Imagine that you have been sentenced to seven years in a labor camp. The Church is weak, often riddled with spies, while the state proclaims that it is building a better world through its brutal efforts. Many of the laws specifically target the Church and activities within its normal life. Already in your lifetime, you have known thousands who have been executed for nothing more than faith in God.
And to this you say:
The world is governed by God’s providence alone, and in this is salvation for one who believes; in this is the strength to endure earthly sorrows.
Those words were spoken by Fr. John Krestiankin. He was imprisoned in 1950, having been sentenced to seven years in the Soviet Gulag. Born in 1910, he reposed in 2006. He was known as one of the greatest spiritual elders of his generation. His words are those of the Orthodox tradition, and go to the heart of our life in the modern project.
The nature of the world around us, caught up in its narrative of human freedom and endless progress, utterly defies the notion of Divine providence. The modern world is “what we make of it,” not what God provides. This same thought becomes an attitude of the heart. It creates anxiety and loneliness. We are anxious because we believe the world is something that must be controlled, and we learn, by bitter experience, that it cannot be controlled. We are lonely because we see ourselves surrounded by competing agents of free-will, who must be convinced to share in our own schemes if we are to have any control at all.
Fr. John says in another place, “I will tell you from experience that the sooner we accept what God has given us, the easier it will be to bear God’s good yoke, His easy yoke. It becomes heavy from our inner resistance.”
We have a deep, fearful resistance to the notion of Divine providence. The fear is that nothing good will come unless we make it come, and that dependence on Divine providence is the same as doing nothing. It is a tragic circle in which we believe that only our exercise of power can order the world, coupled with the fear that it will not be enough. Any yielding in our drive for control is seen as an invitation to disaster.
The end of the Soviet Union is an interesting case in point. Though various Western political leaders clamored to claim their own efforts as the decisive piece in the collapse of Communism, it was nothing of the sort. Indeed, its collapse came as a surprise to Western intelligence agencies. It came to an end, largely without bloodshed and suddenly. The most important figure was, doubtless, Mikhail Gorbachev, who simply allowed matters to unfold without intervention. The system was not pushed over a cliff – it was allowed to fall.
Anyone who denies the providence of God in that collapse denies reality. The system that collapsed was imprisoning the likes of Fr. John Krestiankin less than fifty years before. Arguably, Fr. John’s role in that collapse was as decisive as that of anyone, even though he never did more than tell the truth and trust in God.
Strangely, those within the Soviet Union who worked the hardest for progress would have to be counted among those who did the most to prolong its existence. It was a nation that, more than any other at any time, professed a belief in progress and the human ability to achieve it. It was the most progressive state in the history of the world.
Christians are not called to be the agents of progress. Progress requires that the future be known. It is a movement towards a defined purpose and end. The violence required by that purpose is the very core of the modern nation-state’s existence. Its citizens are equally required to support its violence and celebrate its victories.
I will expand for a moment what I mean by the “violence” of modernity. There are many actions, now endemic to our nation and economy, that require various forms of violence. The mobility of populations, for example, does violence to the extended family, having rendered one of the most fundamental structures of human existence seemingly obsolete. Its absence is devastating in the destruction of the social order. We have quietly made an agreement to prefer economic progress to the stability of family. The global economy requires that we agree to make capital movable regardless of its impact on local communities. Whole cities and regions can be turned into ghost towns in less than a generation, without a war or a plague. It is a form of violence that we excuse with the bromides of economic theory.
We do violence to our bodies, for example, demanding that the birth of children be postponed or eliminated in the name of career, pleasure, or any number of freely-chosen forms of convenience. The violence we do to our bodies (hormones, etc.) are only exceeded by the violence done to the unborn. A huge portion of the various progressive movements of our times require unnatural arrangements of nature to suit progressive purposes. A complete list of violent measures (including the almost never-ending wars of the modern state) would require much more time and space than is possible in this article. Modernity does violence to nature because it is not natural itself.
The believer who professes faith in the providence of God inherently renounces modernity and its false promises. The very thought of trusting providence, however, sends shivers down the collective back of those who have come to believe that only the modern project can solve the problems of the world. “If we do nothing…” is the beginning of almost every protest to the providence of God.
Christians do not “do nothing.” We keep God’s commandments and go about our work and our lives. Sometimes, by God’s grace and His providence, wonderful things and helpful things come about in those common places of our lives. Many fail to understand that the larger part of modern problems are actually the collateral damage of the modern project itself. Poverty and crime have a very high correlation with the breakdown of the traditional family. Economic success sometimes begets generations of misery. Strangely, we tell the story of modernity only by its purported success, somehow excusing the destruction left in its wake.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn resisted the Soviet regime with the simple dictum: “Live not by lies.” He said, “Lies can only persist by violence.” When we refuse to trust in the providence of God, we immediately agree to a lie. That lie is the declaration that God is not in charge of history. It creates the violence of our lives and becomes the source of all violence in the world.
One contemporary theologian has said, “Violence is idolatry.”
Love God. Keep His commandments. Trust in His goodness. God has not abandoned us to live like beasts.
Morning Prayer of the Elders of Optina
O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.
At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.
Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.
Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.
O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.