Surprisingly, we seem to never have the time, strength or money to do things that are for the benefit of our souls; but we easily find all of this for all kinds of idle things and nonsense. We find it hard to pray for ourselves, for our children or friends for ten or fifteen minutes, while we can easily hang out online till the middle of the night, reading everything indiscriminately. Sometimes we grudge a ruble for a beggar or a church collection box, while we can easily buy something unnecessary in a store, which will inevitably be thrown into a garbage can before long. We often feel awkward about saying something for the benefit of someone else’s soul, while we can rattle on for hours about nothing at all quite naturally and easily.
What is happening to all of us? I recently listened to one priest’s sermon, and he said very joyfully that the life of Christians is so easy: we just need to keep the commandments, and then we will be both blessed by the Lord in this life and enter the Heavenly Kingdom! Isn’t that bliss? How wonderful! How easy it is!
You just need to fulfil the commandments! “Just” love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (Mt. 22:37) and “just” love thy neighbor as thyself (Mt. 22:39).
Oh, if everything were so easy, then there would be far more saints than we see in our calendar. Is there a church-goer who doesn’t want to obey the commandments? Perhaps, but such people are very few and far between. I am absolutely certain that virtually every Christian (regardless of their denomination) wants to do the will of God. However, there is a whole chasm between “want” and “do”.
Yes, I want to. But what do I do for that? I am sorry to admit that I do nothing. To be more exact, I do something: I go to church, confess, take Communion, and pray. I try to control myself and read spiritual literature. Outwardly, it resembles keeping the commandments of God. And perhaps when someone looks at me he deceives himself, thinking that I am righteous.
Alas! That is not sufficient at all. It’s like saying, “I go to an outpatients’ clinic regularly, wear a white gown, take medicines and know the effects of many of them, and watch TV shows on health topics; therefore, I am a doctor.” If someone sees a person in a white gown in a clinic, he may think: “He must be a doctor!” But the person in question is not a doctor—he has only put a white gown on and is walking along the corridor!
It is same in spiritual life. Am I a true Christian or do I just wear an cassock? Or have I just dropped in at a church to light a candle and think about what “works the best”?
I keep asking myself this question over and over again. I recently argued with a priest about the activities of clergy in their parishes. He argued that priests should be busy organizing Sunday schools, along with events and actions indirectly related to the Church. I couldn’t formulate that it was all “outward activity” having little to do with keeping the commandments. That is, they may intersect, but just socially, not personally.
How can it be on a personal level? All these tormenting meditations are probably nothing but reflections for the fasts.
Reflections are yet another sign of fasting. I’ve begun to reflect on myself, therefore I am fasting. Sounds beautiful. But one small nuance worries me: O generation of vipers… Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance (Mt. 3:7-8). And we have to sigh at this point, because we only have reflections and not fruits.
I believe that I am not the only one who worries about this; for if it no longer bothers you, you are unlikely to stay in the Church for long.
So, brothers and sisters, the main question is: Is it easy to live a Christian life? The answer is no. It is extremely hard. The Savior calls this living “the narrow way” (cf. Mt. 7:14). The Apostle Paul says to his followers, Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin (Heb. 12:4), implying the intensity of a genuine Christian’s life.
While satan deceives us easily in the periods between fasts, plunging us into vain neglect and cloudiness because of numerous cares and chores, when the voice of conscience can hardly be heard due to our permanent rush, it is more difficult for him to do it during fasts. During fasts the entire Church prays and reflects, and through invisible and unknown “communication channels” it is transmitted to all its members. As the Apostle Paul says: And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Cor. 12:26). In some sense, this reflection is suffering in the fasts for our sins.
This suffering because of our imperfection, which is often invisible to others, makes us seek inward and not outward ways of active Christianity. And what we need is not mere prayer but the cry of repentance; not just abstinence from some kinds of food but the total keeping of ourselves in check: from entertainment, judgment, idle talk, and endless thoughts. Not just confession of our sins, but hatred for them which extends to self-extinction; for when you can’t clean out a vessel that has become unfit for use, you break it in a fit of anger.
The Savior says to us: For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders (Mk. 7:21). Someone steals when he wants to steal. He praises himself verbally when he feels smug. He displays self-conceit when he is excessively filled with pride.
Good thoughts, like bad thoughts, proceed from the heart. This means that the Lord’s commandments above all concern our inner man. It is clear that some commandments are “for inner use”—for example, the beatitude of purity of the heart. With some it is not very clear—for example, Blessed are they that mourn, and Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Mt. 5:4, 10). Be that as it may, mourning for sins begins with a contrite heart, and persecution for righteousness stems from “living differently”, when you can’t be satisfied with anything except God.
That’s why the labor of Christians is always (and should always be) inward and invisible. This is precisely what leads us into temptation. We substitute inward work for outward work and as a result we find ourselves robbed by satan. We resemble Christians only in appearance, while we are not really Christians, and may or may not potentially become Christians.
It is easy to understand from a simple example. Take commodities in a store. A wardrobe in a furniture store is still not a wardrobe in the full sense. Nothing is kept or stored in it. Or take a knife in a hardware store. Can we call it a knife if it is has not been used for cutting? It’s some semblance of a knife which can potentially become a knife at the most. No item in a store is used for its intended purpose: it just awaits its application. So, from a philosophical viewpoint, the existence of a knife or a wardrobe in a store is meaningless. And if careless porters drop a wardrobe while carrying it, it will tumble and never become a wardrobe in the full sense. Instead of its life it will only show a loss by its meaningless existence. Apparently a tree was sawn down in vain, someone made planks and accessories for it in vain, and it occupied its space in a truck during transportation in vain.
Likewise, the existence of a Christian loses its meaning if he lives by outward Christianity alone. He creates only the outward appearance of a believer—a shadow and a poor excuse for one. A “churched” person who doesn’t work inwardly is only a potential Christian, he still awaits his spiritual rebirth. And if his life is suddenly cut short before that, the Church will only incur a loss because of his notorious example of phariseeism in Christianity.
And during a fast this meaninglessness of outward Church life begins to oppress any sensitive person. Throughout the fast we feel as if we are entering the thick of a forest: With every step, the growth becomes ever thicker, breathing is ever harder, and the danger from wild animals is on all sides. At the beginning of the fast we are still fit and full of illusions about our own abilities, but closer to the middle of the fast we become aware of our utter spiritual nothingness.
And this gap between the ideal and the real is only overcome with the work of prayer. So we need to recur to the speech of St. John the Baptist: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham (Mt. 3:9). This applies to us—for we are in carefree calm because we belong to the Orthodox Church, in which we stand like wardrobes in a store. And if anyone doesn’t want to wake up, let him read the following verse: And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (Mt. 3:10).