Now, during Great Lent, I would like to ask an unexpected question: Can we truly rejoice at Pascha? Though with difficulty, we can lament for ourselves and for our good-for-nothing lives. And we can also condemn ourselves and be distressed about our errors, negligence and sins for quite a long time. But are we really able to rejoice deeply for a long time? As the Apostle Paul said: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks (1 Thess. 5:16-18). We talked about these things with Archbishop Artemy (Kishchenko) of Grodno and Volkovysk (the Belarusian Orthodox Church).
—Your Eminence, what can prevent us from entering into Paschal joy and preserving it? And what do we need during Great Lent, in addition to abstinence and repentance, to feel Pascha as the Triumph of triumphs?
—True, if we read the Epistles of the apostles, we will see that optimism and the triumph of faith run through them; we read “Rejoice!” on every page. It’s the triumph and fullness of life.
The word “religion” comes from the Greek word “religare” and means the ontological relationship between man and God. The meaning of our lives, of our communion with God, our likeness to God and fulfilling the image of God in ourselves is in this. The purpose of Great Lent is the restoration of the image of God in us which should be implemented in our love of God and our neighbors. Only the heart that is not infected by egoism can love. The surest remedy for egoism is repentance when you see your own shortcomings, feel your separation from God, your inability to know God, and at the same time feel that God Himself can carry this out despite our weakness, provided that we don’t prevent Him from acting inside of us.
However, we perceive God in our earthly reality; that is why we are obsessed with miracle-working, material objects (holy water, earth, oil, etc.) and demand miracles, supernatural material powers. But do most modern Christians, church people, really care about the life of the age to come?
There is a Russian proverb: “Pigs can’t look up to Heaven.” These animals can’t do it physically. You have to make a pig stand upright to enable it to lift its eyes to heaven. If we are so materialistic, if we are “pig-like”, like the prodigal son, then, alas, we won’t be able to hold our heads up.
—But why do such things happen to people?
—Because they don’t trust God.
—But what about the first Christians? Their faith was fervent…
—It depends. Ananias, for instance, though he sold his possessions, set apart a part of the price, while he saw the apostles raise people from the dead. And there was Saul who was mistaken and persecuted Christians before his conversion. Life is multifaceted…
But we are talking about modern Christians. There are those who accept that God exists and just formally try to obey some religious rules, “just in case”. When beset with problems, these people come to church just as the father of the lunatic boy from the Gospel did. He said to Christ honestly and clearly: If Thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us (Mk. 9:22). He wasn’t sure that he had come to the right place and that the Person he had turned to would help him. They said He was able to do something, though… This is the way we often behave, too. We muse, “What if it works?!” That is why many wear stones with constellations, amulets and the cross of Christ over their neck—as talismans at most. “Preserve and save”—not my life, separated from God, but me from all sorts of problems and misfortunes in this life on earth. This is their “day-to-day”, purely “consumer faith”.
But the purpose of spiritual life is to cultivate sacrificial faith and not “consumer faith” in ourselves. We often interpret the word “sacrifice” materially: “I’ve brought a piglet, placed it on the altar, and God accepted this sacrifice”—as if the Almighty needs such sacrifices!
Sacrificial love is maternal love. God has precisely this love for us. Can I really return my mother’s sacrificial love with the same love? That is very hard. People often try to distance themselves from their parents.
We are God’s children, and the Heavenly Father loves us sacrificially. If we succeed in reciprocating His sacrificial love, it will be the harmony and fullness of love, the fullness of our unity with God.
—How can you characterize this sacrificial love for God?
—Self-sacrifice in everything. While a young man can abandon everything and follow Christ, someone who is advanced in years will not go anywhere; he will consider and estimate whether it’s worthwhile. Religion is the portion of brave people who are capable of sacrificing themselves. It is not the level of the weak who seek the Almighty’s help; rather, that’s the level of those who are capable of wholly devoting their lives to God. The apostles gave everything up and followed Christ. Spiritual life presupposes that I too can renounce all things and follow Christ. Fanaticism is bad, as is making our spiritual life “material”, and having a consumerist attitude towards the Church.
