Let us talk about life. Do you have anyone interesting to talk to about this? If not, then don’t worry as I have very few myself. If you venture to cautiously ask your acquaintances and relatives: “Why do we live on this Earth?” or “What is the purpose of life?” their reaction will be silence or slight confusion. Ask elderly people, who have been “through the mill”, the same question, and you will seldom hear a deep, sensible answer. It is sad to see an old man who is not spiritually experienced and not worldly-wise. More and more people are becoming petty—this has been observed by many. Fewer and fewer people prefer to speak of lofty and important things, while nearly everyone prefers to talk of this-worldly and material things all the time.
For me an aimless life is like a song without an accordion or like food without salt. I don’t want to be like a log which dully drifts along the river without ever knowing the way. I don’t want to live in a herd or to be a man of the crowd. I would rather be an aborigine, “a child of nature”, but with a living conscience and a freedom of choice—in a word, a personality which has not completely lost the image and likeness of God. Looking around me and seeing the lifestyle of the majority of people, I agree with the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD), who said: “There are people that live without any goal, pass in the world like blades in a river: they don't go, they are carried.”1
Do you remember the story of two frogs that inadvertently jumped into a bucket of milk [a Russian tale]? One of them refused to struggle for life, gave up and soon drowned. But the second frog did its best to survive: It kept paddling very energetically until it finally churned the milk into butter. Then it jumped out of the bucket and thus survived. It set for itself survival as object, and after enormous efforts, attained it. And this applies to all of us. According to Honore de Balzac, “You must first take a step to reach your goal.” Labor and effort are needed here; only then will we progress and continue to grow. The main thing is not to stop. “If you have set out to reach a goal and stop on your way to throw stones at every dog that barks, then you will never reach the destination,” Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his Diaries. As they say, dogs were born to bark at us, but our task is to move forward. As has been observed by wise men, a person grows as his goals grow. Big goals require the immense effort. A headwind blowing against the course of your ship is good, too—it does not increase your speed, but it does make you cleverer.
“Life is boring without a moral purpose; life is pointless if we live only to eat—this is clear to any worker. Therefore, a moral occupation is needed in life,” this is an accurate observation by Dostoevsky. Isn’t it true that lack of this “moral occupation” is the cause of the extremely depressive state of many modern people? Why are despondency and depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and burnout becoming the predominant states in our lives? And the fact that this problem also often affects clergymen and monks is very alarming. One psychiatrist whom I personally know told me that among her patients are priests and priests’ wives who take antidepressant drugs and consult her regularly. One would think that they, pastors of the Church, must have God’s fire in their hearts and kindle the hearts of others. But this is in theory; while in real life all is more difficult. Our family life is not that easy either, and this applies to families with many children as well. They quite often grumble about their lives and even want to “come down from the cross.” But to where? It is common knowledge that one cannot come down from the cross—one can only be taken down from it… Where can we find answers to these questions concerning our difficult life?
The famous Conversation of St. Seraphim of Sarov with Nikolai Alexandrovich Motovilov on the aim of the Christian life once helped me when I was trying to find the purpose of my life. It summarizes the thoughts of the Church Fathers regarding the purpose of life and is easy for the ordinary reader to grasp. The seeming simplicity of the conversation is deceptive—this instruction is given by one of the greatest saints of the Russian Church, and his listener is a future ascetic who was healed by St. Seraphim from an incurable disease.
This conversation took place about 200 years ago, in 1831. Motovilov himself related that from the age of twelve he wanted to know the aim of the Christian life and this thought constantly troubled him. “I approached many clergy about it but their answers did not satisfy me.” “Some were even indignant with you for being occupied with profane curiosity and said to you: ‘Do not seek things that are beyond you’,”2 St. Seraphim, to whom Motovilov’s thoughts were revealed, replied. This situation is familiar to us. A young man is standing on the threshold of adult life. Years of labors and crucial decisions are ahead of him, he has a desire to live rightly and is afraid of fatal mistakes. He needs help and wise advice from the people that love him. But instead he constantly hears: “Why are you so pensive? Pondering about the meaning of life… Why should you care about it? Live the way others do… Why are you so curious about the purpose of life? Stop it!” However, it is worthwhile to think about it, especially if you are a young and sensible person. You should do it even when it is extremely hard, even if there is no support or understanding from your nearest and dearest. In this case you should remember Christ—His own friends and relatives said that He is beside Himself (Mark 3:21). So they called Him a madman.
