The Patience of the Saints

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Christ said, “In patience possess your souls” (Luke 21:19). Orthodoxy presumes patience on our parts. The services take patience – they last a good length of time and without patience your mind will never stop wandering.

Catechumenates can take a while.

Learning many of the things of an Orthodox way of life cannot be rushed. Only time can make a difference.

These are hard words in a culture where time is money and we never seem to have enough of either. But though our culture has changed, human beings have not. We still take 9 months to come to the fullness of time in the womb. We still have to go to sleep for about a third of our life. We still age about the same rate (the Bible speaks of 3 score years and 10, perhaps 4 score, and our span of life on average still has not reached 4 score).

But grace, this marvelous life of God that is given to us, also accommodates to our life as human beings. We do not receive grace and suddenly become angels. We receive grace, and the whole process of our salvation and sanctification (to use Protestant terminology) is a matter of years. I have been posting excerpts from Archimandrite Sophrony’s Saint Silouan the Athonite, and I continue with that today. This, on the acquisition of the Holy Spirit along with remarkable insight on the role time plays:

The history of the Church together with personal contact with many ascetics has led me to the conclusion that the experience of grace in those who have been granted visitations and visions is only assimilated deeply after years of ascetic endeavor; grace then taking the form of spiritual knowledge that I should prefer to define as ‘dogmatic consciousness’ (but not in the academic sense of the term).

The historical experience of the Church, in which I include the Apostles and the holy Fathers both ancient and modern, makes it possible to calculate this period of assimilation as lasting at least fifteen years. Thus St. Paul’s first Epistle (to the Thessalonians) was written some fifteen years after the Lord had appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Often the period lasts twenty, twenty-five, even thirty or more years. The Evangelists and other Apostles wrote their testimonies and epistles long after the Lord’s Ascension. Most of the holy Fathers acquainted the world with their visions and experiences only when their ascetic course was nearing its close. More than thirty years elapsed before the Staretz set down in writing, with final and mature dogmatic consciousness, his own experience. The assimilation of grace is a lengthy process.

Tomorrow I will offer more reflection on this “dogmatic consciousness.”

Comments

  1. says

    XCVI

    Every creature frightened me when I was a child; but since the time I grew up I have felt compassion for every creature.

    Every creature seemed to me to be stronger than me while I was a child. Now I feel stronger than everything, and I feel compassion for everything.

    For I learned to stand beside You, my Lord, who are surrounded by immortal hosts like a mountain covered with pines. And I have been growing out of You, like a tree out of a mountain.

    While I was a child, I took each creature to be my teacher and spent some time with each of them. And I learned about infirmity and death and crying out to You.

    I searched for the strongest creature, so that I could grab hold of it and save myself from change and fluctuation. But my eyes never did see it, nor did my ears ever hear it, nor did my feet ever stumble upon it. Time raises all its children in order to wrestle with them, and in order to bend them as a joke and to snap them in two and tear them out by the roots as it laughs at the horror and terror of mortals.

    I grabbed hold of a flower and said: “In beauty it is stronger than I am.” But when autumn arrived, the flower died before my eyes, and I could do nothing to help it. So I turned away with tears and grabbed hold of tall trees.

    But with the passage of time, the trees were torn out by the roots, and fell to the ground like vanquished soldiers, and I turned away with tears, and grabbed hold of stone. “It is stronger than me,” I said, “with it I am secure.”

    But with the passage of time the stone crumbled to dust before my eyes, and the wind carried it off and I turned away with tears and latched onto the stars. “The stars are stronger than anything,” I said, “I shall cling to them and shall not fall.”

    But after I embraced the stars and began to converse with them in secret whispers, I heard the moaning of the dying, and I turned away with tears and latched onto people. “People strut erectly and freely,” I said, “there is strength in them; I shall cling to them lest I fall.”

    But with the passage of time I saw even the strongest among men helplessly skidding on the ice of time into the soundless abyss, and they left me solitary.

