… I consider it necessary for all Christians seeking salvation, especially monks,
to study the book by Archimandrite Zacharias, Christ, Our Way and Our Life, carefully, so as to rediscover the aim of their life, to redefine their monastic calling and conduct, and above all so as to be able to go on to understand the Elder Sophrony’s powerful theology…. In my opinion, just as the analyses of Elder Sophrony served to make the simple message of St. Silouan the Athonite comprehensible to theologians, so the highly significant words
of Archimandrite Zacharias will help to make the densely-packed message of the Elder of blessed memory understandable, according to the measure of the reader’s faith…. We see in his [Elder Sophrony’s] writings the great importance of the self-emptying of the Word, but also the fact that true Christianity is linked with this self-emptying, the descent into hell that is truly the way of the Lord. When someone follows Christ along this path of self-emptying and hell, Christ Himself becomes the Way for him….
—Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos
Orthodox Monasticism as the Way of Life of Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs
The texts entitled “Monasticism — I” and “Monasticism — II,” written by Archimandrite Zacharias, are taken from his book The Enlargement of the Heart (Mount Thabor Publishing, 2006, pp. 199-220). The text entitled “Monasticism — II” had previously been published in the book mentioned by Metropolitan Hierotheos above, Christ, Our Way and Our Life (Saint Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003, pp. 132-141). The subtitle used below is supplied here by the editors as a way of identifying the subject of the text.
(The Science of “Going Down”)
by Archimandrite Zacharias
For us Christians there is nothing beyond Christ. He is for us the absolute God and the perfect man. As He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and so it is very important for us to know this Way, Truth and Life. The Way is Christ Himself, and if we know the way and put ourselves on the way, He becomes our fellow traveler, our companion, because He is the way, binding Himself to us, as He joined Luke and Cleopas on the way to Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:15). He is Truth itself, both divine and human, and when we know this truth we become truthful in two ways. In the first place, we know the Truth which is Christ Himself, whom we worship in Spirit and truth (cf. John 4:24); and, at the same time, we begin to know the truth about ourselves, the truth of our total poverty, thus we stand before Him in awe and reverence, and we perform our service to Him. He is also Life itself (John 11:25; 14:6), and without knowing this gift of the life that He brought upon earth we remain desolate; as He said, we “die in our sins” (cf. John 8:24). Nevertheless, if we know His gift, then we know that is the gift of life, and, indeed of life in abundance (cf. John 10:10). So, Christ is the Way, and it is vital for us to know this Way.
How did Christ reveal this way upon earth? He revealed it by coming down from heaven to earth, and even more so, by going down to the nethermost parts of the earth (cf. Eph. 4:10). That is to say, His way is a humble way. He is a humble God (cf. Matt. 11:29), and he knows how to “lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), because as God He has power to take it up again.
You know, we have all been created “in the image and likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26). God instilled in us the capacity of knowing Him, and of knowing Him fully. He gave us the ability to receive the evangelical revelation, which was to come in His only-begotten Son. From the very beginning, He implanted in us that capacity, by creating us in His image and likeness. But, of course, we know the tragic event that took place, man’s falling away from the living presence of God. But God did not abandon man, and man, within his very being, never forgot that his origins were in God: he has always possessed the innate desire for justice, for equality, for freedom of spirit. Yet, through the tragic event of the Fall, we see in our empirical being that there is no justice, there is no equality, there is no freedom of spirit.
And this monstrous empirical being, which is our world, has the appearance of a pyramid. We have the powerful of the earth sitting at the top of the pyramid on the shoulders of those beneath them; there is no equality, and the strong exercise dominion over the weak. But this is not the idea of God. God wanted us all to be equal, and that is why He gave us all the same commandments. That is the sign of our equality before God; and each one of us must apply them to his own life, but He gave the same commandments to us all. So, we are faced with this monstrous pyramid of the empirical being of this world, the powerful of the earth exercising authority, as the Lord says (cf. Matt. 20:25), and they are even called benefactors. But He said to the twelve, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). So the Lord, in order to heal this distortion of the world, as Fr. Sophrony says, inverted the pyramid, and at the head of it He put Himself. He went down to the bottom of it, that is to say, He went to the abyss of the fall of man, and took upon Himself the “burden” of the whole world, the entire weight of the pyramid.
From that moment on, who could stand in judgment before Him? He justified God, but He also justified man. He justified God by showing His love – love “unto the end” (John 13:1), that “greater love” that no one has as He does, as the Lord says in the Gospel (John 15:13). He justified God by showing His love to the end, and in obedience to the commandment of God the Father He laid down His life for the world (I John 3:16). Who can enter into judgment with God from that time forward? He did not spare His only-begotten Son, but gave Him for us. Will He not give everything to us together with Him, says the Apostle? (cf. Rom. 8:32).
But He also justified man, because He traced a path for us; He showed us a way upon earth, the Way, of which the prophets spoke, and could only dream of. The way He revealed upon earth, the way of “going down,” the way of descent. He showed this to be the Way, and in doing so He justified man, He gave him an example. If man follows His way, then God the Father will receive him as His son, and God will repeat to every person the same words He spoke to His own Son, “Thou art my son, today have I begotten thee” (Heb. 5:5), and “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17, 17:5). He says the same to all of us who follow the path of Christ, “going down” to meet Him at the bottom of the inverted pyramid. God showed His love to man by disclosing the Way of His Son upon earth; and man, in his turn, shows his love to God when he follows this Way, which is the way of humility.
The Way was prefigured in the Old Testament. We all remember the three youths in Babylon, who were thrown into the furnace, and Nebuchadnezzar the king sat on a very elevated throne watching the spectacle. He saw this great furnace, so great that it devoured his servants who poured oil into it. Such was the magnitude of this fire. And the king, watching this spectacle, said in amazement, “Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?…Lo, I see four men loose walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Dan. 3:24-25). And indeed, He was the Son of God, the Word of God, but not yet incarnate. He was without flesh then, like an angel, “the Angel of Great Counsel,” as the Old Testament calls Him (Isa. 9:6 Lxx). So, Christ came down to keep them company, to join these three youths in the furnace. But it is necessary to look more closely at what was taking place in the furnace, which could attract the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, “by whom all things were made.” What was it that attracted Him to come down and join the three youths in the furnace? We can examine what happened by reading the prayer of the three youths as it was recorded by Daniel the Prophet. The three youths in the flame did not lift up their hands to God, and say “O God Almighty, we are not like the heathen around us, and because we have kept the true faith Thou hast kept us harmless in the flame, and we thank Thee because Thou hast done such a great wonder for us.” Instead they lowered their head, and even more so, their mind, and they said, “We have sinned, we have committed iniquity”: they took upon themselves the sin of their people. “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have committed iniquity, and Thou hast rightly brought upon us the judgment of this furnace, but” – then comes the but of faith, having “gone down” first with the “but” of faith – “do not abandon us to the end, O God of our Fathers.” If you read this prayer you will find it is one of the most beautiful (cf. S. of III Children 1-67). That is to say, prophetically, the three youths put themselves in the Way of our Lord, in the way of “going down.” And because they put themselves prophetically in the way of going down they found Him who is the Way as their companion. He joined them in the flames, and saved them.
I will give you another example about the way of the Lord, nearer to His incarnation, which has to do with His Mother, the Most Holy Virgin Mary. She was dedicated to the temple of God from a very young age, and in that temple the Mother of God lived in prayer and under instruction in the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. And the Mother of God made two discoveries in the temple. In praying, she suddenly discovered her “deep heart,” as we learn from holy Tradition. This, however, may also be seen in the verses of the New Testament. According to the definition of the Old Testament, “man is a deep heart” (cf. Ps. 64:6). And this deep heart of man, as King Solomon says, requires a divine and noetic sensation, the sensation of God (cf. Prov. 15:14 Lxx). So, the Mother of God found the “deep heart” through her humble prayer. In fact, when she found her “deep heart,” there she met God, because God is met in the depths of our heart.
Then she discovered a second thing: her unity with the rest of mankind, and she began to intercede for the whole world in the Holy of Holies at a very young age. While she was instructed in the Prophets by the priests of the temple, she read the text of Isaiah which says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” God with us (Isa. 7:14), the passage we read every year at Christmas; and by the grace of God, her whole being was ignited by those words, and she began praying from that moment in this way: “Oh God of my Fathers, make me worthy to be the servant of that woman who will bring Immanuel to the world.” And in the fervency of this humble prayer, to become the servant of the mother of Immanuel, the Archangel Gabriel appears and says to her, “Not the servant, but the mother.” That is why she says that God “hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (Luke 1:48). So, why did that happen? Because the Mother of God, prophetically, put herself in the Way of the Lord, and fulfilled, prophetically, the law which her Son was to give – that “those who will humble themselves shall be exalted” (cf. Matt. 23:12) – she was exalted most highly, above the Cherubim and Seraphim. Because she placed herself prophetically in the Way of the Lord – and the Way is the Lord – the Lord was united with her, and became her Son. So we see how important it is to know the Way of the Lord.