A mother sacrifices herself for the sake of her child and experiences the fullness of the joy of life. Whosoever will lose his life and give it up entirely will find supreme, eternal life (cf. Mt. 16:25). If I live by the laws of eternity, I wholeheartedly give myself up and am not ready to compromise. That is why Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Thus Pascha is not “dogmatic theology” for them.
—We understand that Christ rose from the dead and that there is the potential for resurrection in all of us. But this knowledge is mental, while our hearts live by absolutely different laws. True, I am aware that it is possible, but I nevertheless live by momentary everyday chores. We fear, adjust ourselves and seek comfort even in the Church…
Even during the fast, it all boils down to material things: I abstain from meat; I have bought and lit candles; I have submitted intercession lists; I have donated some money to the Church; I have made a certain number of bows; I have written down the list of my “criminal offences” and handed it to the “investigator” at church; I have enumerated my “diseases” to the “doctor”… Meanwhile, I have not begun to live a healthy lifestyle!
True, the “doctor” has told me what health issues I have and how I should “cure” them. But my “struggle” with diseases still comes down to taking medicine that forcibly change me for the better; meanwhile, I am not going to improve and haven’t yet started to live a healthy lifestyle. I keep delaying and saying I will start pursuing this lifestyle “tomorrow.” But I am unable to force myself to eat moderately and only wholesome food, to be physically active and not lazy and negligent of my health. A patient knows what kind of food will affect his health. But… He couldn’t care less about his health—momentary pleasures are the most important thing to him! Someone is not allowed to drink a sip of alcohol—but momentary pleasure is his highest priority. So he will have another glass of liquor, take his medicine, and, God willing, his heart won’t stop! Someone has cancer and his lungs will be removed soon; but nevertheless he wants to have a smoke because he enjoys it and it’s a kind of “self-expression” for him. What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I (Rom. 7:15). There is no harmony between the inward man and the outward man. The trouble is that the lower rules over the higher. Negative emotions rule our feelings, and our feelings influence our consciousness. But what we need is there for our spiritual realm to enrich our consciousness, and our consciousness to control our bodies. This is precisely the purpose of Great Lent and other fasts, which somewhat help us put things in order. But can we say that we feel the depth of Pascha? Maybe we only rejoice because Great Lent is over?
—But what do we need in order to feel the depth of Pascha?
—To live by eternity. What did the apostles proclaim? They didn’t speak about dogmatics—they confirmed the fact that Christ was risen from the dead. Since He is risen, we are afraid of nothing. We won’t run away from Golgotha anymore—each will take his cross and follow Christ. Death is joy and birth. And we are convinced of this birth because we have seen the Risen One.
But the Lord says: Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed (Jn. 20:29). He who lives by the fullness of the Savior’s Resurrection and Pascha without seeing His physical Resurrection lives by eternity.
I know that my life is the space between point “a” and point “b”. It’s the same as my prenatal development in my mother’s womb. It’s the second stage of intra-uterine material development on our material planet and not my entire life. If we sowed a seed in spring, does it mean that we left it to rot? We sowed it into a new life: the shell will fall off, and the kernel will begin an independent life. But if it doesn’t die, there will be no metamorphosis and it won’t sprout. You first need to turn into a chrysalis to become a butterfly. We need this in order to be cleansed from the “infection” we have in our lives on earth.
But if I live by eternity, I will naturally have no fear, I won’t be so precautious and try to insure myself against any risks: “What will become of me tomorrow? Will I be needed by anyone?” But today there are some Christians who turn into chameleons and timeservers.
—Alas, the times of the eyewitnesses of Christ’s Resurrection have long gone. Some now say it is just a tale.
—According to the Holy Fathers, the last Christians will be higher than the first by their podvigs. Therefore, our sense of faith should be much higher. Modern knowledge and scientific potential allow us to think deeply and highly. And today we have no more doubts about the reality of the higher spiritual world. But it is very hard to readjust yourself to spiritual life in a world of consumerism.
