The Church is an endless movement, and this is in fact the root of the word “podvig.” Actually, we could even say that man is a being of movement, that man is a being who must surpass his own limits, that he must come out of himself. Man must step forward outside of himself in order to be joyful, to feel the fullness of life. Man must live in ecstasy, which is a word that denotes this stepping outside of oneself. “Ecstasy” is a Greek word that is used to describe the spiritual experiences of great ascetics, yet it also a word which can be used to describe our efforts and attempts to reach out to the other, to our neighbor.
A married man, for example, in order to preserve his marriage, must live in a sort of ecstasy, as he must come out from his own being, and give himself as a gift to those with whom he loves, be it his wife or his children. He has to step out of himself and give himself away. It is movement; he has to come out of his internal world in which it is indeed quiet and peaceful, and yet in which he is also a dead man. Man is truly dead if there is no communication with others, if there is no movement, as it is precisely for this that we have been created.
It could be said that the image and likeness in which we have been made is actually the possibility to imitate the very existence of God insofar as this is possible for us as created beings; and in essence, this means that we are to exist as community. God Himself is revealed to us in Jesus Christ as a community, that of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Even before this revelation, the three were gathered together in the Old Testament at the Oak of Mamre, where God revealed Himself to Abraham through three visitors, and then Abraham addressed them in the singular as “Lord.” Thus, God is a community and man is created that he would also exist as community. Man has this possibility, as this is his image; and as for his likeness, man realizes it if he fulfills his calling and realizes the potential in this image. This is why movement is necessary. In Slavonic we have the words “dvig” or “dviženije,” and this means precisely “movement.” Thus, if “dvig” means movement, taking into account the Slavic root “po,” “podvig” would mean “upward movement.”
We have said already that man is created, and thus by the very nature of having been created, he is limited. He has his “limits,” his “boundaries,” as people say today. However, man is unique in that he has the particular characteristic of being created in order to surpass those boundaries and limitations. How does man break through his limitations? He does this when he enters into the realm of existing as community, when he begins to enter into what we could call his “Churchly,” or his “liturgical,” or even more precisely, his “Eucharistic” personhood. This is what we get when we begin to exist in communion, or, in the community of the saints, when I am no longer just myself, but rather I am only really me because you have recognized me as such, when you say “amen” to my existence. It’s only when you accept me that I truly begin to exist.
In this state, we arrive at a great mystery, at an unconfused mixing of persons, as in the Church we are one body of many members. This is one of the deepest Eucharistic mysteries. Through our relationships with each other, we have a constant impact on one another and even change one another, either for better or for worse. After a conversation with another person, both of us are changed. Both of us exist, to a certain extent, in different ways, and here we find a sort of podvig, an upward movement, and maybe this is even the most essential podvig: the struggle to come outside of ourselves and attain to a communion of persons, to participate in the lives of other free beings and for them to participate in our lives, and then, having arrived at such a communion, to maintain this relationship through which we exist outside ourselves.
This is, perhaps, even the greatest virtue, and in fact, this is what we call “love.” Love is a way of existence that is community, it is the experience of life in communion with other persons. Love is not just a passing phenomenon or an abstract feeling that will simply evaporate into the air later. No, rather, love is that experience when a specific person, with a first name and a last name, loves another specific person, with a first name and a last name. It is precisely through this experience that a man, to a certain measure, becomes like God, and slowly, as time passes, he grows into the fullness of Christ. This is something that man in and of himself cannot attain to. A man, alone, by himself, cannot be perfect. Yet, together, gathered as one in the Divine Liturgy, we can together taste of the perfection of Christ. This is something we can only accomplish through others and by having relationships with them. This is why I believe that the most essential, most significant, and most important podvig is our podvig to maintain this community, which is in fact a communion of persons, and in this vein, we maintain friendships, we maintain good relations and joy with our neighbors, we try to have understanding for the weaknesses of our boss at work, students try to have understanding for the personal failings of their professors. Or to put it in other words, this podvig is to struggle so that our passion for isolation and separation will always be less than the common threads which bind us together.
