Getting Back Up

baby-and-iconOne of the fathers was asked, “What do you do all day in the monastery?” He replied, “We fall down and get up; fall down and get up; fall down and get up again.”

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!

38 comments:

  1. Thank you. Your blogs have a wonderful quality of being simultaneously comforting and challenging.

    I have a question about your third point, specifically, “God made Christ to be sin that we might be made the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)”

    What does this mean? Or is it simply something to ponder in faith rather than seek to explain in any sort of analytical sense?

    Thank you!

  2. Pauline,
    It’s certainly worth pondering. It has been a favorite verse of mine for most of my adult life – but I’ve been noticing when I’m lecturing and speak about it, that it immediately raises questions for people. I suspect it is one of those verses that people read without ever really “seeing.”

    Most people read it and immediately think “oh, the Father placed sin “on” Jesus for our sake,” or something like that. But this is not what it says. It is easier to comprehend when the connection between sin and death is understood. Our death represents to fullness of our sin. Sin is not just a moral problem, but is a matter of our existence. God alone is Life. To move away from God is to move away from the only source of our being and existence (and so we die). Christ enters into Our death, and truly dies. In so doing He enters into our sin, and “becomes sin.” He doesn’t become a sinner, but He becomes everything that is the consequence of our sin.

    Wonderfully in His grace, this also means that even in our sin, we have union with Him. Not because of the sin, but because He has condescended to enter into our sin. He enters into death and hell in order to bring us out. As the Fathers say, He became what we are, that we might become what He is.

  3. Dear Father Stephen,

    Your blogs these past few weeks have been an answered prayer. They have been a balm for my soul and a feast as well. Thank you so very much.

  4. Father, thank you! I agree wholeheartedly with Pauline: “Your blogs have a wonderful quality of being simultaneously comforting and challenging.”

    I do wonder (not so much “question”) point #5 on Judgement. While I understand and agree with it, do the scriptures not call us to judge rightly? Or is this more a matter of discernment in our lives and awareness of others? I tend towards the latter but would like to hear your thoughts, if you wish to give them.

  5. Okay, Father, this is another one that brought tears to my eyes. Slava Tebye Bozhe.

    Dana

  6. Thanks you Father for articulating so well the utter disdain our American society now has for the life-giving truths of our holy Faith. “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.”
    At my age, 67, I have, of course, observed and been deeply affected negatively by this growing secularism and disdain for Truth all around us, but I must say, I have never witnessed such a swift and ubiquitous descent into darkness masquerading as morality as these last several years. As you encourage us, we must never despair when we fall prey to the lies, but get up, admit the always-present truth of our lives: Christ alone is our breath, our life, our only Hope. Apart from Him and His “beyond all words” love for each of us, we disintegrate into non-being.

  7. Thank you Fr Stephen for this blog…your words pierce to the heart. I especially like the line, “In my experience, many Christians harbor a quiet despair.” I also like the part where you address our tendency to avoid running to God in prayer when we fall. I am a convert to the Orthodox faith (yet to be christmated, but prayerfully soon) and struggle just to spend a little time with God saying my morning prayers. Following Christ is tough, and I know I fall many times daily…..it’s hard not to get discouraged. That said, I have read many of Richard Wurmbrand’s books, and if I may recommend “In God’s Underground” because he vividly describes life in the Communist prisons. Thank you again Father for your ministry via this blog.

  8. Father, I have been wondering about something lately and you’ve prompted me to ask it now. You said that we are to give thanks at all times and for all things. I know that all physical and spiritual ailments are a product of the fall, but could it be said that God allowed each of us to be afflicted with a particular weakness, according to His will? Just as a person is born blind, and will have to carry out their life’s work with that unchanging ailment, is it also true that some are born with anger, doubt, or any other spiritual weakness perpetually “there” in them?

  9. Heather,
    I don’t think of it that way exactly… But I think we can say as Christ said of the man born blind, that “neither this man sinned nor his parents…but this is for the glory of God.” It is not that God causes or gives us our weaknesses. He is not the author of those things. And indeed I think Death gives us those things (I’ll just say “Death” rather than something else) to destroy us. But God uses those things to save us (“for His glory”). Thus “all things work together for good.” He destroys Death by death. It is an irony, that the very things that would destroy us, He uses to save us. It is, perhaps, one of the deepest of all the mysteries. And it can be “too much too soon,” for some.

    All things will be made whole.

  10. I often feel somewhat distressed with how quickly the culture has changed. Not even so much at what has happened, but rather how unprepared most of Christendom was and how quickly its ideas were swept aside. It’s a cultural tsunami really.

    God can bring good from all things of course, but Fr. Stephen, to what extent should a Christian passively live out their faith in the culture they find themselves and to what extent should they actively resist (say through more subtle forms of artistic expression)?

