We are persuaded that man’s vocation is incomprehensibly wonderful and great. (99)
What do we do with this idea of holiness, the ideal of saintliness? The belief that in this life one can become like God in humility and love and empathy and prayer is one of the things that holds me in hope to Christianity.
Yet different traditions understand the concept of holiness in different ways. In many traditions, holiness and salvation are an either/or, on/off, you have it or you don’t, sort of thing: you’ve either been granted salvation and subsequent holiness by the grace of God and your faith therein, or not. In Orthodoxy, however, the process of theosis– of becoming like God– is not a thrown switch. It is certainly possible, by the grace of God, but it is claimed by few (likely no one, least of all those who approach it) and seen only as the fruit of a long process of ascetic practice and discipline.
That’s not to say holiness is only for monks. But it is to say that Orthodoxy recognizes holiness as a gradual process, an organic and often painful growth, a “ladder of divine ascent.” It doesn’t mean the only people going to heaven are the Mother Teresas of the world, but it does mean there are degrees of holiness and there are those who have advanced much farther along that road than others. And sometimes it’s good to take a long look at the abyss that separates someone like us (me) from someone like that.
For a time I used to regularly read the blog of Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest living and working in Tennessee. In his excellent posts he would consistently make reference to the works of Archimandrite Sophrony, an Orthodox monk whose life spanned much of the twentieth century. In particular, Father Stephen would quote from a study of Sophrony’s life entitled Christ, Our Way and Our Life, written by another monk, Archimandrite Zacharias, originally as a PhD dissertation and translated into English in 2003.
Sophrony and his mentor, St. Silouan, spent their lives in the pursuit of holiness. They devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation, and they said things like, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” and “Stay on the verge of despair, but when you see that you are going to fall over, draw back and have a cup of tea.” They lived in chastity and obedience, poverty and humility, and they attempt to forsake the priorities of this world completely. What’s the point of such endeavors? If salvation is by faith alone, are they missing the point of Christianity? Or are they of the handful of faithful few on whom the salvation of the world rests?
These are deep waters, and I waded out onto them with some trepidation. I’m no mystic, but I tried to wrap my mind around the themes of their theology. Those themes included utter humility and self-loathing to the point of despair to reach the point at which one can truly pray for the entire world. Sophrony believes this is what Christ did and that the ultimate goal of a Christian is to be able to truly pray on behalf of all (something embodied in the liturgy we celebrate each week).
No one besides monks are much into self-loathing or humility today. Yet Sophrony and Silouan maintain that a form of self-loathing is necessary to gain true repentance, that we need to see ourselves as we actually are in comparison to the love and purity of God, and that only by living through the pain of this self-knowledge (which led the publican to beat his chest and cry, “Lord, have mercy”) can we know the extent of redemption and love of God.
Most of us, I think, would prefer repentance and salvation be quick and painless. But for the Orthodox ascetics, it’s painful. It’s a burning. It’s something that’s achieved with rivers of tears. The more we know who we truly are, the more we know the extent of our own sin, the more we understand the love of God.
If they left it there though, it wouldn’t be much in the way of good news. For Sophrony and Silouan, despair over our own condition– and then beyond that, despair over the condition of the human race itself– is necessary to be like Christ. They understand the entire life of Christ as a descent– from the right hand of God to a lowly place on Earth, and then from Earth to Hell itself. Christ sits at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of creation, occupying the most lowly, painful, humble position, and from that position bearing the sins and weight of the world. When we embrace the painful humility of our own brokenness and start to feel the weight and pain of the world itself in our prayers, we are following the path of Christ. Salvation is not upward toward heaven and redemption– or at least not initially; it is downward toward the pain and humiliation of Christ.
“Keep your mind in hell,” are the words reported to have come to St. Siluoan from Christ Himself, meaning we must live in that struggle and that pain, that in taking up the suffering of our own sins and the sins of humanity, we are with Christ. “Keep your mind in hell,” he was told, “and despair not.” Despair not, because Christ did not remain in Hell, and by taking on the sins of the world He was able to redeem the world and conquer death. But, Siluoan and Sophrony would say, we focus too much on this second part alone, but we neglect that Christ only ascended by first descending and that we must follow the same path.
Christ did not descend so that a switch could be flipped and we could live the rest of our lives in redeemed comfort. He came so that we could emulate Him in taking on the burdens of the world and offering them up to God. Generally speaking, man bears witness to his kinship with God when, in every aspect of his life, he thinks, feels, and acts with the consciousness that God has placed all of creation into his care. (63) For them, this is a very real, ontological act centered in prayer, not simply in a role of stewardship of nature or talents (though that’s certainly a part of it).
If this repels, reflect on the saints. Who are the saints, in whatever tradition you find yourself? What makes them saintly? Is it simply that they’ve been saved and sanctified, or is it that they recognize this salvation as a means of taking up the pain and the burdens of others and by doing so sanctifying them to God? And how are they able to do this? By recognizing their own brokenness, by living at the edge of despair and not yielding to it, and by constantly orienting themselves toward humility, patience, and descent.
That seems pretty difficult. And right.
For those who have not been given such a state, copying his way of fulfilling St. Silouan’s word may prove unbearable. A lighter form of this teaching may, however, be realized by anyone, if he gives thanks to God at all times for all He bestows upon him, acknowledging always his own unworthiness. Continual thanksgiving makes up for what is lacking in us. (273)