I have begun my talk with the importance of the Way of the Lord because I am going to say something very proud, and I want to be tolerated. Fr. Paul asked me to explain how monasticism is beneficial to the Church. And this could be seen as pride on our part, to speak of ourselves as being beneficial to the Church, since the Church, being Christ Himself, the Body of Christ, has no need of anyone. But we are all given a gift in this Body, and we cannot in fact be members of this Body unless we have received a gift from the Holy Spirit. And each of us, says St. Paul, has a special gift in the building up of this Body (cf. Rom 12:5-8). So, I say all this as an introduction, in order to justify what I am now going to say about monasticism, in order to be tolerated, and not simply regarded as proud. If there is anything about monasticism that is beneficial to the Church, it is precisely that it preserves upon earth this great science of God, which initiates man into the Way of the Lord, the way by which he learns to “go down.” All monastic life is organized in such a way so as to impart unto us the spirit of this way of “going down.”
I remember that when I became a priest and spiritual father, Fr. Sophrony, our father founder, said to me, “Don’t be afraid to encourage young people to learn to ‘go down,’ because it is the only way for them to overcome their passions.” We have to learn this way otherwise we cannot become passionless, we cannot fulfill the commandment of God, who said, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). We have to learn this perfection in order to mirror, to reflect upon earth, the perfection of our Heavenly Father. This perfection was manifested in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we are all called to be imitators of our Lord. And if monasticism is justified, it is justified in this way: that it is a science that teaches people the way of “going down.”
You may ask, what is the difference between monks and lay Christians? There is no difference. The difference lies in the way we go about it. St. Paul, when he speaks of celibacy and non-celibacy, says that neither celibacy nor married life avails, but the fulfilling of the commandment of God (cf. I Cor. 7:7-9, 17-19). So monasticism is justified in teaching us the way of going down, and there many ways of doing that. But before I continue, I should like to say little more about the gift of each member of the Body of Christ. St. Paul says that “when he [Christ] ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” (Eph. 4:8). “Captivity” means freedom. Christ, then, gave us freedom and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And suddenly, with wonder, the Apostle exclaims, “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9), giving freedom to all, and “He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). He filled the whole universe with His divine energy, so that we human beings can meet Christ under any condition, in any circumstances in this life. Whether in joy or in the hell of our afflictions He is there. Having come down to the earth, He sanctified the waters of the river Jordan, and when we do down into the water of baptism, we die in Christ. We die in Christ; that is to say, we die to sin. Having made the decision to be dead unto sin, we “go down” into the water in His name, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we come up “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), having “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). We put on the new humanity of the new Adam, Christ, and in that humanity dwells the fullness of the Godhead. So, by going down to the nethermost parts of the earth, and then ascending and sitting on the right hand of the Father, Christ gave us true freedom, He led captivity captive and gave gifts to men, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And in monasticism we learn that way of going down, in order to acquire the gifts of Christ.
However, we do not always want to accept the Gospel in the true way. The gospel continuously speaks about death; that if we wish to truly live we must die. St. Paul says, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13). The Gospel speaks about shame. If we bear shame and reproach for His sake, we shall be partakers of His glory (cf. Heb. 11:26, 2 Tim. I: 8-10). The Gospel speaks about the Cross of Christ, that if we take up this cross, and come to love Him, and follow Him to the point of hatred of one’s own soul (cf. Matt. 16:24-25), then we are truly His disciples (cf. John 13:34-35). All this is hard. To us it is proposed to learn to die if we wish to live. And we have to make the choice, either we live in order to die, or we learn to die in order to live; because it is impossible to be a Christian and to live. That is why St. Paul says, “I die daily” (I Cor. 15:31). The Apostle says again that God does not judge twice. If we judge ourselves now, in the light of His commandments, we shall not be judged then (I Cor. 11:31). So, there is a way of anticipating that glorious end.
