On the Saints

The following are a few selections from Bozhii lyudi (Moi dukhovnye vstrechi) [God’s People (My Spiritual Encounters)] by Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov).

Of course they [remembrances] do not include every aspect of monastic life; they do not speak about the selfless struggle of monks, which only they themselves, their spiritual father, and God Himself knows. I will speak only about the more eminent personalities and  inspiring occurrences in Optina. It is understood that such a description will be one-sided. Correctly did a friend and fellow student at St. Petersburg Theological Academy, subsequently Archimandrite John (Raev), who would die early from consumption, one day remark that with such descriptions I am leading the reader, but foremost the listener, into some delusion. He then used the following comparison: If you look at a meadow or a flowerbed from above, then it will seem beautiful with its flowers and bright green color. But if you lower your eyes you will see a naked tube with shoots. Also here is not the source of life but lower, in the ground, where the rough and sinuous roots seek (in complete darkness) nourishment for the beautiful leaves and flowers. Here is nothing appealing for the eyes, but, on the contrary, it is ugly and dirty… And, what is more, various worms crawl around and even chew and kill the root and with it the leaves and flowers wither and die.

It is the same in monasticism, said Fr. John, which is only pretty on the outside (looking from above), but the very podvig of a monk is arduous, passes through uncleanness, and for the most part the monastic life is a battle of the cross with sinful passions. And this is what you, he said, do not show in your stories.

All of that is completely true, I said, but also in the lives of the saints more time is spent describing the inspiring moments of their lives and rare podvigs. But the battle with sin is usually remembered briefly and in passing; hardly ever is it recalled in detail. The only exception is the life of St. Mary of Egypt–from stinking sin to angel-like purity and perfection. But in this case, the writers comment that they tell of it as a necessity, so that with the example of such a change they could console and strengthen the weak and despairing strugglers in the world and in monasteries. So will we, generally, not dwell on the dark side–it is not instructive. And I do not even know about it in other people–what would I speak about? However, where it is necessary this also will be mentioned. For it is truly necessary and beneficial to remember that the height and holiness of God-pleasers is preceded and accompanied by a spiritual battle; sometimes it is not very easy or pretty.

By the way, the Fr. John mentioned should himself, in all justice, be counted among the ascetics. He lived for a short while and died while the inspector of the Poltava Seminary.

On Father Anatolii (St. Anatolii the Younger of Optina)

After two or three days, some news spread through the monastery: the Kaluga Icon of the Mother of God (September 2 [Church calendar]/ September 15 [secular calendar]). At the appointed time, many monks and pilgrims went out to meet the holy icon on the forest road and, taking it, started back for the monastery singing hymns. Suddenly I saw that several people were separating from the crowd and very hastily went to the right side. After a few moments a dense crowd had already gathered. They were surrounding someone or something in a compact circle. From simple curiosity I also headed over wondering what it was all about. To leave an icon of the Mother of God, there has to have been a good reason. Pushing a little bit to the center of the crowd I saw that everyone, with touching love and happy smiles, was looking at some small monk in a klobuk with a small unkempt gray beard. And he was also smiling at everyone a bit. The crowd was trying to receive a blessing from him. I saw how everyone around that small old man really did light up and rejoiced. It was just as darling children meet their own mother.

“Who is that?” I asked the one next to me. “It’s batushka Fr. Anatoly!” he affectionately answered, surprised, however, at my ignorance.

I had heard about him but had not happened to meet him yet, nor was there a particular need as I did not have any questions for him. But now the question about Fr. Anatoly himself appeared: what is this miracle? People even left an icon and rushed to a man. Why was this? And the answered just appeared: a holy man is also a miracle of God, just like an icon,  just a manifest miracle. A saint is an image of God, only personified in man. As in an icon, so in holy people, God Himself, by his grace, lives. Both by one and the other God Himself draws us to Himself with His gifts of joy, comfort, mercy, and spiritual light. It is like when the Savior, Moses, and Elias appeared on Mt. Tabor in the grace-filled, uncreated light to the disciples and Peter in delight exclaimed, “Lord! It is good for us to be here” (Luke 9:33). So also, through holy people, that transfiguring grace both shines and warms. Sometimes, as happened more than once with St. Seraphim of Sarov, it was apparent in a visible, although supernatural, light. It was the same in this case, through batushka (what a tender and respectful word!) shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God. And people warmed themselves and were comforted in that light.

