Hannu Pöyhönen professor, doctor of theology and a founding member of the Panagia Monastic Centre in Lammi, Finland, addresses the anxieties, doubts and fears affecting mankind in our troubled times.
In the Gospel, Christ teaches us, "You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places (Matthew 24:6-8). Would it be correct to say that these times of trouble have already come? We read and hear about all these sorrows each time we go on the Internet or turn on our television. Or have they always been an integral part of our human history? Can you explain?
Sorrows have always been a part of the human condition. That is because sin has corrupted our world. Before His death on the Cross and resurrection, Jesus Christ told His disciples about His second coming and its warning signs, so that we all can prepare ourselves spiritually for these difficult times. Wars, unrest, disease and famine are some of these signs, and they have been happening more frequently than in the past. Invariably, we as Christians see them as warning signs.
You will hear different answers to your question depending on who you ask. I believe that the only people who can answer correctly, in light of the truth of the Gospel, are the saints of our Church. The rest will give you their personal opinions. But the Holy Spirit speaks through these holy people. Many recent saints and little-known ascetics and hermits are telling us that the end of time is approaching.
The events unfolding before us are truly global; they affect us whether we like it or not. Our life, and everybody else's, may end abruptly, and we must be prepared for this possibility. We would be unwise to see ourselves as an exception, as some privileged class. And if we have avoided sudden death, we must prepare ourselves for a life of hardship.
On the other hand, the hardships we are observing and experiencing are not just signs of times of sorrow. They also predict the coming of the Kingdom of God, the ultimate end of our lives and human history. As Jesus Christ tells us in the Gospel, "When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift your heads because your redemption is drawing near." (Luke 21:28).
Few people nowadays seem to have peace in their hearts. Would you agree with this observation?
I think you are right. People nowadays have no sense of peace and inner calm. In part, that is a by-product of uncertainty and restrictions on human liberty during the COVID epidemic. These trying times have made us realise the fragility of our earthly life. We used to take its foundations as solid rocks and found that they were only castles of sand that may collapse or at least come under question. Many found the COVID epidemic trying because it made them realise that something similar may repeat itself at any time in future.
But inner peace and calms not only evades individuals; it is also hard to find among whole nations. Selfish interests are ruling the day; concessions are a sign of weakness and subordination, and no one wants to be seen as subordinate to others. An arms race has resumed, boding nothing good. A devilish atmosphere reigns among nations amid this spirit of restlessness. The world is moving towards self-destruction, and it seems that nothing can stop it. So perhaps the lack of inner peace and the air of restlessness in our hearts is partly the result of this overall reality of evil gaining ground in our world.
Christ tells us not to fear wars and trials. But how can one keep calm? Is it not natural to be dismayed by the reality of war, or even at the speculation of it? Is it not human to avoid human suffering?
We are Christians, not stoics who disengage themselves from the events around them. I do not think that we can find inner peace simply by detaching ourselves from our surrounding reality and not watching the news at all. On the other hand, we should not let our lives revolve around following the news. We must not do it at the expense of our prayer life. It is good to know what is happening to be on our alert spiritually. But overloading ourselves with information will bring no benefit to ourselves or others because it will distract our attention from the Lord. Our prayers give God a reason to intervene and alter the course of events from what would be a natural consequence of our refusal to live by the teachings of the Gospel. He has done it multiple times throughout human history, and the Old Testament offers us multiple examples of such intervention.
We cannot afford to remain indifferent to other people's suffering. But we stop being Christians in our sadness when we let it escalate to despair. Remember that the fortunes of our world are in God's hands. They are not in the control of the world's rulers or the devil. Nor should we forget that the Lord is just. For example, the Lord may hold someone's wartime sufferings as a virtue by redeeming some of their sins; or He may reward someone who lives in piety and repentance in the life to come. Saint Paisios of the Holy Mountain always underlined this. From a human perspective, we may see nothing but sorrows, but from God's standpoint, our troubles may be signs of His blessing. God sees our lives from the vantage point of eternity, and to Him, our well-being in the life to come may be of greater priority than our finite happiness. Faith should keep us from despairing at the sorrows affecting us or others. As Christian faithful, we have the power to relieve the suffering of others by giving them our sympathetic look, touch and word, reassuring them that they are not alone in their troubles. Genuine love comes from God alone. It can empower our suffering fellow human beings to have a sense of God's presence, much like the saints have done.
You have conversed extensively with the elders of Mount Athos, including the venerable Paisios. Have they made any comments to you about the present time? If so, what advice did they give on avoiding panic, keeping inner peace and trusting the Lord?
I did not raise with them these exact questions. Back then, they did not seem that relevant, and I was not in a position to travel to Greece during the pandemic. However, they have all been addressed in the books about these elders. Let me note in passing that typically, the elders are keen to avoid these topics if they sense that their partner in conversation is raising them only out of curiosity.
