A Christian living in the world is called, not to be saved from the world, but to learn, while living in the world, to use what the world offers for spiritual benefit.
“The Epistle to Diognetus,” an ancient Christian text dated to about the 2nd century, has this to say:
“The Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.”
Such are the words of the author of the “Epistle to Diognetus.” And so, what the soul is in the body, the Christian is in the world. Each of us Christians has been placed by God in a certain historical and geographical context. We live in a specific city, in a specific epoch, are surrounded by specific people, and our lives are influenced by specific circumstances, but the words of Christ – “You are the salt of the world; you are the light of the world,” – apply to our life. We are not called to renounce the world, oppose the world, and abhor the world. While living in the midst of the world, we are called to be the salt of the world and the light of the world, that is, like the soul in the body, we are called to give life to the world, to transfigure the world. However, in order to be able to have a good influence on the world, we need to learn to use all that this world offers us correctly; we need to learn to approach the world creatively.
In the Russian émigré community in Paris, there lived one of the most remarkable pastors of the 20th century, the priest Alexander Elchaninov. The whole conscious life of this man was connected with the Orthodox Church. He spent his youth in Georgia and in Russia and became a priest when he was already an émigré. He never wrote any great theological works. All that he left behind were isolated diary entries, which were collected into a book after his death. Fr. Alexander lived his whole life in the world, around people, and he reached great spiritual heights. This is one of his thoughts about how a Christian ought to perceive the world around him:
“The circumstances with which our Lord has surrounded us are the first stage leading to the Kingdom of Heaven; and this is the only way of salvation possible for us. These circumstances will change as soon as we have profited by them, converting the bitterness of offenses, insults, sickness, and labours into the gold of patience, forbearance, and meekness.. Constantly, each day, each hour, God is sending us people, circumstances, tasks, which should mark the beginning of our renewal; yet we pay them no attention, and thus continually we resist God’s will for us. Indeed, how can God help us? Only by sending us in our daily life certain people, and certain coincidences of circumstances. If we accepted every hour of our life as the hour of God’s will for us, as the decisive, most important, unique hour of our life – what sources of joy, love, strength, as yet hidden from us, would spring from the depths of our soul!”
Here, then, is the key to the Christian way of perceiving the reality – always to see in everything that happens to us and that takes place with us the providential finger of God. Nothing in our lives happens by chance. If we are placed in certain conditions, if we end up in difficult circumstances, then that means that this is pleasing to God. When God sends us a blessing or a temptation, each time, He is placing a task before us for us to solve. Joy or grief, health or sickness, friends or enemies – all of this God sends us to train and perfect us and we must learn to drive the spiritual benefit from all of it and use it for spiritual growth.
Another key to spiritual life is constantly abiding in the depths – where the mysterious encounter between our soul and God takes place. If we do not come to know this depth, we will never be able to become real, full-fledged Christians. The external circumstances of life can change. Many different things can happen on the external level, but the important thing is what is happening inside a person. If we do not learn what the Fathers of the Church call “dwelling internally,” we risk staying on the surface of Christian life, without understanding the essence of the path that we are called to walk.
In life there is always a lot that frightens us or causes us anxiety, annoyance, and resentment. If a man is unable to renounce all of this, if he lets circumstances “suck him up,” swallow him, he will never succeed in achieving the deep internal stillness where the mystery of Christian life and the mystery of the encounter between man and God is hidden. When the external circumstances obscure what is going on in the depths, then a man no longer has the strength to work on himself, to cultivate the ground of his heart.
“The effort expended in securing control over ourselves and over our anarchic and autonomous nervous systems is greatly facilitated,” writes Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, “and made quite easy, by the correct balance of our attention and imagination. We shall inevitably continue to stumble over every trifling obstacle until what is not a trifle has become sharply defined, vivid and convincing in our soul; until we strive with all our soul, heart, and mind towards what is essential, relegating to their proper place the trifles that poison our everyday life.”
Many people are so focused on external, and sometimes in fact “trifling,” circumstances, that their whole lives turn into a ceaseless pursuit of something that they know they cannot obtain. They are always waiting for “better times,” instead of enjoying the present day and the present hour, the hour in which God is near, for He is always near to us. These people live on illusory hopes for a better future. But life passes by and the future barely comes before it already begins to disappear into the past. And man slides along the surface of life, not taking time to go down into the depths where alone life is worth living, where it regains its original value.
