How to Bear Sorrows

What will help us become stronger in sorrows? How can we prevent them? What can we do if grief over our children overcomes us? The Optina Elders gave us this exhortation: “Be careful not to complain or become faint-hearted... Magnanimity and patient endurance lighten sorrows, but faint-heartedness and complaining multiply and exacerbate them.

Sorrows and joys are closely connected with each other

St. Anatoly (Zertsalov) taught us to rejoice in sorrows:

“God’s mercy is hidden in sorrows! If sorrows surround you—rejoice, for then you are walking by the true way. And whoever does not run from sorrows and bears them as they are able will receive the Eternal Kingdom.

If there are, perhaps, few sorrows—then there will also be few gains and little training. But this is one bad merchant, who is glad that there aren’t very many people at the market and that customers and sellers don’t bother him much!”

St. Barsanuphius used to say:

“There are many bitter things in life: misfortunes, illnesses, poverty and the like. But if a person believes in God, then the Lord can make even a bitter life sweeter.”

The elder would give this exhortation:

“Sorrows and joys are closely connected with each other, so that joy brings sorrow and sorrow—joy. Day follows night and night follows day, bad weather—good weather, and thus sorrow and joy give way to each other.”

Refrain from complaining

If we don’t have the strength to rejoice in sorrows, then, following the direction of St. Barsanuphius, let us try not to grieve beyond measure, and try to keep from complaining:

“But if, in our infirmity, we cannot rejoice when people offend us, then, at least let us not grieve beyond measure. And if, out of the weakness of our nerves, we cannot defeat and overcome sorrowful thoughts and thoughts that cause us to be offended and upset, then in every possible way let us guard ourselves against complaining.”

St. Macarius taught that losing heart and complaining only multiply and exacerbate sorrows:

“Believe me, God does not send us temptations beyond our ability to resist, except perhaps for pride, for conceit, and for complaining, by which we ourselves aggravate our sorrows. Be careful not to complain or become faint-hearted. Magnanimity and patient endurance lighten sorrows, but faint-heartedness and complaining multiply and exacerbate them.”

But if we cannot even keep from complaining, then, according to the advice of St. Ambrose, let us acknowledge our infirmity and humble ourselves:

“But when the matter has even come this far, then let us acknowledge our infirmity and humble ourselves before God and man and repent. Acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses, and humility are sounder than any other virtue.”

Forgiveness of offenses

St. Nikon used to remind us that sorrow is lightened by the forgiveness of offenses:

“Remember that according to spiritual law, forgiveness of offenses (real forgiveness) gives a person understanding of the truth and great blessings. You have to humble yourself and bear it patiently. And the Lord in His mercy will not abandon you.”

Don’t bring sorrows on yourself

How can we prevent sorrows and not bring them on ourselves? How not to take on a self-willed cross that we have asked for? Elder Ambrose advised:

“Don’t be too quick to say something, but before you speak, thoroughly consider what is necessary to say to people who rise up against us, or people in very high positions.”

St. Nikon advised:

“Pray to God that He would deflect every misfortune and temptation away from you. One shouldn’t audaciously throw oneself into an abyss of sorrows—self-assurance in this is proud. But when sorrows come of themselves, do not fear them—don’t think that they have come accidentally, by coincidence. No, they have been allowed by God’s inscrutable Providence.”

Prayer in sorrow

The startsy taught people to pray in sorrow, oppression, offenses, and slander. St. Ambrose counselled people to have recourse to the intercession of the Mother of God and of the saints:

“A lie will always be a lie and can never be the truth, but people who are slandered sooner or later will be exonerated. Have recourse more often in your prayers to the Queen of Heaven and the God-Pleaser St. Nicholas—they will not leave you in sorrows and attacks.”

“Pray more earnestly to the Queen of Heaven, St. Nicholas, St. John the Soldier, and Hieromartyr Phocas. Their prayers are powerfully able to defend you from extreme attacks.”

