ON GRIEF AND SELF-WORTH
May 7, 2023
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
There was once a great Orthodox Elder, Ephraim of Arizona, who passed away just a few years ago, whom many know as a great and powerful elder. He was once a novice, the youngest novice to another great Elder, Joseph the Hesychast of Athos, a cave-dweller already canonized by the Holy Church. Once the young novice Ephraim heard from Elder Joseph that the way of ascension to God is as if it were a ladder with different steps. The Holy Fathers, the Venerable Saints who strove for Christ, are on different steps: some higher to God, some lower. Then young, naive Ephraim asked, “Father Geronda (from Greek Γέροντας), and where am I?” The elder answered, “Nowhere. You are not on the ladder because you have not repented yet.”
Elder Joseph, an experienced spiritual warrior, identified the main work of the ascension to God. Repentance is the first step. And if you have not achieved it, all your other feats are feats of the antichrist, feats of proud satan. Perhaps someone may have read about when satan appeared to Antony the Great, saying, “You keep vigils at night, but I don’t sleep at all. You fast rigorously and I don’t eat at all. All your feats are nothing. I can do better than that. The only thing I cannot do is humble myself. I can do all this out of pride in myself. I can stay awake, I can rub my knees red when I pray, I can neglect eating, I can go around the world and even do good deeds, but out of my pride and not out of love. I can go around, do good deeds and admire myself for what a wonderful person I am. I can do it all! All, except humble myself.”
You only begin to enter the spiritual life at this first step of repentance. Those who have not passed this point cannot even dream of a spiritual life. They are just building castles of sand that will collapse. You build, you shape, you think you have something monumental already. You have prayed so much, done so many good deeds, gone to church so often – and suddenly it collapses in an instant. You are not on the ladder because you have not repented yet.
There are two reasons that a person is allowed to experience grief. First, grief is allowed to sinners for humility. Secondly, it is allowed to righteous people, for perfection. And the biggest mistake is when a sinner, who has not yet repented, who has not passed this point of repentance, suddenly thinks that he is allowed to have grief for perfection. Grief for perfection is allowed to those who have repented, those who have already gained experience through repentance. But if the hapless novice, the hapless Christian, who has just come to the Church, suddenly thinks that grief is allowed to him for perfection but he has not yet passed the point of repentance, he, poor man, does not understand that this grief is his own wrong behavior, grief he is bringing on himself. The commandments of God are not commandments of prohibition, not a desire to rule over a poor man. God does not say: I order you to do this, I order you not to do that. God’s commandments are recipes for happiness. God says to us, “Do this and you will be happy. If you fail to do so, you will be in bad health, you will suffer, troubles will follow you”. The man does not keep the commandments and is in grief all the time. And woe unto that foolish ascetic if he thinks that he has already ascended to that degree of spiritual life where grief is for his perfection. This was true for Seraphim of Sarov – grief for perfection – and for Sergius of Radonezh – grief for discernment. And for us poor people who have not yet passed that initial point, grief is for our sins.
There was once a nun named Eupraxia living in Orsk. In Soviet times there were no monasteries and our Orsk nuns lived in flats. I visited her and gave her the Eucharist. She had such a serious illness, you know. When I arrived her asthma was choking her. I started to read the communion prayers and she almost fainted. But the moment she received the Eucharist she came back to life, as if she was resuscitated in an intensive care unit. I asked, “Mother Eupraxia, where does it hurt?” And then she told me, mispronouncing the Russian words (she was a Chuvash woman), “My sins hurt”, – she understood exactly what was hurting her. She, being such a good nun, never once told me, “God visits me to perfect me.” She would always say that her sins hurt.
Hapless is a novice, a monk or any Christian who has not passed that period when he realizes that all his problems are of his own making, but suddenly starts saying: “The Lord has visited me with grief, it is for my perfection, my humility.” You have no humility, you have a high opinion of yourself! “My spiritual father has chastised me, and he has done it for the sake of my perfection.” Your spiritual father’s not perfecting you, he’s just not controlling himself anymore! That’s why he chastised you. Saint Ephraim of Katounakia once said, “Do not upset God, do not break the commandments, He will take His grace away from the confessor and the confessor will give you a thrashing”. And then He will restore His grace upon him, and he will be peaceful and kind again.
The most crucial mistake is to misunderstand why grief occurs. I doubt that, of those of us standing, there are many people here who are sent grief for perfection. So far, grief is still for our wrong behavior. It is a violation of the law, the law of happiness, and that is why we are unhappy all the time. Let’s sober up, get back to reason. Realize who we are and where we are. And then maybe we’ll just come to that first step on the ladder and hear Elder Joseph say, “You haven’t repented yet.”
Lord, take away our folly and give us reason, which Christianity calls humility of mind. Some people think they are really wise, but if they are just wise, they are spiritually insane. Orthodox wisdom is called humility of mind. Without the word ‘humility’, wisdom becomes the wisdom of this age, thus becoming spiritual madness. The man is so clever, so well-off, understands everything, but does not believe in God. So what? Then he dies and is buried with his wisdom, even if no grief visited him in this life. Buried and forgotten. All his wisdom is five feet under. If he does not succeed to the Kingdom of Heaven, what is his wisdom? It is foolishness.
To Our God be the glory always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen!