We live in a culture that has a fairly clear idea of what is good for a human being. We have notions of the “American Dream” and other ideals. Self-help books abound, each with its own understanding of what it means to be healthy, successful, well-balanced, etc. Frequently these cultural norms run counter to the writings of the Church fathers – sometimes scandalously so. Consider the following excerpt from the Desert Fathers:
Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.
I am certain that were I to end a meeting in my parish with such a blessing many people would be either confused, maybe even outraged. There are things in our culture that treat fear as always a bad thing; almost nothing in our culture promotes humility (consider things like “American Idol”), lack of food is a curse and Godly sorrow is just the opposite of the spiritual life marketed through most of our culture.
But the writings of the desert fathers have a different point of view. Their goal is the salvation of the human person. There is a recognition that hardship, whether in the form of fear, humiliation, famine or sorrow are frequent tools in the hand of God to bring about the sanctification of our lives and to re-create us a holy beings.
Christ immediately sets out to fast for 40 days following His Baptism. He does not begin His ministry without such hunger. He did not make Himself a stranger to sorrow, but purposefully delayed His travel to help his dying friend Lazarus. There He encounters weeping and anger, questioning and heartache. And there He raised the dead.
I cannot think of a single saint in the Church, from St. Paul and the Apostles forward who were stranger to any of the benedictions offered by Abba Euprepius. But modernized Christianity has made itself a stranger to these things. Theologians of various stripes go so far as to abandon the faith in the face of suffering and sorrow and discover they have no root in themselves. (A recent interview on NPR offers a very thin reason by the scholar Bart Ehrman, of the University of North Carolina, of why he no longer believes in God. Of course, he never knew or was a part of Orthodox Christianity and has simply reached a trajectory set by the modern academy).
The quote from Abba Euprepius is a demonstration of the Tradition – one that not only knew and understood the meaning of suffering and did not fear to offer such a blessing. But such knowledge can only be known in the heart. It is not a syllogism that satisfies the mind. Thus, we are forced to remember that the great and only battleground of the Christian faith is the human heart. Someone’s unbelief only tells me something of their heart at a particular moment. Unbelief does not tell us of the ultimate end of a person, for only the God who know the human heart can know such a thing. But only the human heart can truly know God. For in the heart all things dwell: heaven, hell, God, the demons. Everything is there.
It is little wonder that we seek to live somewhere else. But every other world is but a false or poor construct of the human heart. We must make that difficult journey and enter through the narrow gate if we are to find the wideness of God’s mercy and the infinity that is the fullness of the human person.