    In an anxious sweat I contemplated the universe in its entirety and said: “You are stronger than everything. I shall cling to you. Keep me from skidding into the soundless abyss.” And I obtained this response: “This evening I too am sinking into the soundless abyss, and tomorrow there will be another universe in my place. In vain do you tie yourself to me, for I am your feeble fellow wayfarer.”

    Again I turned to people, to the wisest among the sons of men, and I asked for their counsel. But they quarreled as they gave me answers, until death waved its hand and brought stillness into the midst of the squabblers.

    Again I turned to people, to the happiest among the sons of men, and asked for their opinion. (As though any opinion could be given by those who think by means of flesh!) But they took me as a joke for their amusement, until death raised its staff and covered their tongues with mold.

    Again I turned to people, to those who begot me and brought me among creatures, and I asked them. Their wrinkled faces began to turn pale; their eyes filled with tears; and they started to stammer: “In ignorance we were begotten, in ignorance we begot you, and our ignorance we share with you.”

    Again I turned to people, to my friends and I said: “What do you think, my friends?” But they kept a long silence, until with shame and without lifting their eyes they began to mutter: “For a long time we have been preparing to ask you what you think.”

    And when I knocked on the very last door to ask my question, the door opened and I saw a dead man being carried out.

    When there were no more doors to knock on, even my tears ceased, and a searing fear stuck its claws into my bones.

    One last tear was still to be found, and it rolled its way down to the bottom of my soul. And behold, some unknown door, which that final tear struck, opened, and then You appeared, my King and my Father, all surrounded by immortal hosts like a pine-covered mountain engulfed in unscorching flame.

    And light began to dance like the many sounds of a harp, and I heard a voice saying: “I am the One whom you seek. Cling to Me. My name is: I AM.”

    Prayers by the Lake, XCVI, by St. Nikolai Velimirovic

    To be the most practical in outer life requires to have most peace in inner life, so also to have most patience in outer life requires to have most complete inner and outer discerning of what is transitory and what is not. Discerning feeds inner hope, and inner hope feeds outer patience.

    This prayer of St. Nikolai is the most beautiful text I have ever read about about transitory and Eternal.

    Greetings,

    Dejan

  2. says

    Father,

    All our technology is geared towards the increase of speed – things are updated and replaced constantly in order that they may move faster. And these technologies are becoming more and more a part of our life. I think that in the next century this speedy and ubiquitous technological way of life – including, of course, our relationships with computers and the internet – will do much harm to our spiritual life and to any notion of patience. Patience is relative now already. We have patience with our two minute microwaves instead of having the patience to cook a four hour meal. At times it makes me want to become a Luddite. What are we to do with a world that demands we go faster without completely forsaking that world?

  3. Fatherstephen says

    Benjamin,

    The world is as it is. We can slow down ourselves to some extent, and be patient with God.

    Oddly, since it sounds like a change of subject, I think the most important thing we can do, is to give God thanks for all things and in all things. If we do this, we will slowly learn what we must.

    This is not my thought (obviously St. Paul said it) but Fr. Zacharias at St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex said that the Elder Sophrony told him this in answer to the question, “What did St. Silouan mean by ‘keeping your mind in hell and despair not?’ He said that if you will give thanks to God for all things it will have the same effect. I took this as an indication of a road I could understand, preach and follow myself.

    Glory to God for all things.

  4. says

    My priest, Fr. Anthony gave me an article to read Chapter 4, called The Mystery of the Ways of Salvation it begins; ‘When Fr. Sophrony spoke about spiritual life, he often likened it to a sphere; he noted that at whatever point man touched it, he would immediately be in contact with the whole sphere. Inasmuch as authentic life in Christ is the life of God Himself, every connection with this Life results in the transmission to man of a divine state. Fr. Sophrony had a particular desire to present this life systematically in a book, with the material fully set out in organised and methodical order…’ Fr. Sophrony realized the impossbility of this because the life in Christ is different for each of us, we each have our own journey, but there are commonalities or stages in the progression of the spiritual life.
    For Fr. Sophrony the stages are 1. being called by God (usually a short period) 2. the struggle to acquire grace and the feeling of having it removed from you (usually a long period of toil extended ‘unto the end’ and is an art and a science which instructs for salvation 2 Tim.3:15) 3. For those who have striven legitimately and fulfilled all righteousness, is likely to be brief like the first, but richer in blessings and charisms from the Living God.
    It is the second period that is difficult, when we must toil for our Lord, pick up our cross. “Fr. Sophrony underlines with a certainty born of experience that if someone doesn’t know this ‘schooling’ of the withdrawl of gace and abandonment by God, this is not merely a sign of an imperfect or spurious spiritual life, but also a characteristic of unbelievers. Many people have received a great measure of grace at the beginning of their lives, even reaching the grace of the perfect, but they have all gone through the trial of the second spiritual period, when the feeling of grace is lost or diminished.”
    This is a great article, I bet it is a great book and as my priest says, contains real spiritual meat, not milk.
    Patience is but one of the characteristics we must pray for and cultivate, and is an important one.
    Thanks Fr. Stephen.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  5. Fatherstephen says

