The Ascetic Podvig of Living in the World

The situation of an Orthodox person, an Orthodox Christian who lives in the contemporary world, may be described, without any exaggeration, as extremely difficult. The whole of present-day life, in all its tendencies, in one way or another is directed against a person who is trying to live according to the teachings of the Orthodox Church. In life around us, in our environment, in our heterodox surroundings, everything is essentially a total denial of Christianity. If, in the beginning of the Christian era, Christ’s beloved disciple, St. John the Theologian, could write, “… the whole world lieth in wickedness” (I John 5:19), then how much more justified we are in speaking thus of our times.

Being a true Orthodox Christian, prepared to preserve unto death one’s faith in Christ our Saviour, is much more difficult in our day than it was in the first centuries of Christianity. It’s true there were persecutions then and Christians were tormented, but the Christians well remembered the Saviour’s words, ” … fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 11:28). Being fortified by God’s grace, they joyfully went to their martyrdom and gave up their lives for Christ. This was also the case in Russia during the torture and persecutions. Now nobody threatens us, living here in freedom, with persecution and torture, but in spite of this, a persecution in its most diverse forms is being carried on against Christianity and against the Christian way of life. Today we see that everything connected with faith in God, with the teaching of God’s Word, with Christ’s teachings and the teachings of the Orthodox Church, in one way or another is being driven out of a person’s life. This process that is taking place in the contemporary world is a process of apostasy, and it can be detected in every aspect of life.

The Old Testament says, “God, to be sure, framed man for an immortal destiny, the created image of His own endless being; but, since the devil’s envy brought death into the world, they make him their model that take him for their master” (Wisdom 2:23-25).

We have been given our holy Christian faith so that we might obtain eternal life in blessedness. But to conform perfectly with the spirit of the Founder of our faith, Christ our Saviour, and with His teaching, to really cleanse ourselves morally, to increase in virtue, to become acquainted with spiritual perfection, all this demands special, grace-filled cooperation from above, in addition to an Orthodox person’s own efforts. This grace-filled cooperation is called sanctification and is given to us by the Lord. It is achieved by the Holy Spirit in the holy Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ for our sanctification and salvation.

You and I are children of the Russian Orthodox Church. The question arises, do we live as Orthodox Christians are supposed to live? No, we are far from living in the way we should.

At our holy baptism we gave vows (if we were baptized as infants, our sponsors gave them on our behalf), we made a contract with Christ and in this way we became His children, His servants, the children of God. At baptism the holy Church sings, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia.”

Therefore, since we belong to God, we must live in accordance with God’s commandments, in accordance with Christ’s teachings and the laws of the Church. We are baptized, we are Orthodox Christians but we don’t know very much about our Orthodox Faith.

All who are born in the bosom of the holy Church through holy baptism are born into a new life. They grow and are brought up in the Spirit of Truth and receive in the spiritual life grace-filled gifts for life on earth, with the promise of eternal gifts for the future life. Thus, to live in the Church is an essential condition for a Christian’s moral development.

The Church of Christ was founded by our Lord the Saviour and He showed us the path by which we must go to Him, and He showed us how to follow His teaching. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Consequently, we must go by this path, pointed out to us by our Saviour.

Every path and every action demands a podvig—that is, an ascetic struggle. Therefore, our holy Orthodox Faith is an ascetic faith demanding ascetic labor in the struggle with our sinful passions and lusts.

How must we live and struggle? Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself shows an example: “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). The saints also provide us with an example.

In His Sermon on the Mount our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the whole essence of Evangelical teaching. This is found in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the Beatitudes the Lord teaches us that we must be born again spiritually and thus prepare ourselves for the beatitude of eternal life in the heavenly mansions. The first step towards this is to recognize one’s spiritual emptiness, one’s sinfulness and worthlessness, to become humble. This is why “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). But only those who observe all the commandments will achieve this. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

In order to go by the path that our Lord pointed out in the holy Gospel, we have to take ourselves under control, we must check and test ourselves.

Bishop Theophan the Recluse says:

The true Christian tests himself every day. Daily testing to see whether we have become better or worse, is so essential for us that without it we cannot be called Christians. Constantly and persistently we must take ourselves in hand. Do this: from the morning establish thoughts about the Lord firmly in your mind and then during the whole day resist any deviation from these thoughts. Whatever you are doing, with whomever you are speaking, whether you are going somewhere or sitting, let your mind be with the Lord. You will forget yourself, and stray from this path; but again turn to the Lord and rebuke yourself with sorrow. This is the podvig of spiritual attentiveness.

St. John of Kronstadt says:

Every day, hour, and minute, keep a strict watch and consider every thought, desire, and movement of the heart, every word and deed, and do not let yourself be defiled by one sinful thought, desire, or movement of the imagination, in word or deed, knowing that the Lord is the Righteous Judge Who is judging you every instant and is evaluating the inner man. Continually keep yourself pure for God.

