Sunday 30 July 2017

The Way of Life

"Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat; because strait in the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

With these words, O Christ-loving brothers and sisters, the Lord enjoins us to follow that narrow path in life, the way of afflictions, of privation and of bitter experiences, the way which leads to life eternal; there can be no other way there except this one of sorrows. Indeed there is a way, the broad, wide way, but this way leads to destruction, and even though it does lead to destruction there are many who, in the Lord's words, go in thereat. In the words of the holy Apostle Paul, the people who take the broad way in life live "according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). 

Such people forget about God completely, and they always give themselves over to drunkenness, sexual licence, fornication, stealing, envy, hatred, pride, anger, laziness, irritability, self-love, love of money, extortion, slander, pleasing the stomach, foolishness and to the other lusts of their flesh. Let such people not think that they are alive. No, they have been a longtime dead, for of such the Holy Spirit says: l know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" (Rev. 3:1). Then reflect, beloved brothers and sisters, how shall we, being dead, appear before the face of our Lord? Don't we know that He will then repudiate us? "I," He says, "am not the God of the dead, but the God of the living." And He goes on to emphasize this, saying: "Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41).

This is the portion, beloved brethren, that will fall to those people who go by the broad way in this life. Then let the reader pause on these last words of the Lord, let him reflect deeply and ask himself: how will it be if in actual fact I come to hear that dread and fearsome sentence from the Lord, and am plunged in the eternal, inextinguishable fire of hades? And in that fire we will burn not for a hundred, a thousand or even a million years, but eternally. When as many ages have passed as there are drops of water in the oceans, as there are grains of sands over the whole of the earthly globe, then the torments of hades will be as if they have only just begun, and even then there will be as many ages to follow as have already been. This is what our living on the broad way, our luxuriating way of life, should tell us.

Very few journey in this life by the narrow path of afflictions. The Lord Himself said, that "few there be that find it" (Matt. 7:14). We might ask. Why is it thus? Because, according to the word of the Psalmist, "they are all gone astray, they are altogether rendered useless, there is none that doeth good, no not one" (Ps. 13:3). Woe to that town or that country, says Saint Demetrius of Rostov, in which there is not even one righteous man; such places are close to destruction and devastation; as an example of this we have the Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. During the time that the righteous Lot sojourned there they were safe, but when he left, at that very same time, the whole land was destroyed. Then let us marvel that the very same Saviour bears so long with the present times, in which we see the destruction of cities, the devastation of lands, civil wars, the shedding of blood, and everywhere countless misfortunes. What is the reason for all this? Because, the same hierarch (St Demetrius of Rostov) himself replies, the number of the righteous has grown few.

So, beloved brethren, let us examine ourselves. Do we not resemble the Old Testament and the New Testament sinners, who go by the broad path, and of whom the Word of God says, "many will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door... and he shall answer and say: I know you not whence ye are" (Luke 13:24-25). Those who wish to go by the narrow path, that is, to lead a pious life, will always be persecuted and hated by all, for it is said: "All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12). All the holy Apostles pursued the earthly course of this life by this narrow way of much affliction, and they test this way well, desiring to show an example to those servants of God, who manifest a desire to journey by that narrow way. The holy Apostles said: "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). And the Lord enjoins His disciples, and through them all His true followers, to journey by that same narrow way: lf any man will come after Me," He says, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matt. 16:24). 

From the Lord's words it is clear, that He does not in any way forcibly require anyone to follow Him, but He leaves this to the individual will of each man. He does not say that, whether you want it or not, you must suffer; rather He says: If any man will come after Me. I do not compel anyone, I do not require anyone, but I leave this to the individual will of each man. He who denies himself, renounces his own natural will and disposition, surrenders himself to the will of God, renounces everything for himself for the sake of Christ and for His sake is ready for every affliction, every deprivation, persecution and suffering, - in a word, such an one is prepared for every affliction even death itself. The Apostle Paul asks him that desires to set out on this narrow and much-afflicted path, and to continue thereon until the end of his earthly life, to first of all labour in prayer: "I exhort, therefore, that, first of all" that is before the start of every good endeavour, "supplications ... be made" (1 Tim.2:1). 

From this it is evident that without prayer it is not only impossible to make progress, but even to set out upon the accomplishment of any good deed. Saint Chrysostom says that without prayer it is in no way possible for one to have virtue as one's companion or travel the path of life with her. For who can begin to struggle in virtue, without having frequent recourse to, and falling down before, the One, Who is the Bestower and Granter of virtue? He who strengthens the desire for chastity and righteousness in himself by constant nourishing it, will he not pleasurably linger in converse with the One, Who requires this of us, and ever do this more and more? But I shall give my attention to showing briefly that, even if perforce we have been filled to repletion with every sin, the prayers, both those which are born within us and those which we initiate, quickly cleanse us from them. And, if such be the case, what can be greater and more divine than prayer, if it is demonstrated to be a healing medicine for those who are sick in soul? Consider the Ninevites, the first manifest as being cleansed through prayer of their many sins before God. As soon as prayer embraced them as her charges, immediately she made them righteous, - and the city, which formerly had been accustomed to live in dissipation, evil and every kind of lawlessness, was corrected, overthrowing her earlier evil practices, installing instead the laws of heaven, it committed itself to chastity and philanthropy, to meekness and care for the poor. It had been without these virtues and they had no place in their souls, but suddenly there settled in every soul that thing which makes for every righteousness, which disposes one to every virtue, and which casts out every evil. If, at that time, someone who had known Nineveh well had visited her, he would not have recognised the city, so speedily had she converted from the life of dissipation to that of piety. "Behold, here you have a clear and true demonstration of the fact that if one does not travel the path with prayer, it is impossible to perfect good deeds." And St John of the Ladder calls prayer “the mother of all the virtues" (Step 28). 