  11. Thank you, Father Stephen! Your words have helped me tremendously, for several years now.

  12. While reinforcing the necessity to hold onto one’s peace the tsunami has been building for centuries at times greatly assisted by Christians.

    It becomes far easier to maintain peace by acting for good and accepting the consequences.

  13. I intend to print off a copy of this blog entry and keep it in my pocket: practical spiritual wisdom of the most joy inspiring kind!

  14. The moment of conversion is the alpha and omega for too many Christians. Divinization or theosis is not a popular sermon topic in most churches.

  15. Father Stephen –
    Thank you for sharing this post. It spoke to where Ian at and the struggles I have been dealing with.
    May God continue to bless you!!
    Dave

  16. Mr. Wolfe perhaps that is because most of us have barely converted. Can you imagine a lecture on quantum mechanics to a elementary school chemistry class?

  17. The interesting thing is that every moment of real conversion is a moment of illumination and involves God intimately at the core of our being.

    It is not linear. It is not neat. It is not static.

  18. Michael, I agree. However, the primary Christian society in the United States (Protestantism) has failed to grasp such Truth. The idea of “conversion” has been whittled down to the “conversion moment” and does not extend beyond that for the majority of Christians here–there is no road to travel beyond that. As Mr. Wolf so aptly put it: “The moment of conversion is the alpha and omega for too many Christians.”

    I believe that is why the cultural shift was so sudden and so massive–Christians, by and large, are complacent in their spiritual lives, thinking it all already done. Having no roots, they have simply been carried along with the wave of change and, sadly, far too many have either lost (or “adapted”) their faith or not known enough to understand the wrongness of the change itself.

  19. Michael,

    I never got a chance to thank you for answering my questions in one of the earlier conversations. It was one of the most honest responses I have ever gotten on a very difficult (for me) topic. I probably overstepped too many lines in that conversation, “pinning up too many details on this bulletin board”, as Drewster pointed out….

    I guess some things in life we will not have explained to us, no matter how badly we want to know the answer. Hopefully when we meet the Lord, we will get that answer – if He deems it important. I wanted to have an explanation for what happened in my life, but sometimes asking for such things is not a good idea…. As the rich young ruler found out, asking for more precision from Christ on what is required may demand from us a change that we are not willing to undergo…. Thank you for helping me find a stopping point.

    Again, thank you for your support and encouragement. I pray to be counted worthy to enter Paradise, where, as Fr. Stephen said, we will all know and recognize each other – and (according to the Lord’s promise) will be there as brothers and sisters, not husbands and wives…

  20. I think I keep getting back up largely due to these blog posts. Thank you again, Father.

  21. Thank you for this wonderful post. I have shared it with others….but it was meant for me.

  22. Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    Often we don’t see the forest for the trees. I so easily get absorbed in the everyday tragedies of this world and many events of the past over which I have no control . And whenever I become frustrated, I tend to abandon my prayer life and everything gets worse. When I resume my petitions to the Lord, it strengthens and lifts the burden. And I find that renewing this relationship that I share along with the mysteries, I am able to cope and put current and past events into perspective. This also allows me to reach out to receive and give comfort. We have so much fullness that we have available to us if we avoid the trees and embrace the forest.

  23. Agata,

    Your last comment to Michael brought something to mind. When reading about Christ telling the Sadducees that there will be no marriage, I always wondered what that meant, how it would play out. But one day I realized that this is because I had always looked at the conjugal union as the most intimate form of relationship possible.

    Arguably it is….in this life. However in the life to come I believe that same intimate form will be looked upon and primitive and violent. The intimacy and harmony we will experience there will be orders of magnitude above anything we can even imagine here in this broken world where we struggle to peer through a mirror darkly.

    We will indeed be as brothers and sisters – but far more in union than any sibling relationship we have known. When we come to this place, any thoughts of married vs. monastic will quickly melt away and we will for the first time begin to understand what it means to be one body with Christ at the head.

    Until then we struggle to relate to each other and reach out to take God’s hand….

  24. Drewster2000
    Excellent comment on the marriage relationship in the next life. Often our relationships (even the most fulfilling) in this world are just a poor preamble to what we will experience.

  25. Fr. Stephen and my wonderful brothers in Christ,

    Thank you again for this conversation and all you have shared here. It has helped me tremendously in deepening my understanding of the image of marriage used so much in the Orthodox Church to explain our relationship to Christ. This metaphor might be easier to grasp for those in happy marriages, but for those who mostly experienced brokenness and pain in a marriage, it’s much more difficult. Your words here (Fr. Stephen, Dino, Michael, Brewster, Christopher) are such a consolation and inspiration for me. I AM WAY OUT OF MY LEAGUE in this conversation, but my perseverance has really paid off, I got answers to questions I could never get answers to before (from either married or monastic spiritual counselors). What you describe as God’s intent for our life in the area of relationships (with Him and with each other) is so much better that we can imagine or envision… He is “our God who does wonders” after-all…..

