This year’s conference offered courses on acquiring the proper tools to achieve our greatest potential as Christians: communion with God. Keynote speakers included Dan Christopulos and Dr. Kyriacos Markides. Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, from October 30 through November 2.
Introducer: I’m proud to introduce Dr. Harry Boosalis. He’s a professor at St. Tikhon’s.
Dr. Harry Boosalis: Correct.
Introducer: He’s a professor of dogmatic theology. He has a doctorate of theology from the University of Thessalonica. His doctoral thesis was “Orthodox Spiritual Life According to St. Silouan of Mount Athos.” He was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of Greek-American parents. Dr. Boosalis grew up at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church. Upon graduation from seminary, he served his home parish as a lay assistant and youth director, under the tutelage of his lifelong parish priest, Fr. Anthony Coniaris.
He is the author of five books: Holy Tradition, Taught by God, Knowledge of God, Orthodox Spiritual Life according to St. Silouan of Mount Athos, The Joy of the Holy: Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Orthodox Spiritual Life, all published by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press. He’s presently working on his forthcoming book, titled Person to Person: The Orthodox Understanding of Man, which will be used as a main textbook in his course on Orthodox anthropology.
Dr. Boosalis has also participated in two teaching missions in East Africa, conducted under the auspices of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). He went to Tanzania and Kenya. So since the summer of 2002, Dr. Boosalis has also been leading a group of St. Tikhon’s seminarians on an annual pilgrimage to Iveron Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece. So thank you for coming, and I’ll give you Fr. Harry—sorry, Dr. Harry Boosalis. [Laughter]
Dr. Boosalis: I’m not a priest.
Introducer: Okay. Sorry. [Laughter]
Dr. Boosalis: Appreciate that. The royal “we”: everybody’s a priest in a way. Uh-oh, we’re being recorded. I’d better watch what I say. [Laughter]
So we last till 3:30, is that true? 3:30? What I’d like to do is have two parts to this. First part, spiritual warfare; I’ll talk for about 40 minutes. Maybe we can have 10-15 minutes of Q&A, then I’ll give another 40-minute talk, on suffering in our spiritual life, and another 10-15 minutes of Q&A.
So this first part is going to be our talk on spiritual warfare and its role in our path to theosis, and I want to focus on one specific saint and his teaching in particular, and that is St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. But before beginning I’d like to share some basic biographical information on the life of St. Silouan, and then move on to the more fundamental points of his teaching on spiritual life.
But first let me make some general comments on the apparent popularity of spirituality today. It’s interesting to observe that, within the lives of many throughout the world, there’s a significant increase in interest in spiritual life. Many people are seeking a personal experience of God, and they desire a tangible and a dynamic experience of his presence within their daily lives. Furthermore, many people today are trying to satisfy this inner need through a variety of means. The recent growth and the various pseudo-Christian cults and other such religious movements bears witness to this change in attitudes. The steady interest in spirituality, whether it’s from the Middle, Near, or Far East, is another indication of this spiritual thirst of contemporary man.
Another clear manifestation of this inner human need with completely negative results is the rising popularity of satanic and occult practices, as well as witchcraft, neo-pagan rituals, and other such ceremonies of New Age religious movements. And if we add to this the tremendous interest today of anything even remotely connected with the world of psychic phenomena, we see that the need for some kind of communion with the divine becomes most obvious. Sometimes it seems as if modern man is seeking frantically for God.
In this widespread search for spiritual life, no matter how flawed or misguided, it reveals the fact that there is an innate desire for participation in divine life that’s basic to the human being. Indeed, this is exactly the reason why man was created. Life in communion with God is man’s natural orientation, and when this spiritual need is not satisfied through conventional means, then its fulfillment is sought elsewhere.
At the same time, one sees an increasing number of conscientious believers who are finding true inner fulfillment in Orthodox spiritual life. There are many sincere and dedicated Christian believers who are no longer satisfied with the spiritual life offered by many of the Western denominations of today, and this inner search reveals a general discontent with the vast changes prevalent in the Church practices and some of the ethical values and the theological teachings of many of these Western Christian confessions. This is why many seek out the Orthodox Christian truth concerning the salvation of man, and they are growing alienated and they’re growing wary from many of these Western confessions, and they’re becoming more interested in a mystical and a sacramental relationship with Christ.
Then there are those who are coming to appreciate the fact that there exists another Christian teaching that differs from the conventional denominations of the West. More than a few are coming to contact with the living legacy of Orthodox saints and the spiritual teachings of our Eastern Christian tradition, which offers a much more profound, Christ-centered spiritual life. And St. Silouan on Mt. Athos, he’s a good example of such a saint. St. Silouan is especially relevant today because of the significance of his teaching and the way that he addresses the needs of contemporary man. His writings were made available to the world at a most appropriate time.
St. Silouan was born in Russia in 1866. He arrived on Mt. Athos in 1892. He arrived at… he entered the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon, and he fell asleep in the Lord in 1938, and only 50 years later he was canonized a saint by the Ecumenical Patriarch, which is very fast for the Orthodox Church. His writings were first published in 1952 in Russian by his disciple, Elder Sophrony, and St. Silouan serves as a direct link between the ancient ascetic saints and our modern era. The saints are important because they challenge us to reach beyond the common conception of salvation that predominates in the West. For the Orthodox Church, salvation is more than the pardon of our sins and transgressions. Salvation is more than being justified or acquitted for offenses committed against God. According to Orthodox teaching, salvation certainly includes forgiveness and reconciliation, but by no means is it limited to them. For the saints of the Church, salvation is the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit. To be saved is to be sanctified and to participate in the divine life of God. Forgiveness of sins is not the end of salvation; it’s just the beginning. It should lead ultimately to knowledge of God and to the acquisition of the gift of love for all of mankind.
In the words of St. Silouan—and this is the first quote on your handouts if you want to follow along—he wrote
I began to beseech God for forgiveness, and he granted me not only forgiveness but also the Holy Spirit, and in the Holy Spirit I knew God. The Lord remembered not my sins, and he gave me to love people, and my soul longs for the whole world to be saved and dwell in the kingdom of heaven.
This is one reason why so many people are attracted to the Orthodox faith. They’re coming to realize that the saints give guidance on how we’re supposed to base our life in Christ, and through the example of their lives and the testimony of their teachings, the saints embody man’s true spiritual potential: what we can become. The importance of appropriate guidance in spiritual life is immense. In the present day, the need for true Orthodox spiritual teaching is especially crucial in the face of the influx of these numerous pseudo-Christian religious movements that are invading our society. Under the guise of offering a Christian spirituality, there’s many deceivers today that are leading even well-intentioned believers astray from the authentic apostolic message of the Gospel. In this, the teaching of St. Silouan, is especially relevant because it manifests our spiritual tradition to contemporary society.
While many have the impression that the saints lived saintly lives from their youth, St. Silouan shows that this is not always the case. He indulged in many of the same activities and pursuits that could characterize the youth of today. Even if some of these appear at the outset as rather mundane, they’re nonetheless among the more notable aspects of his life that many readers can relate to. For instance, it’s recorded that in his youth, St. Silouan was fond of music, socializing with the opposite sex, even drinking with his friends. In fact, he was known for his great tolerance for alcohol, especially vodka. [Laughter] He was a good Russian. He loved his “wodka.” His good looks and popularity even led him into sin. Elder Sophrony relates—and follow along if you like:
Young, strong, handsome, and by this time prosperous, too: Simeon (which was St. Silouan’s name in the world) reveled in life. He was popular in the village, being good-natured, peaceable, and jolly, and the village girls looked on him as a man they would like to marry. He himself was attracted to one of them, and before the question of marriage had been put, what so often happens befell late one summer evening. St. Silouan never forgot his sin, and he repented greatly for his fall, and he prayed fervently for a clear conscience.