There are zealots. For example, there are those who are into Eastern martial arts. They dress and eat very modestly. They neither make themselves a career, nor develop prosperity, nor create domestic comfort. But they perfect their bodies and see a deep joy in this. And they are right in some respects: The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light (Lk. 16:8).
Some are into tourism. They buy neither cars nor nice apartments, which is considered prestigious and vital in our days. Such families live by traveling and the investigation of this world. They invest money in equipment, which is no less expensive than a car. So they crawl over mountains and in caves… And they are right in some respects! After all, Cain’s sons built cities, while Abel was a shepherd, a poet and a musician. There must be room for creativity, poetry, music and a dream in our lives.
Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees—a highly developed city of the age whose inhabitants worshipped the sun and the moon—and went to the desert with his flocks in search of God. Although he didn’t know where he was going, he did find God and became “the father of all believers.”
Civilization stifles the spirit of romanticism. And who knows what civilization will lead us to due to the apostasy of man?
—Do you want to say that our contemporary way of life deprives us of Paschal joy?
—Our contemporary way of life leads to self-destruction. His Holiness Patriarch Kirill once said that Modern civilization is at a level of consumption that rises ever higher all the time. The level of consumption keeps rising in the Church too. Making our life excessively material won’t allow us to lift our eyes up to heaven. The whirlpool of daily routine twists us around and takes us down. What we need is to break away from this whirlpool by a spiritual impulse, renounce all things and follow Christ.
Of course, we must avoid fanaticism and extremes, and there is no end of examples of them. You can become a different person with inner freedom, a citizen of heaven without casting off your work and deserting your family. True, we can’t feel the fullness of Paschal joy in our lives on earth. As the apostle says: now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12). Fullness will be revealed once we have crossed the threshold of our material being.
If we live by the laws of eternity, the concepts of “Paschal joy” and “the depth of Pascha” will be much clearer to our inward, emotional and spiritual realms than they are now.
—But isn’t it true that a sublime way of life you are speaking about is the lot only of the chosen few? As a rule, those who wholly devoted themselves to God withdrew from the world. How can we combine life by the laws of eternity with daily routine and its numerous temptations?
—We know a host of examples when eventually God’s will was done. St. Basil the Great lived by things above, but he didn’t hurry and didn’t become a monk until his parents’ deaths. Then he made up for lost time. And the parents of St. Sergius of Radonezh didn’t take up monastic life until their son reached a mature age. It is possible to be a “monk” or a “nun” in a family, too…
A genuine podvig is when you live by sacrificing yourself for your family. As Fr. Dimitry Smirnov once said to one housewife: “The kitchen is your ‘hermitage’ where you should perform your podvig for your nearest and dearest. But you still have a lot of squabbling, grumbling, whims and hysterics there! Once you get rid of these, you will find you don’t need to walk on water because you have a bridge.”
People are themselves to blame for the way they realize their inner potential. Many don’t practice chastity today, so they are unable to love. Prof. Alexei Osipov once said that it is hard for modern young people to be happy and have love. Why so? Children learn much about sexual life from their school days, while they have little, if any, interest in our classical literature which contains our nation’s spiritual potential. It will be easy for them to find “legal partners”, but whether or not they will have true love, unions, and families is unclear. The cup breaks and its contents spill… Actually, it’s difficult to explain why some have love their entire lives, while for others, family is like a prison…
We have neither the fullness of prayer, nor the fullness of knowledge of God, nor the fullness of experiencing Pascha. And that is even impossible on account of our weak, unhealthy state. But there is Christ Who raised Lazarus from the dead four days after the latter’s death! He can give us joy that can’t be expressed in words.
