“If anyone falls, he falls alone. But no one is saved alone.” – Alexei Khomiakov
Roughly 25 years ago I quit smoking. I never think about it now – it has become a thing of the distant past. But I can remember a period of about 10 years in which I struggled to quit. I would make up my mind, throw things away, make a clean sweep, and be back puffing away before the day was over. I felt completely frustrated with the efforts and disappointed with myself. It was not a secret addiction, everyone who saw me could see the young tobacco addict helplessly killing himself. I made jokes about it (as I usually do about almost everything). But year after year the habit continued and every attempt at quitting failed. On a couple of occasions I managed to stay quit for as much as two weeks. Collapsing after such a herculean effort is deeply shaming.
Something changed when I was approached by a faithful Christian couple after a weekend retreat. They were grateful, they said, for the ministry I had offered that weekend and wanted to do something for me. I was flattered and assured them that they didn’t need to. But they had something serious in mind. They told me that they thought my smoking hurt my ministry. I felt the blood rushing to my face as my embarrassment mounted. I felt a lecture coming on. But none came.
They said to me that they didn’t mean to cause me any embarrassment or concern, but that they wanted to offer a fast for me. One day each week they were going to fast and pray for God to give me the grace to quit. And, they added, they absolutely did not mean to put pressure on me.
I thanked them and told them how many times I had quit and failed and said, “If God can take them away, then so be it!”
And that was the end of it, or so I thought. I heard nothing more from them (they lived in a different city). I puffed away day after day with no particular concern or care for what they were doing. But about six months later, Great Lent rolled around. And, per usual, it seemed right to “give up smoking for Lent.” Most years that meant a miserable Ash Wednesday and a guilty collapse by the end of the day. But that year I quit. One day, two days, three days. It was hard. I was miserable. I was frequently angry. Day after day for the first few weeks my will would collapse. But I didn’t smoke.
As the season went forward it was like watching someone else quitting. I was doing something and had no sense of how I was doing it. That didn’t mean it was easy. I was doing something that had always been impossible and I didn’t know how.
At some point, I remembered the couple. I couldn’t remember their names. They were just two more faces from a retreat who made an audacious promise. I never saw them again. I couldn’t remember whom to write in order to thank them. So I gave thanks to God and continue to do so.
That experience was probably my first initiation into the mystery of salvation. We are not saved alone. God delights in communion. He delights in sharing His life.
Almost every version of grace and salvation I had heard up until that time, seemed quite private and was incorrectly called “personal.” Anything that is truly personal is not at all private. Personal existence means to exist in the image of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Father does not exist apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit (the name “Father” would have no meaning in such an existence). The same is true of the other Persons within the Trinity. And if this is true of the Divine Persons, how much more must it be true for us?
And if our existence is not apart from others, then how could our salvation be any different? My experience was not without effort. But neither was it the result of my effort. Some couple, whose names I had forgotten, offered up one day a week as a sacrifice and offering for my sake. Strangers quit smoking for me.
I have read descriptions from the lives of Holy Elders in which some monk labored long in fastings and prayers, in vigils and tears, praying for the salvation of the whole human race. In a few extraordinary descriptions, those prayers were offered, not with a generic sense of “everybody,” but with an overwhelming awareness of the whole human race, person by person. It is a mystical participation in the Cross of Christ.
We tell the stories of our lives centered primarily in ourselves. This happened. I read this book. I met this man. I…I…I…I. All the while some stranger prays from the depths of Hades in union with Christ for us and for our salvation. I do not know how I became Orthodox. I thought about it for twenty years. I loved it from a distance and was repelled by it up close. It was just the same when I dealt with God. Theology is wonderful from a distance.
We are not saved alone. Salvation is the will of God for everyone and everything (2 Peter 3:9). And many have united themselves already to the will of God. And like the will of God, they become part of our salvation.
“It is not good for man to be alone.” “Good” is not something that can be had “alone.” Thank God we are saved from it.