Monastic life is conceived of precisely in such terms. On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we celebrated the memory of our holy father John of the Ladder, who is one of the most significant writers of the Christian tradition. His book The Ladder of Divine Ascent is actually the most translated and the most read book in the Orthodox world after Holy Scripture. In medieval Serbia, all educated people were familiar with The Ladder, not just monks but lay people as well, and of course, the rulers themselves. The Ladder speaks of spiritual formation and development through thirty different rungs of a ladder, which is often interpreted as the thirty years in which a person attains to maturity. It is also the age at which Christ began to preach. In any case, St. John, in his book, enters into the dynamics of this ascent, this race of the drama of life.
The word “drama,” etymologically, relates to a quick movement. Even the Greek word “dhromos,” or “road,” a road one travels down quickly, is related to the word “drama.” It’s not always a bad thing for life to be dramatic, and if there is no drama in the positive sense of the word, if our lives have no endeavoring or surge of energy, if we lack enthusiasm, then we fall into lethargy, and a man becomes dead inside. We must have enthusiasm; we must have youthfulness, joy, and dedication in order to truly live. This is why it’s such a beautiful thing to see an older person who still has a youthful joy about him.
St. John of the Ladder saw such joy in the monasteries in which he lived, where he marveled, for example, at how old men energetically ran to their obediences as though they were still young men. At the request of his friend, the abbot of Raithu Monastery, he wrote this book about asceticism, about this spiritual ascent, about this race towards the Lord. Some people consider certain things in The Ladder to be “too much,” to be going too far, (and even I did when I read it the first time) and then they fall into depression and think this is all just impossible. This happened to me when I read it as a young man and I thought it was all just too dark, too difficult. But, some people get this impression because they have not properly understood the text.
This is why when we read spiritual books, it is helpful if we have a certain level of hesitancy, if we read with the mindset that we cannot be totally sure what the text is really saying to us. We must read with the intention that we have to take counsel from others in order to understand; after all, it is written that wisdom is in the counsel of many. If we come to hasty conclusions all on our own, most often this will not be good, both generally in life and in the spiritual life. Especially in the spiritual life, it is of utmost importance that a person does not believe himself or his own conclusions, and this is why, among other things, podvig is a humbling of our minds, putting our thoughts in their proper place. Our rational faculty of course has its proper uses, but, we cannot permit it to reign over us all the time. Dostoevsky said that reason is only twenty percent of a man, that a man is much more than just his rational mind.
Man is a being that begins to exist only when he has the strength to cut off his own qualities for the sake of living in community with others. Thus, deep urges within us to maintain communion with others are often much more “intelligent” than what our rational, calculating minds tell us to do. Thus, at times, in a given situation, a man’s mind tells him to do one thing, while deep within himself, he has the deep urge, maybe even the instinct, to do something entirely different, for the sake of maintaining love for others. This latter urge, which is focused on existing in a state of love for others and with others, must win out over the thoughts our rational minds tell us. Love must prevail over all else, and this is one kind of podvig, this mastery of oneself, and this is what is known in monasteries as “obedience.” The cutting off of one’s will is one of the monastic vows.
However, in fact, every person needs to live in some kind of obedience. Every person needs to pay attention to and listen to what his family, friends, and neighbors are saying to him, what they think of him, and how he lives. We need to always strive to please others, in the positive sense; we need to strive to relieve others, to give them a rest. As St. Paisios the Athonite said about our relations with our neighbor, we must always seek to do whatever gives our brother rest, not because we want to please him as a man, but because by serving your brother, you serve Christ Himself. This is because through your brother, through the people with whom you live, Christ reveals Himself to you. This is how you serve Christ. This is not a metaphor, this is just reality. In actuality, every man is Christ, since we participate in the Eucharist. Having participated together in the liturgical gathering of the Eucharist, we need to look at one another in light of this, as participants in this great mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ. We must see the face of Christ in every person. It is said that every man is created in the image of Christ, who, at that man’s birth, in a sense, becomes incarnate. In Dečani, for example, in the fresco depicting the creation of the world, it is Christ Who is depicted creating the world in its historical reality. Christ is the Word of God upon Whom both the heavens and the earth are established.
