A mountain ahead. Hurray?
As a rule, when running up against difficulties in our ordinary, daily life, we try to get around them however we can. This is perfectly natural—after all, if we, let’s say, are walking home and on our path is an icy hill, it would be more reasonable to take another route rather than risk slipping and breaking a limb. Or, let’s say we are looking for an apartment and find out that in such-and-such a building the elevator doesn’t work, then it would be perfectly natural for us to strike that building off the list and not get all enthused about walking up ten flights of stairs all the time. This is probably the first thing to which it would make sense to pay attention: As Christians and simply as adults, responsible people, we should not create hardships for ourselves artificially. Our lives are hard enough without that.
Nevertheless, a person who categorically avoids whatever difficulties that may be rarely succeeds in life. He can graduate from school, university, find a relatively comfortable and easy job, but he will not attain any important thing that a different attitude towards life might attain. After all, only truly difficult situations, moreover, stressful situations force us to mobilize all our strength, and stimulate us to learn how to “outgrow” them. Therefore, while avoiding difficulties where it is rational to do so, we must under no circumstances hide from them where they might be able to teach us something essential. This applies to study, work, sports, and of course to Christian life.
Why must we definitely struggle with difficulties in Christian life? Because, as St. John Climacus formulates it, when we are warred against we fight back; that is, when we run up against an inner struggle, when we have to do something with psychological difficulty, with effort, we understand that our passions are behind this along with our direct enemy [the devil], who does not sleep. And this understanding arouses us to overcome fear and laziness, and do the very thing that is salvific for us.
And what in Christian life is especially hard for us? Deeds and acts directed against the passion that is acting most forcefully at that moment in us. It is even somehow strange at times to see how one thing is hard for one person, another thing for another, a third for a third; and each of them would gladly do what is hard for the others. This is not so much because these people are so very different as it is because different passions act in them to different degrees.
What does it mean to “overcome difficulties”? It practically always means growing out of our faintheartedness. And of course when we are already adults this becomes more and more difficult if we have not been accustomed to it from childhood. Thus, when a child comes to confession and tells about some dishonesty, for example that he made a mess and blamed it on his younger brother, the priest might say to him, “Understand that there is only one way to set things straight: God to your mom and dad and admit everything.” And the child has to admit the reason for his deceit: thinking that the truth would not come out, or that he was afraid of punishment, or that he just didn’t want others to think badly of him.
And not only a priest but any adult that the child trusts can reveal this spiritual law to him: “Do you know that if you do not admit it now then in all likelihood you will not admit to something the next time, because then it will be much harder than today. You will get used to deceiving, and this will lead to your doing it that way every time. And later, when you grow up and want to become a different person, it will be very, very hard for you to change. I can’t force you to do this, but I strongly advise you to overcome your fear now, today, so that it won’t be so hard for you to do it later.” And it must be said that quite a few children decide to follow this advice, and you will see how this child outgrows himself, how he becomes stronger.
And for the most part, the same thing happens with an adult when he decides not to run away from a situation in which he is ashamed and fearful, but to take a step toward the truth and bear all possible consequences.
The enemy’s rattle
Rather often people ask the question, “I just can’t seem to change something in myself. What should I do?” But in fact there is only one way: to gradually, step by step become a little more than yourself. Why do so few people ascend this ladder?
For one thing, I think it is because many believing people fall prey to the temptation of exchanging necessary ascetic labors—that is, the ones that are hardest for them—with labors that are easiest for them. The guile of this replacement lies in the fact that we can see both our efforts and the results. For example, a person might find it very hard to keep quiet when someone has stepped on his toes, and he’ll answer back with a shot from the hip. But by force of his life circumstances and good health it’s sufficiently easy for him to fast; he prays often, even at night, because he has the possibility of shortening his sleep without doing harm to his daily activities. And he considers that since he ascetically labors like this it somehow compensates for his remaining as he is, an unrestrained and sharp-tongued person. Of course, no such compensation occurs.
In general the fruit of our asceticism, overcoming spiritual difficulties, can be seen in how we relate to others, how we deal with various trials in life, and not in our becoming “champions” of fasting and “record-breakers” in the hands of the enemy, by which he draws us in the direction he want us to go; that is, where there is the greater probability of perishing.
I had one acquaintance who proclaimed as his life’s creed absolute pitilessness for himself. There was a time when, for instance, he could cut open his leg without painkillers and then give himself stitches. But what is the point of this pitilessness for the sake of pitilessness? To prove to ourselves that “we can”? Again, we know? If only we were truly pitiless to ourselves in what is necessary for a Christian, in witnessing to love for people and God. But it is often very hard to bring this home to a person who is caught up in such an error.