I shall now make a parenthesis on the Desert Fathers of the fourth century. That century was the most luminous century in the history of monasticism, because suddenly, in the desert of Egypt, a divine perfection was revealed. One of those holy Fathers said that if man wants, from morning until evening, he can attain to divine perfection. And if the Fathers say so, it is possible, for this is the fruit of their own experience. But the hard thing about this is how to maintain the desire for perfection every day. The way to keep it up every day is given to us by St. Paul. Every time he speaks about the sublimity of the Way of Christ, of the way of the new life in Christ, he refers immediately to the Second Coming of the Lord. That is to say, the only way to maintain our inspiration and “newness of life” is to put ourselves before the dread judgment-seat of Christ. And if we judge ourselves now, we shall not be judged then (I Cor. 11:31). Even the Lord Himself says that when people, persecutors, bring you to judgment before a court, not to premeditate what to say. In that hour, says the Lord, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist” (Luke 21:15). But we are not always persecuted. Thanks to God, nowadays the Church in many parts of the world enjoys great peace. But the word of the Lord is true for always, “abideth for ever” (cf. I Pet. 1:23, 25). How true this is today in America, where even if we are just a little Christian we are praised and helped!
By putting ourselves voluntarily before the judgment of God, that is to say, by examining ourselves strictly in the light of His commandments (that is our judgment) He gives us “a mouth and wisdom.” He puts in our mouth, rather in our heart, the prayer of repentance, which justifies us. St. John the Divine says that there is a way for man to become infallible – the only way upon earth that man can be infallible – is when he acknowledges his sinfulness. He says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8-9). Therefore, the only time we are infallible is when we confess our sinfulness, because we confess a universal truth, our own personal fall, and the Fall of the whole Adam, of all mankind. And because we confess a truth, we become truthful, and by becoming truthful we attract the Spirit of Truth that works in us the true prayer that justifies us, the true prayer that makes us “children of God” (John 11:52, Rom. 8:21; 9:8, Gal. 3:26), “children of light” (John 12:36, I Thess. 5:5). You know, it is the Spirit of God the Father that cries in our hearts, “Abba, Father!” (cf. Gal. 4:6).
In monasticism, we aim to acquire this art. There lies the benefit of monasticism: to teach its people the way of going down,” the way of bearing shame in order to wash away shame by shame. Because if we bear shame in this life, in confessing our Heavenly Father, says the Lord, then we shall have no shame before Him in the Second Coming. When He comes in glory He will acknowledge us before all the angels and all the saints (cf. Mark 8:38).
So by shame we extinguish shame. That is why the sacrament of confession is so powerful and so regenerating. We bear a little shame on earth for the sake of the Lord, and He gives us such grace, so as to be able to overcome our sins and receive healing for our brokenness. Therefore because He Himself, in His way down, bore the “cross of shame” (cf. Heb. 12:2), the more shame we bear the better, the more grace we shall receive for our healing and for a glorious salvation, “a better resurrection,” as St. Paul says (Heb. 11:35). And so it is unavoidable for us, too, to bear a little shame, if we wish to follow Him. He bore shame for our salvation, the cross of shame, and when we share that shame for His sake, according to His commandment, and in order to reconcile ourselves to Him, He considers that a response of gratitude, and He measures out His gifts to us.
Furthermore, our Saviour bore shame in suffering “without the gate” (Heb. 13:12), outside the gate, that is to say, completely cast out. He came to this earth and was rejected by the Synagogue, which was founded in His name. He is cast out from it; He has no place in the House of God upon earth, though He is eaten up by the zeal of the House of His Father (cf. Ps. 69:10 Lxx, John 2:17). In a similar manner, the monk bears shame: he has no dignity, not even ecclesiastical dignity. His is a very humble estate. As priests, we have glory. We preside over an assembly and dispense the word of God. This is blessed, of course. This ministry is given to us for the building up of the Body of the Church. But it is a temporary thing. In the World to Come, there will be no such ministries. Then there shall only be love – the love of the Master. In the same way that Christ came to earth and was rejected, and even suffered, being cast outside the gate, outside the camp of this world, so also do monks try to imitate this way. They go outside of this world, outside the camp of this world, to meet Christ. This lends an eschatological perspective to the way of the monks. That is to say, they vigilantly await the Bridegroom; they stand ready to receive Him. As was mentioned earlier, this is the only way not to slumber in this “awaiting,” before the Coming of our Lord. It is the only way to maintain our inspiration for salvation.
