24 September OS 2018 – 1st Sunday of St. Luke, Holy Protomartyr Thekla
Today is the first Sunday on which we shall read the Gospel according to St. Luke. We shall begin, appropriately, with a reminder that without the Lord’s help we can do nothing:
At that time, as the people pressed upon Jesus to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. – Luke 5: 1-11
Here in miniature is a model for the whole struggle of our Christian life! We toil and toil, trying to do our own will – or even what we imagine to be God’s will – our own way on our own steam, and nothing comes of it. Then we finally decide to seek and do God’s will, and to rely on Him, and suddenly all things are possible – things start falling into place. But when good things start to happen, do we fall down like Peter and say, “I am not worthy of all these mercies of the Lord! This is entirely His work and His grace!”? Or, rather, do we secretly become puffed up and think, “Ah, look at what a good Christian life I am leading, and therefore God is blessing me!”? All too often it is the latter.
The author of that wonderful classic of spiritual life Unseen Warfare, lays out a simple formula for beginning the spiritual life. At the very foundation is distrust in ourselves and all-daring trust in God.
Finally, after learning what constitutes Christian perfection and realising that to achieve it you must wage a constant cruel war with yourself, if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer. – Unseen Warfare, Chapter One, “What is Christian Perfection?”
How do we acquire this gift of not relying on ourselves? It is very difficult, since the deepest delusion, the last stronghold of Satan in the human heart, is the illusion that we are the source of our own existence – that we keep ourselves in existence. The author of Unseen Warfare (assisted by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Theophan the Recluse) gives this advice:
(a) realise your nothingness and constantly keep in your mind the fact that by yourself you can do nothing good which is worthy of the kingdom of heaven. Listen to the words of the wise fathers: Peter of Damascus assures us that “nothing is better than to realise one’s weakness and ignorance, and nothing is worse than not to be aware of them” (Philokalia). St. Maximus the Confessor teaches: “The foundation of every virtue is the realisation of human weakness’ (Philokalia). St. John Chrysostom says: ‘He alone knows himself in the best way possible who thinks of himself as being nothing.’ (b) Ask for God’s help in this with warm and humble prayers; for this is His gift. And if you wish to receive it, you must first implant in yourself the conviction that not only have you no such consciousness of yourself, but that you cannot acquire it by your own efforts; then standing daringly before the Almighty God, in firm belief that in His great loving kindness He will grant you this knowledge of yourself when and how He Himself knows, do not let the slightest doubt creep in that you will actually receive it. (c) Accustom yourself to be wary and to fear your innumerable enemies whom you cannot resist even for a short time,. Fear their long experience in fighting us, their cunning and ambushes, their power to assume the guise of angels of light, their countless wiles and nets, which they secretly spread on the path of your life of virtues. (d) If you fall into some transgression, quickly turn to the realisation of your weakness and be aware of it. For God allows you to fall for the very purpose of making you more aware of your weakness, so that you may thus not only yourself learn to despise yourself, but because of your great weakness may wish to be despised also by others. Know that without such desire it is impossible for this beneficent self-disbelief to be born and take root in you. This is the foundation and beginning of true humility, since it is based on realisation, by experience, of your impotence and unreliability. – Chapter Two, “One should never believe oneself or trust oneself in anything”
“Ask for God’s help…” We have to ask God to help us realize that we have to ask God to help us! In other words, our pride is so deep we do not even see how deep it is. We have to say, “O Lord, I do not even see how deep my self-reliance goes in my heart. Help me to see and hate my pride and false sense of self-sufficiency. Help me to rely on Thee alone!”
The Lord loves prayers like these. He is waiting to give us abundant spiritual gifts, and we usually do not ask for them. The first gift we should ask for is this gift which is the foundation of spiritual life: A complete conviction that we are nothing and He is everything, a complete conviction that of ourselves we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible. And with this realization, when good things do come our way from the right hand of the Lord, may we also have the sense to say with Peter, “O Lord, I am a sinful man.”
May all the holy Gospel readings during this time of St. Luke sink deep into our ears, our minds, and our hearts. Let us fall down before the Lord Who made us and proclaim from the depths of our hearts: “Thou art our God, and we know none other beside Thee; we call upon Thy Name.”