This conversation took place on the first day of the Radiant Resurrection of Christ in 2019. Unfortunately, its hero, Archpriest Vyacheslav Perevezentsev, rector of St. Nicholas Church in the village of Makarovka in the Moscow region for many years, died at the beginning of Lent this year at the age of fifty-five.
—Faith is known by its fruits (cf. Mt. 7:16; Lk. 6:44). You rightly noted earlier that it is difficult to see these fruits immediately, and it is even more difficult to assess or identify them... But when we—each one of us—come to church, in fact we change in some way or another. You have noted another important thing: We often come to church as consumers. Nevertheless what we expect from the Church first of all is love and compassion. Whom do we meet there? We anticipate our meeting with Christ, we come to Him; we expect love, a warm welcome and compassion from Him. And who in fact meets us there? How can we get out of ourselves and our experiences in order to see our neighbor at church?
—Your question touches upon one of the most important subjects in the Church. There is a monastic saying: “If you have seen your brother, you have seen your God.” The Apostle John the Evangelist, the Savior’s beloved disciple, whom we all also love very much, said, If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen? (1 Jn. 4:20). He who doesn’t love his neighbor doesn’t love God. And also these words of the Apostle John: Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer (1 Jn. 3:15).
As a priest I often hear from people during confession, “Well, thank God, I haven’t done anything serious...” If this is an elderly person, his life has already taken a measured path; if he committed something serious in his youth, he has already repented of this. Indeed, he did not kill anyone, but… the lack of love! And these are not my words—this is what the Holy Scripture instructs, this is what the Apostle John the Theologian teaches. Lack of love is murder. True, you can kill someone by taking his life, or by betraying him, or with a word. But even just this lack of love can kill a person. Clearly, there is some kind of gradation here, but at the same time we must clearly understand that our salvation is exactly this: that during the time that the Lord has given us here on earth, we change our lives in such a way as to become worthy of eternal life.
How can we change our lives? Not just by becoming better in some way, more decent, more courteous. But what has the Church got to do with it? People in general should be well-mannered, decent and polite. We must have the same qualities that were embodied in Christ Jesus! The Apostle Paul said some wonderful words that we often hear because they are in the Epistle to the Philippians, read at every feast of the Theotokos. And, glory be to God, there are a lot of such feasts in our Church throughout the year. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2: 5). Do we understand what this is about? What feelings did the Savior have for other people? Maybe they are even incomprehensible to us. But we cannot be wrong about these feelings, when the Savior was on the Cross, dying in such inhuman agony—because there is nothing worse for a living person than to be on a cross, to be nailed to that tree, dying of suffocation! Before His eyes were people mocking Him, laughing at Him, beating Him, tearing off and parting His garments. And now they were casting lots at the foot of the Cross, dragging His seamless garment, poking at Him, shouting: He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He be Christ, the Chosen of God… If Thou be the King of the Jews, save Thyself (Lk. 23:35, 37). It is impossible for us to imagine that atmosphere of horror, madness, human meanness, abomination, and sin in the extreme! And He was there on the Cross, God! One movement of His finger would have been enough to not only get off the Cross, but make all those people immediately understand Who was here in front of them and what they were doing!
When someone hurts us unwittingly, unjustly accuses us of something, we immediately want to prove our innocence, refute him and make him understand how wrong he is! And the Lord prayed: Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Lk. 23:34). He prayed—those are the His feelings, which we must also have! It is difficult for us even to dare to approach this, but we must. Maybe not immediately towards our enemies and offenders, but at least towards people who don’t understand us, who somehow hurt us, willingly or unwillingly. Or maybe just towards those who haven’t offended us in any way. To wish everyone well—this will make us Christians!
We cannot draw closer to God in any other way. What is a Christian like? He is someone who fulfils the will of Christ! Someone who keeps the commandments of God!
