On this land, in this transient world, we often look for something, we want something – but we ourselves do not know what. We grow confused, we get scared, we condemn others, we act out… Our soul goes through many such states. It’s good if these states pass quickly, without finding a place in our hearts. But something else can also happen: we begin to be led by sin, which cuts us off from the light. If we do not ask for God’s help in time, we can lose our minds. But just what is a “mind”? Who in this world is intelligent and who is bereft of reason? When do we act rightly: when we laugh or when we cry? These are difficult questions, and finding answers for them is also difficult, but we will try to do just that with the help of Archpriest Andrei Lemeshonok, spiritual father of the St. Elizabeth Convent in Minsk.
Fr. Andrei, what is the “other land”?
The other land is Paradise, which man lost when he lost God. The church building is Heaven on earth. We might say that a church is that other land. If someone becomes a church himself, the land of his body changes. Look at the saints: their bodies are saturated with God’s grace, the source of life; we venerate their holy relics because they possess God’s love, which doesn’t die. The other land is one in which there is neither death nor sin, but where God is present and where God’s blessing is on everything.
Who lives according to the laws of the “other land” in this world?
At some moment, or at some period in his life, everyone probably comes into contact with this land. People who seek God also seek this land, this foundation upon which eternal life can already be built – life in which there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but where God will be in all things. For the time being, we’re battling with ourselves, with the world, and with this temporal land, which is constantly drawing us in and closing us off from Heaven and from one another as we wander in the shadow of sin. Unfortunately, that’s the way people live. Not many people can imagine that there’s anything else: another land, another life, different criteria and goals of life. Most likely, a Christian will find it: God will find him and reveal it to him. But later one has to fight for it, to work hard, and not turn aside or go with the crowd, which might be following the broad paths.
You have a great deal of experience providing spiritual care for people living in homes for the mentally disabled. Where do you see the “other land” in their lives?
When I first visited such a home, I felt that something was off. One breathes differently, hears differently, sees differently… there is some other dimension. And then I understood that there’s no evil in these people. There’s sin – but, you know, like the sin of children. Sin might manifest itself in a child and he might act up – but there is no cunning or deceit, no inner buildup of sin. He right away, forgets, forgives, and goes on playing. He doesn’t live with this sin. But with an adult, the heart grows callous and becomes filled with sin. One can’t overcome the passions one one’s own. One needs help, one needs the Holy Church, one needs the love that allows one to take a deep breath, to break free from one’s ego for at last a moment, and to visit that other land. That’s probably the most important thing.
How do people from that “other land” commune with God?
Like children – simply. In terms of development, many of them resemble children of the ages of five to seven. They aren’t bothered by the problems that cause stress for adults. Their behavior can be crude and one shouldn’t idealize these homes – these people are ill – but their illness has in a way preserved and shut them off from this world, while the walls of the homes give them shelter. They lead a different life, which is probably what keeps their souls from being damaged by sin.
They seem crazy to people, these unfortunate people, but for God they come first. If they believe, they believe sincerely, without analyzing or twisting things around, without thinking things up in the way that so-called “normal” people do, who are always getting confused and who torture themselves with doubts, conjectures, and a constant psychic tension that isn’t from God. This kind of life is temporal and human, but not real. For us to be like people who are ill, we need holiness. We need to evolve back into children, but not through primitivism or artificial simplicity, but through the labor of soul and mind. We think, struggle, and seek God; and, through knowledge of this world, we arrive at what we’ve lost by becoming adults, having gone off to a far country where this land is always trying to bury us, to close us off from God’s world and from one another. Therefore, of course, when God is present in someone, he becomes very simple.
How can one learn to do this?
I think that one needs to spend one’s entire life learning this. We have God as a physician, helper, and teacher; we have His love, which makes us capable of overcoming the attractions of this world and resolving all its problems, because in God is the fullness of life. One can’t claim that the first-created people before the Fall were philosophers or sages. They simply lived in God, and in this was the fullness of life they later lost. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready for simplicity, purity, and a right life. In order to arrive at it, humanity probably had to go through many generations in which people suffered and died in hopelessness.
One person says: “I want a car, I want to go to some resort, I want glory and health, I want…” But another person understands that this is all nonsense, and says: “I want there to be peace in my soul and light in my eyes. I want to live eternally. I want to become a human being!” Everything that is sinful and inauthentic is transient, artificial, and deadly. We’re not idealizing these homes. The illness is real. But this illness, this suffering, cleanses their souls and makes them different; it changes them.
