Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“Concerning Repentance and Spiritual Warfare” by Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov


The whole of our earthy life, from birth to our last breath, in the end will look like one concise act. Its content and quality will be seen in a flash. Imagine a glass of the clearest crystal full of water. A glance will tell whether the water is clean or not. So will it be with us when we have crossed into another sphere. The most transitory reflex of heart or mind leaves its mark on the sum total of our life. Suppose that just once in the entire course of my existence I have a moment’s wicked impulse, say, to murder. Unless I reject the idea from my heart in an act of contrition, it will remain with me, a black stain impossible to hide. ‘For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known’ (Luke 12.2).


We often comfort ourselves with the thought that no one saw what we did or knows what we think. But when we look upon this life as a preparation for eternity; when we strive to get rid of the dark places within us, the picture changes.‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1.8,9). When we repent, resolutely condemning ourselves before God and man, we are cleansed within. The water in the glass is purified, having been passed through the spiritual filter of repentance. So when I make my confession I convict myself of every evil because there is no sin in all the world of which I am not guilty, even if only for a second. Who can be quite certain that he is altogether free from the power of passionate thoughts? And if for a fleeting moment I have been held by an evil thought, where is the guarantee that this moment will not be transmuted into eternity? Therefore, in so far as we can see ourselves we must thoroughly confess our sins, lest we carry them with us after our death.Straightforward resistance is not always the most successful way of trying to defeat wicked or simply idle thoughts.


Often the best method is to stay our minds on the ‘good pleasure of the Father’s will’ (cp. Eph. 1.5) for us. To conduct our lives fittingly, it is of cardinal importance to know that before the very creation of the world we were intended to be perfect. To belittle God’s initial idea for us is not just mistaken: it is a sin. Because we do not see in ourselves, and still less in our fellow men, any permanent virtue, we behave towards each other like jungle beasts. O what a paradox is man- to contemplate him provokes both delighted wonder and consternation at his savage cruelty! The soul is constrained to pray for the world but her prayer will never fully achieve her purpose, since nothing and no one can deprive man of his freedom to give in to evil, to prefer darkness to light (cf. John 3.19).Prayer offered to God in truth is imperishable. Now and then we may forget what we have prayed about but God preserves our prayer for ever.


On the Day of Judgement all the good that we have done during our lives will stand at our side, to our glory. And vice versa: the bad, if unrepented, will condemn and cast us into outer darkness. Repentance can obliterate the effects of sin. By Divine power life may be restored in all its plenitude- not, however, by unilateral intervention on God’s part but always and only in accord with us. God does nothing with man without man’s co-operation.God’s participation in our individual life we call Providence. This Providence is not like heathen Fate: at certain crucial moments we do, indeed, decide for ourselves on one or other course. When we are faced with various possibilities our choice should be conditioned by the final aim that we have in view: the Kingdom of the Father. But too often we are influenced by other, more temporary considerations, and we turn aside from the true path offered to us by God, on to false tracks which will not lead to the hoped-for dawn. In any case, whatever we choose, suffering is inevitable. But when we opt for the way of God our sacrifice likens us to Christ. ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke 22.42).


When it is given to man to know the overriding value of prayer as compared with any other activity, be it in the field of science, the arts, medicine or social or political work, it is not difficult to sacrifice material well-being for the sake of leisure to converse with God. It is a great privilege to be able to let one’s mind dwell on the everlasting, which is above and beyond all the most splendid achievements of science, philosophy, the arts, and so on. At first the struggle to acquire this privilege may seem disproportionately hard; though in many cases known to me the pursuit of freedom for prayer became imperative.Prayer affords an experience of spiritual liberty of which most people are ignorant. The first sign of emancipation is a disinclination to impose one’s will on others. The second- an inner release from the hold of others on oneself. Mastery over the wish to dominate is an extremely important stage which is closely followed by dislike of constraining our brother. Man is made in the image of God, Who is humble but at the same time free.


