Archpriest Sergiy Baranov, a well-known film director and screenwriter, talks with young adults at Novospassky Monastery in Moscow on holiness as the purpose of life and finding it in prayer. Fr. Sergiy is widely known for his lyrical and deep films. His first talk was on the short film, “The Price of My Life”. And if life is so precious, then its purpose is nothing less than sanctity.
The distinctive characteristic of Christians
Once, when the future Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) touched upon very lofty subjects, one experienced monk said:
“Father Sophrony, let us talk about the things that are relevant to our level…. We should be cautious with themes which are too lofty.”
But then the very young hieromonk argued:
“Of course, I agree with you to some extent. But why do I allow myself to talk about lofty things, not fearing that this will harm my soul? Firstly, when you have a limitless goal before you as an ideal, its unattainability makes you act the whole time. Since you pursue it continually, you cannot possess it in full, and this makes you work non-stop. And, secondly, when a high ideal is before you, you feel your smallness in contrast to it. You are very unlikely to become pretentious because you feel your inadequacy all the time.”
Hearing him out, the old Athonite schema-monk replied:
“Well, Fr. Sophrony, if that’s the case, this conversation is possible.”
I have ventured to call our meeting, “Sanctity as the purpose of life.” Some find it too daring; others—simply unintelligible; others recoil from such a height…
In my view, for the first Christians sanctity was the purpose of life. It was just their way of life. The apostles in their epistles would address each other: “Write to the saints of such-and-such a Church.”
When it comes to the purpose of life, the following trite expression is often used: “You should build a house, grow a tree and raise a son.” But at some point I began to assess my life according to these criteria and realized that I have grown more than one tree, built more than one house, raised six children and now have grandchildren… Apart from this, I have built churches and painted icons. The Lord vouchsafed me to fresco small cells on Mt. Athos… I ministered to prisoners for twenty-three years, organized a hostel for the homeless and ran it for thirteen years. I built a cathedral. I wrote books, made films, wrote scenarios for the theater… I worked in so many fields. I even sang in a Soviet city veterans’ choir. Well, what then? I am often asked during meetings: “Fr. sergiy, are you satisfied? You have been engaged in many and various activities in your life…”
But I don’t know what to answer them. I feel some kind of vacuum. These feelings are similar to the reflections from the book the Ecclesiastes by the Wise Solomon: So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor: and this was my portion of all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun (Eccls. 2:9-11).
It would seem that the Ecclesiastes by the Wise Solomon could be called a pessimistic book except for its final phrase: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man (Eccl. 12:13). But I would say that the Orthodox sense of “fear” here is “love”. “Fear” in the sense of “fear of losing Him, insulting Him, betraying Him, or being left alone without Him.” Because that’s terrible indeed.
After all that I had done in my life I realized that all of this is vanity of vanities. The final, the most important, precious and holiest achievement was the Iveron Convent. Now I have been away from our Iveron Convent of Orsk (where I am the father-confessor) for three days, and I feel I miss our sisters, our rule, our spirit, our night Liturgy so much! And I miss our Jesus Prayer rule, when the whole convent becomes quiet in the evening, and the same words are repeated in every cell” Lord, Lord, Lord…” I have found the purpose at last.
All the rest has meaning only when it comes to the most important thing. Everything is Christocentric in Orthodoxy. If there is no Christ, then everything is vanity, as the Wise Solomon used to say.
And where is Christ? It is very regrettable that sometimes people go to church for fifty years, sometimes even longer, but they have never met Christ. They know much about Christ, argue about Christ, study something related to Christ all the time… But they have never experienced Christ. It’s like a situation when you are going in the wrong direction, though you have sincerity, zeal and constancy. Someone walks, makes efforts, and sweats… But he is heading in the wrong direction! He’s not moving towards Christ!
There is something I want you to reflect on. We strive to live morally, live in purity, avoid sins, love our neighbors, be good husbands and mothers, be faithful to our spouses, care for our family, not to drink alcohol, and not to smoke… Some bring themselves to do more: they visit the sick, the elderly, prisoners, feed the homeless, adopt children, start centers for women in crisis to prevent them from having abortions… But is there anything of what I’ve just enumerated that atheists can’t do? They can do all of this!
Then what makes us different from atheists? What is our essence? What is it that atheists don’t do and Christians must necessarily do? Prayer! By “praying” I don’t mean formally reading prayer rules, or psalms, or reciting some prayers by heart; I mean prayer as a state in which God is very close to you. It’s a state in which God suddenly turns from a lofty, bright and philosophical idea into the living God, the personal God.
Sometimes people tell me:
“I’ve read in the Holy Fathers that one shouldn’t pray without tears.”