Now the question will arise—how do you definitely find out exactly what is sinful and to what degree, so as to know clearly and distinctly if one has sinned, and how frequently, and to critically examine one’s life like a strict and unhypocritical judge?

Bishop Theophan advises as follows:

To do this, put the law of God on one side and your own life on the other, and see where they are similar and where there is no resemblance. Take your deeds and subject them to the law to see if they are permissible, or take the law and see if it is applied in your life. So as not to omit anything in this important matter, you have to have an orderly system. Sit down and call to mind all your duties towards God, your neighbors, and yourself, and then go through your life in relation to all these. Or you may go through the ten commandments and the beatitudes, one after the other, and see if your life accords with them. Or read those parts of the Gospel of St. Matthew where the Saviour sets out the strictly Christian law, and also the epistles of St. James and the epistles of St. Paul, especially to the Romans and Ephesians. Read all this and then check your own life, how it conforms. Or, finally, take the rite of Confession and check your own behavior against it. The result of such an examination of one’s life is to reveal a vast number of deeds, words, thoughts, feelings and desires that were against the law but were permitted, even though they should not have been; a vast number that should have been done but were not, and many that were done in accordance with the law but turned out to be defiled by an impure motive. From all this you will gather a vast number, and even your whole life, perhaps, will be made up only of bad deeds.

Perhaps someone will say that all this is not necessary for all Christians, but only for the monastics. But no, this is for everyone! A person is a Christian not by calling, but by his way of life. All of us, not just monastics, have to think about and be concerned for our salvation. The law of the Gospel is given for everyone.

In answer to the question, how must a Christian live, how must we act and behave? the Apostle Paul shows us. His words, directed to the Ephesians, are also addressed to us:

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient [not proper, according to the Slavonic—editorial note]: but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolator, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever cloth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:1-21).

We have to become interested in the holy Orthodox Faith, we must study it and live in accordance with it. We must take care concerning our salvation. We will do this if we read holy Scripture, if we study the law of God, if we pray morning and evening and at all times, if we fast, if we carry out God’s commandments and the Church’s commandments.

In addition to this, we have to acquire Christian virtues—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, generosity, mercy, faith, meekness, abstinence, etc. We have to go to church, attend divine services, be cleansed of our sins and be sanctified through the holy Mysteries which are given by the holy Church for our salvation.

We can find out from the holy fathers what significance prayer should have for us. The saints, who, in fact, tested the significance of prayer, wrote about this from experience. Therefore we must read what they wrote and learn from them.

This is what St. John Chrysostom writes about prayer:

Prayer is a refuge for those who are shaken, an anchor for those tossed by waves, a walking stick for the infirm, a treasure house for the poor, a stronghold for the rich, a destroyer of sicknesses, a preserver of health. Prayer keeps our virtues intact and quickly removes all evil. If temptation overtakes us, it easily drives it away; if we lose some property or something else, which causes our soul grief, it removes it. Prayer banishes every sorrow, causes good humor, facilitates constant well-being. It is the mother of the love of wisdom. He who can sincerely pray is richer than everyone else, even though he is the poorest of all. On the contrary, he who does not have recourse to prayer, even though he sit on a king’s throne, is the poorest of all….

On prayer in church and on attending church services, St. John Chrysostom says the following:

The right confession of dogmas should be combined with righteousness of life and deeds so that we do not achieve our salvation only by halves. Nothing can so facilitate righteousness of conduct and purity of life as being here, in church, and sincere attentiveness. As the body needs food, so the soul needs the study of divine Scriptures, for “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). For this reason those who do not participate in this meal (liturgy) usually suffer hunger. Hear how God threatens such hunger and places it alongside punishment and torture: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the word of the Lord…” (Amos 8:11). Is it not madness to do everything and take all measures to avoid bodily hunger but willingly to incur spiritual hunger? No, I beg and entreat you, let us not be so badly disposed toward ourselves….

Further, St. John Chrysostom continues:

To be here in church is the source of all blessings. When they leave here, it seems that a husband is more respectful to his wife and a wife is more kind to her husband, since it is not the physical beauty of the body that makes a wife loving, but the virtue of the soul, not cosmetics and beauty aids, not gold and rich clothing, but chastity, meekness, and constant fear of God. This spiritual beauty nowhere develops to such an extent as in this wonderful and divine place (church), where the apostles and prophets wash away, reform, and cleanse old sin and bring forth the brightness of youth; where they extinguish every stain, every blemish, every defilement of our soul …. Let us try, husbands and wives, to rejoice in our inner beauty.

