The joy of the Cross

Wednesday of the Eighth Week of St. Matthew

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In today’s reading from the Gospel, the Lord foretells His suffering and death to the Apostles: 

At that time, Jesus charged his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ. From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. – Matthew 16: 20-24

St. Theophan the Recluse, by way of commenting on this passage, addresses a specific type of temptation in our spiritual warfare, what the Fathers call the temptation from the right side, and how the Lord protects us from this kind of demonic interference by the means of enabling us to endure sorrows for the sake of our salvation: 

When the Holy Apostles confessed the Saviour to be the Son of God, He said, I must…suffer…and be killed. The work had ripened; it remained only to complete it through the death on the cross. The same thing occurs in the course of a Christian’s moral progress. While he is struggling with his passions, the enemy still hopes somehow to tempt him; but when passions have settled down and the enemy no longer has enough power to awaken them, he presents external temptations, all sorts of wrongful accusations, and, moreover, of the most sensitive kind. He tries to plant the thought: “So what did you work and struggle for? No good will come of it for you.” But when the enemy thus prepares a war from without, the Lord sends down the spirit of patience to his struggler, thereby preparing a lively readiness in his heart for all sorts of suffering and hostility before the enemy can manage to stir up trouble. As the Lord said about Himself, “I must suffer,” so spiritual strugglers also feel a sort of thirst for sorrows. And when the suffering and hostility come, they meet them with joy, and drink them in as a thirsting man drinks cooling water. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 154-155 

Here the saint is addressing a spiritual problem common to sincere Orthodox people who are striving to obey God’s commandments and lead a pious life: during the periods of their lives when temptations from the left side arising from the lower passions – such as anger, lust, sloth, gluttony, and so forth – are quiet, and they are having some success in their struggles with these kinds of sins, the enemy of our salvation approaches with temptations from the right side, appealing to the deeper and more hidden passion of pride, which is, of course, the worst passion and foundation of all the passions. These subtle temptations take two forms:  Either to tempt one to spiritual efforts for which one has not received the specific graces from God needed for such efforts,  or to recall past sins and present shortcomings in order to lead one to lose the grace of hope and to despair of one’s salvation.  In his essay today, St. Theophan describes the latter kind, when the demons slander us in our minds and tell us to give up.   Let us speak briefly of the first kind and its remedy, which is quite simple, and then go on to the saint’s description of the second kind and the remedy that the Lord sends for our relief from these thoughts, which are so painful to a sensitive soul. 

When we conceive the idea of adding to our spiritual exercises, such as prayer and fasting, this may be an inspiration that is pleasing to God or it may be a temptation from the right side, especially if the addition is something completely new and somewhat dramatic.  The right way to approach our decision is simple:  to reveal our thought to our father confessor and get a blessing for our efforts.   With a blessing comes grace, and in consultation with our spiritual father, we will discern, after some days of experience, whether these greater efforts are truly according to the divine will or not, before making any promises to God to keep doing them.  If the spiritual father does not give a blessing, we need to obey.  The greatest spiritual efforts, if not done in obedience, are not pleasing to Our Lord, and humility is among the greatest virtues, whereas prayer and fasting are not, strictly speaking, virtues;  they are, rather, instruments in the service of virtue.   

This is the safe path for gradually adding to one’s ascetic routine.  

The other kind of temptation from the right is demonic slander, by which the demons attempt to cause us to despair of our salvation and to give up the spiritual life.   This usually takes the form of recalling our past sins of commission, especially the more shameful sins, or presenting to our minds all kinds of real or imagined sins of omission in our present situation:  “You should be doing this or that, but you are not!   You are doomed!”   

How should we deal with the memories of shameful sins from the past?  In the case of adult converts, most or all of these probably took place before our Baptism.    We need to be absolutely convinced that all sins prior to Baptism are forgiven by God through the grace of Baptism. There is simply no question of this: it is a dogma of the Orthodox Faith.  In the case of serious sins we committed after Baptism but have not confessed, we simply must run to the saving tribunal of Confession, make a completely transparent and honest confession of our sins, believe without doubting in the grace of the absolution pronounced by the priest, and carry out whatever eptimion (kanona, penance) prescribed by the spiritual father. This should set our conscience completely at rest.   

But what of sins we have already confessed, but the memory of them keeps coming back to mind and troubling us?  In the case of carnal sins related to the passion of lust, the Holy Fathers tell us to forget them completely, forcing all remembrance of them from our minds with violence and consistency.  There is no benefit whatsoever from recalling them:  these thoughts will either cause us to despair or they will attract us to commit the sin again.  We absolutely need to look ahead and forget that such things ever happened. 

In the case of the other passions, the remembrance of past sins that have been confessed and absolved is not pleasing to God if it causes us to doubt the forgiveness granted us in the Holy Mystery of Confession.  This doubting thought is usually accompanied by gloom and by the loss of hope in our salvation: it is obviously a demonic slander, a temptation from the right side.   If, however, recalling the past sin does not cause gloom but rather compunction, a sweetly painful sorrow for our sins accompanied by joy and gratitude to the Lord for His mercy to us, and if this memory spurs us on to greater efforts for our salvation, it can be beneficial.  Our Guardian Angel has, perhaps, given us the thought in order to help us repent more deeply of a sin for which we have indeed received God’s forgiveness in the Holy Mystery of Confession but have not yet repented of as thoroughly as we should; perhaps we have not yet replaced the passion with its corresponding virtue and therefore the door of the soul remains open to committing the sin again.  We should reveal all such thoughts to our spiritual father, and in the grace-filled arena of Confession, the Holy Spirit will help us to discern where these thoughts are coming from and for what purpose. 

When not slandering us with devious thoughts about our past sins of commission, the demons may be slandering us with accusations of present sins of omission:  “You should be doing X, Y, or Z, and you are not!  Look at So and So over there, who is so wonderful and prays so much and helps others, and so forth, while you are a worthless person who barely does anything for your own soul or for other people; you are doomed!”    Again, the best medicine is to reveal these thoughts in Confession, and with the unique grace that is in the Holy Mystery, the spiritual father can help discern how much more we should be doing in order to fulfill our duties to love God and our neighbor.   We need to pray for the grace of humility, to be free from vanity, and see ourselves as we really are.   A deluded picture of ourselves brings either exalted notions on the one hand or despair on the other hand, and the two false images will often alternate in order to create a confusion of soul that can become very dangerous.  An accurate picture of ourselves pleasing to God grants humility, stability of purpose, and peace of heart, and, having a mind cleared of delusion, we can, with prayer and good counsel, make prudent decisions and make do-able resolves to serve God and our neighbor.      

St. Theophan offers, finally, the conscious and joyful acceptance of the Cross as the best solution to demonic slander.   “All right, you demons, you can say all you want about me, but I am resolved to suffer all things for my salvation.   May the Lord’s will be done in me, may I receive whatever sufferings I need for the forgiveness of my sins, and may He grant me the patience to endure all things for Christ.”   The Lord will undoubtedly send or allow various sufferings for the cleansing of whatever impurities remain in our souls,  and by embracing these sufferings willingly, with gratitude, we will receive the joy that comes  from the assurance of the hope of salvation.  We will learn to drink sorrows as a refreshing spring,  as the All-Patient Lord patiently trains us to fulfill His holy, perfect, and pleasing will.   

O most gracious and long-suffering Lord, Who endured all things for us, glory to Thee for all things!  Glory be to Thee!   

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