Another incident that highlights St. Silouan’s familiarity with the common experiences of today’s youth concerns his great physical strength. It’s written that, during a village celebration, the young Simeon was approached by two brothers. The older one, tall, strong, bad-tempered, and drunk by this time, tried to grab away Simeon’s accordion in order to show off in front of the others. St. Silouan himself explains what then happened.
At first, I thought of giving in to the fellow, but then I was ashamed of how the girls would laugh at me, so I hit him a hard blow in the chest. His body shot away, and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. The onlookers were all horrified. So was I! “I’ve killed him,” I thought. It was over half an hour before he was able to rise to his feet, and with difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months, but luckily he didn’t die.
Whew. These incidents from St. Silouan’s youth such as the drinking, the romance, his fondness for music, and the brawling, mundane and coarse as they appear, they may actually appeal to the general reader, because these are things that many people can immediately and intimately identify with in our own personal lives. His life shows that even the common man from the most ordinary of backgrounds, who has tasted the brutal bitterness of sin, can still indeed hope to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit and to attain to holiness in Christ. For many of us today, this is a source of great inspiration as we struggle in pursuit of our own salvation.
And the broad appeal of St. Silouan’s writings is based on a combination of other factors as well. The fact that he was uneducated, almost illiterate, having attended the village school for just two winters, attracts many readers because it reinforces the idea that the heights of Orthodox spiritual life are open and accessible to all of us. It illustrates the truth that one does not need a degree in theology to attain to knowledge of God and to come into communion with him. His writings reveal that spiritual progress is not a matter of academic endeavors. It’s not a matter of the head; it’s a matter of our heart, what’s in our heart, and this, too, appeals to many people.
However, the growing popularity of St. Silouan is due directly to the relevance of his spiritual teaching for today. It’s important to keep in mind the historical setting in which he lived and wrote. Those first few decades of the 20th century, they were a time of unparalleled change. He died in 1938 at the age of 72. St. Silouan lived through the tumult and the upheaval that were to forever alter the course of history, because this was the era encompassing not only the first World War and the Russian Revolution, but also the events leading up to World War II, and such large-scale destruction and horrific atrocities taking place on European soil were never before seen by human eyes.
This radical change was not limited to the political and social spheres, but also in a philosophic sense it was indeed the dawn of a new era. From a strictly historical perspective, St. Silouan was a contemporary of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vladimir Lenin, and Sigmund Freud, to name a few. And the blatantly anti-Christian principles that these men stood for and the intellectual revolution that they inaugurated were to contribute directly to the reversal in the spiritual and moral values of modern man. So philosophically speaking, it could be said that Western man was finally free in himself from the God of the Christians, and striving toward his own self-deification. And, ironic as it seems, while this new humanism, that is, the pseudo-religion of man attempting to forge his own destiny apart from God, while that was gaining considerable ground at the dawn of the 20th century, the unique value and the inherent dignity of the human person seemed to recede in the background. Together with this depersonalization of man came with it its offspring: utter hopelessness and despair. Like right now, even more so now.
So this was the modern mentality that St. Silouan took into account when he wrote down those God-inspired thoughts that came to him after much prayer. He was addressing a world at war, a war raging not only in the trenches of modern Europe, but also on the battlefield of the human soul. Now, that message he was trying to convey during the early decades of the 20th century, somehow it’s even more relevant to us now as we’re progressing into the dawn of the 21st century. And although St. Silouan’s addressing the particular needs of the turmoil of his time, the fundamental themes that he touches upon, such as the infinite love of God toward man and the inner workings of the human soul and the nature of the spiritual struggle, these remain relevant for all believers everywhere.
Excuse me if I have to keep taking a sip of water.
According to St. Silouan and our entire Orthodox tradition, spiritual life entails spiritual warfare. Spiritual life entails spiritual warfare. This is a primary point that we have to fully acknowledge and accept as we try to live our lives in Christ. For the majority of believers, this spiritual warfare refers primarily to the encounter with evil thoughts. Spiritual warfare refers primarily to the encounter with evil thoughts. For example, St. Philotheos of Mt. Sinai teaches:
It is by means of thoughts that the spirits of evil wage a secret war against the soul, for since the soul is invisible, these malicious powers naturally attack it invisibly.
St. Silouan states succinctly, he says, “The enemy uses intrusive thoughts to deceive us.” Elder Sophrony also refers to this same teaching. He quotes directly from St. Paul, who writes:
We wrestle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
And then Elder Sophrony continues, “This spirit of wickedness in high places rushes to attack the contrite heart and mind now stayed on God. Brazenly, it invades us, creating the impression that the thoughts and the feelings brought by the enemy are our own. Indeed, after the fall (he says) there is something in us that does respond to demonic suggestions.
Certainly, in cases of more advanced ascetics, direct encounters with demons may occur, but most of us believers, however, we struggle with the Enemy in more of an indirect way, by confronting and combating those intrusive, those annoying, and those sinful thoughts that attack us all. Now, it cannot be said that every sinful thought comes from the enemy. The human mind, itself and on its own, maybe that can be a source as well. Obviously, regardless of where they come from, the enemy is going to exploit these thoughts. The enemy works against us by assaulting us through the manipulation of our thoughts. To know the enemy is half the battle. St. Silouan stresses the vital role of the Holy Spirit in recognizing the enemy, recognizing these intrusive thoughts.
So the question arises: just exactly what are these thoughts, and how are they to be defined? In the original Greek, the term is “logismos.” Do we have “logismos” in modern Greek? “Logismos”: you’ve ever heard that term? What do you think a logismo is?
C1: Um, it’s… Logos is a word, and I don’t know what -mos is. I’m sorry.
Dr. Boosalis: Logismos: it’s one word. Logismos. In Greek patristic literature, the term is usually found in the plural, logismoi, and used with negative connotations in patristic literature. This is a technical term, not so much in modern Greek; a patristic, theological term. The word is often accompanied by adjectives such as “evil” or “demonic” or “passionate,” or “sinful” logismoi. This shows the unfavorable sense with which the Fathers used this term. When translated into English, this patristic term is often rendered as “evil thoughts,” and it’s this particular meaning that will be implied whenever I refer to this term “logismoi.”
St. Silouan refers to “logismoi” as “inner voices” or “suggestions” that tempt us and incite us to sin. He also refers to them as “another mind” in conflict with our own. In this way, the strategy and deceptive techniques of the enemy are seen more clearly as he aggressively tries to get inside our minds, inside our heads, inside our hearts.
Logismoi, or these evil thoughts, may be manipulated to stir up anxiety and anger aimed at those people whom we’re closest to, and this often includes friends, relatives, fellow members of a parish community, as well as those with whom we are sacramentally linked or have sacramental or spiritual bonds, even our own clergy and others who work for the Church. Yeah. Whether well founded or not—and usually they are not—these logismoi can end up as passions of extreme anger, or even hatred, directed towards these innocent victims of ours. I think every one of us knows the reality of contending against the wide variety of these intruding thoughts.
Q1: Don’t you think that the devil, when someone commits their life to Christ, goes after that person?
Dr. Boosalis: Yeah, that’s when you—
Q1: I think that you’re a target.
Dr. Boosalis: Yeah, when you commit yourself to Christ, when you become a monk or study, go to a seminary, become ordained, you are waging war. You have declared war against the evil one.
Q1: ...a soldier…
Dr. Boosalis: You think it’s just, you think it’s over? It’s done? It’s just beginning.