Just think—it’s no coincidence that we have heard this quite recently, and I hope that it continues to live in our hearts: At the beginning of Lent the Lord tells us the Parable of the Last Judgment. In a sense, the whole of Lent is a preparation for this Judgment, like our whole life. What is our life? It’s just an exam. Ask any student, and they will tell you what they would like to know most in the upcoming exam. “I want to know what they will ask me about! Give me the questions, and I'll prepare!” The Lord doesn’t conceal what He will ask us about! And many will probably be surprised that it is not at all what it seems to us! Because He will ask us about very simple things: I was an hungred, and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in: Naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came unto Me… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me (Mt. 25:35, 36, 40).
—It seems to be one of the paradoxes of the Gospel. In another place the Lord said: Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple…, he shall in no wise lose his reward (Mt. 10:42). But people who don’t believe in Christ can meet the requirements we find in the Parable of the Last Judgment, too.
—Sure! And not only can they, but they are called to do so. And here is a certain paradox, which will be unexpected for many Orthodox Christians. One holy man said, “When I find myself at this Judgment, at the threshold of the Kingdom of Heaven, I will be surprised by three things. First, that I am there. Second, that I don’t see those who I was sure I would see. Third, that I can see here many people I was sure I would not see here.”
We shouldn’t replace the judgment of God with human judgment. Everything is very simple. Only those who can learn to love will pass this test, because God is Love! Learning to love means learning to live the Divine Life. And in His Kingdom, in eternity, we won’t be able to live another life! It is here on earth that we must learn to live “the life of the age to come,” and this is the life of Love!
But you might say, this can be achieved by people who don’t believe in Christ, or are far from the Church, or some other people and adherents of other religions. Then why are we Christians? It’s all very simple: You and I are the happiest people because we have faith. We know that the Lord came for us. We know that we have faith in Christ, and that without Me ye can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). We know how hard it is to learn to love, and we have the opportunity to learn it, because the things which are impossible with men are possible with God (Lk. 18:27). After all, it’s very difficult to learn to love, it’s even impossible. But this is where faith begins. When I say, “Lord! I can't do anything, I can't love even the people closest to me. I still lose my temper, I'm still lazy and rude, I think only about myself. I am selfish and childish. Lord, help me!” The words “Lord, help!” are the beginning of faith and salvation. The Lord comes and helps, if we really want it.
And people who have no faith don’t have this. At best they will go to a concert, listen to Bach, and it will become easier for them to live. Or they will open a novel by Leo Tolstoy and read some wonderful words about morality.
—This can encourage them to take the path to Christ.
—Everything can encourage you to take the path to Christ! Because The wind bloweth where it listeth (Jn. 3:8). But I have said this so that we can understand this difference: We have it (faith). And how scary it is when we, possessing such wealth, make so little use of it!
Imagine that there are several groups of people at the foot of a mountain to be climbed. Some of them don’t know the route, they can’t even see the peak (it is covered with fog) and have no equipment. But they want to get there; they crawl, and sometimes they don't succeed... They fall, they take totally wrong paths, etc. And the other group of people has a GPS, a map, equipment and guides. They have everything! All they need is the desire to go and put in the effort. They have everything they need, but they don’t use it. They use the GPS to open beer cans or trade it for fancy clothes, for example. And in the first group there may be some genius who has already climbed higher! But we are still in the same place—we don’t know how to love, we are looking for enemies, we are easily discouraged, joyless, etc. Who is to blame? Is this the fault of our faith? Is it the fault of the Church? No, certainly not! Our Church and our faith have everything to help us ascend this mountain. But they won't carry us there in their “arms.”
This is also an amazing image: God can do everything except one thing. He cannot save someone if the person himself doesn’t want it. He cannot save him!
More precisely, He can lift us to this peak, say, by helicopter. Those who have never been to mountains may not understand me, but believe me—this is true. If you find yourself at the top of a mountain, for example, at a height of over three miles where you have been taken quickly by helicopter, you will feel very bad there! You will have a terrible headache, you will be out of breath, your nose will bleed, you will be unbearably scared. And another person will be sitting on a stone next to you. And his face will be shining with joy, tears will be flowing from his eyes, tears of admiration and joy. He will enjoy this beauty, breathe this mountain air, and will be in delighted beyond measure. Although you’re both in the same place, one of you feels bad, and the other one feels good. What is the reason for this difference?