And we shouldn’t take Communion without tears either, as St. Simeon the New Theologian wrote. So we begin to work with ourselves psychologically, get ourselves “attuned” to repentance, naively thinking that now we will draw tears and then start praying…
I answer them, “Listen, when Christ comes (the real Christ and not an idea of Him), you won’t be able to stop your tears from flowing! Then you will shed floods of tears!”
Some try to “evoke” their repentance artificially, earnestly overstraining themselves and giving themselves up to self-analysis… But when the Holy Spirit comes and opens your eyes to yourselves, you won’t be able to keep yourselves from crying… It’s good when it comes from Him and not from our self-assigned training or “self-tuning” because these may lead to delusion. Once you believe in what you have tried to imitate, that is a state of delusion.
Correct spiritual life is when everything comes gradually and naturally. There is an expression: “perform prayer, and prayer will teach you everything.”
People, use your time wisely! Devote it to the things that really matter!
—How can we pray today, when we have no time for anything with our modern pace of life?
—Time is the same, but our attitude towards it has changed. We waste hours doing useless things while we have no time for things that matter. For example, what time did my grandmother have, she whose husband was killed in the Second World War and whose son lost his father; who was not paid for her labor; who had only “workdays” [in the collective farm] with ticks on report sheets; with a skinny cow that mooed in the cowshed… But for some reason people found time for spiritual life and prayer… Now we are well provided for: we have washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashing machines… Do we really have no spare time?! We simply live thoughtlessly.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes would run through the streets of Athens with a lifted torch in his hand at mid-day shouting that he was in search of a man! Likewise, I want to run out shouting: “People, use your time wisely! Devote it to things that really matter! We have very little time!!! We can’t live by sitting in front of the TV idly and doing futile things…”
We always find time to travel or go somewhere interesting. But that’s not the most important thing in our lives. All of this is permissible, for God blesses the time of rest. But that’s not essential…
Do you know when people start to realize this? When they find themselves in an oncology clinic and are told, “There is bad news for you. You have a tumor.” What happens with such people? Yesterday they had no time, but now they find time for doctors, for Chinese exercises, search out money for expensive drugs… Where from? What for?
We no longer feel that our life itself is a slow death. Is there anyone among us who is not dying slowly now? This process in our bodies may be faster or slower, but it cannot be stopped or surmounted…
But the most terrible thing is spiritual death. The death of something that cannot die—the immortal soul. It is terrible to realize that you remain alone face to face with this problem… Without the help of God…
I think if we weigh everything we can find time for prayer. We must put this question point-blank: either I do it and live or don’t do it and die for eternity.
The most important thing in prayer is Christ
—How quickly can our prayer be heard by saints, the Theotokos, and the Lord?
—To my mind, the Lord hears our prayers best of all. He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, shall He not see? (Ps. 93:9). That’s why God is also called, “the Knower of hearts”—He penetrates to such depths inside us that we don’t even know ourselves. It can be said that we don’t need to explain anything to God or persuade Him to do anything. It’s not even necessary to ask Him for anything. It is Christ and not our request that is of the primary importance in prayer. Once you have met Christ in prayer, you can abandon the verbal aspect of it—words are not the essence of prayer.
—How can we ensure that Jesus Christ becomes the center of our lives?
—We should give this place to Him. Because it is usually occupied by our ego, which imagines itself to be the hub of the universe… And there is no room for Christ there—there is no corner for Him in the whole of our universe.
All the rules of spiritual life in Orthodox ascetic literature say that we must let Christ have this place in our lives. Then it will be a viable universe, made by the Creator Himself, Who is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (Rev. 22:13). He is in the center of the universe, all things are from Him and for Him. And you will be happy because the central place will belong to the Worthiest One.
There can’t be only one recipe here. This is the entire complex of spiritual life. Don’t limit yourself to studying the moral and ritual aspects of Orthodoxy—try to grasp the laws of spiritual life. Learn what the Holy Fathers wrote about prayer. How did they pray? We should build our entire lives around this experience of prayer because Christ is at the center of this experience.
To acquire something that never dies
—What can I do in order not to lose the motivation for prayer? Sometimes I manage to perform the rule with bows and sometimes I don’t.
—The Orthodox have always used some means of mobilization; as soon as you forget yourself, you begin to force yourself. You arrange some spiritual event for yourself to make a start from it afterwards. As soon as you grow cold, you go to a holy place. Once you’ve regained your strength and gotten inspiration, you proceed: but now don’t neglect your rule—keep praying!
But we must understand that it will never be easy. This “hard labor” is the essence of self-improvement. What did Christ say when He came? Get relaxed? No. He said: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me (Mt. 16:24). Is it easy to be on Golgotha?
