St. Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live.” The Cross is the heart of our salvation. It is on the Cross that we see the fullness of God’s love and it is in the Cross that we are united to that same love. Every Christian shares the commandment, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). This commandment long ago passed into the common stock of cultural proverbs.
People speak about “to bear one’s cross,” and it’s come to mean something of a passive resignation to a difficult and even distasteful situation. There is just nothing in it to inspire the heart. Of course, this seeming familiarity with the concept obscures the depth of Christ’s teaching and alienates our understanding from one of the most essential parts of our discipleship. St. Paul writes in virtual ecstasy when he says, “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being conformed to his death!” (Phil. 3:10). What is it we’re missing?
In our time, perhaps the most noted statement of our communion in the Cross of Christ’s sufferings is found in God’s word to St. Silouan of Athos. God said to him, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” It is interesting to read what Fr. Zacharias, the disciple of Elder Sophrony, who was the primary inheritor of Silouan’s teaching, has to say about “Keep your mind in hell and despair not”:
This [saying] is not for everybody—not even for all monks. I remember when I first became a spiritual father I began to grasp a little how this is carried out in life, and I wanted to share it with all my fellows, and I was trying to teach this to one of the sisters; and Fr. Sophrony said to me (forgive me for speaking so openly): ‘You are stupid! This is not for everybody, not even for all monks! Tell this person to carry out her obediences and to do the work of the abbess, that is to say, the work of the monastery, and she will be saved.
He added to that:
But people, slowly, slowly, with time, become stronger; grace strengthens their nature, and they begin to practice this in some measure. But there is another way, for people living in the world: to keep thanking God continually, in this way: “I thank thee, O Lord, for all the things thou hast done for me,” and so on, adding at the end, “...though I am unworthy.” This brings the same result, the same state. Psychologically, it is more acceptable and has the same effect, because thanking God continually intercedes for our weakness before him, makes up for our weakness. I believe that this is a more accessible way for people living in the world. And when we are strengthened by grace, the same grace will teach us. We must never forget that “one is our Teacher, even Christ” (Matt. 23: 10).
This [quotation] is taken from his book, The Enlargement of the Heart [Mt. Thabor Publishing, 2012)].
It is in following this path described by Fr. Zacharias that I advocate so frequently and strongly for the practice of giving thanks always and for all things. I believe that many find this rather troublesome, perhaps reminiscent of certain Evangelical/Pentecostal practices. In some of those circles, giving thanks is seen as a spiritual weapon (and it certainly is). But that weapon is viewed as part of an overall panoply of practices designed to protect us from adversity and to promote success and prosperity. But in Orthodoxy, this is not the case.
In Orthodox practice, the giving of thanks is a union with Christ in the Cross. In our normal cultural practice, we give thanks to people who give us desirable things. We extend this to God, and gladly offer thanksgiving when the things in our lives are suitable to our needs and wants. This practice of thanksgiving treats God’s purpose in our lives as nothing more than an assurance of health, prosperity, and protection against adversity. This becomes little more than a magical paganism and is alien to the Cross. In many parts of the Christian world, the Cross has been reduced to nothing more than an atonement device, the means by which our (legal) sins are forgiven. As such, it has nothing to do with a way of life. It renders statements such as, “Take up your Cross and follow me,” meaningless.
However, the Cross is repeatedly presented to us (particularly in St. Paul) as a way of life, and the full expression of the “mind of Christ” which should be ours. Our modern, magical Christianity can make no sense of St. Paul’s ecstatic desire to know the communion of Christ’s sufferings. Is St. Paul suggesting some sort of masochistic cult? we wonder.
We must be clear: St. Paul and the Christian tradition in no way suggest self-harm as a means of devotion. Those occasions in history where this has been practiced are aberrations. There is always sufficient suffering in this present life through which we may know the communion of Christ’s suffering without intentionally adding to it. The key is what we do with the suffering that is ours.
Think of this traditional prayer (which similar to a number of others) that is often seen in Orthodox morning daily prayers. It reads:
O God, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to your holy will.
At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to your holy will.
Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from you.
Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.
O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. [Amen.]
Its theme is directed primarily at the acceptance of the day. It assumes that each day will bring its own “fatigue” and “unexpected occurrences.” It does not ask for a list of good things. Indeed, it is rightly assumed that God only wills us good and that he knows our needs better than we ourselves. I always took note that my beloved father-in-law said “Give us this day our daily bread” is enough in our prayers.
The Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, who himself suffered from anxiety and depression for a number of years, gave witness to the fact that there is no deliverance from these trials without the acceptance of God’s will. He wrote, or it was said of him:
As he related many years later to one of his spiritual children, at the time of this inner battle he suffered two nervous breakdowns [—I have to say there’s a saint after my own heart—] as a result of the warfare against the temptations of fear, anxiety, and worry. His whole body trembled and he was, overall, in a very bad state. He took this as a warning from God and resolved to change his way of life and drop all earthly cares and worries. [He said,] “I realized that we all worry about ourselves too much and that only he who leaves everything to the will of God can feel truly joyous, light, and peaceful.” Thus, having learned to leave all of his cares and those of his neighbors in the hands of the Lord, he patiently bore the cross of serving as abbot at the Patriarchate of Pech for the next six years.
That’s from the book, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives [St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2011)].
The acceptance of God’s will is the very heart of giving thanks. To give thanks is to recognize first that what has come your way is a gift, and second, that the giver of every gift is the good God.
Many become troubled at the thought of giving thanks for something terrible like a disease or an accident. This giving of thanks is not a declaration that the thing itself is good, but that God himself is good and that he works in and through all things for our salvation. More than that, the giving of thanks is our active assent to true communion with God. Our refusal to give thanks is also the refusal to recognize something as having come from God. The world becomes divided into “God’s stuff” and “other stuff,” and, inevitably, there is ever so much more “other stuff.”
How do we give thanks? What does it look like? Do I say, “Thank you for this disaster”? The confusion in our culture in which thanksgiving belongs only to that which is desired makes it difficult to offer such words. Job’s confession in the Old Testament is perhaps more to the point. Job says, in the face of terrible things, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
For myself, I pray, “O God, give me grace to accept all that you give, for you are good, and your will for me in all things is good.” I’ll say that again. “O Lord, give me grace to accept all that you give, for you are good, and your will for me in all things is good.” Then I often add such things as, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
The mystery of communion in all things, including “bad” things, is more difficult to describe. I find great comfort and power in the prayer to the Cross. Very powerful. It says:
Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered; and let those who hate him flee from his face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say with gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified on thee, went down to hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, his honorable Cross, for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me, with our holy Lady the Virgin Theotokos, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen.
Within this prayer, we unite whatever it is that has come our way with the Cross of Christ itself. As we embrace it, making the sign of the Cross, the event itself is transformed into the Cross. Indeed, I think of it as a “sacrament” of the Cross. It is frightful to demons to see a Christian so embrace suffering. Recall how Satan was defeated by Job who refused to curse God in his circumstances.
I’ll leave you with this word from St. Paul, [from] his first letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Glory to God.