Fr. Edward Rommen is the priest at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church (OCA) in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. He gave a series of talks on Evangelism at Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, IL, on December 12, 2015. Our thanks to Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth for allowing us to come and record.
Last Sunday’s epistle reading contained the following words:
We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day.
Obviously, St. Paul is talking about a struggle, a battle, something that many people have called spiritual warfare. This theme has been picked up by many people throughout the history of the Church. In 1589, an Italian priest in Venice by the name of Lorenzo Scupoli published a book with the title Il Combatimento Spirituali: The Spiritual Combat. It became an immediate runaway best-seller, and during the first 20 years, it was published 60 times, translated into German, Latin, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian, Polish, Armenian, and then into Greek by [Nicodemus] the Hagiorite. Then in the 19th century, St. Theophan the Recluse edited, modifying, paraphrasing, replacing some of the more Catholic content with specifically Orthodox ideas. And that edited version was published under the title Unseen Warfare, and it is still available to us today.
According to St. Theophan, the whole purpose of the book was to give the Orthodox Christian teaching concerning perfection in virtue and the unseen warfare that was necessary to accomplish this. He says, “I will tell you plainly the greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire is to attain to and come near to God and dwell in union with him.” So how are we supposed to do that? How is that going to happen? Well, Theophan points out there are many people who say that perfection in the Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflections, sleeping on the bare earth, and other similar ascetic labors; others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and attending especially long services at church. And there are others who say that perfection consists entirely in a mental prayer, solitude, seclusion, silence. But, says Theophan, they’re all wrong.
He says they’re all wrong because all of these virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection that we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it. So he goes on to say: You have to learn that perfection consists in nothing but coming near to God, union with him, as it was said in the beginning. And with this is connected the heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God, together with the consciousness of our own nothingness, our own proneness to evil: this is the law of love, inscribed by the finger of God himself in the hearts of his true servants. This is renunciation of ourselves that God commands to us. This is the blessed yoke that Christ and his burden is like. This is submission to God’s will, who is our Redeemer and Teacher and who demands from us both by his word and by his example all these things.
So (he says) do you not now see what all of this means? I presume that you are longing to reach the height of such perfection, so blessed is your zeal. But prepare yourself also for labor, sweat, and struggle from your first steps on the path. You must sacrifice everything to God and do only his will. Yet, if you will meet him yourself, as you will discover, you have as many wills as you have powers and wants. Therefore, reach into your desiring and stifle your own wills. Extinguish and kill them altogether. And in order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in your own self, and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own will, that incites or supports them.
So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare, and know that the crown, the attainment of your desired aim, is given to none except the most valiant among the warriors and the wrestlers. But if this is the hardest of all wars, victory in it is the most glorious of all. If you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant your heart in the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were, arming yourself with the invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely, never, ever rely on yourself for anything. Always bear in your heart the perfect and all-daring trust of God alone. Strive without ceasing, and remain constantly in prayer.
So we have to recognize: you must know that progress towards the path of spiritual life differs greatly from an ordinary journey on land. If a traveler stops on an ordinary journey, he loses nothing of the way he already covered. But if a traveler on the path of virtue stopped in his spiritual progress, he loses much of the virtue previously acquired. So in an ordinary journey, the further the traveler proceeds, the more tired he gets; but on a spiritual journey, the longer a man travels, reaching forth unto those things which are set before, the greater the strength and the power he acquires for his further progress.
In the foreword to this book, Nicodemus summarizes all of this teaching by saying:
The warriors who take part in this unseen war are all who are Christians, and the Commander is our Lord Jesus Christ, surrounded and accompanied by his marshals and generals, that is, by all the hierarchs of angels and saints. And the arena, the field of battle, the site where the fight actually takes place, is our own heart, and all of our inner man. So the time of this battle is really our whole life, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Today we have been talking about witness, and I tried to say that unless you progress and develop spiritually, witness is practically impossible. But what I didn’t say this afternoon is that progressing spiritually is a battle, is a real struggle. And so Theophan calls it the unseen warfare. His advice to us? Don’t trust yourself; always believe in God, never give up, and keep trying. And I think, with that, we have a formula, a recipe, for growing, and if we grow, it’s good for us, and as I’ve been trying to tell you all day long it’s good for the world around us. For to him is due all glory, honor, and worship. [Amen.]