Among Orthodox Christians, there is a well-known saying—an excerpt from a poem by the famous Russian poet Apollon Maykov: “The deeper the sorrow, the closer is God”.
It’s about how in moments of life’s trials, heavy sorrows, and illnesses, we need to feel the presence of God in our lives reliably, clearly, and convincingly. This feeling, together with the understanding of God’s close sympathy to our sorrows should be found living in our hearts, actively strengthening and consoling us.
It should…but do we truly feel this in these moments? Priests today are increasingly confronted with the opposite; the abundance of sorrows and trials makes a person very troubled: “Why is this happening to me? Why me? I just…” It oppresses him, leads a weak person to doubt the reality of the Providence of God; it causes weakness of faith, and as a result, brings people to the brink of despair. And I’m am talking about believers and church people, those who in the event of spiritual problems are the first to run to a priest for an explanation.
Why is this happening? Why do the poet’s important words, which sound like an indisputable, obvious truth to the believing consciousness, often remain for the Christian only a formal truth that does not have a personal, empirical conformation for him? Why does it become “dead” truth, on which he can’t rely? This is an important question that requires a clear answer.
Our time is filled with sorrows; they are by the grace of The Creator an instrument of God’s Providence, at the same time, they also manage to serve “two masters”, becoming “loyal servants” of the enemy of the human race.
It is this weapon that our enemy uses most effectively, undermining the faith of the weak in the wisdom of God’s Providence, causing cowardice, murmuring, and despair. All of this leaves a person with only sorrow itself alone, depriving them of a saving fruit, which can also come from moments of sorrow.
In such situations, support is extremely important for a person, and he often simply does not receive it.
Loved ones often find themselves helpless, especially when the sorrow is strong—often they simply do not have the wisdom, tact, or the sufficient internal strength of their own to really support the afflicted, and to not irritate them with their presence, or wear them out with over-fussing.
In such moments, the person really needs like a breath of fresh air SUPPORT, which ONLY the One who holds the whole world in His hands can really give.
The only thing is…how to receive it? Why is it that in moments when sorrow seems unbearable to us, and we are balancing on the verge of despair, that we can’t feel that strengthening Right Hand of the Lord, which as we’ve heard many times preserves everything in His power.
Maybe because we ourselves in these hard moments find ourselves doing something not exactly right? Maybe we ourselves don’t go to where this support is being obtained? We do not want to raise even a small spiritual labor, expecting that such knowledge of the closeness of the Lord should be given to us “on a silver platter”. The answer to this question is found in the Holy Scriptures.
The Holy Scriptures call upon a person in moments of sorrow to turn to God: Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me (Psalm 49:15). Our Lord Jesus Christ fully experienced all of those sufferings and tribulations that we face in our lives, and He has shown us an example of the fulfillment of the Psalmist’s call.
As true Man, He also needed to be strengthened from His Heavenly Father, and in the Gospel, we see what He does to gain such strengthening. The Gospel says that Christ being in agony, prayed more earnestly. (Luke 22:44).
He often departs from the disciples to pray for a long time in solitude, and not uncommonly this happened at night. It was deep, long, and zealous prayer to the Father that strengthened Christ on His Way of the Cross. And this is the first thing we need to contemplate and comprehend.
The Holy God-pleasers, whose lives were always filled with sorrows, found strength in strict and prolonged prayer, in imitation of Christ. St. Xenophon (sixth century), having learned that the ship on which his children travelled was shattered by a storm, resorted to especial, prolonged prayer. After private prayer vigil, he received special consolation from God, and a notice that his sons were alive and overshadowed by the special mercy of God (Sts. Xenophon and Maria are commemorated on January 26).
The holy hierarch Ignatius (Brianchaninov) calls Christians to the same work of prayer in moments of sorrow:
When sorrows surround us, it is necessary to hasten to prayer to attract the special grace of God. Only with the help of special grace can we trample all temporary disasters.
Does everyone act this way during difficult moments of life? Alas, not everyone and not always. Often, even at the onset of serious afflictions we fall into a panic that knocks us off our feet. And this is understandable—the invasion of sorrows is nothing more than the discovery of the Lord in our lives. As people say, “The Lord has visited us”, and this discovery may frighten us at first.
