by Mitred Archpriest Valery Lukianov
Man’s life is a chain of alternating links of labor and rest. There are always more men who love repose than those who prefer labor. And, true, it is characteristic of human nature to strive more for consolation than for labor. Thus, man loves the beauty of the body; he loves beauty in art, in music, in fine literature; fame, honor and respect impress him. Men have a preference for tasty food and fine beverages, for convenience and sufficiency, for elegance in their attire and dwellings; they love celebrations and parties, getting together with friends, vacations and flips to new places, comfort and rest, entertainment, all sorts of amusements, games and spectacles; they prize good health, tranquility, good weather, a pleasant climate. In a word, man strives for blessedness; he seeks it as a natural manifestation of life, for his consciousness has retained the memory of his ancestors’ delightful sojourn in the wondrous garden of paradise.
However, in attaining to various degrees of earthly blessedness, man very quickly discovers that true satisfaction on earth is unattainable. The more man surrounds himself with comfort and momentary delights, the less satisfaction he derives from them, and he begins to seek out ever new delights. Becoming convinced that earthly good things and health are unstable and changeable, man begins to pine. And this pining, this subconscious yearning for the lost Paradise is, as it were, a link with heaven.
In reviewing man’s aspirations, one has to conclude that in general man is burdened by a long and laborious life, that he often loses patience and can fall into despondency. Very seldom do men find genuine satisfaction in a favorite type of work, laboring until exhaustion. Few individuals can be carried away by a profession or service to the point of self forgetfulness, always guided by principle and not by gain, who have a special calling, a feeling of duty and responsibility.
If one were to confine oneself to these observations, one might well fall into pessimism and admit the hopelessness of human aspirations in general. Such conclusions might be justified were the human spirit limited by the earthly. But this is not the Christian philosophy of life, which sees the fulfillment of this life not only on earth, with all its vicissitudes, but in unshakeable eternity.
This in no way means that Christianity loses its tie with temporal life on earth. On the contrary, Christianity regulates earthly life in such a way that it is suitable to eternal ideals, giving place both to the natural satisfaction of needs and to earned repose and rest. But Christianity is characterized first of all by inner struggle. Consolation in eternity is a reward for earthly struggles and afflictions, unselfishly borne solely out of love for God and devotion to Him. The Saviour Himself also testifies to this:
The kingdom of heaven suffererth violence, and the violent take it by force (Matt. 11:12).
The beauty and justification of the Christian struggle lies in the fact that through it the way is opened to spiritual perfection:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’ and come, take up the cross, and follow me (Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21).
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7).
“But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first (Matt. 19:30).
We see the realization of this ideal in the lives of the holy God-pleascrs. We are guided in life by their example, we are nourished by their writings,we are animated by their fervor, we are inspired by their good disposition, we learn patience and humility from them. Elder Silouan of Athos eloquently testifies of this:
“Many people think that the saints are remote from us. But they are remote only from those who have removed themselves; they are very close to those who preserve Christ’s commandments and have the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the heavens, everything lives and moves by the Holy Spirit. He lives in our Church; He lives in the Mysteries; He is in Sacred Scripture; He is in the souls of the faithful. The Holy Spirit unites all, and that is why the saints are close to us; and when we pray to them, they hear our prayers in the Holy Spirit, and our souls feel that they are praying for us.”
The tie between struggle and consolation is most powerfully revealed in the liturgical experience of the Church. By joining in the liturgical life, the faithful learn to engage in the struggle of prayer, so distinctly unique in the Eastern Church by reason of its profundity and lengthiness, and they find true spiritual consolation according to the Saviour’s testament:
Verily I say unto you … where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt. 18:19, 21).
The apotheosis of spiritual consolation in the life of the Church is the Divine Eucharist — the real and mystical union of man with God. But it is unthinkable to enter at once into the spirit of this most sublime consolation, without due preparation, without bridling the turbulent worldly spirit, without the development of spiritual compunction. Really, how can one take part in the Supper made in remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and in accordance with His promise, without due preparation: without clothing one’s soul in the proper garment, without reconciling the conscience, without a consciousness of one’s unworthiness, or a feeling of the great benefit of this saying mystery? Can a musical instrument make a beautiful and pure sound without prior tuning?! Remembering that, in the biblical and New Testament Tradition, days are calculated from the evening, the holy Church enjoins the faithful to enter into the spirit of the eucharistic sacrifice through a preparatory service in the evening, on the eve of the Liturgy.