And now I come to a more specific point. But before I do so, I should like to demonstrate a little more this way of accepting the shame of the Lord and receiving the grace of His salvation. Remember when the Lord was going through Jericho to Jerusalem for His Holy Passion, a very noble and notable man of Jericho, Zacchaeus, desired to see the Lord, but was unable to do so, because he was “little of stature,” as the Gospel tells us (Luke 19:3). So he made himself a laughing stock, and climbed up a sycamore tree in order to be able to see the Lord. He suffered shame because of his desire to see the Lord, and the Lord noticed him. And not only did He notice him, but He spoke to him saying, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house” (Luke 19:5). The Lord visited his house, because He saw Zacchaeus’ suffering of shame as a “kinship” with Him. Zacchaeus put himself in the Way of the Lord, voluntarily suffering shame, and so it was unavoidable that he should meet the Lord; and, as we know, the Lord joined Zacchaeus. And do you remember what happened? Christ visited Zacchaeus, and from the moment of the Lord’s visitation, his heart was enlarged and he was restored to spiritual health, and straightway desired to restore every injustice he had committed. He said, “If I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). This “fourfold” is very significant, for it indicates the four dimensions of the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ: “the breadth, and length, and depth, and height” (Eph. 3:18), which became the source of every grace, the source of every gift. The depth of this great mystery is “the way down,” to the nethermost parts; its height is “His rising up,” above the Heavens; and its breadth and length is seen in the grace of His Cross reaching all nations: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me,” says the Lord (John 12:32).
Zacchaeus, by putting himself in the Way of the Lord, and bearing a little shame for His sake, found the Lord a companion, a guest in his house, and therefore his heart was enlarged to embrace all people. So, when we put ourselves in the Way of our Lord, and we learn to “go down,” we become partakers of his gift, and this gift enlarges the heart, and then man finds his true destiny. Because each one of us, if we are to be in the image of the new Adam, Christ, should bear in his heart the rest of humanity. Therefore, whoever puts himself in the Way of the Lord receives this enlargement of the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord, and this enlargement makes him universal. We cannot become universal with technology, with computers and mobile phones, and such things. True universality comes when we put ourselves in the Way of the Lord. That is why St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Brethren, be ye also enlarged!” (2 Cor. 6:13). He wanted them to know the power of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, and thereby become “enlarged.” When we read our Fathers, St. Silouan for example, we see that the monk’s calling is fulfilled when he becomes an intercessor for the whole world. And we see this phenomenon clearly in the case of the Apostles, who said, “It is not expedient that we should leave the preaching of the word of God, and be spent in serving tables, the widows and the poor. Let us choose seven people for this ministry.” And they chose seven deacons to help in these matters (cf. Acts 6:1-6). Man truly fulfils his destiny, his purpose – he fulfils God’s will for him – when he becomes an intercessor in his prayers, bares in his heart the whole world, and humbly brings every creature before God in fervent supplication. This is impossible, humanly speaking. It is only possible if the state of the new Adam is transmitted to us. Just as God desires all mankind to be saved (cf. I Tim. 2:4), so He imparts to us the same mind and the same heart which was in Christ Jesus, as says St. Paul to the Philippians (cf. Phil. 2:5).
In the monastery we learn this very concretely. We are a small community – let us say twenty to twenty-five people – and every time we stand before God, immediately, together with our standing before God, we bring before Him at least these twenty-five fellows, with whom we form that body in that place. And we learn to widen our existence. Every time I stand before God, in my heart there are at least twenty-five people. And if I am a priest, I stand and bear in my heart my parishioners. This is an exercise for monks and priests. Slowly but surely the day will come when the Lord will see this spirit in them, and “He that is faithful in that which is least will be made faithful also in much,” says the Lord (cf. Luke 16:10), and then He will impart to them His Spirit, which embraces the whole world. So, the monastery is a place where we exercise ourselves daily to acquire the universality of Christ.