The elder likewise counselled people to read the Gospel and Psalter more often for comfort in sorrow:

“I am writing out for you the psalms by which St. David prayed when he was being persecuted by enemies: the 3rd, 53rd, 58th, and 142nd.[1] Choose some words from these psalms that are fitting for you and read them often, appealing to God with faith and humility. And when depression tries to overcome you or uncontrollable sorrow torments your soul, read Psalm 101.[2]

“Learn these psalms by heart and say them a little more often: “He that dwelleth in the help of the Most High,”[3] “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto me and heard my prayer”[4] “O God, attend unto mine aid….”[5] Read them, learn to give yourself over to God’s Providence, and train yourself to patiently endure what comes to you.”

St. Anthony advised people to have recourse to the Holy Name of Jesus Christ in any grief or trouble:

“Whatever grief has befallen you, whatever trouble has happened, say, “I will bear it for Jesus Christ!” Only say this, and you will feel better. For the name of Jesus Christ is powerful; in its presence all troubles subside, the demons vanish—your irritation will also calm down and your faintheartedness will be soothed when you repeat His sweetest name.”

Elder Joseph recalled St. Basil the Great:

“St. Basil the Great writes about a certain heathen philosopher, who said, “Before, I wanted everything to be done the way I wanted, but seeing that nothing is done the way I want, I began to wish that everything be done the way it is, and through this it began to turn out that everything is done the way I want it to be.”

St. Nikon wrote:

“The Lord helps us in sorrows and temptations, but He does not take them away from us, but gives us the strength to bear them and even not to notice them.”

The starets taught people to say a prayer in sorrow that will heal emotional wounds:

“’Glory to Thee, my God, for the sorrow that Thou hast sent me! I am receiving what I deserve. Remember me in Thy Kingdom. Let Thy holy will be done in all things!’ It is advisable to say this prayer one after the other, not hurrying, enclosing the mind in the words of the prayer. Best of all is to seclude oneself and, standing or sitting, say this prayer. It is an excellent treatment for a sorrowful soul; it helps even in times of intensified emotional and physical sufferings. At first, if it is not possible to be filled with feelings of gratitude towards God, submission to Him, and humility[6] before Him, nevertheless, it is necessary to say the prayer, if only with the lips. These feelings will gradually come, and together with them peace will descend into the person’s heart.”

    

Patient Endurance in Afflictions

Sometimes one simply needs to patiently wait a little, and sorrow will go away of itself. Elder Ambrose would call to mind this amusing saying:

“Time and again you’ll have to call to mind the saying: ‘You could ask a goose in the winter if his feet weren’t freezing. But the goose, although he often switches from foot to foot, tucking one foot up under himself, nevertheless somehow or other lives through the winter. And then, when spring comes, he contentedly swims around the lake.”

And when one of his spiritual children asked the elder, “Father! Teach me patience!” St. Ambrose answered, “All right, learn it! And begin with the patient endurance of troubles that come upon you, the troubles that you encounter.”

All the Optina elders spoke of the necessity of patient endurance in sorrows. St. Lev instructed:

“Remember, that it is impossible to be saved without sorrows—by patient endurance and humility all will be conquered.”

St. Anatoly (Zertsalov) wrote to a spiritual child:

“Bear it patiently—and there will be peace. But if you begin to render evil for evil—then peace will depart, and God will leave the person who takes the law into his own hands. Where peace is—there is God.”

St. Joseph advised:

“Bear everything patiently, give thanks to God for everything and you will always be calm in spirit.”

“Do not envy those who live without troubles. To patiently endure sorrows is far better than to live without problems.”

“Just as after dry weather rain or a storm awaits without fail, so the same thing happens in a person’s heart after emotional grief, and vice versa. As leaven is needed for dough in order for the bread to taste good, it is the same with patient endurance and salvation.”

“Without patient endurance no virtue can be gained.”

St. Barsanuphius taught:

“Our patience and humility are tested by sorrows. Pray to God for help and patiently bear it. There cannot be anything that God does not allow to happen.”

“You have to bear it patiently, and for your patient endurance, the Lord will comfort you.”

Patience with understanding

Elder Anatoly (Zertsalov) wrote that patient endurance should not be gloomy, but with understanding:

“But even your patience should not be blind, that is, cheerless, but patience with understanding—that the Lord sees all your deeds, looks into your very soul as we look into the face of a loved one—that is, clearly and intently. He sees and tests: what kind of person will you prove to be in sorrows? If you patiently endure it then you will be His beloved. But if you do not bear it and begin to complain, but repent, all the same you will be His beloved.”

