Concerning How the Christian Life Begins In Us (part one of St. Theophan the Recluse’s “The Path of Salvation”)


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The following consists of the first discussion prompt Ephraim wrote 02/01/2010 (Ven. Macari the Great/Meatfare Monday) for the parish bookclub he was trying to start and which concerns the beginning of The Path of Salvation text.

There is so much in this book, simple and easy to read as it is…it is easy to miss something huge in its solubrious flow. Let me try to follow up on the first post, and then cover some things from Part I (this post will be significantly added to through the editing function as time allows).

In our first post we asked what else than the desire for success on the Christian path does St. Theophan say we need.  Besides the desire to walk the path of Christ’s Law, we also need what he calls active wisdom. By this he means that we need not only knowledge but also strength to act–and we must do so indeed with the aid of Divine Grace, as Basil Miller points out. Desire, knowledge, and strength to act amount to a kind of striving, which readers may gather entails a constant struggle.

They are correct, according to St. Theophan, as he is writing precisely to address the inevitable threat of getting lost at the crossroads. Here we run the fatal risk of imagining oneself to be saved, which leads us down the stray path rather than the True path. But where, exactly, do we go wrong here?

Where we go wrong here is at the same time when we begin to flatter the Adversary, who sets any possible traps to regain any and all victims. Why, though is this threat inevitable?

It is inevitable because of our sinful inclinations, and also our disordered faculties, under which things can be presented in a false light, all while we think them to be fully true. This grave danger is the deceiver and destroyer of many.

Hence this text sets out to show anyone today desiring to walk the path of Christ’s Law any incurring deviations–to warn of them, to expose them fully, and to show how they can best be avoided by the vigilance of Orthodoxy. Nothing short of a set of indispensable guiding rules for the Christian life is necessary here. Christ’s Law is indeed a flesh and blood life, a complete way of living, in the fullness of love for humanity, rather than just a written law, which is all people had in the time of Old Testament save the messianic prophecies! With the freedom comes the greatest responsibility of all!

Discovering how to perfect oneself in such a life, then, is the main goal of this discussion, and this requires we know exactly how to attain both the saving desire for communion with God and the zeal to remain in it. St. Theophan wants to show us how best to reach God without misfortune, and as some of the comments have pointed out, sustaining such zeal is incredibly difficult. And by “zeal” in this context, something much different than the cut-throat passion for professional advancement and progress which runs rampant in the world today is meant.

We read, rather, of a delicate sowing and development of what we call the Christian life. It helps to contrast it with what we already know so well that we take it completely for granted: the natural life.

The Christian life is encountered at once as an inconvenient demand; one becomes Christian always after one is born, whereas the natural life just begins and we are thrown headlong into it unawares. Encountering this demand, he even says, is like sustaining an injury. Even in the natural life, any growth had implies a struggle has been undergone. The natural world, however, has been brought into agreement with our whims to the extent that we do not exactly welcome yet an entirely new kind of life and struggle.

This beginning of the true Christian life, then, is the beginning of a new life, a re-creation, which endows one with new powers.

In such a life, says Vladyka, we receive Christianity as a law, a resolution, in a life not otherwise surrounded by elements favourable to it. Our body and soul remain unadapted to it; we cannot at once submit to the yolk of Christ.

The seeker is thus beginning a great labor of sweat, as she has to educate her whole person–every faculty–to the Christian standard. And the faculties naturally have little or no inclination to such.

This is why St. Theophan talks so much about becoming a Soldier for Christ:  we must fight the spiritual war with the double-edged sword of forcing oneself and opposing oneself–with which we must “fight and win all land, even one’s own.” It should be no surprise that this struggle proves labor-intensive and requires much long, and often sorrowful, exertion.

She must fight until Christian principles emerge victorious, until there is no opposition, until the whole composition of human nature has been penetrated, until the self has been completely dislodged by these demands that are hostile to the inclinations. She must reach a state of passionlessness and purity–that which only is worthy of the blessedness of the pure in heart.

This destination is the place in us of the Christian life: to see God in ourselves in the most sincere communion with Him.

This life happens, we read, in three primary stages out of which we may describe and determine its laws, and indicate most precisely and completely the path of salvation. These are:

  • Turning to God (from darkness to Light, from satan to God)

  • Purification/Self-Amendment (cleanses the heart from every impurity in order to receive Christ the Lord who is coming to her)

  • Sanctification (the state of Blessed Communion, and the goal of all ascetic endeavors; the Lord comes, takes up His abode in her heart, communes with her).

Complete guidance in this should show the following:

  1. How the Christian life begins in us (Our current consideration)

  2. How it is perfected, ripened, and strengthened

  3. How it manifests itself in its perfection.

When and how it begins in us depends on us! Calling oneself a Christian or belonging to the Church do not constitute decisive signs of a true life in Christ.