Q1: It’s just like Sunday. We all get up to go to work, we all get into the movies on time. We don’t go to movies late; we go to the movies on time. If we have a dinner reservation, we’re on time, but on Sunday… The devil attacks us, because he doesn’t want us to go and be in communion and he doesn’t want us to go and be close to Christ. So we don’t like to say, “Satan,” we don’t like to say, “the devil,” we don’t like to say, “demons,” we don’t like to say it, and that’s how come he’s flourishing, because we don’t acknowledge him, because we feel icky saying, “Satan, get thee behind me.” It’s an icky thing.
Dr. Boosalis: So rather than a direct confrontation, he’d rather be behind the scenes and plant these thoughts and seeds in our heart, these logismoi that continually bombard us throughout the day. This warfare wages throughout our entire lifetime; indeed, it is a life-long struggle. St. Silouan emphasizes this point quite often. He writes, for example, “The soul’s war with the enemy continues until death.” Elsewhere he stresses how “our battle rages every day, every hour.” He also highlights the severity of the matter. In common military warfare, there is a possibility that the human body can be wounded or may die, but in spiritual warfare, there’s even more danger, because the human soul may perish.
For those of us committed to Christ, the spiritual struggle cannot be avoided, and this holds true regardless of our level of spiritual progress. In fact, the battle against evil thoughts intensifies the further we advance spiritually. In this way, we mature, and this is how we participate more fully in the life in Christ.
These thoughts or these logismoi, they’ll come and go. This is unavoidable. We cannot control their coming, but we can control their expulsion. It’s up to us whether or not we allow them to stay. St. John Cassian draws attention to this particular point. He writes:
It is impossible for the mind not to be troubled by these thoughts, but if we exert ourselves, it is within our power either to accept them and give them our attention, or to expel them. Their coming is not within our power to control, but their expulsion is.
St. Silouan likewise writes, “Just as people go in and out of a house, so may thoughts proceeding from devils come and go again, if you do not accept them.” The same idea is expressed by another contemporary spiritual elder of Mount Athos, Elder Paisios. He used to liken logismoi to airplanes that are flying by overhead in the air. If you don’t give them any attention, they just keep passing by, but he said we must be careful not to build an airport in our heart, so that they can land and take residence within us. That’s a nice little analogy.
The trickery and deception of the enemy must never be underestimated. He is most clever in his never-ending attempt to sugar-coat the initial encounter of a logismos, presenting it as something harmless or even maybe productive and beneficial. These thoughts or imaginations can even appear at first: maybe they’re fresh spiritual insight that shine light on the truth about someone, or on someone’s words or actions, or someone’s lack of words or actions to me.
By entertaining these evil logismoi and allowing them to grow and progress, we expose ourselves to a host of disastrous consequences that will lead to sin and separation from God. One of the goals of spiritual life entails that we have to be attentive and we have to learn to be watchful to these logismoi that are coming into our hearts and into our minds, to catch that logismo before it develops and becomes too difficult to control, because if we’re heedless, we find ourselves responding to these demonic suggestions, and this culminates not only in our enslavement to them, but also in our identifying with them. Not only do we entertain logismoi, but we can be influenced by them. Thus, we easily become seduced, and slowly we find ourselves under their thought-control.
One of the more crucial components of our spiritual life is proper training in the development of good spiritual habits. Habit is a second nature, and this is why it’s imperative that we learn to train ourselves in the ways of spiritual warfare. St. Silouan says:
Train yourself to cut off an intrusive thought immediately. Be at pains over this, so that you acquire the habit. The soul is a creature of habit: according to the habit you have acquired, so will you act all the rest of your life.
Angie, let me ask you another. She’s our token Greek here. You ever heard of the Greek word “nēpsis”?
Dr. Boosalis: You’re Greek? Eisai ellēnida! Malista, signōmē. What does nēpsis mean?
A1: Nēpsis is the cleansing, the washing, the beginning of the process.
Dr. Boosalis: Nēpsis, they use that…
A1: It’s the washing.
Dr. Boosalis: There’s another word. It’s watchfulness.
A1: Oh, watchfulness.
Dr. Boosalis: Nēpsis, to be watchful. This specific technique the Fathers… of watchfulness is learning to be attentive to the logismoi that come into our minds. It’s a spiritual technique that liberates us from impassioned thoughts.
The term “watchfulness” is often used in context with military terminology. One of the more common analogies employed when referring to watchfulness is that of guarding or setting a watch over one’s heart—did you ever think of setting a watch over your heart?—through inner attentiveness and through prayer. As a technique of spiritual warfare, the purpose of watchfulness is to take note of the troublesome thoughts that come into our heart. Then this enables us to reject instantly any vain and unproductive thought or logismos that’s attempting to attack or encroach upon us, or ultimately to capture us.
They use the terms of military warfare for spiritual warfare.
C2: Well, it’s war.
Dr. Boosalis: It’s a war, it’s the same strategy. So, watchfulness is the guarding of the heart from intrusive logismoi that attempt to take away our inner peace and lure our mind away from prayer.
For example, we all know how difficult it is when we try to focus our mind on prayer. Whether at church services, during the Divine Liturgy, or if we’re at home, our mind always seems to wander away whenever we try to pray. The goal of watchfulness is to try to catch those initial thoughts at the very moment when our mind begins to stray away from whatever it is we’re trying to focus on in prayer. If you try to catch that, you’ll see. Somehow I’m trying to pray in church, I’m thinking of, you know, NFL football or something. How did I go from the Jesus prayer… [Laughter] You don’t go right there, you get a little lured away and suddenly I’m thousands of miles away from where I’m really at. You can catch yourself that first instant when your mind begins to wander.
One of the more effective weapons of our spiritual arsenal is the Jesus prayer, the invocation of the name of Jesus, and its use is imperative if we are to effectively battle the enemy. The Jesus prayer is especially relevant today. Every believer, in any situation, can call upon the power of the name of Jesus. We won’t go into the Jesus prayer. Fr. David Hester had a whole course on it. He did very well. I just want to talk about the Jesus prayer here and its role in watchfulness, because how are you supposed to get rid of that thought that’s trying to get into your head? When the thought comes, whether we’re going to judge somebody or it’s some kind of temptation, you say the Jesus prayer, and that’s how you battle the enemy. That’s how you bring your focus back to what you’re doing.
St. John Climacus attests to the power of the Name of Jesus and its unique role in spiritual warfare. He says it’s the greatest of all weapons. He says, “Flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, since there’s no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth.” St. Hesychios points out the effectiveness of the Jesus prayer in combating logismoi. He writes:
Whenever we are filled with evil thoughts, we should throw the invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ into their midst. Then, as experience has taught us, we shall see them instantly dispersed, like smoke in the air.
Elder Sophrony stresses the importance of the Jesus Prayer along lines of a spiritual defense. He says:
When the attention of the mind is fixed in the heart, it is possible to control what happens in the heart, and the battle against the passions assumes a rational character. The enemy can be recognized and the enemy can be driven off by the power of the name of Christ.
These are men who devoted their lives entirely to the pursuit of prayer, and they are speaking from their many years of personal experience. St. Silouan offers another very practical point of advice that’s most relevant for those of us struggling in contemporary society. As regards his entire teaching, this advice is directed not only toward monks, but in general to all believers who are striving to progress in prayer. He warns against the danger of outside thoughts that can come to us from excessive reading of newspapers or shoddy books, as well as to be curious to know details of other people’s lives. St. Silouan explains:
Many people like to read good books, and this is right, but it is best of all to pray; while he who reads newspapers or bad books (perhaps in our day, he could add “he who spends too much time on the internet”) condemns his soul to go hungry—hungry because the food of the soul and her true satisfaction lie in God.