But if we begin to rejoice too much straightaway, we may die for creative work. One art worker (I don’t remember who he was) expressed the following idea: He who is pleased with his piece of work is already dead for creativity. No writer, no artist (in short, no representatives of any creative occupation) should be pleased with himself. And spiritual life is about being displeased with yourself all the time. A famous actor used to say that each performance on the stage was like the first for him—he worried and trembled so much. Here is the power of talent and genius—to keep the trepidation of your first love forever…
—You mean, this applies to spiritual life as well?
—Absolutely. Not to lose, but carry the trepidation of your soul (as with your first religious experience) throughout your life. And the Lord is so merciful that He gives a new vessel to him who has come to church with a broken one.
—There is the following opinion: as you have labored during Great Lent, so will your celebration of Pascha be. If you haven’t kept the fast, you won’t feel the festal atmosphere. But St. John Chrysostom in his Catechetical Homily assures us that everyone will be consoled…
—Maybe the fact that your conscience has prevented you from feeling the fullness of the festal joy is far more salvific than the feeling of self-satisfaction, when you say, “I haven’t broken the fast”. I recall Elder Alypius from the Pskov Caves Monastery. Someone with a saintly air came up to him: “Father, bless me not to eat dairy products.” The elder called the monastery steward up and said: “Go and feed him some pork, or God forbid he’ll try to fly from our bell-tower, which is tall.” Perhaps the Lord allows our falls or various life situations when we have to break the fast to prevent our pharisaical smugness; so that we don’t say, “I’ve fulfilled the external aspect of the rite.”
—Virtually everybody celebrates Pascha in our days, both believers and those not very religious. It seems as if everyone knows that Jesus Christ rose from the dead about 2,000 years ago and this event is marked by Christians in the Paschal season. But some still raise their voices and claim, “Nothing has changed in this world since! No one has been resurrected or ascended to heaven since then…”
—Isn’t it a miracle that the attitude towards the Church has changed? Who could have believed forty years ago that churches and monasteries would be restored and rebuilt, and theological schools reopened? Back in the 1960s, in the days of my youth, the monks of the Pskov Caves Monastery told me about this, but I didn’t believe them. This miracle has occurred before our very eyes! People have “resurrected” spiritually and turned to the Church, and exchanged their hostile attitude for interest and attention. Many came to believe in God and became members of the Church. Many new churches are being constructed and they don’t stand empty—they can’t even accommodate all the faithful!
Maybe newcomers don’t yet have deep faith, but children start school in the first and not the tenth grade, and they begin by learning the alphabet. All in good time. And many have already ascended to heaven with their souls. On the internet and in modern literature you can see such theological sayings as might have been written by ascetics from Mt. Athos and not by people around us.
As for the resurrection of our bodies, we are aware that it will take place at the Second Coming of Christ. But it is impossible to rise from the dead and ascend the Mount of Olives, Mount Tabor of the Transfiguration, without Golgotha. To be resurrected, a caterpillar must turn into a chrysalis—a butterfly won’t develop without this. That is a law. And we ourselves are to blame for this; man has to walk this path of restoration because he has lost what he once received as a gift. He has failed to contain the fullness of Divine love. Why? There was nothing to compare it with. And, having lost Divine love, he yearns for its return…
You don’t begin to cherish your health until you have lost it. However, there is no end of examples when, on returning to a healthy lifestyle, someone has gained even greater potential and realized his talents to a considerably greater degree than someone who is healthy and never takes care of himself.
Thus, death is like childbirth, when we are born into an independent state. But maturity won’t come until our bodies have been glorified and resurrected. That is the next stage.
Now in the other world the souls dwell with God, but this state is without the fullness of grace. And this will continue till the Second Coming of Christ.
Through His Resurrection, Jesus Christ delivered mankind from the state when eternity was inaccessible—He brought us back to eternity. And during the Ascension our nature (not only the soul, but also the body in the Person of Jesus Christ) was raised up to heaven and the inner life of the Holy Trinity has been communicated to us—the union of love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, Whose love is perfect. People are called to participate in the harmony of the love within the Triune God. People have been restored to communion with God, which is much more sublime than the communion of the primordial Adam, who conversed with our Creator face to face.