I’m reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul about Christians, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you…?” (I Cor. 6:19)

And another of of his sayings that every Christian must grow into a perfect image, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13)… This is the height given to the Christian: the God-Man Christ Himself!

And this is not boldness of robbing the unattainable (Phil. 2:6) but a command of the Savior given at his last conversation, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23)

This is the aim and task of the Christian life: communion with God through the grace of the Holy Spirit. And then grace-filled people will begin to shine their light, that is, God’s light, also on others.

O Lord, how great in and of themselves and how extremely important for other people are these holy people! There is no one higher than them!

I also happened to meet my own so-called “great” people but I never felt their greatness: a man is just a man, ordinary. But when I happened to stand before saints their true greatness was clearly felt. These are extraordinary people! And sometimes it is even frightful to stand before them-as I vividly experienced while serving with Fr. John of Kronstadt.

Then it becomes understandable why we venerate saints, write icons of them, prostrate before them, and kiss them. They are truly worthy of this! It also becomes clear why in church we incense not only icons of the Savior, the Theotokos, and saints but also generally all Christians: in incensing, we render worship and veneration to God Himself, who is apparent in his images: both in icons and in people.

For every Christian must be an image of God. One day I happened to ask a certain elder: “Generally, how should we relate to man?” “With reverence,” he answered. I was surprised at his words, “Why?” “Man is the image of God,” he said.

And when that image is restored in man, even people honor him; in paradise, even beasts obeyed Adam. In the lives of Gerasim of the Jordan and Seraphim of Sarov this is written about; and demons even feared them. But residents of heaven rejoiced over them. When the Mother of God appeared with the Apostles Peter and John to St. Seraphim, she said to the Apostles, “This is one of our kind!”

Fr. Anatoly was also of the very same kind. So much joy, love, and tenderness flowed from his face on all that gazed upon him in a sunny glade in the Optina forest.

On Bishop Innocent (Solotchin) of Kherson

Vladyka ate the most simple food: potatoes, schshi, porridge. But if some “important” guest showed up, he gave directions to serve the hidden salted fish, eggs, and milk products. He, however, did not touch such “luxuries.” I will write a detailed list later.

“Vladyka, why don’t you eat that yourself?” “It doesn’t agree with my stom-m-mach,” he answered slowly while showing the place where that capricious stomach was located. And he looks at us again with child-like, naive eyes. We were sure that he was only covering up his fasting. He not only did not eat, of course, non-fasting foods, but of fasting foods he picked out the most simple: this also is not at all easy or ordinary.

“Potatoes,” and he amicably pointed at a couple of potatoes, “they agree with my stomach.”

Homily on Forgiveness Sunday

I present to you a homily given on Forgiveness Sunday 2010 by Fr. Maxim Kozlov at St. Tatiana’s Orthodox Church in Moscow, Russia.

Entering into Great Lent, let us be faithful when we get down to business

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!

Today, dear brothers and sisters, it would be more correct to address this homily to you with a different greeting. Not simply “brothers and sisters,” nor “beloved in the Lord,” nor “my dears,” but in such a manner:

Soldiers of Christ our God!

Each of you, at some time received this name-soldier of Christ our God. It was received voluntarily-either by an adult who was baptized and agreed to be a faithful soldier of Christ our God or, even if someone was baptized in infancy, then their godparents made this promise. When we consciously and voluntarily accepted this name of Christian, we confirmed the promise and pledged ourselves to be faithful soldiers of Christ our God.