He writes elsewhere, most likely with newspapers of early Communist Russia in mind:
Newspapers don’t write about people but about events, and then, not the truth. They confuse the mind and, whatever you do, you won’t get at the truth by reading them; whereas prayer cleanses the mind and it gives it a better vision of all things.
Writing nearly 80 years ago about the harm of being overly attached to the reading of newspapers and base books, one wonders what St. Silouan would say if he lived today. From a technological point of view, the world of today is vastly different from the one in which St. Silouan lived. In today’s Age of Information—certainly even more so in the world of tomorrow—this constant influx from the multiple forms of news media, together with the far-reaching effects of the enormous technological advances, such as radio, television, motion pictures, recorded music, videos, computers, CDs, DVDs, iPods, iPhones, iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, on and on: what’s coming next?—all of these have the potential of adversely affecting both our social and our spiritual lives, and they can hinder our pursuit of prayer if we let them.
These modern forms of entertainment and the complex web of world-wide communications systems, including the ever-expanding use—or the abuse, we should say—of the internet, have contributed to a fundamental decline in the quality of spiritual life, as well as an overall de-personalization of contemporary man in our society. Even well-intentioned believers are now infected with this insatiable desire for more and more frivolous information, futile knowledge, superficial entertainment.
With each passing year, many of us are spending more and more time online, and less time offline. This especially has a negative influence on our younger generation. For example, the phenomenon of social net-working sites—Facebook—it’s greatly affecting the personal and social lives of our young people. Many are sacrificing offline activities in order to stay wired in cyberspace. A lot of our time spent in cyberspace, as well as many of our activities connected to these new technological advances, often retains little value for the ultimate purpose of our lives here on earth. According to St. Silouan, it also can have a direct and detrimental impact on our spiritual growth.
Now let’s say it here: technology is not bad in itself. All these new technological advances can be very productive; they’re not necessarily bad in themselves. They can be put to good use, but can they not also be abused? This is why we must be fully aware of the many dangers and pitfalls that await us as we progress, by God’s grace, in our spiritual lives. So be assured that troubling and sinful thoughts are going to assail everyone who’s making any kind of spiritual progress, especially church workers and especially if there’s any progress in prayer. This is even more true the further one advances.
The important point is not to become dejected, not to allow these troubling thoughts to destroy our inner peace and thus hinder our pursuit of prayer. Listen to what St. Silouan says from personal experience. He says:
Should an intrusive thought approach, there is no cause to be troubled. Put your trust in God and continue in prayer. We must not be troubled, because that rejoices the enemy, when we are troubled. Pray, and the intrusive thought will leave you.
So as believers we have to encounter the field of battle armed with the weapon of confidence in Christ and the firm resolve to overcome the enemy. Indeed, our enemy has at his disposal a variety of devious traps, and chief among these ploys is the passion of pride in our own spiritual progress. This also holds true for you church workers out there. Sorry. Pride can only darken and delude the soul. If left to fester, such pride can evolve to the point where the soul seeks after—even expects to be granted—divine visions or other such spiritual experiences. Ironically, we’re duped into thinking that we’re growing closer to God, when in reality we have fallen into the clutches of the evil one. From such deception not only the inexperienced but even the more advanced can fall into the abyss of spiritual pride and delusion, leading ultimately to alienation from God.
C3: Dr. Harry, I think that the devil goes after our leaders because if they fall, then we will be lost, or we’ll say, “Well, if our leaders fall, then what’s going to happen to me?” I think that they target the great people in our Church.
Dr. Boosalis: Very nice. Our leaders. He goes after the leaders, like any enemy would go after our leaders. Do you realize what kind of spiritual warfare the priests and the bishops and the monks are under?
C3: And scrutiny, too.
Dr. Boosalis: Easy for us to judge, sitting here. And this is not an uncommon experience in spiritual life. St. Silouan warns against this dangerous demonic technique of spiritual delusion. He tries to delude us, the enemy. He writes, “The conceited man wants to have visions and deems himself worthy of them, so it’s easy for the enemy to delude him.” This is why he forewarns his reader: “Do not seek visions, and certainly never trust one.” Never trust a dream or a vision.
Q2: Could you just clarify that? Do you mean check that out with somebody?
Dr. Boosalis: Yeah, if you… I would just expel it right away. Don’t trust it or believe it at all, and if you really think it’s something, you’d better talk to a spiritual father or a priest to get some advice on that.
It’s very clear, all over our tradition, and this is why also our Orthodox spiritual tradition emphasizes the important role of the spiritual father within the life of the Orthodox Christian. Especially for those who want to cultivate the fullness of their life in Christ, one’s relationship with a spiritual father is more significant, because without confession and the blessings of obedience to one’s spiritual father, there’s little or no hope of overcoming the constant and the life-long bombardment of the spiritual struggle, because many have been deluded, including those who have made considerable progress. Even monks on Mt. Athos become deluded.
Without a spiritual father, the believer leaves himself open to a multitude of dangers resulting from the devious deceptions of the enemy. He could be compared to a soldier at war, running of into battle without the insight of a seasoned superior officer. Or how about a promising young athlete who thinks he can go compete in the Olympic games based on his raw talent and athleticism without the aid of an experienced trainer or coach? The surest way to guard against the delusion of such logismoi is to seek the counsel of one’s spiritual father. In this respect, the relationship with one’s spiritual father or one’s local parish priest cannot be overemphasized, for to him is given the grace of guidance and discernment. A special grace of ordination from the Holy Spirit comes upon that man to lead us.
The battle against logismoi rages on, and in this continuous struggle, victories are followed by defeat, and there’s positive experiences in prayer that are going to be accompanied by spiritual stumbling. It’s an up-and-down struggle. In this intense and ongoing battle, we must remain steadfast in order to resist the enemy and evade his attacks.
One final point before concluding, and then maybe we can have some discussion together for a bit. This is very relevant for today. This is the special emphasis that St. Silouan places on the theme of depression and despair within the spiritual struggle. Interestingly enough, he’s warning against the danger of depression and despair. He’s writing in the 1930s. Going back to what Sandra said: what would it be like today? As Orthodox believers, we have to be fully aware of the many dangers that await us as we progress by God’s grace in our spiritual lives, because, according to our Orthodox teaching, the dangers of depression and despair are among the most fatal.
While other Fathers have written on this same theme of despair, which is sometimes translated into English as “despondency” or “faint-heartedness”... Our Church even mentions the spiritual danger of despair at the beginning of the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim: “Lord, take from me the spirit of sloth and despair…” We say that during Lent. St. Silouan, still, he’s offering a special perspective here. To a world that’s overwhelmed with depression and despair, St. Silouan provides a clear message of hope. He teaches that in order to prevent the onslaught of despair, it’s crucial to recall constantly the unconditional compassion and the mercy and the love of our Lord. Only in this way can we control the different degrees of despair that we will definitely encounter as we progress in the spiritual life.
We have to be very careful when dealing with despair. It’s one of the chief devices of the devil, who’s going to exploit it in coaxing us to abandon our pursuit of the life in Christ. Despair is basically the sign of a lack of faith. Despair is a loss of hope. It’s a forgetfulness of the mercy of God. This sharp contrast between faith and despair is illustrated when comparing the persons of the Apostle Peter and Judas Iscariot. Judas can be seen as the epitome of despair. He could not bring himself to seek mercy for his betrayal of the Lord, and in the end he has to hang himself in despair. But the Apostle Peter, on the other hand, although he denied the Lord after his arrest—not once, but three times he denied Christ—still, he trusted in the compassion of Christ, and he was forgiven. He went on to serve the Lord as one of the chief apostles of his Church.