He didn’t promise that “everything will be okay.” This is what the Protestants teach: your business will develop, your living conditions will improve… “God loves me! Hurrah! Fine!”
But this is not the way spiritual life works! Through sorrows the Lord opens our eyes to ourselves. Thus He shows something important to us.
The remembrance of death is a very important gift. Some may find it rigid. We can soften—gain a sense of time. It’s when someone feels that not only is he dying all the time, but everything around him is short-lived, fragile and subject to decay.
While we are talking now, minutes are flying by… There will be the end in an hour and a half. This is what I call, “dying at all times and in all places.” It is certainly more relevant than all the things that pass.
This is something that Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) experienced as a young man—the Lord granted him the sense of time… In order to acquire something that never dies—sanctity. God Himself.
Something we ought to do our entire lives
—How can I find an instructor in the Jesus Prayer?
—There is an example in the book, The Instructor in the Jesus Prayer, dedicated to Elder Charalambos of Dionysiou, a disciple of St. Joseph the Hesychast. A student came to him from Thessaloniki and said: “Father, I have come to realize that I must obey the command to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) and practice the Jesus Prayer. I approached one priest in my city and asked him to instruct me in the Jesus Prayer. But he gave me a scolding, saying, ‘You shouldn’t do that! You’ll go mad and fall into delusion!’ I wasn’t satisfied with this answer and turned to another priest, who advised me: ‘I am not an expert in this subject. So go to Mt. Athos—this is the key theme of their life—and you will find someone to instruct you there.’” And then Fr. Charalambos was amazed, saying, “The second priest did the right thing to admit that he didn’t know and that you should go and find the right person to inquire about this. And it was dishonest of the first priest who was not interested in the Jesus Prayer to try to dissuade you from practicing it.”
Firstly, persevere in seeking a teacher even if you still cannot find him. There were times when, for instance, St. Paisius Velichkovsky came to Mt. Athos in search of practitioners of the Jesus Prayer and found hardly anyone. I say “found hardly anyone” because someone always remains.
Secondly, don’t seek any supernatural states or experience during prayer in order not to fall into delusion. Your mentor reminds you about this every time. An experienced spiritual father suggests: Don’t hurry, don’t speed up events, otherwise you won’t get what you seek—it’ll be an illusion of your “achievements”.
The Desert Fathers used to say: give blood and receive the spirit. I often draw this example: in order to achieve something in earthly sciences and arts you need to labor painstakingly. There’s an expression: “grind away at your books.” That’s true: if you want to attain something, you will have to “gnaw away” your teeth.
All the more so when it comes to prayer—the science of sciences and the art of arts. Therefore, if you have resolved to master the Jesus Prayer seriously, try to find a mentor.
Don’t plan anything. Don’t say: Now I’ll start and in six months I must have such-and-such a result. In fact you must enter the realm of prayer and never leave it till the moment of your death. This is your life’s work; this is something we ought to do our entire lives.
Don’t hurry, don’t try to jump through several steps or you’ll stumble and slide down. This “sliding down” may disappoint you and you won’t move forward. There is a precise expression in the Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence (Mt. 11:12). That is, it is a very long and permanent process, often quite unpleasant. But it gives a safe result, whereas quick effects are often mere mirages.
Don’t seek any “states”. Don’t seek God during prayer—God Himself will find you. Just let Christ have the central place in your lives. Say prayers unemotionally, without a sentimental intonation. None of that is needed! All you need is constancy. Any work that is done with constancy gives results.
Without “non-attendance” or “holidays”, assign an hour or at least half an hour every evening. Lock yourself up in your room and start by repeating the Jesus Prayer with bows: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…” Then, after the bows, in the darkness, close your mind to impressions and reflections and free yourself from imaginations. Make your mind dry, invisible, and uncreative. Halt your creativity. Give place to God. Just utter: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…”
And during the day repeat oral prayers as often as possible. When someone is frightened, he cries at once, “Mama!” It would be good to get used to prayer so that we can cry immediately in an emergency: “O Lord!”
Elder Ephraim of Arizona recounted that when they lived with Elder Joseph, the Jesus Prayer became their second nature. Sometimes at the beginning of the Liturgy they would come out to say the exclamation and utter from the ambo, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…”
—Should we force our children to pray?
—We must force ourselves to pray. Let your children see how you pray and notice that you pray sincerely. Let them see that after praying you become kind, strong and peaceful and not irritable. Let them not only observe how you pray but also feel the results of your prayers. Because children don’t forgive us when we say high-sounding words but bear no fruits. It really hurts them to see that. So, first and foremost, force yourselves to pray. And your children will follow you. But don’t tire them out, otherwise they will achieve nothing.