In her concern that we be perfected, God’s Church has not deprived this important ascetic struggle of her attention and precautionary care. For I believe that it is with this intention that she has instituted the celebration of such special days as the commemoration days of Saints—who were people with like passions as us—as well as of the Angels, whose essence is like our souls. Thus, prefiguring the Angelic spirits we would strive to preserve our purity and not disrupt our likeness to them; and observing the men who pleased God, we would not doubt our strength to subject the passions of our flesh to the spirit.
But as those who were glorified by their saintliness are already numbered among the Angelic hosts, and having shed the garment of their earthly flesh are now blessed spirits, like unto the Angelic spirits in purity and essence, comprising the Church Triumphant in heaven; and as we are those still sailing the sea of life to reach the heavenly harbor, and comprise the Church Militant on earth—then we will discuss now the relationship one has toward the other.
The Church Militant is composed of virtuous ascetic laborers, and that is why it is so-called: because her members, like valiant warriors, must always war with the passions and vices under the leadership of Jesus, Who laid the foundation for asceticism, and under the sign of His cross. But the Church Triumphant is composed of the blessed in heaven; that is why it is so-called: because after their bright victory over all worldly opposition her members triumph in the heavenly habitations, and delight in true rest and glory.
The great Paul explains both Churches with these words: For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect (Heb. 12:18–19, 22–23). Here the Apostle names a mountain that is hard to climb, fire, darkness, tempest, the sound of a trumpet, and terrible voices to indicate the Church Militant on earth; while he uses the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of Angels, the triumph of the firstborn written in heaven, and the perfect, just men, to signify the Church Triumphant in heaven.
From the Apostle’s thoughts we too can see what relationship one Church has to the other. In the Church Militant there is essentially continual ascetic labor. The lot of virtuous men is labor and vigilance. As passions constantly seduce us and vices always attract us by their pleasant appearance, the slightest slackening brings the danger that they might gain the upper hand and enslave our mind and conscience to themselves. Therefore the ascetic struggler must always stand on the divine watch.
We cannot accuse the just judge Who rules the world that this life of ours gives us more of what is burdensome than what is pleasant. In this is the very privilege which gives us supremacy over all other animal creatures. No matter what their advantage is, no matter how sound and excellent any of them may be, none of them deserve praise and glory. They do what they were born to do, are not guided by reason, and perhaps do not even understand what they do. All honor and glory is due the Artist Who made them wisely. Because honor goes to the artisan for his artfully crafted clay vessel, the clay cannot share that honor with him.
But the Creator had another wise dispensation for us. By assigning us labor and struggle, and placing at every step of our way some hindrances for us to overcome, He has prepared for us honor and glory, which we can receive after we have been victorious over them. By this do we glorify the Artist Who has ordered this for us most wisely, and we glorify ourselves also for being able to use His gifts of reason and freewill to our own benefit.
If we were to consider our appointed struggle to be burdensome, then we should be ashamed to have been created human, and wish that we were turned into irrational beasts, or into trees or stones; but who would dare to so debase mankind’s glory?
Or if you should consider this struggle burdensome and refuse to strive for the acquisition of victorious honors, this would be your own choice. Relax your arms and knees and give yourself over to perpetual reclining and comfort—think only about food and drink, serve your belly, indulge your senses, allow your mind to stop its action, and put all the powers of your soul to sleep. Let us see what good comes of it. The spirit will be weighed down with despondency and sad boredom, the body will be weakened and distressed by sickness, the soul will be encumbered by vices, and the conscience will be agonized by its own criticism, reproach, and anxiety. You will be superfluous to your own self, harmful to others, and a feckless burden on the earth.
But to be always engaged in ascetic struggles, fear, and vigilance is oppressive and harsh. It would surely be so if those ascetic struggles did not contain some sweetness and consolation. But ascetic labor of virtue is good and sweet in and of itself. By its very exercise, and, if it could be said, by its exhaustion of us it strengthens our fiber, forestalls painful consequences, and fills the spirit with peace, which in turn lightens the virtuous ascetic’s work instead of making it heavier. Why is it that we do not deem great labors expended for the sake of material gain difficult as long as the profits come into our hands?
We cannot say that we have been assigned great exertion without also being given sufficient strength, reliable weapons, or commensurate reward. The supreme Administrator of the world has provided all the necessary talents. No one can blame His justness. One person received five talents, but you were given only one. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. (Lk. 12:48). You who have received one talent can reap its benefits with less work—only do not bury it in the ground of slothfulness, and have praiseworthy zeal, so that you might be comparable to the one who received a greater number of talents. Diligence conquers all, while slackness puts all capabilities to death.
Remember that you are a member of the Church Militant on earth—do not trespass the boundaries assigned to you by providence. All the descendents of Adam have gone this way. No one in this life has ever obtained direct honor and glory in any way other than the courageous fulfillment of his calling. Remember that you are a member of the Church Militant on earth, so that you can also attain and be numbered among the hosts of the Church Triumphant in heaven. A glorious finish awaits your small ascetic struggle, and an endless reward will be granted for your temporary labors.
Can those who rest in God’s bosom complain about the labors and ascetic struggles they bore on earth? Already feeling the unspeakable delight and blessedness which we hope for but have not yet achieved, they doubtlessly accept together with the Apostle (Rom. 8:18) that all their former sufferings are nothing compared to the reward God’s graciousness has conferred upon them, and they would not refuse a thousand times more suffering just to receive that reward.
If it were possible for us mortals to imagine the desire of those blessed spirits in heaven, it would no longer be anything for themselves—now their only desire and prayer is for us. Because of their like nature to us, and because they know about human temptations from their own experience, they zealously strive with all their souls to bring us into their most pure assembly; and, if it can be put in this way, the only thing that worries them is that we might deprive ourselves of their blessed lot through our weakness, and end up in the misfortunate lot.
If the eye of our mind were more penetrating, we would see ourselves surrounded by Angels as beneficent spirits. They have left the peacefulness of paradise to serve for our salvation. Although our effort against vice and our refusal to give in to temptation may come from our enlightenment and good conscience, I nevertheless believe that they partly owe their success to the ready aid of our Guardian Angels who have been appointed by the Lord’s Providence to protect us. I see with the eyes of faith that when a sinner rises from his fall, the most pure spirits help him to rise; and when the virtuous soul separates from its body, they receive it in their arms, and joyfully clapping their wings, carry it speedily to God’s bosom.
Confirming ourselves in this way of thinking, supporting ourselves by holy desires and prayers, and encouraging ourselves by Angelic service, we must carry our ascetic labors through with all courage and vigor, so that we would become not shameful members of the militant Church on earth, but worthy members of the Church Triumphant in Heaven.
St. Sergius Lavra, Archangel Cathedral, November 8/21, 1780
From the “Library” section of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra website