Giving Thanks for All Things – The Cruciform Life

 

“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live…”

The Cross is the heart of our salvation. It is on the Cross that we see the fullness of God’s love and it is in the Cross that we are united to that same love. Every Christian shares the commandment, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24) This commandment long ago passed into the common stock of cultural proverbs. “To bear one’s Cross” has come to mean something of a passive resignation to a difficult, even distasteful situation. There is almost nothing in it to inspire the heart. Of course, this seeming familiarity with the concept obscures the depth of Christ’s teaching and alienates our understanding from one of the most essential parts of our discipleship. St. Paul writes in virtual ecstasy when he says, “…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death!” (Phil. 3:10) What are we missing?

In our time, perhaps the most noted statement of our communion in the Cross of Christ’s sufferings is found in God’s word to St. Silouan of Athos: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” It is interesting to read what Fr. Zacharias, the disciple of the Elder Sophrony, the primary inheritor of Silouan’s teaching, has to say on this:

“This [saying] is not for everybody – not even for all monks. I remember when I first became a spiritual father I began to grasp a little how this is carried out in life, and I wanted to share it with all my fellows, and I was trying to teach this to one of the sisters; and Fr. Sophrony said to me (forgive me for speaking so openly): ‘You are stupid! This is not for everybody, not even for all monks! Tell this person to carry out her obediences and to do the work of the Hegoumen, that is to say, the work of the monastery, and she will be saved.’

Fr. Zacharias adds:

But people, slowly, slowly, with time, become stronger; grace strengthens their nature, and they begin to practice this in some measure. But there is another way, for people living in the world: to keep thanking God continually, thus: “I thank Thee, O Lord, for all the things that Thou hast done for me”, and so on, adding at the end, “. . . though I am unworthy.” This brings the same result, the same state. Psychologically, it is more acceptable and has the same effect, because thanking God continually intercedes for our weakness before Him, makes up for our weakness. I believe that this is a more accessible way for people living in the world. And when we are strengthened by grace, the same grace will teach us. We must never forget that “one is our Teacher, even Christ” (Matt. 23: 10) (from The Enlargement of the Heart, Mt. Thabor Publishing, 2012).

It is in following this path described by Fr. Zacharias that I advocate so frequently and strongly the practice of giving thanks always and for all things. I believe that many find this rather troublesome, perhaps reminiscent of certain Evangelical/Pentecostal practices. In some of those circles, giving thanks is seen as a spiritual weapon (and it certainly is). But that weapon is viewed as part of an overall panoply of practices designed to protect us from adversity and to promote success and prosperity. In Orthodoxy, this is not the case.

In Orthodox practice, the giving of thanks is a union with Christ in the Cross. In our normal cultural practice, we give thanks to people who give us desirable things. We extend this to God, and gladly offer thanksgiving when the things in our lives are suitable to our needs and wants. This practice of thanksgiving treats God’s purpose in our lives as nothing more than an assurance of health, prosperity and protection against adversity. This is little more than a magical paganism and is alien to the Cross. In many parts of the Christian world, the Cross has been reduced to nothing more than an atonement device, the means by which our (legal) sins are forgiven. As such, it has nothing to do with a way of life. It renders statements such as, “Take up your Cross and follow me,” meaningless.

However, the Cross is repeatedly presented to us (particularly in St. Paul) as a way of life, and the full expression of the “mind of Christ” which should be ours. Our modern, magical Christianity can make no sense of St. Paul’s ecstatic desire to know the communion of Christ’s sufferings. Is St. Paul suggesting some sort of masochistic cult?

We must be clear: St. Paul and the Christian tradition in no way suggest self-harm as a means of devotion. Those occasions in history where this has been practiced are aberrations. There is always sufficient suffering in this present life through which we may know the communion of Christ’s suffering without intentionally adding to it. The key is what we do with the suffering that is ours.

This traditional prayer (similar to a number of others) is an example of Orthodox thought:

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 Your 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 Your 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 You.

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.

Its theme is directed primarily at the acceptance of the day. It assumes that each day will bring its own “fatigue” and “unexpected occurrences.” It does not ask for a list of good things. Indeed, it is rightly assumed that God only wills us good and that He knows our needs better than we ourselves. I always took note that my beloved father-in-law said ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is enough.

The Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica…, who himself suffered from anxiety and depression for a number of years, gave witness to the fact that there is no deliverance from these trials without the acceptance of God’s will:

As he related many years later to one of his spiritual children, at the time of this inner battle he suffered two nervous breakdowns as a result of the warfare against the temptations of fear, anxiety, and worry. His whole body trembled and he was, overall, in a very bad state. He took this as a warning from God and resolved to change his way of life and drop all earthly cares and worries. “I realized that we all worry about ourselves too much and that only he who leaves everything to the will of God can feel truly joyous, light, and peaceful.” Thus, having learned to leave all of his cares and those of his neighbors in the hands of the Lord, he patiently bore the cross of serving as abbot at the Patriarchate of Pech for the next six years (from Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2011).

The acceptance of God’s will is the very heart of giving thanks. To give thanks is to recognize first that what has come your way is a gift, and second, that the giver of every gift is the good God.

Many become troubled at the thought of giving thanks for something terrible (a disease or accident). This giving of thanks is not a declaration that the thing itself is good, but that God Himself is good and that He works in and through all things for our salvation. More than that, the giving of thanks is our active assent to true communion with God. Our refusal to give thanks is also the refusal to recognize something as having come from God. The world becomes divided into “God’s stuff” and “other stuff,” and, inevitably, there is ever so much more “other stuff.”

How do we give thanks? What does it look like? Do I say, “Thank you for this disaster?”

The confusion in our culture in which thanksgiving belongs only to that which is desired makes it difficult to offer such words. Job’s confession in the Old Testament is perhaps more to the point: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

For myself, I pray, “Give me grace, O Lord, to accept all that you give, for you are good and Your will for me in all things is good.” I often add words such as, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

The mystery of communion in all things (including “bad” things) is more difficult to describe. I find great comfort (and power) in the prayer to the Cross:

Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say with gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee, went down to hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His honorable Cross, for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me with our holy Lady, the Virgin Theotokos, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen.

Within this prayer, we unite whatever it is that has come our way with the Cross of Christ itself. As we embrace it, making the sign of the Cross, the event itself is transformed into the Cross. Indeed, I think of it as a “sacrament” of the Cross. It is frightful to demons to see a Christian so embrace suffering. Recall how Satan was defeated by Job who refused to curse God in his circumstances.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

 

 

91 comments:

  1. There is quite a bit of sacramental theology in Job it seems to me. He offers and continues to offer in the midst of his struggles.

    When I first started to read your blog, Father back in 2008, I took umbrage at giving thanks for all things. Did not like it at all. Kept coming back however and it has gradually begun to penetrate my hard heart.

    God is good.

  2. If I may, this seems to work well enough for many things. But is it proper that we insist that POWs give thanks for their torture? That children with leukemia give thanks for their disease.? This sort of thing seems to throw a wrench into the notion of giving thanks for all things, because how can someone give thanks for something to terribly and utterly unacceptable?

  3. Thank you Father,
    It is certainly a challenge to give thanks as Job did but I am deeply grateful that my youngest son asked me a question about the Book of Job that required me to read it deeply to give him an answer. Its a challenge, but what a blessing to follow Job’s example. It takes away so much in terms of doubt, despair and frustration. On Theophany, while in Procession for the Blessing of the Waters, I slipped on a small mud spot on the river bank and fell backwards. I totally ruptured my left Quadriceps tendon rendering my leg useless and inflicting much pain. The road back, surgery, PT and other fun things was a painful journey, but, thanks be to God, I had been taught to try to emulate Job. I did not verbalize a prayer of Thanksgiving but I have not been bitter, which is definitely a temptation. I was quite able to file it under “Stuff Happens” and worship. Serving was a bit tough for awhile ,.and I still limp some, but I still can worship. Thank you Father for reminding me to give thanks.

  4. Thomas,
    I do not expect that everyone will embrace the fullness of the Cross at all times. And we cannot project or demand that embracing from others. However, I have seen astonishing abilities to bear suffering with gratitude in children (far more than in their parents). And the martyrs bear witness to an amazing ability to see the Cross in very horrific things.

    But you and I, thank God, do not suffer from leukemia at the moment, nor are we being tortured. So we give thanks for all things that God has permitted in our lives, particularly that nothing is wasted – nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

    In my experience, there is no such thing as imaginary grace. That is to say, that we cannot create theoretical situations and then imagine the grace that may accompany it.

    I had a cousin who suffered from childhood-onset rheumatoid arthritis. She was disfigured by the disease and endured terrible pain and 10’s of operations. In her last couple of years, she bore her illness with great joy and wonder. I asked her how she was able to do that. She replied, “I used to get up every morning and curse God. But that was before I knew He was good.” That recognition of God’s goodness was, I think, a true miracle of grace in her life. It became a very bold witness to everyone around her.

    No one could have said to her, “Give thanks for your disease.” But, by God’s grace, she received that great gift and it was transformative in her life.

    You used the phrase, “something so terribly and utterly unacceptable.” There is much there to work on spiritually – but it cannot be forced.

  5. Thank you, Father!

    A verse I find helps me for this: “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His Mercy endures forever.”

    Thomas, in the adverse circumstances you describe, it is not that we give thanks *for* these things–certainly not as things in themselves. Rather, we continue to give thanks *in the midst of* these things, knowing God in His goodness turns even those events the enemy means for our destruction into the very means through which our salvation–as communion with Christ and as our inner transformation to be like Him–is effected.

    It is as though the Cross is the ultimate spiritual Aikido, where the energetic force of the attack of the enemy is skillfully redirected and utilized to neutralize the attack and prevent injury both to the attacker and the one attacked.

    The prayer for enemies of St. Nikolai of Ochrid is an excellent example of thus power of the Cross it seems to me.

  6. I used to want to understand why certain things happened, to explain them somehow, perhaps in order to accept them better. It seems that the only answer that is of any use to me anymore is that God is good and to be patient. I tremble even as I write that for some reason…

  7. Thomas,
    I resonate with your words completely. However, for what it’s worth, this is how I understand Fr’s words to be applied. If suffering is a sacrament of the cross, then can we willingly receive this sacrament with thanksgiving? As a sacrament it isn’t the violence that we thank God for, it’s the presence of the crucified God in the violence. God tramples down death by death and makes the evil we suffer a means of our salvation. As the saying goes, the antidote is in the poison.

  8. I very much understand where Thomas is coming from, however as I’ve journeyed further down life’s road I find myself resonating with Helen. We always want to sit on God’s throne and make judgments about how things should be. How difficult it is for us to simply do the one thing He’s given us to do: accept God’s love and love Him back. Much happens that we don’t understand, but no matter what: “He is a good God and He does love mankind…”

  9. Drewster, et al
    I need to offer a quick corrective. This is nothing about resignation and acceptance. This is piercing into the communion of the Cross. All of this is, doubtless, a “hard” word, difficult to grasp if you’ve not experienced it. But the communion of Christ’s suffering is itself an “ecstasy” (particularly in the original meaning of the word). Christ went to the Cross for the “joy set before Him” – I do not think that joy was simply waiting for Sunday morning’s resurrection. On the Cross, He gathered into Himself all of the suffering of the world – all of it. It was no longer an alienation, but now the restoration of communion. As such, it is His joy and bliss.

    The common saying, often printed on Orthodox crosses in the form of little Russian alphabet letters, is “The place of the skull has become paradise.” I believe it may also be on the Great Schema.

    It is alright, as I have said, if any of us is “not there yet.” But it is worth knowing that it is there to be found.

    Why not just start by giving God thanks for good stuff (most forget to do even that). His grace can lead you into the rest.

    The communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, we must remember, is a communion in His sacrifice – we eat and drink the suffering of the entire world (it’s there in His sacrifice). It is “on behalf of all and for all.” In that, everything, positively everything(!) is in that communion. And, strangely, we approach that mystery that contains all things and say, “I am not worthy!”

  10. When I pray the part of daily acceptance prayer which says:” In unexpected occurrences let me not forget that all things are sent down from you” I substitute ” …let me not forget that all is under Your care.

  11. Fr. Stephen,

    Your last comment indeed expounds upon a “hard word.” Two questions:

    1) Per your earlier comment, since we cannot demand or project giving thanks in all things, even or especially in the most difficult things, then how do we encourage people to take up this goal? I have experienced some how giving thanks and seeking spiritual profit in the midst of difficult situations transforms the whole situation into an avenue for opening oneself up to God. How can we not want this for those we know in trying situations?

    2) Is your correction about resignation and acceptance signifying that this giving thanks and communing with the Cross is a willing action and not simply the waiting and unresisting attitude of resignation?

  12. ELM,
    Absolutely it is a willing action and not simply a waiting and unresisting resignation. “No one takes my life me, I lay it down of my own will.” This is a core spiritual principle. I wouldn’t worry about encouraging others in this too much. Perhaps share something they can read. If they want it, they will begin to take it up. Note that Fr. Zacharias got rebuked for trying to share “keep your mind in hell…etc.” at the monastery and was told to do something else. But with time…it became possible.

    If you see this, then just practice it. The more you practice it, the more God will show you what to do with it.

  13. “Acceptance” of a cross can connote either resignation (which often includes despair or at least a stoic passivity) or embrace. Embrace is the kind of “acceptance” that leads to salvation because this has to be done in faith and anticipates joy (Hebrews12:2).

  14. Helen, I resonate with your initial struggle to find reasons for suffering and with your eventual recognition that faith in God’s goodness, not explanations, are key to endurance. Evil events can never be meaningful in themselves–they are only made meaningful by how through the grace of faith in God’s goodness God transforms them into instruments for accomplishing His good purpose for our lives, which is the final destruction of sin and death and, consequently, of suffering–the consummation of joy in our communion in Him.

  15. In communion we eat and drink the suffering of the entire world…In that, everything, positively everything(!) is in that communion.

    There is a great mystery in this. When Christians accept communion are they are implicitly telling Christ ‘I will share with you in some small part the death and suffering of ALL’? Does this include the sins?

  16. David,

    I believe we do. God is always true to nature if we can read the signs. If we sit down and eat with someone, are we not implicitly saying that we are all in this together? Are we not communing and becoming one? Even if only very slowly?

    And sins? Do we not already visit our sins on each other? But there is a big difference in how this plays out. On the one hand we all (intentionally and not) share our sins with one another, but Christ’s model is that we (slowly) learn to reach out in love to each other – enduring/accepting the bad in order to reach the true person underneath all that. It’s not that we love or accept the sin, but that a) it is worth it to reach God’s creation and b) as said before, the sin or the bad situation gets transformed through Christ as we do so.

    And I want to stop and acknowledge once more what Fr. Stephen has said before: On most days for most of us, this is out of reach. We’re doing good to say thank you when someone holds the door for us or to think about someone else for more than 5 minutes.

  17. If I may, I began reading this blog a couple of years after the repose of my wife of 24 years. Giving thanks to God in that circumstance seemed impossible and a primary reason I railed about what I read.

    But the more I read and the more I reflected on the experience of her death, the less and less I railed. Now, I do give thanks to God for so many things even in a provisional way for her death. His hand was/is so evident. It is not that she “is in a better place” it is Pascha.

    I still grieve her loss with tears 12 years removed. Half of my soul was torn out. But even there God’s mercy is becoming clearer so they are Lenten tears– a bright sadness.

    As I age and face the slow surrender of my body to entropy I am learning to be thankful there as well. Thankfulness has little to do with being happy nothing to do with being resigned.

    Death, disability even pain and loss and suffering can be and are transformed on and through the Cross.
    Glory be to God!!!

  18. Thank you Father,
    so much in here!
    I also like to couple this with Fr T. Hopko’s notion of seeing every single suffering that befalls us as a ‘calling’ directly from God

    “Who knows every person from before the foundation of the world and provides their unique life and the specific conditions of their earthly way which are literally the best possible conditions for them – however unacceptable this may seem to us creatures in our limited and fallen state. “

  19. David,
    I personally think it does. We seek to become like Him in all things. This is one of the great tragedies when we judge another – we condemn ourselves. “Judge not that you be not judged,” is heard by us like a threat. “Judge them, and God will pay you back!” Nope. When we judge them, we judge ourselves. When we show mercy, we receive mercy. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (Matt. 7:2)

    St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life.” There are so many levels of meaning in that statement – all true.

  20. The Gospel as it is communicated in Orthodoxy is a deep well of Being. The more we drink of it the greater our view and participation of Life and the world becomes.

    It’s overwhelming…

  21. Dino, I’m quite hesitant about this ” best possible” language of Fr. Thomas’s. I think we have to qualify that this must imply “best possible without infringing on creaturely freedom” or we will end up with a monstrously distorted notion of God’s providence, since there are such huge inequities in the circumstances favorable to the embrace of the gospel from individual to individual and culture to culture not corresponding to any particular fault (or virtue) of most of the particular persons impacted at all. I’m never very comfortable with language that strays too far from Romans 8:28-29. I can affirm that no matter the particular circumstances confronting our lives, God is at work within them to minimize their evil effects and maximize their potential to work for our salvation. The “calling” then from God would be to freely choose to trust and cooperate with Him in His work.

  22. This speaks to what I have found to be true and good in Quaker faith and practice, as well as Twelve Step recovery.

  23. Karen,
    I think Father Tom wants to help our weakness and provides us with a succinct notion that can pedagogically aid us along the way to sanctity. It’s not so much ‘theology on God’s providence’ as a fortification of our easily wavering trust in His providence. I personally need it all the time.

    May we all be at least granted a stronger and more constant vision of “the other side of the grave”, then all adversity would be interpreted as a divine calling with far more ease and as something good rather than evil.
    Father Aimilianos of Simonopetra is far more ‘brutally harsh’ when he picks up this particular subject and speaks -pedagogically again – about it. But we must constantly remember that he desires to, and knows how to, make us secure in the faith of the Cross, he tries to ignite the martyric zeal in us (which he had in astounding abundance) and reveal the fraudulence of the ‘modern, magical Christianity’s’ way of thinking:

    …we have to pray without ceasing but at the same time thank God for everything that happens to us, these two can’t be separated, they go together. We thank God for pleasant things, but more so for something else: in life, matters don’t always turn out as we would want them to. We pray, for instance, and it appears as if God doesn’t listen. We ask for our health, and our illness worsens. We request God to grant us certain things and He gives us nothing. Everything’s back to front.
    People who don’t learn to thank God for all, especially for adversity, will never advance even an inch beyond where they were when their mothers bore them. They’ll make no progress. And, of course, when their mothers bore them, such people were innocent babes, they had a natural sanctity, whereas we, have a certain cruelty, as well as knowledge, and that makes us guilty. So we have to learn to thank God. When we have bad thoughts, when our brother says something and we feel hatred within us, we must, at that very time, thank God and smile at our brother. Unless we do so, it’s impossible to advance a step, because everything will seem perverse to us. And then, in particular, others and our circumstances will cause us to have bad thoughts, temptations, passions and contrariness.

    You might be chock-full with bodily pains, encumbered with privations, with helplessness, plagued with starvation, with nakedness, with everything; and surrounded on every side in this way (Psalm 118, 11) you cannot cope, you involuntarily react and lose your peace with God.
    Now if you succeed to overcome your agony: in the sense of not perceiving your pain as something evil but as something good, if you can manage to interpret every injury, snatching, loss and agony as visitations of God, then you become ‘un-tempt-able’. But the instant you desire to overcome the pain, the anguish, the tribulation, to correct the wrong or to make up what was stolen from you, you stop communing with God, your relationship with Him becomes troubled. Do I have food? I will eat. Do I not have food? I won’t eat. (Phil 4:11) Do I have my health? I will glorify God. Do I not have my health? I will again glorify the Lord. From the moment I return to myself and will want to make things right, to recuperate my health, I have lost God, I have fallen from Heaven and have made myself into nothing more than a spinner-toy that can only gyrate upon the earth.

    The same thing happens when I fail to understand that whatever I haven’t got, I do not need. They seized my clothes, my belongings, my money, they stole my wife, my friend, they took away my father, my son, …it means that I did not need to have them. Deprivation and pain are the yardsticks of our spirituality. Anyone who struggles, who becomes worried and reacts to pain and privation has no God, God is dead for such a person. In order for someone to become able to not be tempted and to not lose his continuous contact with God – in order for God to never ever become absent for him – he needs to love pain, affliction and privation.

    Ceaseless prayer and gratitude to God for all that happens to us are the necessary conditions for a natural life. If people don’t thank God for everything, they can’t even pray. People have to be grateful for whatever happens to them, whether that comes from their inner world or from the others, from enemies or from demons. Unceasing prayer and gratitude for everything are directly connected to our personal ‘rule’, our time alone, exclusively present before the Lord. In other words, anyone can perform their ‘rule’ when they learn to pray ceaselessly, and anyone who performs his rule can have unceasing prayer. If he wants to separate his rule from unceasing prayer, both will come tumbling down. This is rudimentary and we must retain it. Miss your ‘rule’ for two days and you’ll see that you’ll forget to say “Glory to you, our God” even once a day. That’s a law.
    Archim. Aimilianos of Simonopetra, “Neptical life and ascetic rules”, and “On Love – interpretation of Saint Maximus the Confessor”

  24. Dino,
    I am certain that what you write and quote is true. However, it makes me feel like I am reading about the Badwater Ultramarathon. It is 135 miles long, starts in Death Valley at almost 300 feet below sea level. It ends at Whitney Portals, at an elevation of more than 8.600 feet! It is run in July when Temps can reach 130 degrees. And the top ultramarathoners can do it! However, with my bad knee at 71 I can only barely walk a mile. I am not encouraged by what you write. I guess I am a spiritual weakling. What Father writes about giving thanks for the good then proceeding with more and more thanks in even adverse situations seems doable, like asking me to maybe run a 10 minute mile. Anyway, your imput here is always appreciated by me Dino. Thanks.

  25. Dean,

    If I may write so, Father Aemilianos, like the Saints of our Church, points us to the peak of a very tall mountain. Most of us will never get there, but the zeal to struggle will get us going according to the measure of our faith.

    The spiritual Fathers show diákrisi (distinction?) and do not expect the same from every monk or every lay person. Dino, correct me if I’m wrong here, but the Simonopetrite Fathers would adapt the message to suit the audience.

    One would not set impossible ‘rule’ to a desperate person at the brink of suicide; at the same time some of these words quoted above would sound just right for an athlete of the Jesus prayer who has abandoned everything for Him. Quoted out of this spiritual struggle context, they could make people feel disheartened.

    My question is this: what is the measure of our struggle? We are not ‘making progress’ by our actions alone; we need the Grace of God to reach humility, thankfulness and to know God. Maybe I do not fully understand the saying “the way up is the way down”.

    Is quantity of prayer all we can ever offer?

  26. Thank you, Fr. Stephen for your words here. I was just struggling with this very thing today – being faced with my cross and the opportunity to embrace it or to try to push it aside. It seems that so often the reluctance to bear one’s cross is directly related to the comparison of one’s own circumstances with the (apparent) circumstances of others. I so often find myself thinking that “if only” I had chosen x over y I would not have to go through the things I face, but the truth is that had I chosen x I would still have a cross to bear, though it may have been a different one. I am seeing more and more the truth of the words you so often remind us of – that the way down is the way up. I see myself standing now on the edge of a precipice, and there is a long way to go down. But there’s no other way to go and your frequent reminders are a comfort to me as I struggle to learn to give thanks in all things.

  27. Dean and Thomas, whenever the lofty heights of our faith threaten to collapse me in an overwhelmed pile on the ground, I go back to the principle in Fr. Stephen’s post, “It Is But a Small Thing”. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! 🙂

  28. Dino,
    I definitely recognize the truth of what Elder Amelianos is teaching. It reminds me of the Scriptures on suffering in 1 Peter:

    “And who is he who will harm you if you become followers of what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. ‘And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.’ But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed. For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. …

    “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (1 Peter 3:13-17; 4:1-2)

    I do get the pedagogical import. Context is important. Fr. Thomas likely, as you say, meant to encourage the same kind of resolute trust through suffering as the Elder. This is indeed a hard teaching, but anytime we do manage to come to a place where we can genuinely thank God for the sufferings in our lives, we begin to encounter the grace of its truth. Thanks for the wonderful quote.

  29. Dean, the good thing is that as long as we don’t abandon the race, Jesus Christ gives the increase. One step and rest. One step rest. Repeat as often as necessary if if the step is backward now and then.

  30. Dean,
    I agree that what Dino writes and quotes seems “brutally harsh” sometimes (I personally think it’s the best stuff, LOL!), but that is the very highest standard Christians are called to, and unless we know what the standard is, how can we even know that we fall short?

    Father Stephen quoted Archimandrite Zacharias, and his teaching on continual thanksgiving. It’s Fr. Zacharias’s favorite theme, along with the cultivation of the heart through the practice of the Jesus Prayer, reading of the Holy Scriptures and attendance of the Liturgy. I once had a blessing to participate in a lecture at his monastery and during the question and answers period, somebody said that all these methods are so time consuming and demanding in our busy lives, and even the continual thanksgiving is hard because we are so distracted…. He then said, almost jokingly, “Isn’t there some kind of a shortcut?” (people in the room laughed, the person asking the question offered the Jesus Prayer as a possible example, being slightly embarrassed….)

    But Fr Zacharias got very serious and said: Yes, there is a shortcut.

    If you are ready to suffer injustice for God and for God’s commandments, you will make big strides. When you are insulted and you don’t defend yourself or answer back, but pray for the person who insulted you, you will progress spiritually very rapidly. And if you not only pray for them, but are grieved that his soul was harmed, you will profit even more. And if you rejoice because you were granted to suffer for Christ, that’s even more of a progress…. I think this comes from the Ladder of Divine Ascent…

    In general, I love how Fr. Zacharias says that the Gospel of Christ is not a “human invention”, but a revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We have to exert ourselves, raise to a supernatural level, and do it voluntarily… The Orthodox teaching on the Cross, as Father Stephen says, is at the heart of this mystery… But it’s scandalous to our contemporary times, most people reject it because they don’t know the truth… We are so blessed in the Orthodox Church to have the fullness of this truth and an opportunity to live it.

    Karen,
    I once went to confession with a priest I did not know, while travelling. It’s always hard to do this, so to stay somewhat “general”, I told him I was worried about my children growing up in such crazy and godless times. To which he answered: “God placed your children (and you too) in this time and place because He knows it’s the best time for their salvation”. It did not register immediately, but since then, I reflected and reflect on this truth often. When we accept this truth, it truly is “fortification of our easily wavering trust in His providence”, as Dino said. I need this reminder all the time too…

  31. Dean,
    As others have already said, the guiding ‘pole star’ word of the Elder is and ought to be perfect despite this rendering it ‘harsh’. He never even presented it with a mention or recognition of its ‘harshness’ in the first place, as I felt I had to do here. But any good teacher who would give you a description of a subject would normally describe it 100% truthfully, (eg he would describe the kind of running technique that would get you through a Badwater Ultramarathon first, not just a quarter of it with a relaxed time) even when he clearly understands that one will then pick up 5%, another 50% and maybe someone even 100%, (eg even if you then ran a portion of that with an average time), if he hadn’t done this, nobody would have been in the truth and his knowledge would have been lost rather than traditioned over.
    Besides, we offer the little 5% that we can in ‘crazy faith’ of the 100% (like a cute little child would do in their enthusiastic optimism despite the grown-ups condescending giggles at his unrealistic belief) and God then comes and makes it 100%, we need this kind of faith constantly reignited like that. We need this optimism more than we need pragmatism as an internal disposition. Pragmatic discernment only then comes upon this initial foundation when our motives are God-centered.

  32. Thank you Agata and Dino. I will re-read your words, prayerfully meditating upon them. This forum and its friends in Christ are a real blessing. Thanks to Michael and Thomas also.

  33. Thomas B,

    You asked if the quantity of our prayers is all we can ever offer? I would say prayer is ALL that we have to offer. But, once our life becomes a living prayer, the idea of quantity will lose its meaning. Each breath and each heart beat becomes a prayer once prayer is infused into the soul. More than all else pray from the heart.

  34. Thomas,

    My question is this: what is the measure of our struggle?

    One measure of our struggle is the extent to which we do not loose the “present, here and now” God from our site (or more modestly/realistically: the speed and frequency with which we try to regain this, to return to this joy when we catch ourselves without it, in the past or future or elsewhere), also, the degree to which we do not ‘return’ to the conventional, worldly interpretation of the world, i.e.: through the lens of [effectively] self-love, but, uphold the God-centred standpoint of all that exists, (the cruciform“not my will but Yours”state, Luke 22:42), the measure in which we eucharistically see (or at least try to see despite all antagonism to the contrary) others as saints, ourselves as sinners, God’s mercy and grace at work in all difficulties. God would surely come to aid even the slightest indication of such an intent even before it becomes manifest. We drown in problems and yet we turn to God just as we would have done in delights.

    “The way up is the way down”

    could also be read as the way to God is away from the mighty magnet of self-absorption that unceasingly and multifariously yanks us out of Heaven into Hell in the name of this that or the other; since quality and purity of prayer is truly a God-given then quantity of prayer, (understood as continual exertion for Godwards realignment of our being through whatever is at hand, a realignment whose frequency we regularly struggle to raise higher) is the main thing we can offer.
    For one person what is ‘at hand’ is the replanting of certain good thoughts throughout the day, for another it is waking up in the middle of the night for a prayer-rope or more, for yet another it is the interjection of psalms once, thrice, 7 times a day, others might do less or all this and more. May God grant us all who don’t perceive God to see Him and continue to see Him in the Holy Spirit as Saint Stephen did (Acts 7:55), to recognise the Lord and how much He loves us and never forget this in our souls and become like Christ.

  35. “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life,………….” The path is rough and harsh, the goal is our beloved. For every difficulty, harshness and trial there is a reward beyond understanding

  36. For the sake of playing the Devil’s Advocate, which I do for myself just to keep me honest, can I think of anyone I know who would have suffered some tragedy that would have made thankfulness to God…seem impossible. And I know three people who went through severe childhood abuse: A cousin of mine, my first wife, and a friend who was a child survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. These three suffered things as children that no human should suffer.

    As adults we can opiate pain through rationalization. We can generate a broader context and purpose to give meaning to what we endure. But, what about the children? How can we give God thanks for what happens to children?

    I’ve been thinking about this topic considerably. God makes the ultimate triumph over evil on the Cross. He makes our suffering the means of salvation (our suffering and sin ALL of it is present there).

    Like Ivan Karamazov I find the suffering of children too much to bear. Before the suffering of children I must remain in silent prostration and if I’m being really honest I’m cursing God in my heart for it . If God can’t take a little human indignation from time to time, then God isn’t really God.

  37. Agata, thank you so much, too, for that story about your experience of Confession while traveling. That really goes to the heart of concerns I have for my children, too.

  38. David,
    I can never forget Eldress Gavrillia exclaiming passionately on the subject that what we are missing is the vision of the ‘other side’ – the “opposite shore” were her words in Greek. All obstacles, all sufferings of ourselves and of others take a different dimension in the light of the Cross – the Light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven in this temporal, myopic understanding we are so steeped in. In the transformative radiance of the Cross, all which is contrary to God, everything scandalously unexplainable this side of the grave, instantly becomes a useful ally, a friend that serves our calling to the life of the (at the time seemingly meaninglessly) Crucified yet eternally exalted One. Even the seemingly meaningless suffering of children. This is our faith. We try to walk by faith.

  39. David Foutch

    But the child can turn to God and give thanks – and here I would add that its easy to get caught up in the legalism of what is “thanks”. I do not think it always means to literally say thank you although that can certainly be the case. (Father Stephen please correct me if I am wrong)

    “Forgive them for they know not what they do” is thanks.

    “In my distress I cried to the Lord” is the remembrance of God and in the midst of a horrible situation is thanks.

    Eucharistic thanks through the tribulations of life has a quality of offering – like an anaphora – lifting the heart to the Lord.

    My priest – Father Michael often says “It is a fallen world, what are you expecting?” It a good perspective – and while it does not solve pain it helps one to bear it. In the suffering of children I believe silent prostration is the right posture – but to curse God? I know you are playing devils advocate and we all wrestle with suffering.

    In the book “On the Providence of God” Saint John Chrysostom during his last exile writes about the crucible of suffering and also about getting caught up in the scandal of “the curious mind” and wanting to know “all the cause of everything that happens” and “questioning the incomprehensible and unspeakable providence of God”. He calls getting too caught up in “why” a disease. (And how easy to get caught up in why – don’t we all at times? Definitely worth the time to talk with someone for spiritual guidance and recalibration during those times).

    He writes this to his flock during his exile and their persecution.

    He talks about martyrdom and that “women have entered upon this contest and have often shown more bravery than men. And not only women but also young people, and even children” who when they suffered (for Christ) kept their heart and mind on their first Love and blessed those who caused their suffering.

    Saint John Chrysostom says, “Thus when you see so many rewards, so many crowns being woven, so much instruction taking place, tell me what causes you to be scandalized”…

    I read a story of holocaust victims – some who were children, who said they learned to give thanks for the fleas and the lice that plaqued them because in being infested with fleas or lice the Nazi guards would leave them alone.

    It’s a strange blessing that we simply can not understand from the vantage of relative comfort and in a land that preaches the Gospel of prosperity

  40. also David

    Counterintuitively, when in the face of the suffering of a child an adult prostrates him or herself to the Lord, that has a strong quality of the essence thanks. I don’t think that is a stretch.

    Rejoicing in the Lord is not the same rejoicing that the Hallmark card company promotes.

    often we only hear of suffering – especially to children – only after the fact and the correct response is to be horrified – absolutely. God gives us that natural reaction for a reason.

  41. Victoria, David,
    It is indeed difficult for our culture to understand the giving of thanks as anything other than a positive endorsement. It is, rather, the acknowledgement, in communion, of the Giver of all things. The joy that is found in that communion cannot be had by reason – the joy is only found within the communion itself.

  42. Yes, Father! Joy in the communion! From one such experience:

    If eyes are truly windows of the soul
    Then what am I to make of the tears that flow?

    Sometimes when my insides are torn apart
    These tears are pieces of a broken soul and heart

    But One beside me firmly stands
    And catches each tear in the palm of His hand

    To each tear is added a shining light
    And set before me, like stars in my night

    Now suddenly overcome by Grace
    My soul is cleansed by the tears that race.

  43. Indeed, the only way we can bear knowing about the suffering of all, but especially of innocent and defenseless children, is because of the faith we have that Christ will transform even that by the power of the Cross. In the meantime, we pray and work that it may also be prevented. That, too, will not come about without our willingness for the sake of Christ to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.

  44. On the subject of the suffering of children, I find the “why does it happen?” to be of less interest than “why do we care?” More specifically, “why do we care about children?” For our concern for children is markedly different than for adults.

    Case in point, if a person who’s 6 and a person who’s 26 are out riding their bicycles (separately) are killed by someone who ignores a stop sign, is there not more outrage and calls for stronger laws in the case of the younger? Or if two females who are virtually identical, except one’s 11 (an “early bloomer”), and other 21, are seduced by men in their forties, is there not moral outrage and even the desire to hurt the man in the case of the younger, while with the older, there’s only mild disapproval at best?

    Is it that we expect children to make us happy (from a fallen perspective) therefore we wish for them to be molded in a way that brings up pleasant feelings for us, whereas adults, being less moldable, therefore less likely to be shaped as we desire, hold our interest less?