    Leah,

    Thank you for the note. Fr. Sophrony does write about this at length (the period in which we experience “abandonment” – not that God ever truly abandons us). It is also spoken of at some length by St. Symeon the New Theologian, not to overlook St. John of the Cross who is rather famous for it, and whose writings were of help for Fr. Sophrony.

    I hesitated to say much about it lest someone reading it lose heart or stumble. All the things God has for us are for our salvation. Even things that sound difficult.

    Father Sophrony’s writings are a true modern treasure, partly because he was so very aware of our times. And though we have entered an odd time here in the so-called “post-modern” period, I think we are in no way more jaded than Europe after World War I. We’re probably just some of its secondary fruit.

    I will have to add here on a personal level that until this summer I was relatively sceptical about “Elders” for a variety of personal reasons. Not that I don’t like St. Seraphim, etc. But I had seen a lot of poor fruit surrounding those who seemed to talk the most about spiritual eldership.

    But being at St. John the Baptist in Essex this summer was a very different experience. I heard almost no talk of eldership (though it is there and has been from its beginning). There is no “guruism”. But most especially, I was struck by the wholeness of the persons that I met. I have no other word for it. Very fully formed and healthy. In the course of my journey I’ve met almost every kind of religious “nut.” So that I had been all too prepared to meet more. But instead I found health, not imbalance, kindness, love of friend and enemy, true hospitality, and a worship life which, though somewhat unusual in the larger Orthodox setting (it follows more or less the “cell” model from Mt. Athos) was truly life giving and very centered on Christ. I’d go back at the drop of a hat anytime and easily recommend it to people.

    But they should go not expecting to see anything. It’s sanctity was “hidden”, if you will. It was what I did not see that told me of the health of the place. I saw human beings who seemed more fully or truly human than most. I do not mean human as in “flawed,” but as in “the image of God.”

  6. says

    As the world speeds up (I feel it every day in my tech/programming job), I find I need to have patience with the impatient, including myself. I get demand-y. Other people get demand-y. But the only way I can serve anyone at the optimum level is if I slow down.

  7. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this. I am not even yet a catechumen, though I want to be (no Orthodox Church close to me right now). I’m a father of four children age 6 and under, and I’ve spent the past six years searching. Now that I’m seeing the beauty of Orthodoxy and wanting to receive the Orthodox Faith, I very often find myself in a huge hurry. Feel like there’s no time! One thing my wife and I have been praying for is a consistent perseverance and patience in seeking God’s will and Church. Your post was very timely for us. Thanks again.

    warmly,
    Kevin B.

  8. says

    The book that I quoted is We shall See Him, by Archimandrite Sophrony Sakarov.
    Thanks Father, my priest offered it to me as an encouragement because I needed to understand the “dry” spells I was feeling. Having been Orthodox for six years and still a babe in the faith, this is just long enough to discern peaks and valleys, some ebbing and flowing of my personal journey. It is helpful to know that this is normal, that my duties never change as a Christian, that God is faithful and as St. James says, ‘and let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’ (James 1:4)
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  9. Michael says

    The experience of grace being assimilated only after 15, 20 or more years of asceticism? Is there something in the epistles of Paul and Peter I have missed? Please provide references! I write this in utter sobriety and humility, knowing that I have read the epistles through the lens of “grace alone, faith alone” for my entire life, and have not been deeply trained in ascetic life.