Now, having said all this, I want to be even more daring, and ask for your forgiveness and tolerance for what I am about to say. We monks are strange people. St. Paul says that we have to become mad first, before acquiring a little bit of a mind (cf. I Cor. 3:18). Let us put it in a different way. In the history of monasticism, every time God gave some great word to a monk, announcing through that word the deep judgments of His will for the world, the monks of that monastery, for generations and generations, would repeat the word of this holy monk, and in doing so they served their fellow people, and worked out their own salvation. In our case, in our monastic family, the Lord gave a word to our Father in God, St. Silouan, who was recently canonized, and the word he was given was the following: “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not!” In his writings, where St. Silouan speaks in great simplicity, but with apostolic authority, not a single word is a human word: all that he says is given by the Holy Spirit. If you read him, you will immediately understand this. In his writings, he says that the word which God gave him – “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not!” – is a noble and great science. It was the Lord Himself who gave him this commandment at a very tragic moment in his life, when he was really in the hell of despair. The Lord sounded this word in his heart, and together with his word, He imparted to him the state of His grace, which liberated him from every impurity and captivity of mind. For to “keep thy mind in hell” means to be placed in the Way of the Lord, and bear shame for the Lord, and stand in the judgment of the Lord, and to judge oneself as worthy of the worst punishment – that is, that we are worthy even of hell. But, this is not done in a morbid way. Far from it! For this is done out of love for the Lord, and in faith, without despairing, because he is also able to pull us out of the depths of hell. St. Silouan was living his hell, and it was as if the Lord had said to him, “Well, remain as you are, be humble, and accept that you are worthy of that, but do not despair.” And strange wonder, the Lord offered him hell, and his spirit emerged in triumph. From that moment on, his mind was cleansed, and his enemies – the devils which kept appearing to him – disappeared. When we put ourselves in the Way of our Lord, “going down,” the enemy cannot follow us, because this is a humble way. The enemy cannot “go down.” Lucifer wants to set his throne above the throne of God, and the entire world is poisoned by his spirit. But when we accept the injunction of the Lord, and we learn to judge ourselves, and we learn to go down, we are delivered, because the enemy cannot follow us. And when we are delivered, then we come up again with the strength of the Lord. We “go down” in order to “go up,” but we must first go down. And we say, “Lord, I am the worst of all.” Remember how in the Gospel, when the Apostles came to the Lord, and said to Him, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). The Lord gave them a teaching, and at the end says to them, “When ye shall have done all these things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). So this – to consider ourselves worse than all – is the summit of ascetical humility.
But there is yet another kind of humility, says St. Silouan, which is indescribable – the humility of Christ. He says that when we see the Lord – he himself was accounted worthy of seeing Him – at the moment of the vision, man acquires this indescribable humility of Christ, and so much does he desire that the Lord be magnified, that he himself is willing to be decreased even to hell, provided that the Lord is magnified. So great is the love that is imparted! This is what we find in the Book of Revelation, where we read that the saints loved God “unto death” (Rev. 12:11). Only when it overcomes death is love strong. When we are threatened by death, and yet believe in Christ and follow Him “whithersoever he goeth” (Rev. 14:4), even to “the nethermost parts” (cf. Eph. 4:10), is our faith and love for the Lord stronger than death, conquering death. In thy light shall we see light” (Ps. 36:9), says the Psalmist, and when we see the Lord in His Light, we see two things: on one hand, we see the spotless and indescribable holiness of our Saviour; and on the other, we see our terrible and wretched ugliness. We hate the latter, and we ardently desire the former, even “unto death.” We condemn ourselves to hell, because of the darkness and distortion that we bear within us, but we have a longing for the holiness of the Lord, which is stronger even than death. “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not!”