We give very little attention to fasting, considering this to be something that the Church has laid down which is of no importance. But it is divinely established. The commandment to fast is as old as the world. It was the first commandment given by God to man. Because we did not fast, we have been banished from Paradise. Therefore we must fast in order to gain entrance again to Paradise (St. Basil the Great). Not to fast is to be like animals to which such a thing is unknown. Abstinence for the body is food for the soul (St. John Chrysostom). We do not live in order to eat, but we eat in order to live and fulfill our duties. Our Lord Himself fasted, as recounted in the Gospel. Often you and I see someone in need but go past without responding and without helping as we consider that there are no really poor people and no one who has genuine need. But according to the Lord’s commandments, we have to help, we are obliged to show mercy. St. John Chrysostom says this about mercifulness:

Consider mercifulness not for what you give but for what you get, not as a loss but a gain, because through it you receive more than you give. If you give bread, you will receive eternal life. You give clothing and receive the robe of immortality; you give shelter under your roof and you receive the heavenly kingdom. You give perishable joys and receive eternal blessings.

Thus we see that in accordance with Scripture, in accordance with the teachings of the Church and the holy fathers, we must struggle in order to go by the Orthodox path to salvation. The holy apostles taught their disciples and instruct us as well: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The Lord also says to us: “Enter ye in at the straight gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (Matt. 7:13,14).

No doubt many of you will say or think: “There they go, they want us to live like monks or hermits. But look at our friends and acquaintances, and everyone around us, they live for their own pleasure, do what they want, and none of them ever think about what is being said here. They do not think about the heavenly kingdom, the future life; they do not spoil their mood by such considerations.”

Yes, it’s true—they live and pay no attention to the spiritual life. They do not believe in that or in the future life. Therefore there is nothing spiritual in them, they have no peace of soul, or spiritual joy. So they have no restraining center, nothing has any moral or spiritual value for which they might restrain themselves, or for which they might strive. Therefore they are connected with debauchery and lasciviousness, crime, spiritual suicide, and spiritual bankruptcy.

We children of the Orthodox Church have to beware of this and be careful and run away from all this as though from fire.

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Anthony, the founder and first head of our Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, in his wonderful article entitled “How Does Orthodoxy Differ from the Western Denominations?” wrote of the profound difference between our Faith and heterodoxy. He sees this profound difference in the fact that the Orthodox Faith teaches how to arrange one’s life according to the requirements of Christian perfection, while heterodoxy takes from Christianity only that which coincides with the conditions of contemporary cultural life.

Orthodoxy views Christianity as an eternal foundation of true life and demands that each break himself and his life until such time as it agrees with that norm, but the heterodox looks on the bases of contemporary cultured life as on an unshakable fact, and only in areas of its existing private options does he indicate which of them are most approved from the Christian viewpoint. Orthodoxy demands moral heroism—podvig; heterodoxy considers what elements of Christianity would be suited to us in our current way of life. For the Orthodox, a man called to life after death in which true life will begin, the historically-shaped mechanism of contemporary life is an insignificant illusion, but for the heterodox the teaching about the future life is an elevated, ennobling idea, an idea which helps to arrange our real life here better and better.

These remarkable words of Metropolitan Anthony clearly and distinctly point out that bottomless abyss which separates the true Christian Faith—Orthodoxy—from its distortion—heterodoxy.

Orthodoxy is a podvig, a striving for eternity, while in heterodoxy we see a strong attachment to the earth, to faith in human progress.

Vladyka Anthony points out further that the Orthodox Faith is an ascetic faith, that:

The Golden Age which the worshippers of the ‘superstition of progress’ await on earth is promised by the Saviour in the life to come, but neither the Latins nor the Protestants want to accept this for the simple reason that (speaking openly) they believe feebly in the resurrection and believe strongly in the happiness of the present life, which, on the contrary, the apostles call a vanishing vapor (James 4:14). This is why the pseudo-Christian West does not want to and cannot understand the negation of this life by Christianity, which commands us to struggle, having put off the old man with his deeds and having put on the new, which is renewed after the image of Him that created him’ (Col. 3:9-10).

If we were to follow up all the errors of the West, both those which entered into its teaching of the faith as well as those inherent in its morals … we would see that they all are rooted in a misunderstanding of Christianity as the podvig of the gradual self-perfection of the individual.

Christianity is an ascetic religion, Christianity is a teaching about the gradual extirpation of the passions, about the means and conditions of the gradual acquisition of virtues; these conditions are internal, consisting of podvig, and given from without, consisting of our dogmatic beliefs and grace-giving sacraments which have only one purpose: to heal human sinfulness and lead us to perfection.

This is what we must remember, and hold fast to the Holy Orthodox Church and her teachings. In doing so we shall not be far from the path of salvation!

This lecture was given at the Eighth Annual St. Herman Pilgrimage at Holy Trinity Monastery, December 25, 1985 (n.s.). Printed in Orthodox Life, vol. 36, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb., 1986), pp. 40-47.


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