Thus, every man is a little god, but a little god covered in mud, as St. Justin of Ćelije said. Our podvig, then, lies in looking upon everyone around us in light of these truths. This can be very difficult, as all of us deviate from this reality of being, and yet, this is our task, to see Christ in everyone. We see the weaknesses of others, their failures, and yet, we accept each person together with all these weaknesses, and we love each person, even with their weaknesses. As it is often said, hate the sin but love the sinner.
It isn’t unusual that certain people in our lives irritate us, and a Christian shouldn’t become an idiot and live in some kind of fake bliss in which he simply doesn’t notice the weaknesses of those around them. No, if we sense something wrong, if we sense unrighteousness in what goes on around us, we must despise that unrighteousness, but we must not despise the person committing it. The most ideal situation would be if when we sense a weakness in our brother, we make this into a podvig, and try to correct our brother with love. As it is written, If your brother sins against you, reprove him in private. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. And yet so often, all we do is gossip about our brother. We take the easy path which leads to our demise, and in fact, this is a more difficult path because our suffering is not relieved, it has no end, when we take the “easy” way out. Our suffering comes to an end only when we gather the courage to set out upon the path of salvation, on the narrow path which leads to life. For example, that narrow path we must take is saying to ourselves that we won’t go out and tell five different people what our brother did to us, but rather, we will go directly to whoever wronged us and tell him what he did, what his weakness is. In that moment, this is of course very difficult, but really, through honesty and openness comes relief.
Of course, everyone must discern how strong they really are, what they can really do, and set out upon a podvig in accordance with their capabilities. What we really need to ask ourselves is: How much love do we truly have? We will find out how much love we have by looking at how much we are ready to sacrifice ourselves. We all must struggle, we all must engage in podvig. Everyone who engages their podvig is an ascetic struggler in some sense, and even if we are all far from the ascetics that we read about in monastic literature, we still should not despise the podvigs that we have before us now, we should not despise the great riches that God offers us even though our podvigs are, in comparison, so small.
St. John Climacus says that the enemy often puts it into the minds of beginners to desire ascetic feats that they won’t be able to accomplish so that when they fail, they will become disappointed and give up on doing even lesser things that they could have actually accomplished. Thus, it is good to always have in view what we can actually do, what we can accomplish. We should begin to engage in our podvig not just as a discipline, but we should see our podvig also as a kind of sport. Maybe this seems like a banal way to look at it, but I think it is an adequate comparison. The Greek word for podvig, “askisis,” actually means exercise, and it is used to refer precisely to physical exercise or practicing a sport. An ascetic is one who engages in physical labors, and monks too engage in physical endeavors in their obediences, and in doing prostrations, but also they engage in spiritual endeavors.
Now that we are in the midst of the Great Fast, people must discern not just how much they are able to fast, but how much they can fast and not lose their joy. Fasting is useless if our faces are not joyful. Christ tells us that when we fast, we are to pour oil on our heads and wash our faces, for the grace of God to help us and that we should be light and cheerful. We should not look sorrowful, as the hypocrites do, so that people will notice we are fasting. Fasting, then, must be a joyful discipline.
We read in books about how monks didn’t eat for two weeks, for forty days, and of course, we say to ourselves that we cannot do that. Then we say, “Well, if I cannot fast exactly as these monks in The Ladder did, then I cannot fast at all; there is no point in any of my fasting.” Such a view, in my opinion, is completely mistaken. It’s the same as if we cannot run at the Olympics, but we still run a little every day because of our health. The first day, it will be a great struggle to run even a half mile, and after two weeks you will be able to finish a mile quite easily, and then after a while, you will actually feel the need to run. Running will give you joy, and you will be healthy. It’s the same with both fasting and with prayer. A person needs to begin to fast and pray.