Sometimes a person who is worn out by difficulties falls from an offense into a certain fatalism and says that people will always be divided into those who almost never succeed, those who succeed in very little, and those who succeed in practically everything they want to attain. And this is really so, but it is not at all a matter of genetics, luck, or fatal life circumstances, but in one important quality that greatly influences whether a person finally overcomes difficulties or retreats in the face of them. I am talking about the ability to rise up after a fall and to find the strength to go on. Even if we take not Christianity but ordinary secular life, we will see in the biographies of many successful and famous people that there are episodes of unlucky streaks, when they lost everything and had to start again from nothing. Of course this requires great effort, but as St. Isaac the Syrian wrote, no one has ever ascended to the heavens by living a lukewarm life. And we definitely have to cultivate in ourselves this ability to not give up no matter how many spiritual falls and no matter how great the losses they cause. The same St. Isaac the Syrian compares a Christian to a traveller bound for distant destinations: He rides on a cart but the cart breaks; his boards a ship and sails a little distance but then ends up in a shipwreck; and when he is washed up on the shore he immediately goes searching for some other form of transportation to continue his journey. That is, we should not even allow ourselves the thought that difficulties in spiritual life that may cause us to lose something can demoralize us and throw us off the track. We will continue our journey anyway.
Captains of the passions
There is probably also another moment—a moment of analysis, which we can’t do without. We have to form an objective idea as to how we are in the eyes of people around us—first of all, our friends and family. What is the most difficult thing about us for them? I stress, not for us, but for them. That there is something difficult we can rest assured, it’s enough to pay close attention to our everyday life. Or perhaps we can even ask them—I think that in most cases our close ones will have no trouble answering as to what annoys or distresses them about us. And it could very well be that this is the hardest thing for us—to struggle with what bothers other people about us. After all, it is our personality; we might even consider it our nature. But we have to understand, that there cannot be any trait in us that does wrong to others that can be good. Of course, there are borderline situations—for example, in relationships between superiors and subordinates. Employees who are not used to working conscientiously might feel “wronged” by their boss’s strict approach. Nevertheless, even in this case the boss should definitely ask himself whether he is demanding or picky, just or cruel.
St. Theophan the Recluse said that it is important for a person to understand which passions in his soul are the captains of the rest of the passions. When we strike a blow at the captain, all the other passions get weaker. And when the passions weaken, then our life essentially changes. So, this is how our family and friends who love us can significantly help us—by showing us these “captains”; and gratitude should emerge in our hearts, rather than indignation.
Consciously and unrelentingly
Perhaps each of us needs to try to learn to accept every difficulty as a lesson. What is needed for this? First of all, to admit that one or another thing is hard for us, and then try to understand what the reasons are for this difficulty; that is, delve into it a little and make sense of what is inside us. After all, even in such widespread situations as, “It’s hard not to judge,” there can be a different root to the problem. A person can judge because against the background of others he starts liking himself more. And perhaps it seems to him that judgment of another person’s “horrible” sins gives him the right to his own “little weaknesses”, which are not so terribly sinful in comparison with others’. And it’s possible that it’s all completely different: He is sincerely disturbed by what another person does and he cannot refrain from evaluating it, or considers that his judgment of the deeds is nearly the only way to change anything. Another might not even notice that he is judging, because he is constantly talking about something and is completely out of control over his stream of speech. In all of these instances the person is not right, but his path to realization of the sin and deliverance from it may again be different.
Incidentally, if a person should observe a reasonable measure in fasting, vigils, and prayer in order not to exhaust himself, then there is no need to place a limit on the struggle with difficulties that are born of our passions. For example, a certain difficulty arises for a person: He can’t seem to stop using an uncensored lexicon, and his relationships at work and at home are suffering from it. In this case he could, let’s say without stinting, assign himself fifty prostrations for every naughty word. Then, if that person has serious resolve, he will find himself faced with a tough choice: Either he finally stops using these words, or he will make prostrations throughout each evening and weekend. And believe me, this method will wipe out everything undesirable in our lives very quickly.
It is possible to apply the same method to judgment, and here the spectrum of correctional measures can be sufficiently broad—from those same prostrations to stopping yourself every time you judge and apologizing to your interlocutor for again doing what you shouldn’t. And we have to say that this practice is quite effective—its mechanism, if we can call it that, is based on the premise that each time we are stepping very painfully on our own vanity, and the enemy, as we know, does not like this very much.
In the ancient patericon there is a story about a certain ascetic who silently listened to a brother who accused him of something, and then after he left, spat a clump of blood out onto the ground. Someone near him asked, “What’s wrong with you? Are you sick?” and he answered, “No, only a certain word was rising up in me that I wanted to say to that man, and I fought with myself. I fought a long time, and in the end this word turned into a clump of blood, and now I have torn it from myself this way.” It is hard to say what actually happened—was this man biting his tongue so that he wouldn’t say anything, or did the word somehow mysteriously turn into blood… But the image is very clear. And I think that it is worth bringing to mind when we are struggling with something that is truly difficult for us.