2 June OS 2016 – Wednesday of the Seventh Week of Pascha; Afterfeast of the Ascension of the Lord; St. Nicephorus of Constantinople the Confessor
This is the last week of the sacred Fifty Days of Pascha, during which we read the Gospel according to St. John. Today we continue reading the sublime words spoken by the Lord to the disciples at the Mystical Supper:
All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you. A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father. Then said some of his disciples among themselves, What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father? They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith. Now Jesus knew that they were desirous to ask him, and said unto them, Do ye inquire among yourselves of that I said, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me? Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. John 16: 15-23
St. Theophan the Recluse likens the sadness of the disciples at the Lord’s death and their joy over His Resurrection to the times of crisis and rebirth we experience in the life of the soul:
The Lord said to the Holy Apostles before His sufferings: “A little while, and ye shall not see Me; and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me (John 16:16).” The Lord’s sufferings and death so struck the Holy Apostles that the eyes of their minds became dim, and they no longer saw the Lord as the Lord. The light was hidden, and they sat in a bitter and wearisome darkness. The light of Christ’s Resurrection dispersed this darkness, and they again saw the Lord. The Lord Himself explained His words thus: “Ye shall weep,” He said, “and lament, but the world shall rejoice; and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy (John 16:20).” It is said that every soul experiences a similar defeat on the way to perfection. Universal darkness covers it, and it does not know where to go; but the Lord comes, and changes its sorrow into joy. This is truly as necessary as it is for a woman to suffer before a man is born into the world. Can we not conclude from this that he who has not experienced this has not yet given birth to a real Christian within himself? – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 115-116
Anyone who undertakes the conscious effort of spiritual life knows what the saint is talking about: There are periods in which one’s mind is darkened, the will becomes weak, doubt sets in, and all seems lost. But if one simply hangs on and cries to the Lord in the pain of his heart, and – simply, drily, not waiting for good feelings – makes an act of will to go on striving to have faith, to hope, and to love, light dawns again in the heart, the mind clears, and the will acquires new strength. The soul takes wing and a new day dawns. All is well.
Each of these times of intense interior struggle, which normally occur periodically several or many times in the life of the Christian, can be likened to the pangs of childbirth. As do labor pains, these crises rise and subside, but each time the pain is greater, until the great moment comes, and birth takes place. Thus in the life of the Christian: the Lord allows greater and greater temptations, doubts, and sorrows to afflict us periodically, until the last and greatest trial at the hour of death and the departure of the soul from the body. By experiencing the resurrection of the soul throughout the increasingly difficult crises of life, our faith in God’s truth, our hope in His divine aid, and our love and longing for His desired presence increase steadily, and at the time He knows best, when He sees that the set of the soul is as firm as it ever will be, He brings us into the arena of the final contest, there to do battle openly with the enemy of our salvation, when the spiritual senses are opened, the nature of the combat we have previously engaged in blindly now becomes visible, and we face final glory or final disgrace.
At any one of these crises, a man may choose to give up. This may not be entirely obvious to others – he may continue to attend Church services more or less, observe the greater holidays and family baptisms and weddings, and formally consider himself an Orthodox Christian. But the switch in his heart has been turned to the Off position, and his real attention is elsewhere. He has decided, though perhaps not in so many words, that the interior struggles of spiritual life are not his cup of tea. Unfortunately such a decision is extremely common; to borrow words from T.S. Eliot, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality.” Thus do the majority fulfill Our Lord’s terrible words, “Many are called but few are chosen.”
How can one remain among the few and be saved? This, of course, is the subject of the Fathers’ entire vast literature on spiritual life. But now and here, today, let us consider one exercise: to get down on one’s knees (remember, we are kneeling and making prostrations again starting this Sunday evening) and beg the Lord earnestly for the Cardinal Virtue of Courage (Fortitude), for the Theological Virtue of Hope, and for the grace of perseverance.
I heard a talk at a clergy conference twenty years ago by a senior priest, in which he noted something that has always stuck with me, that one often hears sermons touching on Faith and Love, but rarely on Hope. Hope is the grace-filled gift of exercising one’s courage in the conviction that God is taking care of us, that things will get better for us, and that, in the end, all will be well and all manner of things will be well. We see this pre-eminently in the holy martyrs and confessors: they courageously persevered to the end, because they not only believed in God (i.e., believed the truths of the Faith), but they also believed God (they trusted in His promises; they placed their Hope in Him).
On Pentecost Sunday after the Divine Liturgy, we will perform the solemn Kneeling Vespers, at which the bishop or priest reads three great prayers for the descent of the Holy Spirit to renew the Church and our souls. With the aid of the illimitable grace we will have thereby received, let us begin Sunday night to implore the Lord, with prostrations and tears, for the grace of persevering in the divine Faith with the courage born of Hope, to the end, that we may attain the desired object of all our Love and longing, the vision of the Holy Trinity in God’s eternal Kingdom.