No matter how bad things may seem, regardless of how distant we may feel from the grace of God, it’s essential that we never lose hope, like Judas did. Those deep and dark moments of depression and despair will certainly pass away, even though they may seem to last forever. It’s Christ who’s in complete control of his creation, and not the evil one, as he would lead us to believe. The Lord in his mercy cares for all of his creation. He beholds every struggle of all of his children, whether it’s despair due to addictions of whatever kind, despair due to the loss of a loved one or any other family problem. St. Silouan alludes to this, and, speaking from his own personal experience of despair, as a monk on Mt. Athos, he encourages his reader:
To all who may find themselves in the same misfortune which overtook me, I now write: Stand fast. Hope firmly in God, and the enemy will not keep ground. By the grace of God, I know that the Lord mercifully cares for us, and not one prayer is ever lost with God.
We have to remember that even during those most intense trials of our spiritual struggle, the consolation of Christ awaits close by. During those turbulent times when we’re driven to the brink of defeat by despair, the soothing solace of our Lord looms near. It’s interesting to note that Elder Sophrony emphasizes that this comfort can come suddenly. Despair, when defeated by the power of prayer, is not only followed by divine consolation; it can actually lead to great joy and light and new life in Christ.
There’s this spiritual despair, which is very common, even, we could say, unavoidable in the spiritual struggle. We all will have to encounter it in our spiritual lives, especially the further one advances. Then there’s also maybe a clinical more despair—maybe better “depression”—that we can talk about during Q&A. There’s a difference there perhaps.
The point of all this: the depth of despair engulfing our world today is overwhelming. The great revolutions in science and technology, as well as the philosophical and ethical liberation of the post-Christian world, seems to have deepened man’s overall sense of hopelessness and despair rather than relieving it. Many are astonished at the decline in the overall moral and spiritual fabric of our society. Those commonly accepted ethical standards of yesterday are now gone forever, and they’re not coming back any more. Every segment of our society seems to be affected by these tremendous upheavals, and as a result, many of us find ourselves falling into despair.
This is why St. Silouan’s teaching is attracting so much attention today. He provides hope to a world that’s drowning in depression and despair. He offers guidance and direction to a world that’s lost in delusion and spiritual confusion. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos stands along the long line of spiritual elders of the Orthodox Church. He’s a 20th-century saint who experienced the heights of Orthodox spiritual life, and he presents these truths with such a simplicity that makes his teaching accessible to all. As a result of his great love for God and for his fellow man, he was able to feel and to relate and to respond in his own unique way to the inner pain and personal agony of contemporary man.
St. Silouan was a simple man with a simple message. He spoke of love for all mankind, and of prayer for the salvation of the entire human race. He used to say, “I want only one thing: to pray for all men as I pray for myself.”
The theme of suffering in our spiritual lives. Let’s begin with an anonymous quote.
There are places in our heart which do not yet exist, and it is necessary for suffering to penetrate there, in order that they may come into being.
“There are places in our heart which do not yet exist, and it’s necessary for suffering to penetrate there, in order that they may come into being.” Of course, not many of us would want to talk about suffering, and to think about all the suffering in the world or in our own lives we’re trying to avoid. Who wants to focus on all the suffering and the sickness and the sorrow that seems to be engulfing our society today? The fact is that our spiritual life in Christ is not always easy and carefree. Yes, there is the joy of our salvation. We certainly rejoice in the unconditional love of our Lord, but still we have to face the reality of our fallen condition.
The truth is that this fallen world is not really the original world as created by God. This is not the way he planned it in the beginning. He did not want this world of sin and death. These things our God did not create, nor does he desire. But what he does desire is our human freedom, and he respects our freedom even moreso than we do ourselves. He cherishes our freedom to such a degree that he tolerates even our abuse of our God-given freedom and all the consequences of our misguided choices. As we will see, our topic of suffering is indeed applicable and relevant for all of us here today, especially as it relates to this overall theme of theosis.
Before we begin to discuss our unique Orthodox perspective as to why God allows us to suffer and what is the proper approach to our suffering, allow me to share just a few quotations from some non-Orthodox sources. This will serve to shed light on the universality of our human suffering and how it seems to be a constant factor in our lives as human beings. Some of these quotes are interesting, perhaps not so far removed from our Orthodox understanding. For example—is that the first quote on your handout, Edgar Allen Poe?
Never to suffer would never to have been blessed.
I didn’t know Poe was that kind of a guy. How about Napoleon, the famous emperor of France?
It requires more courage to suffer than to die.
[Laughter] President Harry Truman:
The reward of suffering is experience.
It’s interesting to see how these sayings of these historical figures are actually in line with the teachings of our Church Fathers. Suffering is indeed a universal phenomenon. It’s something that all of us can immediately and intimately identify with in our own personal lives. All of us have experienced at least some form of suffering, and there’s a vast variety of adversities, and diverse forms of spiritual challenges that confront us all. Especially for those of us committed to the life in Christ, all believers have suffered in some way. All of us may be suffering in some way right now, as we struggle to bear our own particular crosses, and all of us have to be prepared to suffer tomorrow as we face any unforeseen spiritual trial or temptation or tribulation.
Obviously, suffering is not limited to Orthodox Christians who have committed their lives to Christ. Suffering’s not restricted to only Christians, but indeed all mankind. Every single human being experiences his own personal pain, his own personal suffering. This is one thing that we all, human beings, have in common, and this is completely independent of our religious affiliation, of our social standing, or of our ethnic background or of our economic status. It has nothing to do with when and where we may have been born. Every human being, throughout the history of mankind, has suffered. Every human person, in some way, may be suffering right now. Every human being will suffer some kind of pain and agony in the future. This will only end, ultimately, in the death that awaits us all. This is one of the common characteristics shared by the entire family of man. In a certain sense, our shared suffering can be seen as something that unites us all, regardless of our place in time within human history.
Our own personal experience of pain, of grief, and suffering cannot be considered as somehow separate and cut off from the common tragedy of fallen human nature as a whole. All human beings share in the same consequences of the fall of Adam, and all of us are called to share in the same saving and sanctifying grace of life in the resurrected Christ. When we begin to see the daily drama of the pain and the suffering of our neighbor through the eyes of Christ, we then come to see the tragic consequences of fallen humanity in a new light. Ultimately, as we progress in the spiritual life and as we acquire Christlike love for all mankind, we come to agonize over and experience within ourselves the personal pain and suffering of every human being. By identifying with and sharing in the common suffering of mankind as a whole, that’s how we acquire a truly Christian consciousness. We come to participate in Christ’s undying and eternal love for each and every human person.
Before we move on to discuss the meaning of suffering within the spiritual life and how it in fact leads to our salvation and our sanctification, we have to first identify different types or different forms of suffering. Obviously, the sufferings, hardships, and afflictions encountered in spiritual life are going to take on a variety of forms. There’s both bodily illnesses as well as those afflictions that affect our soul. For example, St. Diadochos writes—and I quote from the handouts:
The bodies of those contending for holiness have to be tested by frequent illnesses, and their souls tried by evil thoughts.
St. Diadochos of Photiki, he writes:
The bodies of those contending for holiness have to be tested by frequent illnesses, and their souls tried by evil thoughts.
St. Macarius of Egypt, he also teaches—and these are on the handouts here:
He who wants to be an imitator of Christ so that he, too, may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must above all bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses or slander and vilification from men.
