Swimming upstream

9 September OS 2015 – Tuesday of the Seventeenth Week after Pentecost (Seventeenth Week of Matthew), Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Synaxis of Ss. Joachim and Anna

 In today’s Gospel, the Lord curses the unfruitful fig tree as a symbol of the spiritual barrenness of the Old Israel and as a warning to us, that we must bear spiritual fruit:

And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it. And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. And when even was come, he went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Mark 11: 11-23  

Are we fruitful or barren fig trees? St. Theophan the Recluse gives this specific advice on discerning our true state:

The fig tree covered with leaves was splendid in appearance, but was not honored with approval by the Lord because there was no fruit on it, and there was no fruit because there was no inner fruit-bearing power. How many such fig trees there are in the moral sense! In appearance all is proper, but on the inside there is nothing. They are steady, honorable and fulfill all that is Christian, but they do not have the spirit of life in Christ Jesus. That is why they do not have living fruit. What is in them only seems to be fruit, but it is not. In what lies the spirit of life in Christ Jesus? To this we say: one part is from the Lord, and the other is from us. What is from the Lord is essentially a fruit-bearing spiritual power, but from us there is only a receiver for this power. Concern yourself more with the latter. The root of this is the felling that you are perishing, and that if it were not for the Lord, you would perish. From this you will have a heart that is broken and humbled, in everything you do throughout your life. Furthermore, since the future is unknown, since there are many enemies and you can stumble every moment, then salvation is effected in fear and trembling, along with the unceasing cry: “By the judgments which Thou knowest, save me!” Woe unto him who rests on something other than the Lord; woe unto him who has worked for something other than the Lord!   Ask yourself, you who labor in works which are considered God-pleasing: “For whom are you working?” If your conscience boldly answers, “Only for the Lord” – it is good; but if not, you are building a house upon sand. These are several indications of a fertile inner spirit. You can understand other things according to this.   Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 203

The saint is not speaking to those outside the Church. Nor is he speaking to those Orthodox who are apostate or excommunicate, either formally by the judgment of the Church or, as in the case of most of the baptized, practically by their way of life. His words are addressed to those who are validly baptized, right believing, regularly worshipping, and canonically eligible communicants of the real Orthodox Church.

Nowadays, since there are so few such people – catastrophically fewer than in St. Theophan’s time – we feel tempted to say, “Well, at least I have not abandoned my faith, and I am properly married in the Church (or celibate), and I do not practice or approve gross immorality, unlike most people I meet.” Yes, we are a microscopic minority of the human race, and our being in this remnant is a miracle in itself, but we must not be content to remain in merely a formally Christian state, or we will shortly, albeit imperceptibly, join the Gadarene majority. We have no ability to survive merely, but rather our nature is such that to survive we need the joy and warmth of real spiritual life. We have to grow in holiness. Little fishes born in the water of baptism, as Tertullian put it, we either keep swimming forward or we make a meal for the demonic sharks. We cannot tread water, by the design of God Who created us.



So how do we do keep swimming? St. Theophan gives this starting point: “The root of [spiritual life] is the feeling that you are perishing, and that if it were not for the Lord, you would perish.” The great danger to spiritual life is insensibility – that lazy, hazy feeling that all is well with me and I need not fear God’s judgment. True spiritual life is characterized by a constant sense of urgency: “Make haste, quick, quick, for I perish!” If we are feeling sleepy and contented with our spiritual state, we are in great danger and must wake up.   How? Here are three items on a short to-do list:

First, we must force ourselves to pray and ask God to show us our actual state, to give us a constant remembrance of death and His judgment, and to restore our sense of urgency, giving us a repentant mind, which includes the ability to see our sins, to feel deeply grieved over them, and to weep for them.   All of this is a grace: Remember that to see one’s sins is a miracle.

Second, we must examine our conscience carefully and prepare for a good confession, make our confession, and prepare for Holy Communion as directed by our spiritual father.

Third, we must daily and hourly and continually cry, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner!”

Let us begin with these things, and the Lord, Who is gracious and abundantly provides for those who love Him, will give us every spiritual gift needed to become fruit bearing trees in the orchard of Paradise.



My most merciful and all-merciful God, Lord Jesus Christ, through Thy great love Thou didst come down and take flesh to save all. And again, O Savior, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee, for if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty. Indeed, in Thine infinite compassion and unspeakable mercy, Thou O my Christ has said: Whoever believes in Me shall live and never see death. If faith in Thee saves the desperate, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Impute my faith instead of deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds which could justify me, but may my faith suffice for all my deeds. May it answer for and acquit me, and may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory. And may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that he has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ, my savior, make haste, quick, quick, for I perish. Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant me, O Lord, to love Thee now as once I loved sin, and also to work for Thee without idleness, as I worked before for deceptive Satan. But supremely shall I work for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ, from the Morning Prayers, English language Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York, 1960.

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