We need to find someone to help us in this, not someone whom we will slavishly follow, but someone who will, like a father, advise us and help us to figure out how much we can do, what is within our capabilities, and help us to grow and advance in our podvig. We then give ourselves over to the battle before us in the arena of life, and this battle will be neither a small nor easy one, because our awareness of what podvig is often goes only as far as the external manifestations of podvig: Did I fast? Was I quiet? Did I read all the prayers? And yet, if we see things only in these limited, external terms, it is actually possible for us to lose our most basic, essential humanity: our relations with the people around us. Thus, the best indicator of having a healthy spiritual life is having good relations with the people around us—the best indicator of our spiritual success is love. As St. John the Theologian says, For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
Thus, in this forest of rules, since Orthodoxy is a rich and full tradition, a man can actually get lost. He can be blinded from his true goal by endless rules and instructions, with questions like, “Do I have to fast with or without oil today? Do you pray this way or that way? Do you have a spiritual father?” All of this can really confuse a person very easily. In this mountain of information, we can very easily lose the joy we had at the beginning, when we didn’t know much except that we wanted to begin to live life with God. That primordial joy and simplicity is something we need to always remember, the “first grace,” as the Fathers say. Even when we learn something new and useful, we need to return to the mindset that we know nothing. In order to truly pray, we need to come to a state where we see that we don’t really know how to pray at all. If you have already developed a technique for yourself, then that technique or routine can begin to limit you. While there are rules in art, for example, when an artist begins to think that he has mastered the rules, then very often he begins to be caught in simple mimicry and copying. Instead, we need to always be pushing our boundaries, engaging in a kind of risk, that we don’t just do what seems safe.
And so, in the spiritual life, very often we need to return to that “beginner’s ignorance.” Why is this necessary? It’s necessary because the law we must fulfill, and to which our prayers and fasting and attendance at the Divine services and forgiveness of others all lead us, is ultimately leading us to the mystery of mysteries, to something which is limitless, the very mystery of our existence, the law of perfect love. Our Lord Jesus Christ set this law down as the most basic criterion. When He was asked what are the greatest commandments, he answered that the greatest commandments are love towards God and love towards man, towards one’s neighbor. So, no matter what podvig we set out upon, we must always return to this law of love; this must always be our most basic criterion of success.
It is impossible for someone to stay in the monastery if they do not grow together with the other people with whom they live. Life only begins when we stop having other plans besides the present, other “options.” Life begins when a person stops comforting himself, when he is ready to endure anything, when he says to himself, “Christ reveals Himself to me through these people with whom I am living now; Christ speaks to me through them; I cannot have salvation apart from these people, and whatever I think or feel is of secondary importance.”
This is why it can be so damaging how some people today get too wrapped up in their own psychology and mental states. They get stuck in an endless cycle of their own interior life and they cannot live, they cannot grow. Joy is something which begins in encountering other people, in going outside of that closed interior world. And so we get stuck in our minds, asking ourselves what bothers us, what hurts us, thinking about what our problems are. People today get far too involved with these kinds of thoughts. And really, what is it that we need to do? We need to leave all that behind. We need to die for Christ, and that means dying to our feelings and emotions, to lose our souls, as Christ says, for he who loses his life for Christ’s sake shall find it, while he who tries to hold on to his life, to grasp at it, will be the one who loses it. It’s similar with soldiers who go into war. An old man who fought in World War II in Russia and who later became an abbot said that the soldiers who were the most afraid of dying in battle, who worried about having enough to eat and carried extra food around in their backpacks, were the ones who died, while the soldiers who took no care for themselves were the ones who were victorious, who lived.
It’s similar in the spiritual life, as Christ Himself said, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. This is the foundation of our lives, and the foundation of any kind of podvig. We must constantly return to this: I fast, but do I have love in my heart? Am I concerned with my neighbor and his well-being? Do I feel his pain? Is his joy my joy? Or instead, do I think that I have my prayer rule and I complete it and then I have fulfilled my spiritual obligations? We may find that, with such a way of doing things, with such a mindset, our prayer will not be unto our salvation. But, if we begin the race with another “leg,” with that of love for our neighbor and concern for him, that even if we didn’t take on as great of labors in fasting or prayer, with this second “leg,” we will cover much greater distances in this race and finish much further along.
A talk given by Abbot HIlarion (Lupulovic) of Draganac Monastery in Kosovo on March 18, 2018 in the Crypt of the Church of Christ's Resurrection in Podgorica, Montenegro.
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