In any case, according to patristic understanding of human nature, man is seen as a psychosomatic being, that is to say, that man is by nature, he’s comprised of both a body and a soul. Man is both spiritual and physical by nature. This is what gives us our unique position within all of creation. We as human beings, we’re composed of both a spiritual soul, much like the angels, as well as material and biological bodies, just like the other creatures of the physical world. This is why man is the high priest of creation: we can offer the creation back to God, “thine own of thine own.”
There is a natural and organic interaction between our soul and our body. The condition of our body can affect the condition of our soul, and vice-versa. For example, the afflictions of our body can provide the opportunity for the purification of our soul, as well as the acquisition of many spiritual virtues. On the other hand, the afflictions of our body can wear down our soul, and they can break our spirit, if we let them. They can also lead us to despondency, depression, and despair. We see, then, that there is both suffering in the physical sense, which afflicts our body, as well as suffering in the spiritual sense that’s going to afflict our soul. Both of these types of suffering will interact, and it’s going to affect the whole man, the complete human person.
Another question that we have to ask is this: Why? Why do we have to suffer? Why is there suffering in the first place? How many people decide: “I’m not going to believe in God because there’s so much suffering in the world”? What causes such suffering? Well, we look at holy Scripture, and we see man’s first encounter with suffering in the person of our forefather Adam. Man’s sin and separation from God have resulted in the rampant sickness and the suffering and the death that have engulfed the world since the fall of Adam. Far from what was originally intended by its Creator, the world is now bound by death and by destruction and by delusion and by disease. Clearly, this is not the world that was originally created by God. Our abuse of our God-given freedom and the ensuing separation from God [have] led to dire consequences of cosmic proportions for the entire creation, because of man’s fall.
The world in its fallen state has become dysfunctional, and this is apparent both within society at large and within the basic unit of society, the family, as well as within each and every human person. Dysfunction rules the world. Sin and suffering, separation from God, ultimately, death itself: these are now the characteristic marks of fallen humanity. Separation from God not only leads to suffering; it’s seen as sin itself. Sin is not simply a legal transgression of divine commandments that’s set forth by a vengeful judge who waits to chastise those who break his rules, or to reward those who follow his rules. Rather, sin is that which separates man from God.
In this light, sin is seen as a sickness that requires healing rather than as an offense or a transgression of a law that demands some kind of retribution. Anything that leads to man’s separation from God is sin. Pride is the primary cause of this separation. Pride is the primary source of sin. When we consider the cause of human suffering, we are thus led ultimately to the passion of pride, that passion of egotistical love for oneself, that self-love which is basically our lack of humility. The lack of humility can be the source of much suffering, and St. Silouan states specifically, “We suffer because we lack humility.”
Many times, suffering in the spiritual life is self-inflicted and most often is brought on by pride. Here, with this we mean the spiritual meaning of the word “pride.” That means an unnatural love for oneself, excessive pride in oneself, in one’s achievements. This is what sets one person against another. There’s good pride, and there’s also bad pride, evil pride. This makes it impossible to follow the great commandment of Christ, to love one another. Pride separates man, not only from one another, but also from God. Pride drives away the grace of the Holy Spirit. It repels the grace of the Holy Spirit. By separating himself from God and his neighbor, the proud man brings untold suffering and spiritual affliction upon himself.
I love this quote from St. John Climacus. He says, “A proud man needs no demon. He has become one unto himself.” The devil doesn’t even have to mess with that guy; he’s already gone. Again, pride should be understood here as that obsessive and abnormal love for oneself. When referring to pride as the source of sin, Elder Sophrony lists various evil aspects that afflict man and end in sin and suffering, and his observations are quite penetrating here. Many of us would not consider some of these following symptoms to be a direct outcome of pride, of vanity and vainglory, as an outcome of passionate obsession with oneself. Listen to what he says. Follow along with this one if you want, because it’s pretty deep, on the handouts. He says… Now, Elder Sophrony was a bona fide elder of our times, keep in mind. Before he died in 1991, he was a spiritual father, father-confessor to several monasteries on Mt. Athos, so he’s speaking here out of his own personal experience as a confessor and as a pastor of souls. Check this out. Maybe we can talk about this during Q&A. He says:
Pride is the source of sin, comprising every aspect that evil can assume: conceit, ambition, indifference, cruelty, disregard for the suffering of others (okay, I can follow that; how about:) over-fantasizing, a demented expression in the eye (comes from pride), gloom and melancholy, despair, animosity (all symptoms of pride), envy (here’s one:), an inferiority complex (is a symptom of pride, he says), carnal desires, wearisome psychological disturbance, rebellious feelings, fear of death, or, on the contrary, wanting to put an end to life, and lastly and not seldom, utter madness. These are the indications of demonic spirituality, but until they show up clearly they pass unnoticed for many.
Look at that. Who would have thought of these various perils, these pitfalls of pride?
The Apostle Paul provides a classic example of how pride, in this instance, in his own spiritual progress, can be the cause of suffering, and such suffering is allowed by God in order to humble those who are advancing in the spiritual life. He’s referring to certain visions and revelations from the Lord that were granted to him, and he describes how he was caught up into paradise and he heard words too sacred to tell. Then he explains how, on account of pride because of that vision, he was allowed to suffer a particular affliction. From the way he describes it, we see that God allows such afflictions for the benefit of the believer.
St. Maximus the Confessor, he also writes, he also refers to such cases of the spiritually advanced who, on becoming puffed up with pride in their progress, are then, he says, “rightly handed over to hardship and to suffering for the express purpose of acquiring the virtue of humility.” Such suffering is providential, and it’s allowed ultimately for the spiritual healing and the discipline of those who truly love the Lord. These sufferings and hardships and these afflictions encountered in the spiritual life, they can take on a variety of forms, and they’re based on different reasons or causes for suffering.
As was already mentioned, there’s suffering that results directly from the passion of pride so that the believer can be humbled, but there’s another type of suffering that’s allowed so that the believer may advance even higher toward the heights of spiritual perfection. Examples of those who have endured the second and higher type of suffering are known as the suffering righteous. They’re found throughout holy Scripture. The Church especially holds up the figure of Job the Long-suffering. Believers are called to look toward and imitate his God-pleasing perseverance and steadfast faith, especially in those most severe trials and tribulations. Job serves as a model or a prototype for those who are called to suffer.
In this sense, from a patristic perspective, human suffering is to be approached in light of God’s eternal love for man. For example, and as paradoxical as this may sound, St. John of Karpathos writes, “Our heavenly Father, in his infinite love, afflicts and oppresses you with various trials.” All these afflictions are a great gift of grace from God. This reminds me of an old Greek yiayia who used to say back in her village there was a saying: “If you don’t suffering, it means that God does not love you.” [Laughter] Where’s the prosperity gospel in that? What’s the point that’s being said there? I think it’s that, through our suffering, in whatever way God may allow, whatever form they may take, we are made to acquire certain spiritual virtues such as patience and compassion, gratitude, humility, love for others, which otherwise we would not have the opportunity to possess or cultivate.
Let’s recall our anonymous quote we shared at the beginning.
There are places in our heart which do not yet exist; it’s necessary for suffering to penetrate there, in order that they may come into being.
From another point of view, St. Silouan considers suffering as a sort of measuring-stick of man’s love for God. In his characteristic simplicity, he sums up this particular point using the example of Panagia, the mother of God, referring to her limitless love for her Son and her inconceivable grief as she stood at the foot of the cross, beholding her Son die such a violent and painful death. St. Silouan states succinctly; he says, “The greater the love, the greater the suffering.” Suffering is therefore seen as an unavoidable outcome of the believer’s fervent desire for the life in Christ. St. Isaac the Syrian teaches clearly; he says:
It is not possible for any man to draw near to Christ without tribulation, and without afflictions, his righteousness cannot be preserved unchanged.