Having seen the state that our fall has condemned us to, we count ourselves as worthy of hell, but of course we do not despair; we are helped by the Holy Spirit. I am not speaking here about a psychological activity; this is the mystery of our faith. As soon as we place ourselves under that judgment, the Spirit co-works within us, testifying of the activity of the exercise. When we condemn ourselves even unto death, to the worst condemnation, how can we be shaken by any other misfortune in this life? By insults, by hatred, by illness? By voluntarily putting ourselves beneath every creature, we humble ourselves so that we have the strength to bear things of lesser difficulty. That is why the Prophet Micah says, “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him” (cf. Mic. 7:9). I have my sinfulness, therefore I am ready to bear the chastening of the Lord. And by continually doing so, standing before God, we see that this exercise, which the saint was taught by the Lord Himself, contains all the features of the Way of the Lord: shame – we bear the shame of our spiritual poverty at that moment; judgment – we stand before God, and we give glory and justice to Him, and are ready to accept the “shame of the face” upon us, as the Prophet Daniel says, “To Thee, O Lord, all justice and to us the shame of the face” (cf. Dan. (9:8 Lxx). Moreover, we take on pain, that part of the Way of the Lord which is the Cross. When we strive to follow this way, we are pierced by a terrible pain on all levels of our being; and that pain becomes salutary, because it gathers all our spirit into one, in our heart. And by this concentration, we fulfill the commandment of God, because we are commanded to love God with all our heart and mind (cf. Deut. 6:5, Matt. 22:37). But in our ordinary fallen sate, our mind is divided into a thousand pieces. We have one thing in our mind, another in our senses, and yet another in our heart: we are completely dispersed and divided. This activity, however, concentrates the mind in the heart, and once the mind is joined to the heart and exercises dominion over all the nature of man, it turns the whole being of man to God. Then man fulfils properly the first commandment – to love God with all his heart, with all his mind, with all his being (cf. Matt. 22:37). When you love Him in that way, you will receive His Spirit. You will receive the enlargement of His Spirit and embrace the whole world in your intercession, thus fulfilling the second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself (cf. Lev. 19:18), Matt. 22:39), because your neighbor becomes the content of your heart.
We never cease to wonder when we see the example of our Lord. Going alone to Golgotha; and before Golgotha, He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane with bloody sweat. Christ sweated blood in His prayer for the whole world (cf. Luke 22:44). From the Gospel of St. John, we learn that He was addressing his prayer to God the Father, “O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee” (John 17:25). That is to say, in His heart at that moment there was only one thought. He did not care who was coming to arrest Him, whether they were Romans or Jews. He said, “The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11). He was conversing with the Father, and He accepted the Cup of His Father, because He willed that the world be saved. He was praying for the salvation of this world, which “knew not” the Heavenly Father. Therefore, in Gethsemane He bore in his heart and prayed for the whole world. He ascended Golgotha alone, bearing in His heart the whole world. He was crucified with the whole world in His heart. He went down to the nether regions of the earth, and was buried with the same content in his heart. But because His death was sinless and voluntary, He was raised the third day, having tasted just enough of death in order to destroy it for our sake. He was risen the third day with the same content in His heart. All that died with Him, was risen again with Him. And it is the same with us: if we die completely before the Lord, with what we die we rise up again; and if we have embraced the whole world in our prayer, or if we have brought the whole world before the Lord in our priestly service and offered a reasonable bloodless sacrifice for the whole world, that means we are spreading the blessing of God in return upon all creation.
That is man’s calling, and that is how monks live it more concretely in the act of repentance; because repentance and monasticism in our tradition are designated by the same word. When we say “my repentance” in Greek, it means “my monastery.” “I return to my repentance tomorrow,” let’s say, means “I return to my monastery.” So, there it becomes more specific. It is the same gift of life, the same gift of grace, the same gift of the Holy Spirit. The same promise is given to all of us, but monks organize their lives, “artificially,” in such a way as to be able not to fail in acquiring this gift.
But this Way does not apply only to monks. If you carefully read, for example, the prayers before Holy Communion, you will notice that they are divided into two parts. In the first part, there is a downward movement; and in the second part, there is an upward, God-ward movement. In the first part, for example, when we say, “O Lord of heaven and earth, though I am unworthy of heaven and earth, and even of this transitory life, and have sinned more than any other,” and so on, we are making a very daring movement downward, judging ourselves and putting all the blame upon ourselves. And having done that, coming to the middle of the prayer we say, “But, O Lord, despise not Thy servant: come to my help, and give me the grace to partake without condemnation,” and so on. Therefore, we have one movement downwards, and then, having reached the bottom, the but of faith comes. This is the spirit of the Church expressed in Her prayers. When diving, to use an analogy, we do down, and once our feet hit the bottom we begin to surface. In the same way, when we have gone down in spirit, having crushed the arrogance of our mind and insensitivity and hardness of our heart, and the heart is “bitten” with contrition – contrition being the beginning of humility, which attracts grace (Jas. 4:6) – once we have made this movement and found grace…we go up! And then with boldness we stand before God, and present Him all our petitions.
This is the great science. I have said only a few words, and I do not know if I have said all that I wanted to say, but this is the Way of the Lord, the way of the great science. This science unifies the whole being of man through repentance, which makes him able to receive the enlargement of the Spirit, and embrace the whole world with his spirit, with his heart. And in so doing, man justifies the purpose of his creation. Forgive me, father.