So then, imitator of Christ, if you are considering or if you have already set out on the narrow path in this life, with God's help your first duty is to be instructed in prayer; and as prayer if the mother of all the virtues, you must also unite it with the father, which is attention, for from a mother children are not born without a father. So from this mother, which is prayer there will be born no children, that is virtues, unless she is united to the father, which is attention. Thus, if with the help of God you learn to pray with attention, then spiritual fruits will come to you, such as the holy Apostle Paul recounts: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, goodness, kind-heartedness, faith, meekness, temperance, against such there is no law" (Gal. 5:22-23). Now perhaps, a desire to understand how one can learn to pray as is outlined above has come to the reader. To this we can in reply use the words of the blessed Patriarch Kallistos, who says: lf you desire to maintain the genuine activity of prayer, then emulate the psaltery player, who inclines his head a little and turns his ear to the strings, who skilfully plucks the strings that they emit a harmonious sound, and who himself is delighted by their melody.

Is this example clear to you? The psaltery is the heart, the strings are the feelings, the plucking of the strings is the remembrance of God (the repetition of the Jesus Prayer), and the player is the mind. The mind, mindful of God and of Divine things, elicits from the God-fearing heart holy feelings, from which a certain ineffable sweetness fills the soul and mind, which, when purified, is illumined with a Divine effulgence. The psaltery player sees nothing and hears nothing at all except his melody, by which he is delighted, and the mind at the time of prayer is actively sober, that is without any thoughts, and is immersed in the heart, and can pay no attention to anything save God alone. His whole inner being speaks to God with the voice of David: ‘My soul hath cleaved after Thee' (Ps. 62:8). Saint Hesychius the Presbyter of Jerusalem speaks of attentive prayer thus: "Here is an image and order for stillness of heart. If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare (successfully and as you should) then let that little animal, the spider, always be your example for stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be still in your intellect as you should be. The spider hunts and kills small flies; and you, if you will be like him, sitting in his spider's web, most assiduously remaining still in your soul, will continuously slay the children of Babylon,' that is evil thoughts, and for this slaying through David (Ps. 136:12) the Holy Spirit will bless you. If you do not achieve this, you will not be silent in mind as should be."

Do not think, beloved reader, that one can pray without attention, standing in prayer only physically, and that in this way you can achieve any virtue or please God. No, do not accept any such thoughts. This idea comes from the enemy, for he well knows that prayer without attention is not prayer, but simply empty words. Someone asked Saint Abba Agathon about this: "Tell me, Abba, what is greater bodily labour or the guarding of the heart?" The Abba replied to him: “Man is like a tree; bodily labours are the leaves, and the guarding of the heart is the fruit." Furthermore, according to the Scriptures, "every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matt. 3:10). Thus, beloved brothers and sisters, all that we have said might be summed up in the words of Saint Abba Esaias, who says: "Brethren, be attentive to yourselves. How long will you labour profitlessly, your work perishing through carelessness? How long will you submit to the enemy, who lives in us and entices us daily towards defilement, who deflects us from virtue, and does not permit us to lift up our eyes to contemplate the Divine light".

Examine yourself, poor one, you who were baptised into Christ and into His death! Think what a death He surrendered Himself to for you, and do you follow in His footsteps? Show me your morals - are they akin to Him, Whose image you bear? He is sinless and in all things gave Himself as an example for you to emulate. He loved lowliness, and you avoid lowliness. He did not have where to lay His head (Matt. 8:20), and you seek spacious and comfortable accommodation. He bore with every kind of abuse, and you do not want to accept any kind of reproach. He did not return evil for evil, and you thirst for vengeance. He did not become wrathful even when He bore sufferings from others, and you, when you are put upon by others, are enraged. In the depth of dishonour He was not in the least disturbed, and you are disturbed by the slightest disgrace. He benevolently called sinners to Himself, and with your words you even alienate your friends. He good-heartedly bore offenses, and you are irritated by a slight insult. He was condescending to sinners, and you exalt yourself over them and even over those who are better than you. He gave Himself over to those who afflicted Him that He might redeem them, and you are afflicted even by those are doing good for you. 

Think on this: that He gave Himself for you, and what for your part you give Him. Recognize Him from His deeds, and yourself from your own deeds. If you have died with Him [in Baptism], then who is it that is doing these things, these sins? And so, brethren, be attentive in your life lest your mind stagnate on account of your evil deeds, lest you lose time, lest you not achieve the peace of a son of God, which peace consists in these things: that in all things you guard your humility and innocence, that you not be at enmity with anyone, that you not find comfort in anything that God detests, and that you always have your sins before your eyes, and be dead to all evil deeds. For in such a way, the God "Who cannot lie" (Titus 1:2) will come to us and, in His kind-heartedness, will heal our infirmities. Amen.

Published as an anonymous paper by the Russian Saint Elias Skete on Athos in 1896. Published in English translation in The Shepherd September 2002

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