In our lives, we will have troubles. For some, they will be problems in their family, strained relationships, frustrated plans and hopes, or poor health. Christians call them trials, and others describe them as difficulties or problems. Whatever you call them, they often lead us to what Christians would call despair and despondency, and others refer to as depression, apathy, grief, or hopelessness. The lives and writings of the new martyrs and confessors of the Church may teach us how to deal with our sorrows.
In Russia, the 20th century saw the break-down of the old order, accompanied by unprecedented repressions that affected millions of people and took the lives of the best. The new martyrs found themselves in extremely harsh conditions that today's people could even begin to imagine. The huge amounts of violence in film, on television and in books, have desensitised our hearts and minds to the suffering of others - we are not prepared to take it seriously until we are affected personally.
As an illustration, we turn to the subject of repressions. Arrests and long terms in prisons and prison camps are some of the most difficult trials for any person. Olga Bergtolts (†1975), a known Russian poet from Saint Petersburg a woman of little faith but of great moral character, remembers: “It was a place of extreme, bitter and infinite human suffering. They turn you inside out with their sticky, foul-smelling hands; they spit and defecate into your soul, then throw you out and tell you to go on with your life. I was trampled upon, violated and mutilated in imprisonment." Bergtold's insights give is an idea of what someone may feel facing material and probable threat to their lives in body and spirit.
Yet people who keep their faith at their most terrible moments and obey God's commandments receive His help; and even though they suffer no less than anyone else in their position, they still differ from everybody else in their behaviour. The Venerable Rafail of Optina (†1957) spent 20 years in imprisonment. From his prison camp, he wrote to his spiritual daughter tormented by loneliness and a serious illness: "I share the grief and pain of your affliction, especially I sympathise with the loss of your kin and your immobility. I am not embittered but emboldened to suffer my pains from slander, hunger and exile. I am confident that all of these will bring me to salvation. One thing that we should fear most of all is sin; death itself fades in comparison with it.
Schema-monk Joasaph of Optina said of his fifteen-year imprisonment, "Glory to God for all things: our joys, sorrows and griefs. I thank you, O Lord for my suffering and teaching me Your Commandments." His attitude is an example of Christian acceptance of one's sorrows and deprivations. A saint fears nothing but sin, and he thanks God for his sorrows.
These examples are highly instructive. They are more than displays of heroism. In the writings of the Russian fiction author Varlam Shalamov, who himself has been through prison camps, we find impartial evidence that religious people are more likely to remain on the moral high ground than unbelievers. We should be mindful, of course, that membership in the Church does not bring salvation automatically. There were numerous examples of Christians among the prisoners who compromised their moral integrity to save their earthly lives, forgetting about their eternal lives in heaven. In these situations, the Lord puts us and our faith to the test.
So how do unbelievers compare to righteous believers in their mindsets and behaviours? Varlam Shalamov is an intelligent and incisive author who spent years in some of the worst Soviet prison camps. In his books, he wrote about the fallibility of man; he showed how many people lost their human character in a matter of several weeks from hard work, cold weather, malnourishment and harsh treatment. He also wrote about different strategies of survival in prison camps; some lived in anger, others with indifference. Guided exclusively by the instinct for survival and self-preservation, they likened themselves to animals." How salvific was that?
Saint Rafail of Optina underlined, "It is possible to bear the pains as a stoic, with one's teeth clenched. But it is a great Christian feat to suffer with the right attitude.”
Saint Rafail wrote to his spiritual children from his prison camp, "I have more pity for you than for myself. It is already in my nature to bear sorrows, profanities and such; they have become my destiny, but they are also my gifts of wisdom, joy and salvation. I see them as my assets; for them, I thank my Lord and Saviour more than for all of the good things of my life. For they are the cleansing of my soul and my ladder to the Heaven." Humble acceptance of sorrows is a Christian's mark of distinction, while his love for his enemies is his mark of excellence.
In their lives and writings, the holy new martyrs instruct us on all aspects of dealing with our sorrows. Saint Nikon of Optina wrote: "Sorrow is nothing else than the reaction of our hearts to the events in our lives that contradict our will. To relieve ourselves from the painful pressure of our sorrows, we need to surrender our will and submit ourselves fully to our Lord. The Lord wants us to be saved, and He leads us to our salvation in incomprehensible ways. Submit yourself to the will of God, and you will bring peace to your sorrowful heart and soul." Elsewhere, he continues, "The fate of all seekers of salvation is to suffer. Yet suffering is also a cause for rejoicing because it brings us to salvation.”
Saint Rafail concurs. In his letter from the prison camp, he writes, "Believe me, my child. Never in my life have I had so much peace, calm and contentment in my heart. God allows us sorrows by His Divine Providence, but He also gives strength to His people and blesses them with His peace!"
Elsewhere, St. Rafail concludes, "Sorrows and illnesses are our lot in this world; in them, we are made pure like pigs of gold from our routine imperfections. He sends sorrows and illnesses to us as if they were His prophets, to remind us, "Sober up! Come to your senses! Do not covet, or chase, like a little child, worldly trivialities destined to perish. In this world, you are a traveller on a brief journey. Your life is only a short-lived dream. Eternity is waiting for you beyond the edge of your grave. You are the crown of creation on this earth. You are God's reflection; your soul lives in eternity, like its Creator. Live wisely and with dignity. Prepare yourself a place worthy of your title in His quarters. Do not lose sight of Heaven, your destination."
By Monk Platon (Rozhkov)
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