It is in this evening service that genuine life in God and with God is revealed in all its spiritual beauty, when those who are praying “become attuned,” with trembling anticipation, to union with the Lord through communion of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Even if a man does not commune at the Liturgy, this in no wise excuses him from joining in the eucharistic spirit, from thankfully experiencing Jesus Christ’s whole saving exploit. After all, the Liturgy is the moving commemoration and the co-suffering experiencing of the life of the Lord and Saviour — from the Bethlehem manger, through the death on the Cross on Golgotha, the resurrection from the dead and the ascension into heaven, to the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, and through them on all the faithful in the bosom of Christ’s Church. From Apostolic times, the faithful have been called to participation in the “little Pasera,’ to the eucharistic banquet each Sunday.
The best of these “participants” not only compiled the orders of the liturgies, but they became strugglers for holiness and were ready to undergo sufferings and even martyrdom, preserving faithfulness to Christ. They prayed all night, and already with the rising of the sun — the image of light and warmth — they received the Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It is not surprising, therefore, that the present-day evening Divine service is also filled with the prayerful remembrance of the struggle of the saints, and also, of course, with the commemoration of the great events from the life of Christ and the Mother of God.
Desiring to help her faithful children remain in the circle of this on-going sanctity, the holy Church carefully and in advance, from the evening, leads them into the spirit of piety, uncovering before their spiritual gaze the life, labors, testaments, struggles and fervor of the holy God-pleasers who have ascended to God’s eternal glory. What beauty, what mercy it is to have the good opportunity to join one’s rebellious and turbulent spirit to the peaceful Spirit of God’s saints, to find repose in Him! What joy it is to learn from the saints goodness, patience, and hope in God’s help! What happiness it is to hear, as it were, from their mouths the sweet-sounding words of life in God! And just think — this joy is but a shadow of that great consolation which Christ has prepared for them that love Him.
Today’s Christians who reject the path of struggle and strive only for consolation, are robbing themselves, depriving themselves of grace. It is good that our people fill the churches on Sundays and feast days for the Divine Liturgy,. And we rejoice in this. But the heart bleeds on seeing how Orthodox Christians of today completely neglect participation in the struggle of the saints, they have abandoned attending church for the All-night Vigils on the eve of Sundays and feast days. Excuses of tiredness, weak health or difficulty with transportation are not convincing, considering that parishioners gather in great numbers for dancing parties and concerts on Saturday nights.
Not a few Orthodox people come to panikhidas in the evening hours. But here again, at the tolling of the bell for the All-night Vigil, those who had filled the church for the requiem service turn around and leave. And only the same few -the habitues — remain. This is shameful! It is insulting!
Let us admit that the cool attitude of today’s church people toward the evening services is nothing other than a wounding of Christian consciousness; it reflects a loss of the spirit of piety and the sense of God, an effectual loss of churchliness. There can be no genuine consolation without struggle, no real joy without preparation — just as there can be no smoke without fire, no shadow without light. One may add that the evening is also the proper place for confession, not before the Liturgy or, what is altogether inadmissible, immediately before Communion.
Orthodox Christian! Reflect well on what has been said here. Does not your heart ache to see our churches empty at the evening services? Ask yourself – – how must the priests feel, who serve in these empty churches? And those few who do pray at these services, imagine their feeling of abandonment Where is our brotherhood in Christ? Truly, man is foolishly preoccupied with earthly things; he loves rest and pleasure more than anything, and has little desire to gain a true consciousness of the need to save his soul, to save it by works of piety, by a prayerful disposition, and by struggle!
May the Lord God deliver Christians who are zealous for their salvation from their neglect of the divine services, so widespread now, and vouchsafe them, in a surge of thankfulness for the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, to start on the path of prayerful plenitude, in order to be vouchsafed the higher and eternal consolation of hearing the desired voice of the Lord:
Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord (Matt, 21:21).