We continue to analyze the text of the Divine Liturgy. Last time, we examined the petition of the Litany of Peace, “For travelers by sea, land, and air; for the sick, the suffering; the imprisoned...”
Then the deacon proclaims: “That we may be delivered from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.” In other words, let us entreat the Lord to deliver us from all sorrow, anger, danger, and difficult circumstances. This petition, one of the last in the litany, seems to sum up our needs in general terms: We pray to God to deliver us from any sorrow at all. You might ask: But don’t sorrows bring us spiritual benefit? Yes, indeed, they are good for the soul. There’s no one in this world who hasn’t experienced sorrows in his life. As Scripture says: The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint (Is. 1:5). The point is how we relate to the sorrows that befall us. If you endure them with patience and fortitude, if you try to extract some spiritual benefit from them, then even if you are to blame for your sorrows, even if you brought them upon yourself, they become a blessed phenomenon in your life. But if you receive sorrows incorrectly—if you grumble, get nervous, rebel against God, against your neighbors and others—you’ll fall into despair; and then, of course, you receive no benefit.
Here’s an example. A man commits a crime, the police arrest him, and he goes to jail. If the man admits that he’s in prison because of the crime he committed, if he admits his fault in winding up behind bars: “I got what I deserved,” if he humbles himself, if he shows patience and endures the severity of imprisonment with prayer and praise of God, saying, “Glory to Thee, O God!” with the realization that his suffering is cleansing and sanctifying him, cutting off many sins, then the sorrow of imprisonment will bring him spiritual benefit.
We have to know that we’ll never rid ourselves of sorrows by our own efforts, no matter how hard we try, no matter what we do. Such is the nature of our lives.
Let’s imagine the following utopian picture. Let’s say a man managed to arrange it so that he never encountered a single sorrow his entire life. Everything is great and joyful for him; it couldn’t be better. What will become of such a man? At the last moment of his life, he’ll still have to face some sorrow—the sorrow of death.
Speaking of sorrow (θλίψις), we mean something really serious, not something funny. Not those minor upsets that we experience from time to time, but sorrow in the truest sense of the word. The verb θλίβω (to sorrow) in ancient Greek originally meant, “to press, to push, to knead.” How do they make oil? The olives are pressed, pressed, put under pressure, turning them into a mash, with oil flowing out. To get oil, olives have to be well squeezed, pressed, kneaded.
Do you understand now what meaning is put into the noun “sorrow” (θλίψις)? This wonderful Greek word fully conveys the meaning: Sorrow is not just grief, not just sadness; sorrow constricts a man from all sides, presses on him with terrible force, trying to crush him completely.
Everyone, even the great saints, experiences a state like this. The Lord Jesus Christ experienced it too in the hour of His temptation. He permitted His human nature to endure great sorrow such that no one has ever endured before. Not a single person in the world has known or will know greater sorrow than that which Christ knew. He sorrowed to such an extent that He sweated drops of blood. After Christ, the Most Holy Theotokos suffered the greatest sorrow.
And yet the Lord created us not so that we might grieve—we were not created for sorrow at all. Having created the Forefather Adam, God placed him in the Garden of Eden—in a beautiful garden of joy and pleasure. And although we know that sorrows bring a man benefits, and that it’s impossible to avoid them, nevertheless, grief is still an undesirable, unpleasant phenomenon for us. When it comes to us, we feel as if we’ve been put on burning coals. When a fish is baked on coals, it’s turned from side to side so it’s thoroughly baked and delicious. If the fish could speak, we would hear it shouting, “Help! Get me off these coals right now!” But we don’t hear anything and we keep turning it. If it remains raw, it will be inedible and we’ll have to throw it out. During the sorrows that befall us, we are like this fish. Sorrows for us are what the burning coals are for the fish; thanks to sorrows we become spiritually mature people.
Besides cleansing the soul of passions, sins, and everything else that burdens it, sorrows make us generally better than we were before: humbler, more internally collected. He who suffers, grieves, and endures temptations doesn’t want to condemn others, accuse them, speak rudely to them. He’s immersed in his own problems and sufferings, his own pain. Thanks to sorrows, we become more compassionate. When we hear or see that others are suffering, are sick, that they’re facing certain difficulties, then since we ourselves have experienced sufferings and sorrows, our soul immediately begins to sympathize with our neighbors, to have compassion on them. We partake of someone else’s pain and suffering, and this rouses us to prayer. Our prayer can be very brief—one “Lord, have mercy,” but all our love and concern for those whom we see suffering are put into it.