Suffering is the condition without which there can be no participation in the life in Christ, hence no entry into the Lord’s kingdom of love without suffering. Elder Sophrony writes:
If we would obtain this kingdom, we must remember that every spirit created in the divine image will have to cross the threshold of suffering, voluntary suffering, for the sake of holy love.
Also, the New Testament’s quite clear about this. We must, through many tribulations, enter the kingdom of God. This is not a question of whether we may suffer. The operative word here is “must.” It’s inevitable. Anyone actively pursuing the life in Christ will suffer. How can you become Christlike if we, too… Doesn’t he say, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me?” There’s no true spiritual progress without suffering, without this sorrow, without this pain and persecution.
C4: I’ve heard it said that we suffer because it’s in suffering that we recognize other people’s suffering. So if we’ve never suffered, we wouldn’t recognize somebody else’s pain and we wouldn’t minister to them and love them.
Dr. Boosalis: We become much more compassionate, don’t we? That we otherwise might have remained judgmental.
However, St. Silouan teaches that we often make our sufferings to be more unbearable than they really are. [Laughter] Anyone here, other than myself that—“I can’t handle this no more, Lord! I’m done! No more, I’m out!” This can be a source of great anxiety, and it’s due to our lack of faith. It shows that we have not yet humbled ourselves, nor given ourselves over completely to the will of God. We have to realize that it’s ultimately the Lord who’s in complete control of every facet of our lives. By allowing such sufferings, whether they be physical ailments or spiritual trials, the Lord is actually directing and disciplining us, thereby making us his own legitimate son or daughter. St. Paul, in his epistle to the Hebrews, he refers to this clearly:
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage, for the Lord disciplines him whom he loves. God is treating you as sons, for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.
We must bear in mind that it’s the Lord who allows these afflictions for our spiritual benefit, and it’s also the Lord who delivers us from them. According to St. Silouan:
The Lord himself guides with his grace them that are given over to God’s will, and they bear all things with fortitude for the sake of God whom they have so loved and with whom they are glorified forever.
We as believers are thus tested as to the extent of our complete commitment to the will of God, as well as to the measure of our unconditional love for Christ. In the book of Job, we read, “Is not the life of man upon earth a state of trial?” The life of man is indeed a time of testing. This is apparent in every aspect of our human life, especially with human relationships. This is not confined to the testing of a teacher toward his student, nor an employer toward his workers. Friendships, too, are often tested, thereby revealing who your true friend is. Marriage constantly tested, thus allowing the sacramental union of love to continually grow. Parents test their children in the lessons of life. Do children also test their parents? See how much they can get away with?
It seems as if love itself is meant to be tested, because only in this way is it proven to be true. “True love is tested by adversities,” writes St. Mark the Ascetic. In fact, it could be said that love is true when it is tested and when the person who is loved fails, yet is still loved in spite of this failure. That’s the unconditional love of God toward man. It’s interesting to note that in monastic life, the Greek word for a novice or the person who wants to be tonsured—dokimos. Sorry, I threw that one out there. What does dokimazō mean?
A2: Try out.
Dr. Boosalis: To try out, usually with food. Your mom’s cooking some baklava or some galaktoboureko? “Dokimazō.” Dokimos—he who is being tried or tested. The testing of one’s commitment and of one’s love is a formative experience. It’s not a question of whether one is tried or proven in a legal sense; rather, the point is that through testing one is offered the opportunity to advance in the acquisition of spiritual virtues, to grow in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
As we undergo these various trials and tribulations, some of which can be quite intense, we have to always have before us the example of Christ himself. The book of Isaiah refers to Christ as the suffering servant, the man of sufferings. It is Christ who provides the pristine example which is to be followed by those of us who have chosen to take up our own cross and follow him. The Apostle Peter teaches: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you should follow in his footsteps.” To live in Christ is to follow Christ, and this entails following his personal example of self-emptying, of his self-sacrifice, and of his intense suffering.
When the Son of God became man, he voluntarily assumed the suffering and even the death that’s common to all mankind. The earthly life of the incarnate Son of God was indeed marked by moments of great suffering and very deep sorrow that Christ endured. The Lord himself tells us, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death.” His suffering and his excruciatingly painful death on the cross was assumed voluntarily. Voluntarily he did that for the salvation of man. The Son of God truly suffered in the flesh. God suffered in the flesh, says St. Peter. It’s that suffering [which] is the ultimate example that we are called to follow as Christians.
By partaking in these sufferings in whatever way God may allow us, we are partaking in the victory of Christ’s resurrection over death. This isn’t just an ethical trade-off here. It’s our personal participation in Christ’s victory over death and corruption. The victory of Christ’s resurrection then becomes our victory. Our own personal participation in suffering opens the way to even further participation in the life in Christ. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Our own personal experience with suffering has to be dealt with in full consciousness of Christ’s sufferings and sorrows. The sufferings encountered in the spiritual life have to be seen as opportunities for sharing in those of Christ.
The Apostle Peter teaches plainly:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you, but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
Sharing in Christ’s sufferings, therefore, implies sharing in his glory. In the words of St. Paul, “We suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” St. Maximus the Confessor mentions this point when he refers to the shared suffering between God and man. He writes:
If God suffers in the flesh when he is made man, should we not rejoice when we suffer, for we have God to share our sufferings? This shared suffering confers the kingdom on us.
We see that we must face our own personal sufferings as a Christ-centered experience. If we suffer with Christ, we’re going to rejoice with Christ. We must not leave Christ out of any aspect of our lives, neither those moments of joy, neither those moments of sorrow and suffering. But true Christlike suffering, however, is rarely comprehended by man. Such suffering is obviously beyond compare, but when we somehow share in the sufferings and the sorrows of Christ, to whatever degree he lets us, we are then led on the path toward holiness and to a variety of virtues and spiritual benefits, ultimately toward theosis.
Our Church Fathers see suffering and the spiritual struggles in a rather more positive light, don’t they? It’s our approach to our suffering and our response to our suffering and the way that we deal with our suffering that affords us unique opportunities that can lead ultimately to the acquisition of a wide variety of spiritual virtues. Biblical and patristic references to the benefits of suffering are numerous. Let me cite just a few examples. St. Paul says:
We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance character, and character hope. Now, hope does not disappoint.
And St. John Chrysostom, in his homily devoted to the same verse, distinguishes between future rewards of suffering from those benefits enjoyed in the present life. Among those benefits oriented more toward the present, he mentions how suffering actually can lead to an increase of faith, which in itself leads to many other benefits.
St. Mark the Ascetic writes that “pain and suffering can lead to fear of God and lead us to repentance.” He says also, “Voluntary suffering is by nature the enemy of sensual pleasure.” St. Symeon the New Theologian writes that “such trials benefit us because they lead us to a greater recognition and compassion of the mercy of God,” and that they also turn our love toward him. Another interesting observation is made by St. Thalassios. He notes—I like this one—one of the practical benefits of such trials: it reveals who your true friends are.
St. Silouan adds another benefit. When referring to the early years, when he was on Mt. Athos as a novice, he recalls his own personal experience of intense suffering that led ultimately to participation in divine grace. He recounts how he once suffered from such an oppressive attack of depression and despair and despondency, it was so frightening it terrified him to even think about it again. He somehow made his way to church for vespers, and by looking into the icon of the Lord, he fervently prayed the Jesus prayer, and that’s when the Jesus prayer entered into his heart, and he says he “saw the living Lord in the place of the icon, and both his body and his soul were filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he writes. He was filled with a new desire to suffer for the sake of Christ. Through these examples, we see how pain and suffering can in fact lead to spiritual progress, to deeper prayer, and to a greater understanding of how God works and how great God’s love is for us. According to Elder Sophrony: “Extreme suffering can also lead to unbearable joy and extreme bliss.”