The Elder Sophronius a hieromonk from Mount Athos and a disciple of St Silouan established the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Essex, England. He said that we should not engage too much in the discussion of the second coming of Christ or the events preceding it because He comes to us at every liturgy. The liturgy is an incursion of the Kingdom of God into our world, and everyone may experience eternal salvation in proportion to their spiritual maturity. I am confident that Elder Sophronius's way of thinking is highly beneficial for us spiritually. With each communion, we become the bearers of the Holy Trinity. We should take this transformation seriously without giving in to panic and anxiety. It is difficult but essential work.
One Russian pilgrim asked archimandrite Jeremiah, abbot of St Panteleimon monastery, what he should do if the third world war began. To the pilgrim, it was a burning question that brought him much anxiety. The elder, who lived over a hundred years and was famous for his piety, replied: "Let us accept gratefully whatever the Lord sends us". That was the answer of a man who had lived through many sorrows and acquired great wisdom. We should take all things that our Creator sends us with trust and humility. Let us not criticise the decisions taken with His Divine Providence.
How can we prepare ourselves for the difficult times to come? Where can we find the strength?
If we trust the words of the Church fathers about the future of humanity - which come from the Holy Spirit - then our best choice will be to preoccupy ourselves with our spiritual lives and leave behind all frivolous amusements. We should mobilise our spiritual selves and arm ourselves with faith and patience. I believe the following words of the Prophet Isaiah - which he addressed millennia ago to the residents of Jerusalem fearing its coming destruction - are still relevant today: "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.' (Isaiah 7:9).
We must go to church, confess, take communion, and pay attention to our prayer life. It is a true blessing in our time to have a loving and wise spiritual father. We should also remember that Christ promises to be with us always, up until the end of time. We are not left to fend for ourselves with our limited knowledge and capabilities. We should trust the Lord to guide and take care of us. As Saint Paisios taught, the harder the times ahead of us, the greater and more visible will be the Lord's help for His faithful.
It could also be that by allowing us to live in these difficult times, the Lord put His deep trust in us. He gave us the honour to bear the banner of Orthodoxy in a world that is not faring well, to bring comfort and reassurance to many who see their future as frightening and uncertain. It is a historic opportunity to rise above our private lives and consider how we can best serve others. Prayer becomes our potent tool to be with others and help them deal with the burdens of their existence and bring them at least some relief.
These days, many Christian faithful hear from others the question, "Where is your God? Where is your Blessed Virgin? Why did not they stop the war? Why does God allow the death of innocent people? What would you say to them?
The meaning of suffering is a difficult question, both from an individual and global perspective. God created the world to be good; he meant no suffering for anyone. He lets His sun shine for the good and the evil. So we must keep the firm belief that the Lord is good. The Lord's apostle John the Theologian reassures us "God is light and there is no darkness in Him" (1. John 1:5). How can we convince everyone else that God is good if we cannot believe it ourselves?
As I said, we must remember that we live in a world corrupted by sin, and so many things in it do not happen according to His will. Individuals and peoples fight; wars occur, and many suffer. But people, not God, are to blame for wars. When we distance ourselves from Him and His life, we allow the enemy to reign over us and become helpless pawns in his bloody games. By not living by God's will, every person is partly responsible for the wars and suffering. They take away from the Lord's blessings. So to those who ask me why God allows wars and suffering, my advice would be to look at themselves before blaming God and the saints. A humble person would perhaps say the same as the young men martyrs in the furnace of Babylon: "Everything You sent us and did to us you did according to Your fair judgment".
St. Paisios teaches that wars are inevitable because our generation has become too defiant. He says that if it had not been for wars, young men would become little demons. Another great saint of our time, Father Jacob Tsalikis, once walked into the church of St John of Russia at Prokopius Village. He prayed before the saint and had a spiritual conversation with him. Saint John was saddened by how many of those who came to venerate his holy relics were living genuine Christian lives. In conclusion, he said: "War is inevitable because there is so much sin, unbelief and ungodliness in our world." Elder Jacob witnessed more than one war during his lifetime and tried to argue with Saint John. Yet the saint was adamant. Three times in their conversation, he compared war to a surgery that the world needed. Perhaps it is God's way of bringing us to our senses, making us more humble and bringing home to us why He had given us life in the first place. For humanity, world war three will be followed by a period of recovery. Elders Paisios and Porphyrios predicted that after a great war there would come a great blossoming of Orthodoxy and a time of extensive preaching. Perhaps this knowledge could give us the heart to endure the hardships to come. Alder Eumenios Saridakis († 1999) - awaiting canonisation - said that forty years ago humanity was given a reprieve from the world war. He predicted the war between Russia and the West to begin in Ukraine. But by the intercession of the Mother of God and the elders of the time Porphyrios, Paisios and Jacob, among others, the war did not happen so that people would have time to repent. Father Eumenius wept in sadness, but Porphyrios told him not to weep, saying that the war would not begin now, but later.
So by the intercession of the Mother of God and the saints, we had a few more decades of peace. Surely, they are still praying for peace, but this time Christ may not listen. The will for spiritual perfection is disappearing fast, and it is exactly this will, the will to live in God, that justifies the existence of humanity, as elder Paisios said. So the time for major surgery is approaching. I pray that the Lord will give us enough humility for us to endure the difficult times with the least damage.
Interviewer: Pyotr Davydov
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