    Perhaps that is why we struggle with the suffering of children: we are more likely to “care”. And because of our “caring”, coupled with the notion that we know best, (or anything, really), we struggle to believe that Grace does well (I find it helpful to think of this etymology, accurate or not, I’ve read for “Eucharist”: eu- the “well done” in “well done, good and faithful servant”, -charist derivative of “Grace”) in all things, even those that do not add to our temporal happiness.

  45. Clarification: “Grace” in my previous comment understood as that which / He who unites us to the Cross for our salvation.

  46. Matt Z,

    While it may not be justified, I think we care more about the children being hurt because we look upon them as fresh starts, so full of promise. Adults for better or worse are what they are and there’s less help for them. They’re already on their way to the grave. Children are less unspoiled, more innocent and perfect.

    This view of course is not conscious or explicit. We just know that there are so many things in our own lives that we could’ve/would’ve/should’ve done differently and we see the children as hope that at least someone will be able to succeed where we failed.

    Were this topic to be explored it would be seen that all human beings – even all creation – should be looked upon with different eyes, with a view to seeing hope and value in all. But that is often too much for us in our depressed situation, and therefore we only hold onto hope for the children. It isn’t right, but it’s all we can manage sometimes. Lord have mercy on us.

  47. Matt Z.,

    I have a less cynical take on this. One of the reasons for me that the suffering of children evokes even greater pathos for us (without necessarily even detracting from the sense of distress we have on hearing of any suffering–any injustice abuse and suffering certainly distresses me) is our intuitive sense that children lack the kind of defenses we develop as we get older to cope with such suffering and abuse. They are more easily exploited as a result when they lack adult protectors. One of the only things that comforts me is knowing these children are loved and cared for by God and His angels, and since they are children may be more open to the reality of His presence with them in the midst of their suffering, too. Even the capacity for multiple personality and other dissociative disorders experienced by those severely traumatized especially in childhood is understood by therapists and recovering sufferers to be a gift that enabled them to survive something that might otherwise have ended in suicide or institutionalization. Believers (many who are enabled to recover from the trauma of things like ritual abuse are believers) who suffer in this way point to the disorder as a way God protected them from the worst of their abuse until they had the inner and outer resources available as adults to help them start healing.

  48. Matt Z,

    What I mean is that children differ from adults in terms of their innocence and their vulnerability. I think that this sentiment is reflected in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan uses two examples of suffering that are both very extreme, but what makes these examples SO provocative is that the victims are children.

    I think that the more abstract a conversation becomes, then we run the risk of losing sight of the visceral experience of being human–it gets subtracted out as being too particular. But, theology only makes sense with respect to our radical particularity. So, from an abstract point of view age shouldn’t matter, but among actual persons, it is a difference that makes a difference.

  49. So, from an abstract point of view age shouldn’t matter, but among actual persons, it is a difference that makes a difference.

    To an extent, yes, but that can be stretched too far.

    From what I have observed, there isn’t much of a difference between the character of a middle schooler and of someone who is old enough to have a child who is one. An adult may have more life experience, and more legal privileges, and be given more responsibilities, (which is not the same as being more responsible), but the differences in character are still rather small, despite what we’d like to believe.

    Regarding the protection of children, that is something which is often confused with sheltering them from the realities of life, which is a very different thing. As Karen mentioned, children are more easily taken advantage of in the absence of protectors. The sheltered often remain perpetual children, or are forced to “grow up” real fast when their “protector” is no longer in the picture.
    We do not live in Eden, or in Elysium, or even in the alternate earth Dostoyevsky’s ridiculous man found himself. From the moment of our conception, we live in the real world, where bad things happen indiscriminately of age. To ignore this, especially in the case of the vulnerable, believing we can somehow manage this, except perhaps to a very small degree, is utter madness.

    It is good and right that we care about children. However, I’m not convinced that our caring is as altruistic as we’d like to believe. May God have mercy on us.

  50. Matt Z.
    Yes, bad things do happen to children. The evening news tells us that each night. Do some parents try and shield their children too much? Perhaps. The monastery community of which I am a part is composed of many families with children of all ages. One family has 8 children, ages 9 to 20. Three of the oldest 4 have already become monastics. I rejoice in this. Father Stephen has written that until the Orthodox Church in America is blessed by a large number of monasteries, our Church will have a rather negligible impact on our country. Now these children grew up in the “real” world. Their world was different, for sure, than that of the teens you see walking the malls with vacuous eyes. But it was very real, with tree climbing, raising animals, studying at home, et cetera, all without TV or internet. But very real. Only different. As far as your last statement about us not being as altruistic as we imagine, this may be true. Almost everything we do we do from mixed motives. I did not know, until we had them, that I would love our grandchildren just as much as our children. But we do. It would be madness, as you say, if we thought we could manage their lives. We cannot. However, I do fervently pray each morning that God guide and protect them. This we can do. I know that I am a Christian today because of the loving prayers of my own mother.

  51. Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for repeating these prayers here and elaborating on the meanings. I especially appreciate your words:

    “Within this prayer, we unite whatever it is that has come our way with the Cross of Christ itself. As we embrace it, making the sign of the Cross, the event itself is transformed into the Cross. Indeed, I think of it as a “sacrament” of the Cross. It is frightful to demons to see a Christian so embrace suffering. Recall how Satan was defeated by Job who refused to curse God in his circumstances.”

    It seems the deeper meaning of ‘kissing the cross’ as part of our liturgical worship can be lost in the moment, when we might kiss and yet our minds might be focusing on other things that might distract us. Indeed, in that kiss do we not also ‘kiss’ in communion all things in the cross, transforming them as you say, into the Cross. And in that kiss there might be love, thanksgiving and also a heart heavy with grief in communion with a world that is in the throes of transformation, waiting and anticipating the Kingdom.

    Today’s Bible readings seem to parallel the conversation in this thread about prayer and how to pray with thanksgiving:

    (Romans 8:26-27) “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

  52. Dean,
    I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the children in your monastic community, (May God grant America many more), and any others like it, have a more realistic grasp of the world than those who grow up “in the world”. Of course, this depends largely on one’s particular upbringing, and Grace, lots of it.

  53. Helen, when I read your poem, it made me think of my favorite quote when I was in high school~
    “The soul would have no rainbow, had the eyes no tears.”
    ~John Vance Cheney

  54. Regarding the suffering of children/innocents and its relation to giving thanks, I suspect it is for our salvation, and though it’s probably better to just leave it at that, I shall add a few words in the hope that they’ll be somewhat beneficial. Forgive me if I say something amiss.

    In Dostoyevsky’s short story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, the titular character decides to commit suicide, but before he can do so, he falls asleep. The sleeping, suicidal man then dreams that he finished the act of taking his own life, was buried, then returned to life, and pulled out of his grave and through the air to another planet which is like our earth, but unfallen. As he approached the nearly identical earth, the man asked:

    “How can it be repeated and what for? I love and can love only that earth which I have left, stained with my blood, when, in my ingratitude, I quenched my life with a bullet in my heart. But I have never, never ceased to love that earth, and perhaps on the very night I parted from it I loved it more than ever. Is there suffering upon this new earth? On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love. I want suffering in order to love. I long, I thirst, this very instant, to kiss with tears the earth that I have left, and I don’t want, I won’t accept life on any other!”