Then there’s also blessings or rewards for suffering that await us in the future, in the life to come. Among those eternal and everlasting blessings are joy and glory. It’s interesting that Elder Sophrony considers these future rewards of suffering as an inalienable possession that will stay engraved in us forever, for all eternity. Whatever virtues we acquire through our suffering are going to stay engraved in us for all of eternity.
Some Church Fathers teach that, through the trials of suffering, we can actually acquire the same crowns as the holy martyrs. St. Macarius of Egypt writes:
When our souls are undergoing afflictions, whether they come in a visible form from man or in an intellectual form by means of evil thoughts or if they derive from bodily illnesses, if we endure them to the end, we will [gain] the same crowns as the martyrs.
Isn’t that something? One of the more well-known but perhaps extreme examples of showing how suffering can lead to deeper prayer and to spiritual progress is described by St. Athanasius in his famous work, The Life of Antony. St. Athanasius records how St. Anthony the Great devoted himself totally to Christ. He went to live in an enclosed tomb in the desert in pursuit of pure prayer. His progress greatly provoked the devil.
One night, a multitude of demons attacked him and began to beat him so viciously that he could not speak or get up off the ground on account of the intensity of his pain, but even this would not deter St. Anthony’s desire for prayer. Having been taken back to the village by a friend in order to recover, he again went back. He again enclosed himself in that tomb. Still unable to stand because of the severity of his injuries, he prayed while he was lying on the ground. Such perseverance provoked the enemy to an even more violent rage. As if crashing through the walls of the tomb, according to the narrative of St. Athanasius, the demons now assumed the forms of various wild animals.
The sounds of all the creatures that appeared were terrible, and their ragings were fierce. Struck and wounded by them, Anthony’s body was subject to yet more pain, and he groaned because of the pain felt in his body.
Of course, such suffering in spiritual life is rare, but the point is: Why? Why would God allow such severe testing and torments to poor Anthony, who’s just trying to pray? The answer is that God allows such suffering as an opportunity for the believer to acquire the virtue of courage. The virtue of courage in spiritual life. It’s vital for our spiritual growth. St. Silouan alludes to this when he refers to the violent and demonic attacks suffered by St. Anthony.
Paraphrasing the narrative of St. Athanasius, St. Silouan continues:
In the midst of cruel tortures, St. Anthony raised his eyes and then he beheld a great light, and he recognized the presence of the Lord, whereupon Anthony cried, “Where were you, O merciful Jesus, when the enemy was tormenting me?” And the Lord answered him, “I was here, O Anthony, and I witnessed your courage.”
And he goes on to become the founder of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.
So the role of courage in this struggle for spiritual life is of primary importance. St. Silouan writes:
We must always remember that the Lord sees us wrestling with the enemy, so we need never be afraid. Even should all hell fall upon us, we must be brave. If you are overcome with fear, you will not escape unharmed. Be valiant (he says). Remember, the Lord is watching you to see whether your hope is in him.
So the Lord himself calls us to courage, does he not? “In the world you will have trouble, but have courage. I have overcome the world,” he says. As the Lord teaches, to have courage is to have hope in his victory. Without such courage, there’s going to be no hope of overcoming the unavoidable onslaught of suffering that will certainly be encountered as we struggle to live our lives in Christ. St. Silouan teaches:
The spiritual struggle has much in common with ordinary warfare, and in this battle we must likewise be brave. The courageous soul thereby vanquishes her enemies, whereas the cowardly soul despairs and thus perishes.
The virtue of courage is so vital in face of the sufferings encountered in spiritual warfare that it’s pointless to enter the battle without it. St. John Climacus states explicitly: “The coward should not go out to battle.” This same teaching is found in Scripture, in the book of Deuteronomy:
What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go back to his house, lest the heart of his fellows melt as his heart.
So significant is the virtue of courage that St. Silouan sees it as inciting the Lord’s love for us. He writes, “Do not be cast down over the struggle. The Lord loves a brave warrior.” Elsewhere he adds, “The Lord loves the soul that is valiant.” Courage could thus be considered one of the greatest gifts not only to have but also to give to others, for without it, even that which has been attained may be lost. Courage is not something to be taken for granted. It has to be acquired and preserved.
Where do we find this spiritual courage? How are we supposed to attain to it? St. Silouan refers to courage as something you have to ask God for. How do you get it? You have to ask God for it. Do you think he’s not going to give it to you if you ask? Courage is also found in the cross and in the resurrection of Christ. Courage through the cross would imply a denial or an emptying of ourselves, a refusal to rely solely on our own abilities in overcoming these sometimes super-human sufferings that we have to face as we strive to face our life in Christ. This courage only comes from Christ, and this is what strengthened and encouraged the holy martyrs throughout their terrible tortures, and this is what sustained the great ascetics during their super-human feats of prayerful struggles.
Courage in the spiritual sense is not to be understood as some kind of a gallant or a triumphant self-confidence in my own strength and stamina. Rather, spiritual courage with which to face our sufferings is more seen as a quiet confidence in Christ’s victory over evil and death, confidence in Christ. Courage is complete trust in God’s providential will for one’s well-being and spiritual formation. This complete, even blind, trust extends to all matters, both great and small, even in the face of the most severe testing in seemingly unbearable sufferings and sorrow.
When we see courage in this light, it’s not just a human trait; it’s not just a human characteristic. In fact, I think this is the whole point: the courage of spiritual warfare goes above and beyond the limitations of human nature. St. Gregory Palamas refers to the patient endurance or perseverance of the holy martyrs and great ascetics as being supernatural, that is, that above-nature life we talked about before. It exceeds the limits of human nature. He notes how such courage can only come as a gift of grace from God.
Sometimes the Lord allows us to be tested through such intense suffering that we’re forced to reach outside of our own human limits, in order to completely rely on divine grace alone. Only with this kind of courage can we break through the barrier of our fallen humanity. When we surpass that breaking-point, like St. Anthony did with his display of courage in the tomb, then the victory of Christ’s resurrection is ours to reap. With this kind of courage, we can overcome any kind of suffering or spiritual struggle that can confront us. This in turn will lead to a multitude of spiritual virtues. Courage is the key that unlocks the door and leads the way to these bountiful benefits that await us. We suffer for the sake of Christ.
In conclusion, we see that it’s imperative for us to bear in mind that we do not suffer alone. We do not face our sufferings in isolation. It’s God who is there with us. Indeed, he himself shares in our suffering. Here’s the most beautiful quote, from St. Maximus:
Out of compassion, God takes upon himself the sufferings of each person. In his love, he suffers mysteriously with the same suffering that is in each of us.
Let me say that again.
God takes upon himself the sufferings of each person. In his love, he suffers mysteriously with the same suffering that is in each of us.
Only God could possibly do that. He knows everybody’s little suffering in this room, in this whole institute, in this whole Church, the whole humanity. Never forget that in those very difficult moments of our spiritual lives, whether we or one of our loved ones may be suffering, due to an addiction of whatever kind, or suffering due to the loss of a loved one, or suffering due to a divorce or other family problems, or an illness of any kind, whether it’s physical or psychological, or whether we’re undergoing any other spiritual trial or temptations, we have to remember that divine comfort is always near. Just at that moment when we feel that we’re going to break under the pressure of suffering and the despair that accompanies it, we find that new strength from God. Suffering, when united with persistent prayer, can actually lead to new heights of participation in the powerful peace of Christ.
I close with the words of our Lord himself:
Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.