All people we meet throughout our life may fall into several groups. Our lives primarily depend on people close to us, with whom we live, as well as on those with whom we are in constant contact. People are brought together by Providence. This opportunity is given to us so that we acquire “merits” for the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven by using our talents, strength and time given to us by God.
First and foremost, we should set as our primary life rule the Gospel Commandment (Mathew, chapter 20, 26): “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister”, that is, we should always serve our neighbour in the best way possible.
Not all Christians are spiritually strong enough to render spiritual help to their neighbours, bring home the truth to them, bring them to faith and strengthen their spiritual happiness. Only monastic elders, pastors, instructors in the faith and spiritually mature Christians are able to fulfill such a task. Therefore Christians who in fact can help their neighbours spiritually should not fail to do so. They should do what best they can to help the less spirited, confused, distressed, misguided and weak in their faith and hope.
Elder Alexey Mechev used to say the following about how neighbours should be treated: “People who are near you – that’s where you must toil. They are your grain field, your plot bestowed by God for you to cultivate. A person’s soul should be approached with care as if it was a fragile blossoming flower. You should console, protect and keep them away from any trouble. You should live his or her life, entirely forgetting your own self. Best possible should be done for your neighbours. You should always have only one thing in mind – not to disturb them or hurt their feelings. You should constantly seek the best way to soothe, assuage and reassure them. You should never use harsh words. All should be done delicately and in a loving way.”
We should relieve one another, that is, when you see that a person is experiencing difficulties and is distressed, approach them, take their problems upon your shoulders, ease their lot and help them as best you can. Hearing out people in need, we take their problems on board. As they say, a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Acting this way, you enter other people’s world and living their lives you can deny your own self and completely forget about yourself. Saint John of Kronshtadt writes the same: “Guard your heart in every possible way, treat people with heart-felt sincerity and compassion in their happiness and sorrows, guard yourself against such feelings as indifference and coldness towards other people’s sorrows, troubles, illnesses, needs, because it is compassion that helps one grow into a kind loving Christian. With ease in heart forgive people their debts to you and in doing so be as cheerful as a kind son is when he has a chance to fulfill his beloved father’s will”.
These are the fundamental laws of our co–existence and the deviation from them is the violation of the commandment about love. That’s why rigor, severity, unfriendliness, misanthropy, cruelty are nothing but vices of the heart and they must be cured. In this connection Apostle Paul gives the following instruction to the Romans: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love, honor one another above yourselves; never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour” (Romans, 12, 10). Bishop St. Theophan the Recluse teaches that in anything, however petty it might be, one should guard oneself against causing any trouble to your neighbours. “Always try to write legibly”, – he advises.
God highly appreciates and generously rewards the spiritual feats of those who have renounced the world and are living in the desert, seclusion and solitude. God’s requirements to those who live among other people and are in constant contact with them are completely different. Here, first and foremost, our Lord appreciates mutual love, peace and harmony in their relationships.
Those who are capable of such deeds, as a priority, should encourage and support neighbours’ cheerfulness and joy, strengthening them in their courage and faith. “Comfort, strengthen and reassure as many people as possible in any possible way”, – such is the advice of the elders. In doing so one can resort to innocent jokes, funny stories and anecdotes with a moral.
Elder Ambrose of Optina was always jovial and cheerful. He liked to joke, talk in rhymes and tried to maintain good mood and cheerfulness in his spiritual children in every possible way. Holy Venerable Seraphim of Sarov did the same. One of the sisters of Diveevo, whom he instructed, recollects how he would ask her : “Do you, reverend mother, have breakfast together with the sisters?”. “No, I don’t, Father”, – I would say.
– And why not, reverend mother? That’s not right, my dear. If you are not hungry, don’t eat, but all the same, sit at the table with the other nuns. Just imagine, how they come tired and upset, and when they see you sitting next to them so affectionate, jovial, cheerful, they will recover their spirits, brighten up and enjoy their meal. You know that feeling jovial is not a sin as such a feeling keeps tiredness away and as we know, despondency, the worst feeling of all, is caused by tiredness and drags with itself other negative feelings.
I was also jovial when I sang in the choir after joining the monastery, reverend mother. I remember my monk brothers looking and feeling depressed. In such a mood their singing was not as good as usual. Some of my monk brothers would not turn up at all. So I would amuse them and their tiredness would disappear. In the Church it isn’t good to speak of bad things or do something bad, but a kind loving cheerful word said so that all of us were cheerful, not despondent before the face of God is not sinful at all, reverend mother.”