    “On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering.” I suspect the reason why even the ungodly love, or at least care about, children is precisely the children’s ability to suffer, coupled with their relative innocence.

    Moving on to The Brothers Karamazov, the cases which Ivan Karamazov brings forth in his rebellion against God, asking how the sufferings of children can be forgiven, are first answered by Alyosha:

    “No, I can’t admit it. Brother,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes, “you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!'”

    But are perhaps more fully answered by Mitya as he awaits trial for his father’s murder:

    “Rakitin wouldn’t understand it,” he began in a sort of exaltation; “but you, you’ll understand it all. That’s why I was thirsting for you. You see, there’s so much I’ve been wanting to tell you for ever so long, here, within these peeling walls, but I haven’t said a word about what matters most; the moment never seems to have come. Now I can wait no longer. I must pour out my heart to you. Brother, these last two months I’ve found in myself a new man. A new man has risen up in me. He was hidden in me, but would never have come to the surface, if it hadn’t been for this blow from heaven. I am afraid! And what do I care if I spend twenty years in the mines, breaking ore with a hammer? I am not a bit afraid of that- it’s something else I am afraid of now: that that new man may leave me. Even there, in the mines, underground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling, suffering creature; one may bring forth an angel, create a hero! There are so many of them, hundreds of them, and we are all to blame for them. Why was it I dreamed of that ‘babe’ at such a moment? ‘Why is the babe so poor?’ That was a sign to me at that moment. It’s for the babe I’m going. Because we are all responsible for all. For all the ‘babes,’ for there are big children as well as little children All are ‘babes.’ I go for all, because someone must go for all. I didn’t kill father, but I’ve got to go. I accept it. It’s all come to me here, here, within these peeling walls. There are numbers of them there, hundreds of them underground, with hammers in their hands. Oh, yes, we shall be in chains and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great sorrow, we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist, for God gives joy: it’s His privilege- a grand one. Ah, man should be dissolved in prayer! What should I be underground there without God? Rakitin’s laughing! If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground. One cannot exist in prison without God; it’s even more impossible than out of prison. And then we men underground will sing from the bowels of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with Whom is joy. Hail to God and His joy! I love Him!”

    I suspect that, somehow, the suffering of innocents connects them to the suffering of The Innocent, and that, in love, accepting that “we are all responsible for all”, we too may share in their connection.

    In the present age, we shall always struggle with the suffering of innocents, and rightly so. But in the ages to come, when the Justness of His ways have been revealed, and we understand how their suffering, and through them, our suffering, united us with the One Who suffered “for the joy that was set before Him.”, we shall join in the hymn of the prisoners underground: “Hail to God and His joy! I love Him!”

  55. Matt Z,

    One of my favorite quotes of Mitya AND of The Brothers Karamazov.

    “Man should be dissolved in prayer.” I alluded to this quote on Thursday regarding my son.

  56. I am traveling and so have been reading this post and comments in pieces and parts. Forgive me if my comments are similarly fragmented.

    Regarding the suffering of children: years ago, there was a tragedy in my community that involved the violent death of some children and, through my work, I had some personal connection. In a different forum, an online friend offered a thought that has stayed with me ever since…”Lifespan is a mystery.”

    I have pondered these words a good deal and find them very true. We tend to have ideas tantamount to entitlement when it comes to how long a human life should last. It strikes us as “wrong” if a child is only permitted a couple of weeks or 5 years or 10. Human lives are supposed to be longer than that.

    And our view is, of course, partially based on the love and attachment we feel toward particular children – and that is as it should be. But even when children we do not know have short lifespans, we feel a sense of outrage in our sorrow. I sense this is part of our general assumption that we know how things “ought” to be and that God has violated the rules.

    Certainly I mean no offense to anyone who has lost a child – it is an incredibly painful experience. And surely a grieving parent is not going to immediately thank God for permitting their child a short life. But sometimes the very brief life is a profound teacher, teaching us things we could learn no other way. (Something similar could be said about the suffering child who survives.)

    Who are we to imagine that we know how things ought to be? It is a great struggle for us to enter into complete communion with Christ because this calls us to let go of all such ideas (to which we cling tenaciously) – and trust His goodness even when we are totally unable to see signs of it.

    And this comes not only with the very short lifespan but also with the unusually long one. I am visiting my 90 year old mother now at her assisted living. Wheelchairs, walkers, deafness, blindness, dementia, pain, loss of spouses and children – these are all the norm here, where the very old await their turn to die.

    None of it is easy – and, without Christ, nearly impossible to endure. Lifespan is a mystery…

    At the same time, it occurs to me that the ordinary “aches” of life are sometimes incredibly challenging to accept with gratitude as well. Fatigue. Moodiness. Irritability. Spiritual dullness. Lack of motivation to do what we know is best.

    Yet to live in Christ is to be thankful for all that comes to us, even these dull and unpleasant moments. Thankful – certainly not because we like them – but because we know that God can use even these to further our sanctification.

    I read somewhere that times of spiritual dullness may stir us to realize how much we need God – and often follow times of great spiritual joy to humble us and remind us of our need . Without this, it is too easy for us to slip into thinking that the gift of joy was something we earned or accomplished.

    As I have come to observe this in my own life, I am beginning to accept (and even be a bit thankful for) this “dance” – as light and joy step forward – and then step back, that I might be both filled and emptied, satisfied yet ever longing. It is a taste of the heaven I am not yet ready for…

    To Him be glory.

  57. Thank you Mary. I will remember, “Lifespan is a mystery.” We were just two days ago in the old mining town of Bodie, CA. Visited the cemetery. I was thinking of how one’s whole life is compressed in the tombstone marker…
    “Born, 1852, died 1914.” Somewhere in the Psalms it says, “God has numbered the days of our lives.” Yes, a mystery known only to Him. As I am now past threescore and ten I ponder this mystery daily. Each day passes, and passes and passes. We either keep God in remembrance, or are constantly distracted. Then we die. As Father and Michael always remind, what matters is not the number of days, but repentance, prayer, alms giving, showing mercy and communion with Christ in liturgy and life. Lord, have mercy.

  58. I have been debating whether to say anything else regarding children and suffering. Everything that I have thought about saying seems like it should be obvious and shouldn’t need explanation or justification. Here are a few thoughts that may or may not be worth mentioning:
    1) Indignation at the suffering of children does not derive from an implicit entitlement regarding time.
    2) We should never rationalize anyone’s suffering based on some potential pedagogical value that could not have been achieved any other way.
    3) Although I realize that age is a continuous variable and that we often make arbitrary distinctions; nonetheless, there are real qualitative differences that exist between “children” and “adults”.
    4) For me, Dostoevsky’s literature has almost the authority of scripture–in my estimation. He captures the depth and the grit of human experience and relates it to the Divine in a way that I imagine only someone who is is deeply connected to both could. Therefore, I will trust Dostoevsky’s insights that he articulates through Ivan: There is “something” about the suffering of children that we should find especially disturbing. I believe that “something” goes beyond mere human sentiment.
    For what they’re worth, those are my thoughts.