And today is one of those days, not simply of the liturgical year, but in the life of each of us when we can-and must!-confirm that these are not just words.

Many of us have probably heard that, before the beginning of Great Lent, people of our homeland (Russia-translator) were asked if they plan to fast. Those that said (not even having done anything yet, but just said) that they have an intention to observe the fast as the Orthodox Church teaches and as the Typicon proposes totaled four percent. A few more, around twenty percent, were those who thought about changing a little something in their lives during Great Lent. But those who had an intention to observe the fast as the Church teaches (of course it is understandable that they had in mind not strictly according to the Typicon but according to its essence) were four percent. Meanwhile, we know how many people today are inclined to call themselves Orthodox, to talk a little about Orthodoxy, and, of course, to judge a little about the Church, the hierarchy, and the priests. But when it comes to getting down to business, those who are ready turn out to be very few.

And thus, the fast is just the very time to get down to business, when not just some chatter, some conversations, or some sugariness but real effort is demanded of a person who has decided to call themselves a Christian. This is the first thing about which we have to remind ourselves.

When someone enters into a fast, they may have two incorrect dispositions from the start (there, of course, can be many more but we will focus on two).

There is, for example, the following incorrect disposition: someone from the very start dejectedly disposes themselves to the fast. “Well, here is the fast again. It is especially hard this year; the Nativity Fast just ended and here is Great Lent again. What kind of life is it for us Orthodox when it is one fast after another? We can’t have this or this or this.” When a person disposes themselves this way on the interior, they outwardly do not have the courage to admit it. On the exterior they will observe the fast under constraint, because they have to, or because they are afraid, or out of habit. But a fast without determination, without awareness of the purpose for which we are performing it will not bring the soul of man any benefit.

Another incorrect understanding and disposition at the start of the fast is also possible. It is sometimes the case that a person is inclined to observe the fast with zeal but only hoping that it will end as soon as possible. “I, of course, will comply with everything because the fast must be observed, but my goal is to endure these seven weeks. I will strive to observe everything to a certain extent during these weeks, but I’m just waiting until it ends and then I can break the fast and eat, drink, and be merry.” This is also a completely absurd beginning of the fast. With such a disposition, when a person is just waiting for the fast to end, there will be no benefit from the fast. There are such “hard-working” people who in actual fact don’t love to work but love to rest. They can move mountains but they do so, in reality, so that they would have leisure time sooner. For them, real life begins only when that leisure time begins. But a Christian cannot live in such a way that he observes the fast with diligence but his inner disposition is, “that which I desire begins when the fast ends-that is when the life that I’m longing for will be.”

We must endeavor not to tolerate either of these false dispositions at the beginning of the fast. Let us instead endeavor to return to the thought of faithfulness to Christ our God.

We live at such a time that our Christianity practically doesn’t cost us anything. After all, we don’t live in an age of persecution. In the big picture, there are no persecutions on television, nor in our coworkers laughing at us behind our backs, or even when we sometimes say for strategic reasons that secularists and humanists hinder the Church. They, of course, hinder it, but is this comparable to that thirty, fifty, or seventy years ago? It is not even possible to compare the two.

We live at a time that it is very easy to be a Christian. There are no podvigs; there is no fear or threat for us by the fact that we’re Christians. We can educate our children, we can go to work, we can be state officials, and make money and nothing bad happens. No one will say to you, “If you’re a Christian, go away.” Here today we are given the opportunity to weigh our Christianity a little bit and to understand that it has a price and that for the sake of Christ we must constrain ourselves. This opportunity is a mercy of God. This hardly ever happens in our lives but it is happening right now. Let’s perceive it as God’s mercy to us personally. Let’s reflect on our soul, our immortal soul as we know from Scripture and Church hymnography. The soul is immortal.

