The study of the works of St. Theophan the Recluse is always a challenge, but the study of his book, The Path to Salvation , has been a true blessing. I am sorry for those of you who were not able to attend our class. Do read the book and take time to study it and digest well the truths that it contains.
St. Theophan says that when we are baptized, God places a seed of His Grace within us. There have been a few rare souls in whom this seed immediately blossomed into the fruit of holiness and a Christ-like life.
While this holiness was possible for all of us at our baptism, for most of us some part of our nature remains unconverted or unchanged. St. Paul calls this unconverted part of our nature “the flesh” In several of his writings he talks about “fleshly” or “carnal” Christians.
Having both the seed of Grace and a carnal nature means that spiritually speaking we are schizophrenic. We live between two inner realities – the Spirit and the flesh. St. Paul tells us that the flesh wars continually against the Spirit.
So, in the face of this schizophrenic spiritual reality, St. Theophan asks the question, “How do we live a God-pleasing life?”
Wait a moment. This question may make us think that we have to do something for God to love us. No, not at all. The Scriptures and the Fathers are clear about this. God loves us now, just as we are. As St. Paul points out, even while we were sinners and His enemies, God sent Christ to die for us. St. John writes, “God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son…” God is unchanging eternal Love and not some angry Father that we must appease by our good behavior.
Yet certainly, God does not want to see us laboring under the slavery of sin. In Exodus, God tells Moses that He had heard the cries of the people under the whips of their taskmasters. He would send a deliverer to free them.
Through Christ, God sends us His Grace to deliver us. When we join with it, we find healing and freedom from the bondage of sin. If we choose to remain in the bondage of sin, even then, God does not disdain us but looks down upon us with compassion.
When we follow the leading of the Spirit and say “NO” to our flesh, we begin to taste real freedom. St. Theophan calls this “self-opposition” or “self-forcing.” The Russian word for this is “podvig”, which means “struggle”, and it is truly a struggle because it’s never easy to oppose ourselves. In fact, it would be impossible for us to oppose ourselves if Grace was not present in us.
As someone once said, an Orthodox Christian who isn’t struggling is on the road to hell.
You might think, “well, we must all be good Orthodox Christians because we are all struggling. Right?”
We struggle with things like a boring and low-paying job, a demanding boss, an insensitive spouse, ill-health, irritating neighbors, financial worries, an old car, a house in need of repair, unrealized dreams and ambitions, and so on. I find that I struggle because I am trying to “fulfill myself” and “find myself” and the world just won’t cooperate. I want everything and everyone to say “yes” to me, and if I don’t get it, the way I want it, then I struggle mightily with anger and depression. I walk about with a sense of the sheer injustice of it all. After all, I was meant for better things.
The Church call this state “selfish misery.” Oh, selfish misery is a struggle, but it is not a struggle that will save us. Frankly this isn’t what St. Theophan is talking about.
True struggle is to say no to every aspect of selfish misery- to ambition, pride, anger, depression, avarice, gluttony, acquisitiveness, lust, fear, anxiety, laziness, despair, vainglory, etc. Fundamentally, it is saying no to the whole issue of “self-fulfillment.” The Lord said, “He who tries to find himself will lose himself, but he who loses himself for My sake will find himself.”
To win in this battle against the flesh, St. Theophan tells us that the Church has given us Grace-filled weapons and tools for this podvig – prayer, fasting, reading of the Scriptures and the Fathers, attending Church services, etc. We use them not to “please God” or to fulfill some churchly requirement. We use them because they are good for us. The Grace of the Sacraments and the Grace present in spiritual disciplines joins with the inner seed of Grace given to us at Baptism. Working together, we begin to transform the unredeemed aspects of our being.
For example, will we suffer defeats in this spiritual war? Yes, and when we experience a defeat its easy to want to give up. For this we have the Sacrament of Confession. Here we can experience forgiveness and put our defeats behind us. Free from the guilt and shame of our defeat, we are renewed to fight once again. This is our surest weapon against despair.
As the Scriptures tell us, what hope is there for us if “we neglect so great a salvation?”
Just say no!