Sometimes, we might think that nothing is happening, when in fact a lot is going on. Things that we believe to be unimportant are of the essence because they prevent us from seeing God. An ailing mind is vulnerable to misconceptions. Yet recognising the problem and admitting the vulnerability is already a great achievement.
We have the habit of trusting our visions and sensations, which puts us in great trouble. By having too much faith in ourselves, we always lose. It would seem we have had enough to finally understand that without God, we are helpless. We are called to put behind us the legacy of our old testament selves - to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, as the Gospel tells us. Galatians (5: 24). Yet this is not something that we can do by ourselves. The passions, desires and all other things of the flesh are very good at mimicry, and truth and lies are not always visible to the naked eye. We need vision aids to see this difference well.
Far-sightedness is our common problem: we are adept at noticing the wrongs of others, but not our own. So we need spectacles for our vision, and Christ is the one who writes the prescriptions. How many dioptres? This depends on the condition of our spirit at the given moment. The Holy Reverend Ambrose of Optina used to say: "Know your limitations, and take care of what is on your plate." The greater attention we pay to our own lives and ourselves, the less do we keep track of others with our far-sighted vision. This is a rule of life which we all need to learn. We know it in theory, yet we often find ourselves too hesitant to apply it consistently. We should begin by stopping and asking ourselves in all of our encounters, engagements and works, "What is the will of God? What good are these encounters, works or engagements for our spirits?" At this point, we get the chance to turn our eyes to God, Who may keep us from making a false move. Developing the habit of turning to God will put us on a path towards our salvation.
Sometimes, people will tell me: "I do not know how to resist the temptations that befall." Our life in the spirit is grounded in our ability to admit our weakness and closed-mindedness. We are called to submit our desires and all that is ours to God's hands, so we do not find ourselves in the hands of somebody other than God. On the surface, the advice looks simple and straightforward. In practice, we put ourselves first and trust our sensations too much as we exercise our free will and the habit of overtrusting and putting ourselves first. Beginning to live in the spirit is still extremely difficult. Without an inner life and an inner struggle, we will always be fighting a losing battle. We may put on the gowns of schema monks or don monastic vestments, but this will not change anything. This is true for you, for me and all of us, as we are so dependent on one another.
How can we get ourselves to take the advice and follow it consistently? Our success depends on our prayer and repentance, and our ability to nurture our relationships with family, close and distant. All of these things are related. Staying connected to God is hard work, and we will need to question ourselves a lot. Abba Dorotheus said, "Something seems right, but I go and ask. They tell me that what I thought I was true, but it is true now, but it was not true when I was thinking by myself". Do you see the point? Something is true, but one might misunderstand because of one’s pride, so one had better ask.
We want to be self-sufficient. We do not like to ask, and people will rarely ask us. We wonder why we need to ask anyone in the first place. This is a sign of our distancing from God. We will not lower ourselves to asking someone else. We prefer to go it alone because we think it is easier and more convenient. This might indeed be simple and fast, and maybe even beneficial in some respect; but in the end, we have a lot more to lose by estranging ourselves from God. He is the rock of our spiritual life. Its basic maths, the letters of its alphabet. Unless we learn this lesson, we will continue to lose.
The grace of God comes from Him. Why does not it stay in our hearts? Because of our inattention. We take it for granted and treat it as our property. To some, it may become a matter of conceit.
Let me tell you this story. A young schema monk came to visit an old monk in his cell in Valaam Island. The schema-monk had been keeping a strict and enduring fast. They talked. When they parted, the old monk said: "Do not walk on the ice tonight. You will drown". The schema monk scoffed at the advice: "Am I not a schema monk? Am I not praying? Are you serious, elder!" So he walked on the ice, and drowned.
Pride always brings man to his death. The gift of His grace goes to the humble. “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians (4: 13). Did you hear? Do all this! If there had been something he could not do, the Apostle would have said so. But he said instead: "I can do it all if there is God's will for it".
We need to keep the middle ground and avoid extremes. Yet we are still taken to extremes. One moment we claim holiness, and the next moment we bewail our worthlessness. Just one drop of grace in the dryness of sin is enough can bring a heart to life. One honest look, one word from the heart, and we have the energy to live. Trust, warmth, compassion and understanding can bring an arid heart back to life.
One brother at our farmstead has been living there for 20 years. He had a lot of relapses, and each time he was forgiven. After his last relapse, he said, "I think I am over it. I have begun to pray!" He has been doing well so far, staying sober for several weeks. I see it as an achievement. As my trust in him grew, and I said to him: "We will be over it soon, Valery, I am sure". Another brother comes to me and says: "Father, they are putting so much pressure on me! They are making me work too much! I have good ideas, but the sisters will not listen! How outrageous!" Both brothers have transgressed, but their reactions have been vastly different. I say to the second brother:
"Sasha, you are going to relapse again!"
"Why makes you say so?"
“Because you are judging others. Judging others is not good. You have been forgiven. If you are asked to do some work, do it in repentance, not for a reward."
If only we could have the same attitude to our lives! If we saw everything we did in it as repentance? Can you imagine how our lives would change then? Our guilt before our Lord is beyond any measure. How pure at heart we could all be, if we recognised our transgression, had faith in God's all-forgiving love, work to the best of our ability and were thankful to Him for all we had. What more might we need for our salvation?
But our pride and the evil one will always look for weak spots. They will jump at every chance to deceive us, to enter through the back door. Go off your guard just for one moment, believe our sensuous self, and you have lost the struggle. But we are fortunate to be in the fold of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church, where we can come and say a millionth time: “Forgive me, Lord, I have sinned”.
This is not the definition of humility that we’re used to. How do we tally it with the understanding of humility as “feeling inferior to others”, which is typical of so many spiritual books?