But some people say: “Living is easier for people who are abnormal.” What can you say to this?
But here it’s hard to tell who’s normal and who’s abnormal. I think that a believer might have the experience of one minute when he was truly alive. If there was no such moment, then it means there was no life – no real life. It means we’re still clinging to illusions. There are people who spend their entire lives like that, not because God treats them differently than others, but simply because they don’t need it. At some point, their soul couldn’t respond, it couldn’t see the beauty; it became frightened, it hid and lost heart, because drawing nigh to God condemns one to suffering. There are few people who live in this world – who live on those “swine husks” on which the world feeds – that want to taste the life of the holy God-pleasers who suffered, struggled, and were always battling for another land.
‘Would you like to pray day and night, to suffer for Christ, and to die for Christ?’
‘No. I do believe, but I don’t want to become a fanatic; that’s already too much, it’s not for me. My level of Christian life means lighting a candle, writing a commemoration sheet, perhaps fasting and receiving Communion occasionally. I’m a simple person…’
There used to be a Soviet person; now there’s some other unknown kind of person, but still someone of this world. But when God touches someone, he can no longer be like everyone else. He understands that there’s another life and another land, but you’re digging around in your earthly affairs and problems like a mole. These, too, are necessary, but what does the Lord say? But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:33). What does the Church do? It says: “Let us lift up our hearts!” The Church tries to lift us out of this garbage dump in which we’re trying to find something. We’re like bums rummaging around, trying to find something in this trash, some piece of metal. People think of themselves as being strong, rich, noble – but this entire life is a garbage dump. The emperor has no clothes! But everyone’s applauding and saying: “Everything is find and good!” Isn’t this some kind of show? Isn’t this a crazy house in which we’re living? But this is acceptable; everyone lives like this. This is what people are taught from generation to generation, so breaking out from this world is very difficult, if not impossible. But God gives man grace, by which he moves and breaks out. There’s no other way we can break out. Sin lives in me, in my every cell; I’ve been taught by sin, I’ve been taught by this world. How can I live?
One needs to repent…
Real repentance is a revolution, an inner revolution; it’s a change of life, when one becomes different.
It is probably at such moments that the soul wants to give thanks to God. But how? How can one give back to God?
Create in me a clean heart, O God… Everything that God gives him, he can give back. One can’t give back anything of one’s own. One doesn’t own anything, not a stitch. Not everyone understands that to love someone is a gift of God; that to believe is a gift of God; that humility and patience are also gifts of God. One can only give one’s ego, which nobody needs. What can we give back? Our heart. What condition is it in? God gives so much to us, but we lose it and do not give thanks. We’re at war with God; we argue with Him, we want to prove our point to Him. But God humbles Himself, because He loves us. If we want to love someone, we need to look at how God treats us, and then treat our neighbors likewise.
Can we actually do this? Of course not, so long as we’re egotistical and self-absorbed. We want people to feel sorry for us, to love us, to value us; we want God to give us presents. “Lord, help me! I want this, and this, and this…” But we rarely hear these words: “Lord, take my life and do with me as Thou wilt; only do not leave me!” One almost never hears of people who say: “I am so grateful to God for everything; I’m so happy that I found Him!” Hundreds of people come and grumble: “Everything’s wrong; nothing’s the way it’s supposed to be; everything’s awful.” In this world, in this land, everything’s become so twisted and distorted by sin! But we don’t see this, because we’re part of this sinful life. Breaking away from this part and opening our eyes is difficult, because we’ll turn into idiots. After all Dostoevsky’s “Idiot” was a good character! This person seemed to be saying normal things, but everyone thought he was an idiot.
This is not unlike our life. One can view Christianity as a kind of tradition, or one can view it as something entirely different: as a new life, a new land. But then you’ll be superfluous in this world; the world won’t accept you; it will fight you. Is it worth the fight? “Perhaps I’ll just put up with it. Why should I bother more than anybody else? Everyone’s being rude – why shouldn’t I? Just think, no one can see what I’m thinking.” But a believing person suffers for every thought because he sees how dark he’s become. He sees how a thought has entered him – now how will he get rid of it? He feels pressure, and the further one goes the more pressure there is. Is this easy? No. But one doesn’t want to live any other way. The Lord gives us everything: His love and beauty. The Church gives us everything that is beautiful. Everything that’s inspired has a timeless quality. We need to inspire our life; but we are tired and faint-hearted; we feel sorry for ourselves and therefore we’re all standing in place – but let’s hope for Pascha!
Interview conducted by Dmitry Artiukh.
Translated from the Russian.