We must have the zeal and the strength to remain in communion with God–the essence of the Christian life–through the active fulfillment of His Holy Will, by Faith in Our Lord, by Grace, to the Glory of His most Holy Name.

At first, the status of communion as the essence of the Christian life is not clear to the seeker, but, as Vladyka says one can feel or see later in it in the “ardor of active zeal to please God alone in a Christian manner.”

Characteristic of this sustaining vision and total self-sacrifice is a hatred of all that opposes this. One who receives a constantly active ardor of zeal has been blessed with a life in the Law of Christ. But one must ask for it and be filled by it, and not accept every worldly phenomena especially if it occludes the fire.

For example, one may hate the contemporary requirement of professionalism, whereupon the status of selfhood is relegated exclusively to the ascension to a particular career plateau or echelon–for it requires a lion’s share of pride while a mouse’s share of humility.

One may ask, “Can we alone do good deeds?” Certainly, yet it is not a question, says Vladyka, of seperate or individual good deeds, but rather of one’s WHOLE LIFE–a rebirth! One does better to close one’s mouth about it until one is unwaveringly in it: we all know of too many “self-trusting” beginnings and buildings of the Christian life.

ONLY the eternal power of God has the characteristic of salvation: it alone can support us unchanging despite the unceasing temporal changes of this world. This is why in our asking, we shall ready ourselves to receive it fully, to be abundantly filled.

This, Vladyka says, is a “great agitation,” which will “raise us up and draw us out” in a world where nothing else really goes against our self-love and everything proceeds according to our will. St. Theophan, therefore, turns to that mighty teacher known as experience, asking, in the face of temptation, when exactly do thoughts of self-satisfaction come into play?

The seeker is ready for every kind of holy and pure life…when all is calm, and there are no personal disturbances or deceptions into sin. Yet upon the first quivers of a passion or a temptation, one finds oneself at once in the throes of sin!

When all is set aright one typically cannot even be stirred to anger given the most egregious affectation from without. But when things go bad or wrong, a single glance has one “beside oneself.”  It is horrific to ponder this volatile situation of the natural man, yet we precisely presuppose our trustworthiness, and, Vladyka says, “the evil in the depths of your heart is stirred or roused like dust by the wind.”

We take it for granted that we alone can maintain a Christian life, yet our experience will condemn this natural attitude every time. And once every thought and desire begins to disturb the soul, everyone forgets themselves and cries out unawares with the Psalm, “out of the depths I cry unto Thee O Lord!”

One sees good but one does evil. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41). “When I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom 7:21). Holy Father St. Theophan, pray to God for us! He does as much, and writes:

“We are in captivity! Redeem us O Lord!”

Here is how a fall often happens, as he describes it:

  1. One dreams of remaining in the good (i.e. presupposes we are self-grounding beings).

  2. An image comes to the imagination.

  3. Desire/passion is born/aroused.

  4. One is attracted and falls.

  5. After which, one only has to look at oneself saying, “How bad that was!”

  6. Opportunity for distraction comes.

  7. One again is ready to forget oneself.

One of the first tricks of the Adversary, Vladyka points out, is instilling in us the idea that we may trust ourselves alone. This, he adds, is very tricky, because while it is not a renunciation of Grace, it is also not a feeling for the help of Grace, either.

The Enemy says something like, “Do not go to the light where they wish to give you some kind of new powers, you are good just the way you are!”  And we are set at ease by this, writes Vladyka, while the Enemy meanwhile only but does the following:

  • Throws a rock at you (mounts unpleasantness).

  • Leads you into a slippery place (the deception of the passions).

  • Strews with flowers a closed gnoose (deceptively good conditions)

And we sink lower and lower to the pit of evil upon the threshold of Hell. One should cry out unto us as unto the first Adam, “Man, where are you? Where have you gone?”

Such a cry would be like the action of Grace, which Vladyka writes compels the sinner for the first time to look about herself. And to begin to live in a Christian way is precisely to seek Grace.

“The minute Grace descends and joins to your will is the minute the Christian life is born in you,” he writes.

You know at once it is powerful, firm, and greatly fruitful. And we all know that for the Orthodox the place wherein Grace is received is in the Holy and Great Mysteries.

Two things happen in the Mysteries, actually, he points out. The acquisition of Grace, and the sanctification by its means of our nature.

What one does here is offer of God’s action, present to God one’s own worthless nature, and He transforms it. We glean out of this with Vladyka, moreover, that:

It was God-pleasing to hide his power beneath the cover of simple materiality at the beginning of true life (35).

We move on, then, to a discussion of the beginning of True Christian life, in that of Baptism and Repentance.