Let us remember the Apostles, who were afraid of the appearance of the Lord in the midst of the storm. Let’s also remember that they calmed down only when they knew it was the Lord. And from this we draw an important conclusion: The beginning of comfort in times of sorrow is in recognizing the trial of God’s visit. This is what the holy luminary St. Ignatius says about this:
When tribulations come of their own accord, do not fear them. Do not think they came by chance or coincidence. No…they are engulfed by the incomprehensible Providence of God.
Only when we calm down, and understand that the Lord has everything under control, can we then, inspired by this truth, become open to prayer. But this prayer should be zealous, long, heartfelt, and full of unshakable hope that it will be heard. Only such a prayer will lead to deliverance:
From out of the pressing circumstances that compass us about, we must force ourselves to remember God, to turn to God with the most zealous prayer for deliverance. Deliverance will not be slow to come.
“Deliverance will not be slow to come.” Does this quote from the saint mean that by the wave of the Right Hand of God, all circumstances that are depressing us will immediately disappear? This is probably not the case, and especially in some situations, such as the death of a loved one, it’s not realistic.
But the words of the Holy Hierarch reveal to us the deepest truth, that the feeling of the Lord’s closeness and His sympathy for our sorrow takes away the power of sorrow. And it not only takes away the power of sorrow, but in the midst of the actual sorrow, it instills in the soul a source of joy and consolation. Here is how St. Ignatius wrote about this, citing the example of the holy martyrs:
The holy martyrs sang a joyful song in the fiery furnace, walking on nails, along the edge of the sword, sitting in boiling cauldrons of water and oil. So will your heart also draw grace-filled comfort to itself through prayer, keeping vigilance over itself, and in the midst of depression and misery will sing a joyful song of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Especially in this regard, there is great gratitude rightly due to God for sorrow. No matter how opposed we may be to such gratefulness, no matter how strange the glorification of God during and for afflictions may seem to us, it is this same kind of glorification that will save us from even greater misfortune; that is, despair, grumbling, and wavering greatly in our faith. Here is how Saint Ignatius speaks of this, through his own experience:
“Glory be to God!” Mighty words! During times of sorrow, when the heart has thoughts of doubt, faintheartedness, displeasure, murmuring; when these thoughts encompass the heart, we must force ourselves to frequent, unrushed, dutiful repetition of the words, “Glory be to God!”
Whoever will believe the counsel suggested here with simplicity of heart, and has experienced it in reality, will see the wonderful power of the glorification of God; he will rejoice at the acquisition of such useful, new knowledge, and at having acquired new weapons to be so strongly and conveniently used against mental enemies.
From only shouting these words [Glory to God], uttered at the gathering gloomy thoughts of sadness and despondency, just from the sound of these words, uttered with effort, as if only with the lips, as if to the air, these words will scatter and put to flight the princes of the air [the demons.—Trans.] As a strong wind scatters dust, this scatters away all gloomy thoughts… In your tribulations and sorrow, begin to cry from your heart. Repeat without questioning the words, “Glory be to God!” You will see a sign, you will see a miracle! These words will drive away the tribulation, call for comfort in the heart, and do what the intelligence of the learned, and the wisdom of the wise of the earth cannot do. That understanding, that knowledge, that wisdom will be put to shame, and you will be delivered and healed by believing in a living faith that has been proven to you; and you will send up Glory to God!.
“The deeper the sorrow, the closer is God.” Deep wounds are important and necessary for our religious experience. They are an opportunity for us to feel and find God, though He is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:27) This opportunity is determined by the providence of God, a key aspect of which is the correction and focus on the positive consequences of those moments in our life that cause us suffering. However this is only an opportunity, not an inevitability. Often it happens that a person, having misconceptions about himself and God, chooses the wrong path in moments of sorrow; he therefore begins to grumble, becomes angry, and departs from faith—and consequently, he approaches despair. And the negative consequences of such a spiritual danger greatly exceed the initial reason it was provoked.
God becomes closer to us, insofar as we strive for this closeness ourselves. And we should not look for this closeness only when we are in trouble, but rather we should strive for it always. It is very important to understand this, because only union with Christ, the desire for which should characterize the daily reality of every Christian, is that invariable condition in which no afflictions are too terrible for him. For as St. Ignatius said: “Our temporary suffering in itself doesn’t mean anything, we give it meaning by our attachment to the earthly and everything perishable and our coldness to Christ and eternity.”