seeks the attainment of spiritual peace which rests in God, this secret which the Church possesses, but it goes astray and does not find it; while we know where it lies but neglect it.
We are called to become higher than angels; the apostle calls out to us, beckoning us to not mind the things of this earth, but to set our gaze, all our thoughts and all our love and striving, upon the throne of God Who dwells above the whole universe, above all the heavens, above all the most glorious ranks of angelic beings…Christ has set us down upon this throne; He has graced us with unfathomable riches; the Holy Fathers proclaim His unutterable goodness: that, in Himself, Christ has made our lowly human nature equal to the Father, giving us all that is His!
This is the treasure of the Church! This is the great proclamation of the grace of God! These are the good tidings of the Gospel! This is the summit of the Bible’s teaching, the height of human thought and effort, the meaning of life, the motivation for all our struggles. But we are still numb and sleepy.
What a grace we are given! We should fall down in this Church at this very moment, prostrate in fear, trembling, thanksgiving and compunction before the Almighty and Most-Good God, crying out to Him and worshipping Him with ineffable and unquenched longing, with unrestrained weeping! Yet, we lie prostrate in spiritual exhaustion; we are taken captive, and we dwell in a strange land, the land of forgetfulness and numbness.
Let us come to ourselves like the prodigal; let us, like him, speak firm words of resolve to our own souls: “I will arise and go to my Father”; and the Gracious God will perfect our small intention.
He knows that we do not know the way to Him, or the manner in which to traverse it; but, hearing us say: “Ready is my heart, O God, ready is my heart”, and seeing us begin our journey towards Him, He will then rush out to us, falling on us, and kissing our neck: He will send His All-Accomplishing Holy Spirit upon us, and guide us into all truth, not only in our understanding, but in all our deeds, all our life.
The Holy Spirit Himself will clothe us in Christ, in that glorious and royal robe of all the God-like virtues; He will place the ring upon our finger, that is, He will wed our soul unto God; and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, together with all the angels and saints will make merry with us who have turned from our vain pursuits and evil sins.
God will sacrifice the fatted calf, nourishing us with the fullness of His inexhaustible cup of grace, the Body and Blood of Christ, the Lamb of God, granting our souls eternal, divine communion with Himself, a union which will never cease to flourish, but will grow and grow unto the ages of ages! Forgive me.