This, I think, may be the most accurate and faithful description of the Christian life that I know. We fall, and we fall repeatedly. Our very best intentions often serve to make the sting of the fall all the more painful. In my experience, many Christians harbor a quiet despair.
The world suffered a great loss recently with the death of Archimandrite Roman Braga. He was among a number of great Romanian figures who survived the terrible prison in Piteşti, during the early 1950’s. The Communist regime had decided to carry out a program of psychological and physical torture on Christians that are among the worst ever visited on the Church.
Fr. Roman, Fr. George Calciu, Pastor Richard Wurmbrand and others survived the ordeal. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once labeled the Piteşti prison program as “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”
The stories related by the survivors give us a window into the unimaginable.
Without relating those graphic details, I will share one common element. The program was designed for “brainwashing through torture.” The agreed account says that “everyone broke.” Everyone denied their faith under torture. Prisoners were even forced to take part in the torture of other prisoners. Suicides were common. Fr. Roman said that each day they would return from the tortures, broken and filled with self-loathing at their denial of Christ. And, every day, all of the prisoners would forgive and restore those who had been broken.
In the midst of this terrible human-created hell, a number of the prisoners clearly became saints. Stories of the uncreated light are not uncommon. Fr. Roman said that it was in the prison that he learned to pray.
I count it a remarkable blessing that three of the greatest confessors of the Piteşti experiment came eventually to reside in America and ended their days in this land.
I also count their experience as a teacher for our modern period. The goal of the Piteşti experiment was brain-washing, to make prisoners abandon their belief in God and to acquire a new mind – that of their Communist torturers. We live today in a very benignly constructed era of brainwashing. Never at any time in my life (61 years), have I seen such angry reactions and denunciations of Christianity as are common today. Many will point to various failings or crimes of the Church and say that Christians have only themselves to blame. But, this is itself a very sad distortion.
I do not see the daily great trial of Christians coming from the extremes or being provoked by Christian mis-behavior. It is the relentless drumming of mass consumerism, mind-numbing mis-education and manipulation of sexual desires that are the most destructive of our faith. And the consequences that are most disturbing are not found in the extremes, but in the quiet despair of average, well-intentioned believers.
The lure of secularism is its claim and pretensions to “normalcy.” Secularism (the claim that either there is no God, or that if there is, He belongs to a “religious” sphere) is the default position of our culture. The exclusion of God from daily life is simply seen as normal.
The result is that repeated falls in Christian struggles are met with, “Why bother?” One insidious perversion of Christian teaching suggests that once a person has accepted Christ as savior, nothing else matters. Salvation can thus be the gateway into a secularized Christian life in which religious devotion is simply numbed into non-existence.
Judging by the “Post-Christianity” of the modern West, this numbing secularization is far more successful in suppressing Christianity than the flagrant persecutions in the Communist East. Christianity is trending upward in those countries, in stark contrast to the West.
The martyrs and confessors of Piteşti stand as witnesses to those who fall each day. For the most remarkable witness of their experience is that they got back up. Not only did they get back up, but their fellow-sufferers restored them, forgave them, and welcomed them back into their lives. Individuals got back up, but with every act of forgiveness and restoration, the entire community got back up.
The Christians of Piteşti, in their patient endurance and quiet generosity, overthrew “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world,” and did so on a daily basis. Learning to “get back up,” is perhaps the greatest requirement of the Christian life in the modern world. I have several specific thoughts in this regard:
1. Know where you are.
You live in a highly secularized world. It is not a “neutral zone,” but a setting that is quietly hostile to most of Christian believing. As the fathers said, “Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.” Expect nothing different.
2. Trust in mercy above all else.
God is on your side and has not given you this life in order to test you or to condemn you. St. Isaac of Syria said that all of the world’s sin was nothing more than a grain of sand compared to the ocean of God’s mercy.
3. You are saved by your weakness, not by your strength.
The teaching of the Scriptures are quite clear: we are saved by our weakness, not in spite of our weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9) God made Christ to be sin that we might be made the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
4. Get back to work.
St. Paul tells us that “where sin increases, grace increases even more.” But warns us not to use this as an excuse. We simply dust ourselves off, and get back to our spiritual struggle. This is especially true of our prayers. People frequently avoid their prayers after a fall of one sort or another. They feel somehow unworthy or incapable. This is utter nonsense. We should rush to our prayers after a fall – the sooner the better. It is good for us, and the devil hates it.
5. Never judge another.
We are all aware that we should not judge. But we take this to be a moral teaching. It is far more than that. We do not judge because it is not possible for us to judge rightly. This even applies to our own lives. Not until all things are revealed at the end of days will judgment be possible. We must learn to be agnostic about the sins of others. We simply do not know.
6. Give thanks in all things.
To give thanks in all things (and for all things) is a primary, foundational aspect of the Christian life. We must learn in the end, to give thanks even for our falls. For though in our falls, sin is revealed, grace is revealed to be even greater. And so we give thanks – that our sin is revealed and that grace is been shown to be greater. Glory to God for all things!