But let us return to the conversation.
We see from it that even 200 years ago, the clergy could give no definite answer to a teenage boy. But Motovilov did not give up and at long last met St. Seraphim himself. As the Gospel says, He that seeketh findeth (Mat. 7:8). This is a commandment from the Gospel—to quest for the “one thing needful.” Then a distinction between the means and the aims of the Christian life is made. It is important for us to understand these basic concepts. The misunderstanding of these things is the cause of many mistakes in our lives along with the serious depressive states, mentioned above. Thus, people said to Motovilov: “Go to church, pray to God, keep the commandments of God, do good—that is the aim of Christian life.”3 But St. Seraphim disagreed with this reply: “But they did not speak as they should… Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end.”4 So, outward podvig [ascetic activity, labor] is not the aim, but only the means. In order to better understand the difference let us quote the words of Johann Goethe: “Taking the means for the aim, people will be disappointed in themselves and others, therefore their activity will end in failure or will cause the opposite result.” How often these words become a reality in our lives. A person attends church, keeps the fasts, reads books, meets with confessors, goes on pilgrimage trips… But things haven’t gone forward an inch. Almost nothing has changed in inner life… The consequences are disappointment in the new way of life and despondency in the soul, resentment at being disparaged, feeling useless, and utter loneliness. And he doesn’t know how to fill the void in his soul. He hasn’t learned this even in the Church. The easiest way is to take a “good mood tablet” to increase serotonin level or to use whatever antidepressants at hand—television, the internet, having a drink with hearty meal, and sound sleep. However, this won’t improve the state of his soul, and the depression will surely return soon… Such is this sad story. What should one do in this situation?
Let us read the conversation further and find the answer in the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”5 So, it is not external labor that matters, but the inner state of soul. What is in your soul—the void, or the presence of God’s Spirit? And further we see an important remark: “But mark, my son, only the good deed done for Christ's sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”6 This is what we must strive for. To do good works in the spirit of the Gospel, as if we were in Christ’s presence, maximally reducing the admixture of sin. To forgive our offenders not merely in words but in the spirit of the Gospel; that is, with all our hearts (see Matt. 18:35). To try to speak and think only good things about them and to pray for them as often as possible. In addition to almsgiving, show compassion and sincere concern for people: “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Perform any good work secretly, far from human eyes, often against our own will… Some degree of “foolishness for Christ’s sake” and eccentricity is allowed here. Let us read the famous verse from the Gospel: Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them (Mat. 7:12). Constantly perfect the way you treat your neighbors… Treat others the way you would want to be treated—then your soul will be filled with joy and you will be comforted. In a word, we must learn to do really good works with a capital G and a capital W. Many of us are still beginning to learn this “science” of performance good deeds… Let us remember that God wants only pure sacrifices from us, and He will return a hundredfold. To Him the quality of our virtues matters, not their number. There is the golden rule in spiritual life: “better less, but of higher quality.”
In conclusion let us define the meaning of the word “acquisition” more precisely. It is not very clear. St. Seraphim of Sarov replies thus: “Acquiring is the same as obtaining… To acquire or make money…, to receive honors, distinctions and other rewards… The acquisition of God's Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal… Acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit by practicing all the virtues for Christ's sake. Trade spiritually with them; trade with those which give you the greatest profit.”7
We have been shown the way and assigned the task to fulfil: to acquire eternal capital in our souls, to find the treasure, to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is very important. We simply cannot live otherwise. A soul without grace is like a body without water and air. A soul feels miserable and suffers torments because of lack of grace—such a person feels bad and lonely. Don’t be in a hurry to see a psychologist or to take antidepressants. These things will not help your soul. But what will help? Just one little but genuine good deed for Christ’s sake. And seeing the purpose of life all the time. Let us conclude our talk with the wonderful words of the English classic writer and Christian, Charles Dickens: “Let no one deviate for one moment from the path of honesty on the apparently good pretext that this is justified by a noble goal. All fine goals can be arrived at in honest ways. And if that is impossible, then the goal is bad.”