How is it possible in our age – when the tempo of life has been sped up to the limit, when time is extremely compressed and it seems like it flies by a lot faster than in earlier times – how is it possible to keep spiritual balance and internal peace? The only way is to descend into the depths, into the very depths of the internal life, where the soul comes into contact with God.
“The passing of time is terrifying,” writes Elchaninov, “as long as one remains motionless. We must plunge into the depths, where time is a matter of indifference.”
There is one more key to the spiritual life – having your priorities straight. It is very important that everything in a man’s life be in the proper place, corresponding to the hierarchy of his values. Often we are nervous, irritated, and displeased simply because we give the first place in our priorities to something that should be, perhaps, in tenth place, and forget about what is most important – standing in the presence of God. If your soul is in the presence of God, you have no reason to be nervous, anxious, irritated, or worried, because your soul has already found “the one thing needful” and has been quieted by being in God’s presence.
“Standing in God’s presence” and our communion with Him should be constant – not just the background of the Christian life, but actually its core. When someone has a strong inner core then he is not afraid of any adversities that may come his way.
“Our life on earth,” says Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, “is a likeness of the eternal and higher life.”
Following this thought of his, I would like to add that our task, then, here on earth, is to draw closer and closer to the image and likeness in which we were created by God Himself. Every day, we need, as it were, to clean the image of God within us, which has been defiled by sins and all the vanity that surrounds us.
When we put what is most important first, what is secondary second, we can, while living in the middle of this world’s vanity, derive spiritual benefit from everything. There aren’t many things in this world that are in and of themselves either completely negative or completely positive. As a rule, everything that surrounds us can either benefit or harm us. If we learn to derive benefit from everything that surrounds us, the whole world around us will be transfigured. We will see that, without having to go into the desert like Mary of Egypt, without living in a monastery, without any special ascetical efforts, but simply by living in this world, we can attain the spiritual heights.
The majority of us live in the city and we’re rarely able to get away to spend time in nature. All the same, we do have some opportunities – weekends, time off, vacations – when we can leave behind everything and forget about it all and go somewhere if only for a day or two, or maybe even a few days or a week, and be alone with nature. This is a very important experience which should not be neglected. Living in a city with millions of people, we unwillingly become involved in its artificial rhythm, the rhythm of chasing after material things. When we’re able to tear ourselves away from this circle even for a few days, we feel the breath of eternity, we come into contact with nature, where God Himself is present and breathing. In a forest, in the mountains, on the shore of a river or a lake, we can overhear the breathing of the Holy Spirit, Who was “moving over the face of the waters” when the earth was created and Who even now permeates and gives life to everything.
Each of us has a particular “expertise,” a certain area in which we know something. Every science and every sort of expertise can have a useful and practical value and in this sense, they are all neutral with respect to the spiritual life. But science, as long as it reveals the depths of the universe, the laws that are in force among people, in nature, in the cosmos, can acquire a religious significance and can open God to us. The deeper we go into any science, the more it can enable us to know God. As one thinker said, “A little knowledge leads a man away from God; great knowledge leads a man back to Him.” A narrow-minded and ignorant man often has primitive conceptions of religion as well.
Many of the Church Fathers, such as Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Blessed Augustine, spent years and decades mastering the sciences and the knowledge contained in various fields – philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, geometry, etc. They were some of the most educated people of their times. Afterwards, when they were ordained, they used all their knowledge for the service of God, the Church, and people. As St. Gregory the Theologian once said, “I have worked hard to acquire all the riches accumulated in the East and the West, but I have laid all of these riches at the feet of Christ.”
In the opinion of some, faith and science are incompatible, as if education and science were completely foreign to the Christian Church, where everything depends on simplicity and humility. In school, children are taught that religion contradicts science and that science denies the tenants of religion.
On the other hand, among religious people there is fear in the face of dialogue, exchanging views, and reason as such. Some people are even distrustful of the science of theology. There is much that I could say on this subject, but I think that it is enough to mention here the words of Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, one of the most remarkable pastors of the 20th century: “The fear of thinking, philosophy, and theology, which has become common in our time, cannot be justified either by the Gospel or the Holy Fathers, who themselves did a lot of reasoning and analyzing. I cannot recall a single one of the Holy Fathers who would have been afraid of the human mind, of reasoning, of a difference of opinion…”
(Translation © John Hogg, 2009)