    And my heart is warmed just by realizing that there are God-loving and God-fearing men in this world – thank you for restoring my hope and faith.

    Fr. Stephen, I think you should organize a retreat (somewhere, sometime) where this group could meet in person, to be with you, to participate in the Liturgy with you and receive the Mysteries from your hands…. I’d be there “with bells on my toes” to meet these wonderful people, and share in person…

    With much love in Christ to all of you,
    Agata

  26. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you again for this conversation, to you all all who have shared so generously. It has helped me tremendously in deepening my understanding of the image of marriage used so much in the Orthodox Church to explain our relationship to Christ. This metaphor might be easier to grasp for those in happy marriages, but for those who mostly experienced brokenness and pain in a marriage, it’s much more difficult. Your words here (Fr. Stephen, Dino, Michael, Brewster, Christopher) are such a consolation and inspiration for me. I AM WAY OUT OF MY LEAGUE in this conversation, but my perseverance has really paid off, I got answers to questions I could never get answers to before (from either married or monastic spiritual counselors). What you describe as God’s intent for our life in the area of relationships (with Him and with each other) is so much better that we can imagine or envision… He is “our God who does wonders” after-all…

    And my heart is warmed just by realizing that there are God-loving and God-fearing men in this world – thank you for restoring my hope and faith.

    Fr. Stephen, I think you should organize a retreat (somewhere, sometime) where this group could meet in person, to be with you, to participate in the Liturgy with you and receive the Mysteries from your hands…. I would love to meet these wonderful people you assembled here, and share in person…

    With much love in Christ to all of you,
    Agata

  27. Greetings, Father Stephen. I have one question to ask:

    5. Never judge another.

    This has long been a very big dilemma for me. Of course, I know we are not supposed to judge others with a feeling of self-righteousness and fariseism, but there is a problem for me.

    It is equally clear that we are also not supposed to sit around passively and do nothing in the face of outright subversion attempts on the part of a secularized society, nor, in more personal dealings, are we supposed to simply sit back and let anyone carry on whatever sinful activity one might be doing, without ever raising a voice.

    My question is: how do you deal with stuff like this, without becoming judgemental ?
    How do we, so to speak, separate the sinner from the sin – condemning the later only ?
    The problem is further enhanced from the obvious fact that we would not know a sin without it manifesting through the medium of a sinner.

    I hope I made my point clear from what I said and you understand what I mean.

    Thank you!

  28. Maybe separating sin from the sinner is double edged.
    That form of participation will sometimes require faith in life.

    To become less, and not know if that becomes more would be just the hardest choice.

    That is not judgement, that is sacrifice. Glory.

  29. Mihai,

    from the letters of St Barsanuphius the Great & John the Prophet:

    Letter 453

    Question: ‘If I notice someone doing something inappropriate, should I not judge this as being inappropriate? And how can I avoid the condemnation of this neighbor of mine?’ Response.

    If this matter is truly inappropriate, then we cannot but condemn it as being inappropriate. Otherwise, how can we ever avoid the harm that comes from it, according to the voice of the Lord, who said: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves; you will know them by their fruits’ (Mt 7.15-16). The one, however, who is actually doing the inappropriate deed should not be condemned, according to the words: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Mt 7.1), but also because we should regard ourselves as being more sinful than all others. Furthermore, we should not ascribe the sin to our brother but to the devil, who deceived him. For in this case it is as if someone were to push another person towards a barrier, and we were to blame the person being pushed.

    It may even be that someone will do something which appears inappropriate to those watching, but which is really done with a good intention. This happened once to the holy [Great] Old Man [Barsanuphius]. For as he was walking past the hippodrome on one occasion, he entered it, fully conscious of what he was doing. And when he saw each of the competitors striving to overtake and triumph over the others, he said to his thought: ‘Do you see how the followers of the devil eagerly race against each other? How much more so should we, who are heirs of the heavenly kingdom?’ And, as a result of that sight, he left that place more eager in his spiritual journey and ascetic struggle.

    Moreover, again, we do not know whether through his repentance, the sinful brother will be more pleasing to God, like the publican who in an instant was saved through humility and confession. For it was the Pharisee who left condemned by his own arrogance. Therefore, in consideration of these things, let us imitate the humility of the publican and condemn ourselves in order to be justified; and let us avoid the arrogance of the Pharisee in order not to be condemned.

  30. Dino,

    Thank you for sharing from “St Barsanuphius the Great & John the Prophet”. I have often wondered how to think about inappropriate actions of others.

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