Can someone who has never faced pain and suffering in his life, never had to endure the smallest sorrow, really be able to understand someone else? As the saying goes, the satiated man doesn’t understand the famished man. Indeed, it’s true. If you don’t know the feeling of hunger, how will you understand the starving man? In extreme cases, you’ll tell him: “Be patient. Going hungry is good for keeping slim.” I’m not kidding. You hear such things sometimes.
In the petition of the litany we’re analyzing, it’s not about simply avoiding some sorrows. I think the Church means here precisely those sorrows that can deal us a crushing, fatal blow. Christ Himself taught us to pray for deliverance from such sorrows: And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (Mt. 6:13, Lk. 11:4). Although we know that a Christian must wage a battle against the evil one, nevertheless we must ask God to save us from these temptations that exceed our strength.
You may ask: Is it actually possible that Christ would allow us to be tempted beyond our strength? No. As the Apostle Paul says: God is faithful, Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able (1 Cor. 10:13). Therefore, whatever temptation may befall us, it won’t exceed our strength, because otherwise God wouldn’t have allowed it to come upon us. Most often we simply don’t know how far our strength can go, and therefore we don’t use it fully, and often leave it altogether inactive. Man has a huge potential of forces. Let each of you remember the sorrowful events you’ve had to face in your life. You’ll discover something amazing: Had we known ahead of time that we’d have to go through this or that sorrow, we wouldn’t have dared to believe that we could handle it. But when this grief came to us, although we were shocked, amazed, knocked off our feet, nevertheless we managed to survive it. This testifies to the fact that we don’t know our own strength.
God is near to those who suffer or are tempted. But we, weak and pitiful, forget about it. It happens that people caught in the very maelstrom of sorrows can be drowned by them and become mentally and physically sick. They can also become spiritually ill if their relationship with God is upset. In such a painful state, they can cause terrible harm to themselves and others. In other words, sorrow, which could be a blessing for a man and bring him great spiritual benefit, becomes the cause of great evil and destruction. And this happens not because God left us without His providence, but because we have little faith.
Remember how the Apostle Peter walked on the water. Seeing Christ walking on the sea, Peter turned to Him with a request: Bid me come unto Thee on the water, to which Christ responded: Come. Peter got out of the boat and went to the Lord on the waves. But then he turned on his logic and thought: “I’m walking right on the water. I could drown at any moment”; and he immediately submerged into the water and began to sink. He started sinking not because Christ’s command had lost its power. The command of Christ: “Come to Me on the waves,” was not canceled for Peter. So what did he lose? He lost his faith. Therefore, the Lord stretched out His hand to him and said: O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Mt. 14:31). Peter began to sink because of lack of faith. The same thing happens to us. As soon as we lose faith, as soon as we stop beholding Christ with the eye of our mind, we immediately fall.
And another thing we should know: Every person has his own measure of spiritual strength. You give one a kick, and he just smiles. It’s like he doesn’t care. Another one you politely ask: “Forgive me. Please, take a step back”—and despite your “please” and “forgive,” he gets offended and embarrassed. Everyone is different. And this forces us to be extremely attentive to how we communicate with others. People’s spiritual strength varies greatly, and various factors influence this difference. A man has one type of spiritual strength, a woman has another; a young man has one, an old man another; a holy man has one, a passionate man another; a mentally healthy man has one, a mentally ill man another.
People’s internal states are manifested differently in their external appearance. Some have what is going on in their souls written on their foreheads, but for others, it’s impossible to guess the state of their inner man by their appearance. Some may have laugh though they’re experiencing great sorrows. This laughter doesn’t mean the man doesn’t have deep and painful experiences because of what he faces in life.
It’s a mistake if we judge the condition of someone else based on our own measure. In my youth, I used to make mistakes like this when I heard Confessions. It still happens sometimes now, but I’ve gotten a little better over the years. Now I at least try not to outwardly show my feelings and emotions in response to what I sometimes have to hear in Confession.
Let’s say someone comes and he’s weeping because his cat is sick. To me, this is a frivolous reason to be crying. But for this man, his cat’s sickness is a cause of true sorrow; it fills his heart with anxiety and suffering. And you should try to understand his sorrow. You can’t laugh and say: “Ha! What nonsense! Is it worth weeping over a cat?” No, you have to understand him. For him, his cat’s sickness is a serious matter; it’s important to him.