Well, what is demanded of us in the big picture? Not much-to refuse certain types of food, to turn off the biathlon and figure skating during the first week of the fast, and to understand that it is impossible to sing “My soul, my soul, arise; why are you sleeping?” and to think about coming home and watching them shoot the targets as these are incompatible things. This is just an example. Each one of us can find something in our life that we need to turn off during these weeks for the sake of Christ and profound life in Him.

Let’s all think for ourselves what we can do, to our own measure. By this, our faithfulness to God is clearly shown.

Everyone always mentions one comparison and we will also talk about it. Truly, a fast (in Russian, post-translator), in a way, is like a guard post in the army. It is well-known that one at a post must serve this time conscientiously. A soldier standing at a post knows that he will be relieved after a time. Yes, there will be a little more time of service but then it will be easier, that term will end. Only for that time, not for his whole life nor even for the whole time in the army does he need to be in constant strain. At that time he must not get distracted, nor fall asleep, nor run off to his girlfriend, nor put his gun aside, nor put his headphones on and look at his iPhone or listen to his iPod, but he must do what he is supposed to do. It will be easier later, but now he must do what he must do.

The Lord wisely arranged our way through the Church knowing that our life is non-linear. We can’t be at all times like robots or like some program going along a straight course. The fast is given to us particularly so that, with some effort, we would find ourselves a few steps higher than our usual level. And even if later we slide down some due to our relaxation, we would have moved at least a little step, at least a few meters up the mountain thanks to Great Lent. The fast is given to us so that we acquire this experience yet during our life.

Faithfulness to the fast implies faithfulness in our relationships with people through thoughtfulness to them with greater profoundness. It implies that we need to complete all that which we usually don’t do, think about those things that we usually don’t think about, complete all that which we usually try to put off because we pity ourselves and not others. In this will be our faithfulness to God and our true path in the fast if we will not put this off. This is also a fast.

There is also one more condition that we must observe entering into the fast. Christ speaks about this condition which we heard today in the Gospel today (Matthew 6:14-15-translator): it is to make oneself have a peaceful heart and to forgive offenses. We must strive to conquer in our heart all hatred, all hostility, and rejection of other people. We must also strive, if we know that we are obviously guilty before others-those intimate with us or distant from us-in some actions, in some words, or in the disposition of our life, to nullify them by changing our life.

Beside this present fast, maybe there will not be another chance, no one knows.

So let’s make a good beginning, faithful soldiers of Christ our God. Let’s remember that our soul is immortal and that the fast is not a disciplinary exercise but the school for life in Christ. Let’s remember that with joy we must enter into it, going to meet God. Not only entering it with the thought that Pascha will be after seven endlessly long weeks but that in the very effort of the fast a meeting with God will happen and the result of that will be the joy of the Paschal night. Let’s force ourselves to be disposed to this favorably and responsibly.


You can find the original here.

Another Homily on Cheese-fare Sunday

Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Eph. 5:14)

By the mercy of the Lord we are again in the arena of the holy fast and repentance! Some of us who together with us last year set out to confession and the holy meal have been taken by the angel of death and stand now before the altar of the righteous God, but we still stand before the alter of mercy! Behind them or before them the doors of the King’s palace have already closed, but before us they stand open! Their fate, perhaps, has already been permanently decided, but ours is still in our own hands! Let us thank the Lord that we have not perished with our sins and has again given us all means for repentance!