Therefore it is normal and natural that he should be after the likeness of His Creator- that he should recoil from exercising control of the presence of the Holy Spirit within him. Those who are possessed by the lust for power cloud the image of God in themselves. The light of true life departs, leaving a tormenting void, a distressing tedium. Life is bereft of meaning. When the Holy Spirit by its gentle presence in our soul enables us to master our passions we realise that to look down on others is contrary to the spirit of love. And if I have not charity everything else- even the gifts of prophecy, of understanding all mysteries, or of performing miracles- profits me nothing (cf. 1 Cor. 13.1-3).Spiritual freedom is a sublime grace. Without it there is no salvation- salvation revealed to us as the deification of man, as the assimilation by man of the divine form of being. It is essential that man of his own free will should determine himself for all eternity. The one true guide in the fight to fulfil this ineffably high calling is the bondage of corruption, waiting for deliverance which will come through ‘the manifestation of the sons of God’ (cf. Rom. 8.19-23).


It is sad to see that hardly anyone perceives what the genuine, divinely royal freedom of ‘sons of God’ consists in. Intense prayer can so transport both heart and mind, in their urgent desire for the eternal, that the past fades into oblivion and there is no thought of any earthly future- the whole inner attention is concentrated on the one interest, to become worthy of God. It is a fact that the more urgent our quest for the infinite, the more slowly we seem to advance. The overwhelming contrast between our own nothingness and the inscrutable majesty of the God Whom we seek makes it impossible to judge with any certainty whether we are moving forward or sliding back. In his contemplation of the holiness and humility of God, man’s spiritual understanding develops more quickly than does his ability to harmonise his conduct with God’s word. Hence the impression that the distance separating him from God continually increases. The analogy is remote but this phenomenon is known to every genuine artist or scientist. Inspiration far outstrips the capacity to perform. It is normal for the artist to feel his objective slipping farther and farther from his grasp. And if it is thus in the field of art, it is still more so where knowledge of the unoriginate inapprehensible Divinity is concerned. Every artist knows the torment of trying to materialise his aesthetic vision.


The soul of the man of prayer is often even more dreadfully racked. The dismay that invades him when he sees himself in the grip of base passions drives him ever deeper into the core of his being. This concentration within may take the form of a cramp whereby heart, mind and body are contracted together, like a tightly clenched fist. Prayer becomes a wordless cry, and regret for the distance separating him from God turns to acute grief. To behold oneself in the black pit of sin, cut off from the Holy of holies is distressing indeed.Prayer often proceeds without words. If there are words they come slowly, with long pauses between. Our human word is the image of the Word that was ‘in the beginning’. When words reflect intellectual knowledge they undoubtedly have metaphysical roots, especially where knowledge of God is involved.


In this connection the fathers of the Church, in an endeavour to express the inexpressible in concepts and modes within the limits of our worldly experience, suggested a certain parallel between the God-the-Father and God-the-Word relationship and the correlation of our mind and our word. They distinguished between the inner, immanent word of our mind- the έμφυτος logos and the word pronounced, expressed- the έναρθρος logos. The former manifests a certain analogy with God-the-Word ‘which is in the bosom of the Father’ (John 1.18); the latter can be seen as an analogy of the incarnation. And if in His incarnation as the Son of man He could say: ‘My Father is greater than I’ (John 14.28). Thus the human word uttered aloud conveys less than divine reality, knowledge of which was given in visions and revelations to the prophets, apostles and fathers. However, the vision when proclaimed was diminished more for the hearer than for the prophets themselves, since the revelation prompting the words was not lessened for them with their utterance. Just as for the Father the Incarnation did not diminish the Son.


Throughout the ages the doctors of the Church sought ways and means whereby to communicate to the world their knowledge concerning Divine Being. In their attempts they constantly found themselves torn between unwillingness to abandon their imageless contemplation of the essentially one and only mystery, and the love which impelled them to communicate the mystery to their brethren. God did, and does indeed, constrain His saints to tell of the gifts from on High. We see how this affected St Paul: ‘For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this thing willingly, I have reward’- an effusion of grace- ‘but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me’ (1 Cor. 9.16,17).


Thus it was with many ascetics through the centuries of Christian history. We note the same feature in Staretz, who writes: ‘My soul doth love the Lord, and how may I hide this fire which warms my soul? How shall I hide the Lord’s mercies in which my soul delights? How can I hold my peace, with my soul captive to God? How shall I be silent when my spirit is consumed day and night with love for Him?’Impossible to keep silent; impossible to give voice. And this not only because words fail but also because the Divine Spirit inclines the mind to profound stillness, carrying one into another world. Again, blessed Staretz Silouan says: ‘The Lord has given us the Holy Spirit, and we learned the song of the Lord and so we forget the earth for sweetness of the love of God…

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