It gives me the impression that there are people who can be incurably traumatized by the simplest of things, which we don’t even pay attention to, which for us don’t even exist. For you it’s nothing, but it matters a lot to someone else. We, priests, or you, parents, as well as anyone else who has to communicate with others often, should always remember this, be very condescending, put yourself in the other’s place, and not declare: “What you’re saying is all far-fetched; it’s not serious.” If someone says he’s suffering, that he’s grieving, then he is. Of course, sometimes, to cheer someone up, you can tell him: “No worries, it’s not as bad as it seems at first.” But at the same time, you have to show him that you understand: “Yes, indeed, what happened is causing you pain and suffering.” You shouldn’t dismiss him and say, “There’s nothing sorrowful in this.”
I remember one case that left a deep impression on me. When I was living on the Holy Mountain with Elder Joseph [of Vatopedi—OC], our brotherhood had a really serious temptation, a great sorrow. The Elder and I visited various Athonite spiritual fathers—Elder Joseph wanted to talk with them to discuss what we should do to overcome our difficulties. The Elder had to sort out the situation. We went around nearly the entire Mountain, meeting with many elders. They all spoke some spiritual words to us, supporting us with their prayers and parting words. But it was the meeting with Elder Aimilianos, the abbot of Simonopetra, that made an impression on me. Listening to Elder Joseph describe the temptation that had befallen our brotherhood, I thought at that moment that Fr. Aimilianos would say: “It’s a temptation. You have to endure it. Don’t worry, it will all pass,” and so on. But after listening to our Elder, Fr. Aimilianos said something completely different:
“Indeed, Geronda, a great temptation has come your way. Very big. You’re in an incredibly difficult situation. I absolutely understand how tragic this situation is. You even came to Simonopetra to share your problem with me.”
At his first words, the thought flashed through my mind: “Is that how he wants to support us? His words only plunge us deeper into the depths.” But then I realized that Fr. Aimilianos was showing with his words how well he understood us. He entered into Elder Joseph’s situation. Others might not have found our situation so difficult. They might have thought it was all easy and we just had to endure. But for us, it was a matter of life and death for our brotherhood, a matter of its spiritual and physical existence. And Fr. Aimilianos understood this perfectly.
I repeat: It’s important to understand that every person has his own strengths, his own capabilities, his own sensitivities. What’s insignificant and non-existent for you might be an incredibly important and serious matter for someone else.
I still remember what mistakes I made in this regard. For example, there was an accident once on the Holy Mountain. No one died, but in the first hours after the accident, there was a rumor that a monk had crashed. And in my youthful immaturity, I dashed in to Elder Joseph, knocked on his door, hurriedly went in, and blurted out on the move:
“Geronda, a monk was in a car crash! We were told from Daphne. There was a terrible accident.”
I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that Elder Joseph had a weak heart, and I was bringing him terrible news. You can’t do that with people who have heart problems. You have to tell them such terrible things with caution, not so directly.
When I ran in like that to the Elder, he was sitting and reading a book. Having heard this terrible news from me, the Elder’s face completely changed, as though he were at a loss, he crossed himself, and said in a weak voice:
“Oh, what a disaster…”
A little later I realized how serious a mistake I had made. What if after my news he had had a heart attack? I gave him the news and then calmed down. The subject was closed for me, as they say. But others have different strengths, especially the elderly. Now, having come of age, I see that a thirty-year-old has completely different strength from a sixty-year-old.
Thus, it’s good that the Church prays to God for our deliverance from every sorrow. The Church thereby warns us to stay away from the storm. After all, if you fall into it, will you be able to get out of it unharmed? But sooner or later, you will inevitably find yourself in a storm. It comes to you, and from a place that you’re not expecting. People might see this storm as big or small, but you’ll look at it through the prism of your own perception. Everyone relates to the temptations and difficulties that befall him according to his own perception.
May the Lord deliver us from every sorrow—or at least give us prudence to use the sorrows that befall us correctly. That’s what’s really necessary for us—to relate to our sorrows correctly. And above all, to our last sorrow, which will visit us in the hour of our departure from this world. May the Lord grant us prudence and wisdom in that hour so we might meet death in a manner pleasing to him.