How and with what do we thank Him? With the rigorous and faithful usage of these very means for our salvation. Speaking such I do not suppose, brothers, that anyone of you carried out past Lents completely not in a Christian way, even more so that anyone has withdrawn from the Holy Mysteries of the Church, but, oppositely, I suppose that every one of you has come to the holy altar for the receiving of the forgiveness of sins and the mysterious unification with our Lord and Savior through the communion of His body and blood. I also think that all of this, every time, does possesses fruit for the soul and leaves beneficial traces throughout your whole life… But, my brothers, disregarding all of this, allow me to ask you now one question. Repeatedly coming to the spiritual hospital and going through the whole program of heart treatment and repeatedly leaving the Church of God, apparently, justified and healed, did you feel, at least one time, completely healthy spiritually? And if you did feel healthy, did that precious feeling last long?… I don’t hereby suppose that you, after seven days of preparation* and abstinence, suddenly have become completely sinless (this holy lot is for those who have already delivered themselves from the bonds of flesh and blood [i.e., died]). But you must have been more free from sin after that; there must have happened a decisive change for the better in you. The light of Grace in your soul must have been like the morning sun, arising higher and higher, driving away the clouds of confusion, drying all of the streams of sensuality, in order to, finally, bring about a full day of knowing God and piety. Is this how it was with you? Have you noticed in yourself, after the podvig of fasting and repentance, a permanent removal from the world, an approach to God, and a weakening and disappearance of previous bad habits, substituting them with good and Christian habits? It is not hard to answer this question if all this has happened in you and continues to happen. A person, recovered from a serious illness, will readily say that he is healthy. But is it not true, my brothers, that for many of us it is extremely hard to answer the question of we have become healthy in spirit and conscience? Many, on the contrary, must admit with sorrow, as the ancient Israelites, that the opposite happens, “We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!” (Jer. 8:15). Before every fast, confession, and communion we hoped to receive, through them, spiritual health and we accept these Mysteries with joy. However, up to the present we have remained the same as we were previously: our souls are cold to the good and incline to the evil; previous passions have the same power and, often, more; our conscience has the same wounds and our heart has the same burden; and our inner man is completely dead or extremely weak. “We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!”

What, then, does this mean? “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jer. 8:22) questioned at one time the prophet, seeing the continuance of the sickly state of the Israelites. Likewise, I will ask you, brothers, taking into account the same unhealed state of your souls. “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” Has the all-healing Hand of God really been shortened and the Mysteries of the Holy Church lost their power? Or have pastors of the Church, pronouncing absolution over us, not pronounced it from their heart? No! What is forgiven won’t be remembered here and there unless you, yourselves, revive it again with the repetition of previous sins! Or did the Savior, giving you His flesh and blood, give you something foreign and not the true thing? No, He will not turn away from His own flesh and blood if only you are able to preserve this gift… Many people, similar to you, even more serious sinners, using the very same methods, were able to cleanse themselves from all the uncleanliness of sin and recover completely from hellish leprosy and become holy and pleasing to God and now are preparing to finish their earthly existence in peace or are already enjoying the grace of forgiveness in the Kingdom of Glory. But you, brothers, using many times the very same methods remain, up to now, on the bed of spiritual death or drag the pitiful remains of the spiritual life into the bonds of sin! What does this mean?…

Was it not of the same thing, brothers, about which at one time that same prophet complained while gazing at the desperate state of Babylon? Babylon, he says, is falling; its day of judgment and sentence is close and inevitable. But who is to blame? Did Babylon lack the means for the aversion of disaster? Was there not treatment and bandages for the wound? They have all been used but without use, “we would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed” (Jer. 51:9). So, maybe, brothers, our guardian angels, before the throne of the justice of God, long ago foretold of us, “Your wisdom, O Lord, appointed us to guard their souls and bodies and to direct and strengthen them on the path to heaven. You, Yourself, can see if we have omitted anything which could enlighten their mights, awaken and warm their hearts, and to prevent their feet from walking on the path to death. But what good can all means to salvation, all our efforts and care do to them when they either reject them in pride or use them with haste,” that is, “we would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed.” She was not healed because she fell in love with her sinful wounds, contantly irritates them with new iniquities, and decided to live and die in her sins.

In actuality, brothers, how do we use the spiritual treatments? How do we take up the most decisive of them, confession and Holy Communion? We, almost everyone, set about to them as to a temporary means and not as a decisive measure. We look at the holiest Mystery as a pious rite, beneficial in some aspects, and not as a Mystery of renewal, which must regenerate us for our whole life. And, therefore, we take them up, although with preparation (but on the surface, not penetrating to the depths of our soul, to the root of the evil living in us), and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, although with awe, with little thought about the extreme actions which must take place in us. We depart from the altar of Grace with good thoughts but by no means with the firm resolution to change our lives completely; in short, we prepare, confess, and commune unto the cleansing of past sins not thinking about the abandonment of sinful behavior in the future, the blessed, eternal life in heaven, or the life of good deeds in the time here on earth. Can we wait for decisive healing once and for all when we completely do not think about that healing?