Baptism, he says firstly, makes a man worthy to be vouchsafed the gifts of Grace through the other Mysteries. It is the “door to the house of Pre-eternal Wisdom.” The entrance to that house, at which we are clothed in a garment worthy of it, and are given a new name and a sign is impressed upon our whole being, by which Heavenly and earthly beings will later distinguish them.

“If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature” (II Cor. 15:17). Going from being one who is unbaptized to one who is baptized is a turning (metanoia) from the darkness to the Light, from death to Life.

The baptized receive several spiritually outward privleges and gifts. She is delivered from all inherited evils by the power of the Cross of Christ, and becomes a joint-heir with Christ of the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e. becomes a Child of God).

Satan, then, loses authority and power to act arbitrarily in her, whereas prior to baptism Satan only directed her unto the multiplication of sin. We are conceived in iniquities and are born in sins (i.e. inherited/ancestral sin), into a condition disfavored by God, a child of wrath, disordered and ruined.

Thus, in natural life one is subjected to Satan who acts through this indwelling of sin in us. And outwardly in Baptism we are delivered from this sin-centeredness by the magisterial power of Christ.

Inwardly, in Baptism, we are healed of the affliction of sin, as the power of Grace penetrates and restores here the divine order in all of its beauty, and treats the disorder in the structure and relationship of the powers and parts. One’s chief orientation is changed from being of oneself to being of God, to pleasing God and increasing one’s good deeds.

Therefore, Baptism is a rebirth, or a new birth. St. Paul, Vladyka points out, compares it to the very Ressurected Savior. It harbors the same bright nature in renewal as one is washed by the human nature of Christ through His Ressurection in Glory (Rom. 6:4).

Out of the fount, the whole activity of a person changes from being directed unto oneself and sin to that of God and righteousness. “That henceforth we should not serve sin,” says Vladyka quoting the Apostle. “Sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom 6:14).

Given these latter two quotes of Scripture we also discover something further about Baptism. “The power which draws us toward sin,” Vladyka writes, “is not entirely exterminated in Baptism.”

Sin is only put in a powerless position. The Grace of God now has primacy for the soul that consciously gives itself over to it in Baptism.

Vladyka quotes St. Diadochos, “Grace formerly acted from without. Now it has settled in the heart and sin attracts us from the outside.”

Sin, in other words, has been banished, but settles outside, in the parts and members of the body. It thus, says Vladyka, acts through attacks in a fragmented state, as a constant tempter, a seducer even. But sin is no longer a master!

“He disturbs and alarms, but does not command!” Thus the new life is born in Baptism (Philokalia I, p. 279:76).

It is important to point out that in turning from the darkness to the Light, the illumined has received the Lord’s Grace with desire. She has sought it freely.

Vladyka says that this relationship between Grace and freedom is one of mutual cooperation; only in this free stirring of one’s desire (i.e. seeking) for the new life is it given. In it, one has repented and entirely dedicated oneself to God.

But, he says, this condition is much clearer in the case of illumined adults than in infants, who do not yet possess the use of reason and freedom. How does this condition for the descension of Grace get fulfilled in the case of illumined infants?

The question should rather ask who fulfills this condition for the infant. It is others–the parents, the sponsor–who fulfill this condition on behalf of an infant in baptism. The way it happens, Vladyka says, depends upon the means by which it is done.

The sponsor gives the promise that later the child will receive the Grace shown it out of its own desire, and be glad, thankful, and will confess desire for such could that have been chosen as an infant. In so doing, the sponsor takes on the obligation to bring this infant precisely to this state of freedom for Grace.

Hence, for the infant, the seed of Grace, of life in Christ, acts as an educating power that eventually shows its complete form through Grace itself along with the rational character of this creature. The child grows to dedicate to God and oneself to the indwelling power of Grace with desire, joy, and gratitude for it (i.e. by Grace and now also freedom).

True Christian life becomes hers, now that she has come to awareness and fully comensurated her life to what she has fully received. Such a reception, however, says Vladyka, must be carefully cultivated.

How is this beginning of the True Christian life best cultivated? It is best cultivated through effective means of developing and nurturing the seed of the Grace-given life, and consistently through such means upon the baptized infant.

Vladyka writes, “Grace overshadows the heart and dwells in it when it has a turning away from sin and towards God.” Becoming true in act, Grace becomes manifest, and one receives the favor of God, co-inheritance with Christ, and a dwelling outside the sphere of Satan and the danger of condemnation to Hell.

So in a sense it is a matter of cultivated attitude, whether or not the infant grows up to fall back into sin. This is why the whole attention of the sponsor and the parents is required to completely crush sin. They must act as if the child will choose its Grace for itself later, and help the child become accustomed to the powers of spirit and body that will work for the service of God.

We then enter a discussion of how in every circumstance to support and strengthen the good side in children and make powerless/crush the bad, from the cradle onward. We look with the glorious vision of the then-Vladyka Theophan into exactly what constitutes a Christian upbringing.