And St. Nikon explained what patient endurance with understanding is:

“Patient endurance is an unfaltering good attitude.”

Support one another in sorrows

St. Joseph remarked that the sympathy of like-minded people and friendly support does a great deal to lighten sorrows:

“When you have oneness of mind with someone close to you sorrows are lightened, for, as the saying goes, “one hand washes the other,” that is, one supports the other.

Don’t exaggerate problems

St. Ambrose emphasized that we mustn’t exaggerate problems. Sometimes we see sorrows where really there are only small problems that will go away by themselves. But if we start to become depressed, then these small problems really act on our soul destructively. The elder spoke with sadness about some spiritual daughters of his who would complain about small problems as if they were great sorrows:

“Every day I talk with people from morning to late in the evening, but the fruits of these discussions aren’t evident. And often I have to remember the words of the late Fr. Abbot Anthony, who used to say that the sign of Christ’s disciples is if they have love among themselves (cf. John 13:35), while the sign of my girl-disciples is if they have enmity and disagreement among themselves.” And he would add, “My little daughters came to me with great sorrows, while all these sorrows amounted to what you could spit on and stomp on with your foot.”

A small sorrow can save you from great ones

St. Ambrose used to remark that “there is no bad without some good”:

“The Lord also often arranges our spiritual welfare through unpleasant circumstances.”

The saint wrote to his spiritual daughter, who was complaining about sorrows, that if she decides, contrary to how she is advised, to run from the uncomfortable things and troubles that are sent by God’s Providence, then yet greater sorrows may befall her—“out of the frying pan and into the fire”:[7]

“Imitate the example of the people of old, who as a rule used to say, ‘Don’t live as you want, but live as God brings….’ It is true that your situation in your convent is straitened, and unpleasant, and uncomfortable. But there is a common saying: ‘If you flee from a wolf you’ll run into a bear.’ There is only one thing left to do—patiently endure it and wait, paying attention to yourself and not judging others, and praying to the Lord and the Queen of Heaven that They would arrange for your welfare as it pleases Them.”

St. Lev warned a spiritual child of his of a similar thing:

“This is how God is punishing you; bear God’s punishment and then by a small sorrow you will be saved from great ones. But if you decide not to endure this small temptation, then you will be punished more.”

“Drop it, Simon dear, don’t go running after your wheels!”

Simon Ivanovich, who lived in the town of Kozel’sk, used to tell about similar guidance:

“In the ‘30’s (19th century), as also later, I worked making pottery. My mother and I lived in our own little house; we had no horses, but there was a rather good carriage. I used to fill this carriage with pots, ask to borrow someone’s horse, and take the pots to the market. That’s how I used to subsist. At that time a soldier was staying with us at our house, a Pole, but later he left us and went haywire. Once, taking advantage of an opportune moment, he got into our yard and pulled the wheels off our carriage.

“I explained my grief to Batiushka Fr. Leonid and said that I knew the thief and could find the wheels. ‘Drop it, Simon dear, don’t go running after your wheels,” answered Batiushka. ‘This is how God is punishing you; bear God’s punishment and then by a small sorrow you will be saved from great ones. But if you decide not to endure this small temptation, then you will be punished more.’ I followed the elder’s advice, and everything came about just as he had said.

“Soon the very same Pole snuck into our yard again, stole a bag of flour from the granary, hoisted it onto his shoulder and wanted to go through the vegetable garden with it, but at that moment my mother was coming from the vegetable garden and ran into him. ‘Where are you bringing this?’ she said. He dropped the sack of flour and ran off.

“Soon after that another thing happened. We had a cow, and we decided to sell her. We found a buyer, negotiated, and took his deposit. But for some reason the buyer didn’t come for the cow for several days. Finally he came and took her home. And on the following night the thief got into our place and broke down the shed where our cow had been—without a doubt, to carry her off, but she was no longer there. Thus the Lord, by the elder’s prayers, saved us from misfortune.