And this is how it is for the best people among us. What can be said about the others who confess and commune? They interrupt for a few days their ordinary affairs and occupations, go to Church during that time, then a few minutes spent on confession, next a few minutes for communion, and finally a few pious thoughts and heartfelt sighs-and this is all, all of the sacrifice to God! And next? An immediate return to the previous affairs, again the very same type of life, again the previous amusements, the very same sinful pleasures, the very same service to the most shameful passions. Tell me, what can be expected after such, I could say, fleeting preparation and communion? Perhaps just momentary fruits and this is what happens: a few animals during that time are saved from the slaughter, a few bad habits remain during that time without satisfaction, the mouth does not say the former shameful words, the glance does not wander for a little time on the delights of the world, and the heart, not suppressed by cares, begins to beat peacefully. But then evil, temporarily constrained, even more reveals itself and grows furious. With those who superficially repent, takes place just the same as with the sick after incorrect treatment: the sickness becomes fiercer and fiercer.

You can feel yourselves, brothers, that I am not misinterpreting things, not exaggerating our guilt but depicting the situation as it is. Why am I describing this? Because now, again is opening the session of spiritual treatment. If we go according to the unreasonable former way then we will only reach the former goal, that is, we will reach no goal. Again the wounds of the conscience will be temporarily closed only to be opened further; again we will put off the burden of sin only to once again bend under it even lower. What then, finally, will be the outcome of such actions? The fact that we, undergoing treatment throughout our lives, in the end, die in our sins. And for some this misfortune is still, perhaps, not so near: they will have a few more Great Fasts for the healing of their souls, but for a few the judgment is already written (Psalms 149:9) and “the Judge standeth before the door” (James 5:9). I mean to say, brothers, that, however limited our number is, there are people who are standing here now for whom, without a doubt, the approaching Lent comes for the last time. Who are those doomed victims of death? Perhaps you, listener, least thinking about this now, perhaps me, telling you of this terrible but saving, for all of us, truth…

And so, brothers, let us now unite in heartfelt desire for our salvation. Let us each step into the arena of repentance as if it opened before us for the first and last time. And it truly will be for us the first and last time if we during the fast completely change and leave forever our sinful life. For, no matter how many times you have repented before, if you still have not been healed in soul then you will be healed now for the first time. And the one who receives health, if he doesn’t lose it, will not need to receive it again but only keep it and strengthen it.

O Lord and Master of our lives! The doctor of our souls and bodies! You, Who again have opened the door of repentance to us the unworthy! Lead us, Yourself, with your all-mighty right hand out from the Egypt of spiritual slavery and lead us into the desert of the holy fast! No matter what awaits us in that desert, we give our souls and hearts to You. Direct us with the pillar of cloud or fire, feed us with manna or cause us to drink in measure only lead us into the heavenly Canaan of purity and piety! Amen.

St. Innocent (Borisov), Archbishop of Kherson

*Russian: govenie- the period of preparation for communion involving fasting, prayer, going to services, and confession.

Periodically repeating toil

The law of fasting would not be given to us, had not the law of the first abstinence been transgressed. The stomach would not be named as an evil-minded thing, had not the pretext for pleasure entailed after it such consequences of sin. There would be no need of the plow and the laboring oxen, the planting of seed, the watering shower, the mutual change of the seasons of the year, the winter binding in fetters and the summer opening up all things. In a word there would be no need of such periodically repeating toil, had not we, through the mistaken pleasure of our first parents, condemned ourselves to this round of labor.
Archimandrite Sebastian (Dabovic)

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