  10. says

    I don’t know what you might have missed. I missed a lot and still do. I’ve read Fr. Sophrony’s account and the accounts of the saints and know that I haven’t seen a fraction of what they saw, much less assimilated it. I suspect that you’re reading this article with a Protestant background, while the article presumes some knowledge of Orthodox asceticism. Ascetism is enjoined on us in the Scriptures. We are taught to pray and fast. Indeed, St. Paul says to, “Pray without ceasing,” one of the most common goals of Orthodox asceticism. But do not be too put off by the language of assimilation. He doesn’t mean here any sense that you haven’t received grace and that grace is having no effect, much less that you are not “saved” in the Protestant sense. Instead, by assimilating He means having fully made it your own and it has been thoroughly grafted in you. That is truly a slower process. St. Paul groans that Christ has not yet been formed in the Galatians to use a small example. Peter had not assimilated his experience of Christ when he denied him.

    Examples: From Philippians 3: 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. 17 Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.

    St. Paul and the Apostles wrote 15 to 20 years or more after their encounter with Christ. That is the first example Fr. Sophrony gives.

    On the other hand I have seen many who have read the Scriptures and “wrest them to their own destruction” after less than a year.

    He does not mean no experience of grace, but assimilation in that you have actually become conformed to what you are reading. If you are conformed to what you’ve been reading that would be an incredible and rare thing.

    There is a reason St. Paul warned that we should lay hands suddenly on no man (to use yet another example), meaning, one who is young in the faith is not yet ready for that responsibility, implying that there is a patience and a spiritual formation required. The canons require a minimum of 30 years old before ordination to priesthood. I could go on in this.

    I believe I was careful to use the word “sanctification” a protestant term, when trying to clarify Fr. Sophrony’s words on the assimilation of the experience of grace. I do not hear you saying that you are now sanctified? That would be a bold claim for any of us indeed. If, on the other hand, you mean you’ve been reading the texts but not doing what the texts enjoin (they are the texts that would teach us to fast and pray – indeed St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing) then they have not been read by grace alone, faith alone, just intellectually. If you read them but do not do them, then you would be but a hearer of the word and not a doer. Do you forgive your enemies. Always and without hesitation. Then the assimilation that Sophrony speaks of has not occurred.

    If you do not yet pray without ceasing, then the grace given you may not have yet have been assimilated in the thorough manner that Fr. Sophrony is speaking of. If this all sounds foreign, then you may be unfamiliar with the Orthodox tradition. I recommend the book I’ve been quoting, Saint Silouan the Athonite, by Archimandrite Sophrony.

    No where in Scripture has this time frame been given in a verse, but Father Sophrony said in the quote, that he was making his observation based on his knowledge of a number of Saints and great ascetics (Christian).

    I know (America knows) of plenty of men who have been knowledgeable in the word and yet turned out to be adulturers and worse. The assimilation of grace is important. Paul speaks of subduing his own flesh. Bringing every thought captive to Christ. I’m not taking time to look up citations because I’m late for a meeting. But the texts are full of enjoinders to ascetic activity. Again, if we do not do these things, then there is little use in reading them.

  11. says

    I sent the link to this post to a friend who is working on her Ph.D. in medieval literature, specializing in the writings of women mystics. She responded that Julian of Norwich (the subject of her Master’s thesis) said that it took her 15-20 years to understand most of the divine revelations she received.

  12. says

    Roland, please ask your friend to put her Ph.D. thesis paper online one day (and Master’s thesis too), so that we can read it. At the moment I cannot imagine anything more interesting than to do research on such writings – it is far more interesting than all other Ph.D. dissertations I have heard of so far. Very nice choice!

  13. says

    Well, she emphasizes that her research is in the field of literature, not theology. Her Master’s thesis, entitled, “Theorizing the Medieval Mystical Self: Identity Construction in Julian of Norwich’s ‘A Revelation of Love'”, drew heavily on the work of the French semiotician, Jacques Lacan . . .