“Many years after this, a third, similar thing happened, this time after my mother had died. Passion Week was coming to an end, and the Feast of Pascha was approaching. For some reason it entered my mind to transfer all of my necessary things from my little house to my sister’s, who was my neighbor. And that’s what I did. And as the first day of the Feast was beginning, I locked my house from all sides and walked to Matins. I had always spent Matins joyfully on this day, but now, I myself don’t know why, there was something upsetting me. I came home from Matins and looked: the windows had all been taken out and the door was open. ‘Well,’ I thought to myself, ‘it must have been a bad man.’ And it really had been, but since I had transferred all my necessary goods to my sister’s, he went away with almost nothing.

“So, three times Batiushka Fr. Leonid’s predictions came true with me such that, if I endured a small punishment from God, then God did not punish me any more than that.”

Grief about children

Parents are often upset about their children: about their illnesses, mistakes, failures, bad behavior and unbelief. Starets Ambrose counselled a mother not to give herself over to despair and depression, tormenting herself over the incorrect upbringing of her son, and not try so much to bring him—already a grown man—to his senses, as to pray for him, having repented and humbled herself:

    

“You realize that you yourself are to blame in many ways, that you didn’t know how to bring up your son as you should have. This self-reproach is good, but, realizing your guilt, you should humble yourself and repent, and not be upset or despair; likewise, you should not be too worried by the thought that supposedly you alone are the unintentional cause of your son’s present situation. It is not completely true: every person is endowed with free will and will have to answer more for himself before God…

“And in general you should not try so much to bring him to his senses, but pray more for him that the Lord Himself, in the ways known unto Him, would bring him to his senses. Great is the power of a mother’s prayer! Remember from what a great depth of evil the prayers of Blessed Augustine’s pious mother retrieved him. And while praying for your son, pray also for yourself, that the Lord would forgive you for however you sinned in ignorance.”

Grief over slander and unfairness

People get very, very upset when they have to endure unfair attacks and slander. St. Macarius wrote about how sometimes the Lord allows slander, in order to cleanse our hidden sins by it:

“You are upset about the fact that they are slandering you for nothing. Remember how they slandered our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Glory! Who then are we? He is without sin, while we, although not guilty of that thing, are greatly guilty before God in other cases, and for those hidden sins God allows false slander, in order by it to cleanse those sins.”

St. Joseph wrote thus about slander, being reported on, and false charges:

“There is no reason to greatly fear slander. Let them slander as they wish. It’s good that they have nothing to hold against you that is true. Only don’t hold a grudge against the ones who offend you.”

“When they hurt your feelings, consider that you deserve it, and don’t get angry, but pray to God for the ones who are offending you.”

“For the bearing of wrongful reprimands from your bosses, your head will be invisibly crowned, so be glad, and don’t be upset about it.”

St. Barsanuphius advised people not to be upset when suffering slander, but themselves to fear slandering anyone whether in word or even in their thoughts, and to pray that the Lord would help:

“A weak person prays that he wouldn’t be slandered, but a brave person prays that God would help him not to slander anyone either in word or in thought.”

Our holy Fathers, Elders of Optina, pray to God for us sinners!

Olga Rozhneva
Translated by Dimitra Dwelley

9/2/2014

[1] According to Orthodox Septuagint (LXX) numbering (which may be read with this numbering in English in the Douay-Rheims Bible). In the KJV, the cited Psalms are 3, 54, 59, and 143.

[2] Psalm 102 KJV.

[3] Ps. 90 (LXX), 91 (KJV)

[4] Ps. 39 (LXX), 40 (KJV). The Slavonic wording is used where there is a difference from the KJV. Here, the Greek word deiseos means “a prayer, petition,” and hence “cry” in KJV.

[5] Ps. 69 (LXX).

[6] smirenie — often translated as “humility,” it also has connotations of resignation, submission, not fighting

[7] In Russian: “If you flee from a wolf you will run into a bear.”

Comments
Reader Andreas (Moran)9/5/2014 12:53 pm
The words of St Anthony of Optina and the other holy fathers are balm for the soul. The single word which expresses this teaching is ‘acceptance’. If we accept our sufferings, we make them voluntary instead of involuntary, and then we become like Christ. His perfection lay in His acceptance of suffering. The way to perfection must pass by the Cross; we are called to deny ourselves, bear our cross and follow Him. Christ "made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name". Such is the way, the only way, for the Christian, for Christ said, “I am the way”.
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