We begin with the infant in the cradle. Firstly, despite the infant being a mere infant, helpless and weak, we in fact can influence the child’s life at this stage. After all, it is alive, and looks upon the world and those who will bring it into focus. In and through the Holy Mysteries, the child can be immersed in a saving atmosphere, specifically, in the wholeness of the life in the Church provided by the faith and piety of the parents.

This influence, Vladyka writes, instills the life of Grace conceived through Baptism in the infant.

Also, we join His new member to the Lord through His Most Pure Body and Blood in the most lively and active way with bringing the child for Communion in the Holy Mysteries of Christ as frequently as possible. Not only does this sanctify the child, but also gives him or her inner peace and renders him or her impervious to dark powers.

Vladyka here mentions the oft-cited calming effect Communion has upon children — they lay aside their natural needs and are otherwise filled with joy and lightness of spirit, “ready to embrace everybody as their own.” Also, countless miracles have accompanied Communion of sick or infirm infants (e.g. St. Andrew of Crete).

Also, there are many means of visible protection of the child that we can take up both at church and at home.

At church we also should take the growing child for frequent veneration of the Holy Cross, Icons, and the Gospel.

At home we should place the child underneath the icons often, sign him or her with the cross, sprinkle them with Holy Water, burn incense, crossing the cradle and food, receive the blessing of a priest, bring Icons from the Church into the house, have moleben services.

The child also will have the invisible protection of its Guardian Angel, from which also the parents will gain inspiration, writes Vladyka.

All of these strong protections and powerful, active means of inspiration are dissolved, however, by unbelief, carelessness, impiety, and any bad lifestyle of the parents.All of the means Vladyka mentions, therefore, must be used and used properly, both outwardly and inwardly (especially important is the latter, writes Vladyka).

But, a child is innocent, we may interject! In the case of bad influence on behalf of parents, Vladyka writes, divine aid may eventually cease to descend upon the infant given the inconceivable tie between parents and their children.

It becomes incumbent upon us, then, to look into this issue of the influence of the parents upon the growing child (p. 44).

We should recall here with Vladyka, that spirit itself in our temporal lives is impotent without the natural force we give it in adorning the majesty of Our Lord to our greatest abilities. So it is with the child in a more explicit sense, save through the direct contact between souls through the heart or feeling.

By feelings here we take Vladyka to mean something more like moral tenor rather than what is commonly portrayed by mushy, flippant appeal to affectation and nostalgia.

The parents, however, find it easy to exert their influence on the infant’s soul — a power engendered by the fullness and depth of their feeling for or along with the child. It’s as if they disappear into the child or pour their whole soul into his or her welfare.

Whatever the case, Vladyka writes, their soul will indeed influence the child if they are pious. And the best “outward conductor” of such powers are that meeting place of anyone’s soul with any other’s: the eyes. Vladyka exhorts the parents to use the eyes for “the passage of holy feeling,” which cannot but help “annoint the soul of the child with their holy oil.”

The parents’ gaze constitutes Love itself — its Faith in and of the power to preserve this very gift from God which afterall is not but a simple child. The overall spiritual atmosphere, thusly, will pour its character into the child, “like blood itself deriving nutrients and such from its surrounding atmosphere.”

Or, like a newly crafted vessel perpetually smelling of that which was first poured into it, the proper influence of the pious souls of the parents from within and without univocally “place its seal upon the child” in a Grace-giving and saving way and should be continued into adolescence and early adulthood.

When the child comes to awareness in adolescence, moreover, the attention should be doubled.  Vladyka reminds us that all along sin does not sleep, but taps at the door of the parents through soul and body, and potentially “rocks the cradle,” as it were.

Inward warfare is inevitable at every stage, always and already. This means we must vigilantly uproot our souls and bodies from sin and give them over, fully, to God. We extend this to the soul and body of the child by laying a solid foundation and by using our rational knowledge of the reliability of the chosen means for raising him or her up.

Thus we must make clear what sin desires, what nourishes it, and precisely how it takes possession of us. Vladyka gives here three fundamental allures to sin in three primary faculties and their corresponding allures:

  1. Mental – arbitrariness of mind (i.e. curiosity)

  2. Will – self-will gratified

  3. Feeling – self-centeredness and pleasures

We must train the child, says Vladyka, exactly how to separate oneself from these allures, how to master them, and how to render them powerless.

Certainly an overarching question comes to mind here of how feasible any of this minutia truly is taken as a whole — which Vladyka says is required — given the overwhelming task the child already has of mastering the immediately surrounding physical world?

Let us take up this discussion in a new post, as we look to the issue of directing the developing powers of the soul and body, and their chief activies along with the spirit.

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