Father Alexander Elchaninov instructed: “Be simple and jovial. A Christian should not look gloomy and dismal showing an emaciated, worn out expression caused by their ascetic feats as if a living reproach to other people.
In our life we are often surrounded by uncongenial people. Does it mean that we have to try and isolate ourselves from them. Should we not try to understand their interests, share their sorrows, help them in any possible way? Of course, it doesn’t. Bishop Michael of Tavros writes as follows: “Though we are not of this world, it does not mean that we should keep away from the people we are brought together with by life itself. We should not seek other people who would answer our ideal requirements. Yes, we should keep ourselves further away from all that is bad in our hearts and in the hearts of other people. Our duty is to fight evil constantly and decisively.
But it is this evil people carry inside that draws them apart and creates enmity in their midst. Standing aloof – Christians leave this elemental world, the world where people are enemies to one another. They leave it for another world in which people can become friends and brothers. But this latter world is right here, it is the same world with the same people and not the world of fantasies and unrealistic dreams.”
It is said in the Gospel (Mathew, 10, 16): “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves”. Simplicity has nothing to do with stupidity and narrow-mindedness. A simple person is a nice person as he is easy to talk to and understand. His speech is ingenious, truthful and listening to such a person does not require any additional strain of his counterpart’s mind in order to guess what is held behind his words.
Whereas it usually is the case in a secular conversation during which our mind automatically exerts oneself trying to guess subconsciously what a person means by the words they have just said, what is lurking in the person’s heart and mind behind the words.
As elder Parfenij of Kiev used to say: “The Holy Spirit rests in simple hearts. The inner simplicity should be reflected in our speech and appearance. Don’t try to seem and look reverential, don’t cast your eyes downwards or speak in a hypocritically soft voice. Otherwise, even if you assumed such a look with a good intention in mind, God’s grace would nevertheless leave you.” So the simplicity is the main feature in a Christian character which is shown in his relationship with the neighbours and is the result of presence of the Holy Spirit in his soul.
The simplicity of one’s heart usually goes hand in hand with the inability to censure your neighbor. A combination of these two merits with the poverty of spirit leads to salvation. St. Seraphim of Sarov said the following about monk Paul who lived next to his monastic cell: “Brother Paul is bound to easily enter the Kingdom of God thanks to the simplicity of his heart: he never censures or envies anyone, the only thing he is preoccupied with is fighting his sins and reaching humility.”
In lacking simplicity, a person tends to experience groundless suspicions towards people. This quality is very sinful, the more so that the lie that is present here, goes hand in hand with unfriendliness, and the latter is a sin against love. How does it work? – In our imagination we build various assumptions attributing evil feelings and intentions to our neighbours, thus blackening them in our soul. What happens in reality is that it is our own soul that becomes black out of the feeling of enmity that we experience towards our neighbor.
Communicating with our neighbours, we are always in danger of facing or creating misunderstanding, quarrels and reproaches. For such cases Abba Dorotheus proposes a golden rule to personally accept the blame and not to blame others. One should never contradict or argue with anyone, or try to justify oneself before his or her neighbours. That’s why one should first learn to humble oneself, admit one’s mistakes and sincerely ask the neighbor for forgiveness. Elder Ambrose of Optina wrote: “It only seems that self-justification makes things easier, in fact, it only brings gloom and confusion into your soul.”
Trying to manage alone in every possible situation is a very good habit. In this case you will not need to demand or claim any help from your neighbours. At the same time you will not be a burden to them either. Also, unless there is a good reason for doing so, you should not encumber your neighbor with requests in any way or be a trouble to them. Saints and ascetics reasoned that there was no need to ask a person for a favor as God Himself, if need be, would dispose the neighbor’s heart to wish and render this help.
Having said that, the simplicity in dealing with people does not mean that it is unnecessary to be discrete and exercise cautiousness and reason. We live in a world that is characterized by the Evangelist St. John (1 John, 5, 19) as “the whole world is under the control of the evil one”. Very often can we see lies and fraud surrounding us. For this reason, while one should trust virtuous, sincere, simple-hearted people, we should be very cautious when dealing with people who are attached too much to this world and who serve evil.
N.E.Pestov. Modern Practice of Orthodox piety. M., 2002.
Translated from the Russian by Zhanna Menshikova
Edited by Alexey Axyonov