The other person came here on his own feet. True, he walked for a long time, but he had trained, he went through a period of acclimatization, his body got used to this mountain air, and now he is here, at the top. And you didn't bother. You “didn't have enough time,” or “were too busy.” The Lord came, saved you too and took you here. But now you feel bad here.
There is a popular concept regarding the life of the age to come that there are two rooms: namely “Hell” and “Heaven.” So, after a certain trial, bad people will be sent to the left, and good people to the right. I want to disabuse you (though you already know it very well because on these Paschal days we are rejoicing about this): Hell is no more! It’s not there! After all, the Lord descended into hell. Hell is darkness, and darkness cannot be destroyed except through shining a light in it. Having devoured Christ, the devil thought that at last he had accomplished the most important deed. The entire world was in his hands, because the most virtuous Man who had ever walked the earth was now in his power! And now He would be his captive! But the devil didn’t understand what had happened! In order to catch big game, (St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke about this, and St. John Chrysostom cited his metaphor in his Paschal Homily) experienced hunters make big bait. And a fish takes this bait without seeing the hook. This is how the devil seized Jesus because he believed Him to be a Man. So he seized a Man—and swallowed God! And he choked. This Light illumined the darkness of hell, and now there is no more hell!
Someone will say, “Well, that’s fine! There is no more hell! So we can live without worrying about anything!” But let's remember what I said above: there is no more hell—there is only the Lord, and we will all be resurrected. But after the resurrection we will be on the threshold of His Kingdom and eternal life. And we will be exactly what we made of ourselves. St. Isaac the Syrian said that we will be tormented by the Fire of Divine Love because we have not prepared the vessels of our souls to receive it. We are not ready for that life because we have wasted the time that was given to us.
This time, after all, was given to us for very simple things: not necessarily to plant a tree, to raise a son and build a house (though these are all wonderful things too, and it's good if we succeed at them). As St. Basil the Great says (these are words from his Divine Liturgy we heard every Sunday service during Lent): “Grant them Heavenly things in place of things earthly, eternal things in place of things temporal, incorruptible things in place of things corruptible.” We have been given time in order to exchange it for eternal things. The corruptible is given to us because we can exchange it for the incorruptible. We are given the earthly so we can exchange it for the Heavenly. It appears that we are amazingly rich because we have time, we have corruptible and earthly things. But these are nothing in themselves: in an instant we will lose all this if we don’t have time to exchange them!
We must have time to exchange them! We must have time to exchange them! We should think about this all the time. This day has passed; how have I “converted” it into eternity? After all, everything can be exchanged, if we share it.
A person isn’t rich because he has something, he is rich only when he gives what he has to others. By giving, we don’t lose—we gain. Hence the words of the Savior: It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). We also hear them on Paschal days as they are from the Acts of the Apostles.
When we hear such words like “God loves us!” and “God has forgiven us!”… So-called “Christianity with rose-colored glasses,” when people say, “Where is sin, the torment of hell and fear here?” I am sorry, but God really has forgiven us! And God really loves us! And this is actually what Pascha is about! But does this imply that we have nothing to worry or care about? Certainly not! Because if we don’t change, if we don’t become different, if we don’t let Love into our lives, if we cannot overcome our egotism, then this forgiveness will not be able to enter us. Instead of warming us, this Love will scorch us.
I knew a man who left the Church at some point because something hadn’t worked out in his life. He was a very good man who sincerely believed in Christ, but he left the Church. Some years later I met him again, and he said: “I am in the Church, everything is fine now!” I replied, “Really? What happened? Who convinced you? Or did you read some book? “ He answered, “No, I seemed to know everything. I left the Church because I didn’t find my place there. I began to go to a children’s hospice and help children.” That is, he began to do very ordinary things in this world, got to know suffering people closely, and then he suddenly felt that this was the Lord! This was Christ! Having experienced a personal meeting with Christ at a dying child’s bedside, he returned to the Church and lost all interests in its critics and detractors. True faith was kindled in him!
So when we make a compromise in life, when we commit some sin, then our faith begins to fade! But if we do something good and true, an act of love (even if we aren’t consciously thinking about faith as we do it), then we receive true faith as a gift!
Christ is Risen!