    Peace

  59. This has been the most painful series of comments I have read to date on this blog. I find myself in tears over the distance expressed thus far between suffering and thankfulness. It is as though the full load of my PTSD has hit me full in the face as visions of the many dear souls I have experienced torn from limb to limb and bleeding from every conceivable place and from every age from toddler to the oldest cries out to God, “Please stop this madness!” We talk about thankfulness as though it is a dish of ice cream in many places here. I can only say that having gone through hell in unspeakable places and circumstances, I am only able to barely stand after multiple falls and ask, “Please, dearest Savior, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.” And that is not thankfulness, it is raw submission to a God I do not understand, I do not always love, and I do not have anything to compare to but my experiences of other people’s suffering. This is the only prayer that I have and I shudder to think that there is a lofty mountain up there that somehow says thankfulness is “real” prayer and anything else is no prayer.

    While in the heat of an emergency, trying to stop a gushing wound or compressing a stopped heart, I remember how often I gritted my teeth and growled out, “God, please intervene.” This is hell and I am supposed to be thankful for it? No, I accept it, I have adopted to it, and I submit to it. But I am not thankful for it. And yet, God loves me and THAT is why I embrace the Cross as the hand that reaches out to me who am sinking and sometimes cursing the very hand that reaches to pull me to Himself and says, “Shhhh, my child, its okay…I have you now in my arms, nothing more can hurt you. You are safe and you can stay as long as you want.” I may not ever, truly thank God for any of this suffering, but I know that God is thankful for me. (Sorry, I can’t write any more through eyes that are gushing in sobs of joy? Is this joy? )

  60. sbdn andrew,

    ““Please, dearest Savior, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.” And that is not thankfulness, it is raw submission to a God I do not understand, I do not always love, and I do not have anything to compare to but my experiences of other people’s suffering. ”

    Friend, if you did not know somewhere in your heart that there was a joy for which to be thankful, then you would not pray “Please, dearest Savior, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.” That is the prayer of someone who refuses to give up hope and where there is hope there is the possibility for God to give joy. As Fr. Stephen has said “In Hell all you have is hope.” I think the quote from Dostoevsky above is interesting “In our great sorrow, we shall rise again to joy, without which man cannot live nor God exist, for God gives joy.” The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, which loosely means “Rise again.” There is a hope and a joy that only God gives and transcends natural reason. And for this joy and for this hop we can be thankful.

    And as far as raw submission to God goes…be thankful for that, too! It is a real gift.

  61. David,
    I thank you and agree. But I also affirm that because of those aspects of our lives which we cannot bring ourselves to be thankful for, Christ comes for these sufferings. For what did Christ then come? For all who are thankful? This is not to say we are not thankful, but inadequate in our “thanking” as we honestly admit to and confess our inability to “thank Him for Everything.” If I could be completely thankful, where is my need as understanding “all things.” Just as a child might beat my chest and be angry for losing his mother, I would still hold him and understand his complete confusion and of course not take it personally that he is using me as an outlet for his anger and more deeply, his loss. And I have had to hold many a family member as they beat against me for the loved ones they have lost in a fire or car accident. God does this while we beat at his chest in total confusion at His infinite ways. I cannot say that “thankfulness” comes through in these instances. I would say mercy prevails, but this does not make us “thankful” for everything, it does not permit chaos and tragedy. I am not thankful for chaos and tragedy so that mercy may prevail.

  62. sbdn,

    As Fr. said in an earlier post thankfulness does not imply approval. My faith is that God can make ALL things work for Good. I’m thankful for that faith even though I can think of a dozen situations right off the top of my head I would not be thankful for. But that faith is an anchor for the soul.

  63. I am very much moved by the words of others here. I also realize how risky it is to offer a reflection that may be understood in a way unintended.

    Can I be thankful for my own suffering? Sometimes I can, by the grace of God. Usually only after I have emerged from it and seen what God did with the most horrible and senseless moments of my life. I thank Him! How He can even take my worst sins and bring something good from them. How glorious is our God!

    Can I ever be thankful for another’s suffering? Absolutely not. Can I ever expect another to be thankful for their own suffering? Certainly not.

    However, because of what I have experienced in my transformed suffering, I can sometimes offer hope to someone who is in the midst of theirs. Hope that it will not always look and feel as it does right now. (And if they are believers, that hope may be enhanced by a blind faith that God can indeed bring good out of even the worst of experiences.)

    Does God always bring good out of evil or suffering? I have no way of knowing. I believe that He can – but why this appears more clear in one situation than another is beyond my comprehension.

    (Well, really, all of this is beyond my comprehension. But I have seen this truth play out enough times that I have placed my trust in Him. Still, I also know my faith is weak enough that the next bout of suffering may topple me over in an instant. Thus, I join with all who cry for mercy.)

  64. I must also add that the thankfulness is not for the evil or suffering but for the action of God in the midst of it. I do not wish suffering on myself or anyone else and I do not believe that God does either.

  65. David,
    My faith is in no way so bulletproof as to believe that ALL things work for Good and it is for that reason I am utterly dependent on Christ to be that faith that I completely fall short of. I could not possibly have that belief on my own because I do not thank God for all things and that is why I profess an Orthodox struggle and why I work towards a confession that in itself falls short in honesty. I do indeed hide things from my confessor and I fool myself into thinking I can hide sin from God. My faith is riddled with holes and so the vast need of healing. In the meantime, which I take to be my lifetime, I struggle in this hell, for which I am not in any way gratified nor am I completely faithful, maybe not even faithful–only God can commend that claim. I guess that my embrace of the Cross is one which is covered (as in the photo above) and for that reason, I am able to work towards the “naked” truth of who I am…not. Again, I believe God is fully thankful for who He has made me to be while I choose to condemn that creation in my ungratefulness. Can anyone of us truly say we are fully grateful while also boasting to be “chief sinner”?

  66. mary benton,

    “Does God always bring good out of evil or suffering? I have no way of knowing. ”

    All the suffering of all humanity–all of it–was assumed by Christ on the cross. God took all that suffering and gave new life to it. It has already been redeemed and resurrected. So, I would suggest that we have every reason to believe that God has already caused our suffering to ‘rise again to joy.’

    Having said that…suffering is real…and it leaves an indelible mark.

  67. mary benton,
    Thank you for your insight. I remember an incident where we failed in ER to save a mother severely hypothermic and mangled after hitting a parked truck on a snow machine she was riding doing 60 in the middle of a severe blizzard. Her husband screamed and screamed at all of us–the doctors, nurses, medics. And not one person could say a single thing. It was completely silent. Not a word was spoken. We ALL shared in his loss. We were all deeply shamed by what we had failed to do. And this is the case over and over, none of us know what to say. I never saw that suffering husband again and yet there is occasion that I ask, “why?” Mary, its that “why” or “what” that is crucial, I think, in this discussion. I want to hear someone say, “I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have faith. I don’t believe.” Its these kind of admissions that I believe is at the core of this blog and the authenticity expressed by Fr. Stephen and many of the participants here.
    I am not looking for answers. I am looking for honesty in people like yourself willing to admit like me that we are mostly fools, mostly incomprehending, but also mostly loved through it all.

  68. I would never word it quite that way sbdn Andrew: “I want to hear someone say, “I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have faith. I don’t believe.” …
    I would quite agree that there is a time and a place for silence and another time for a good word. I could never say it that way though. No. It is my firmest belief and experience that man’s problem is not suffering and loss, but the lack of meaning in suffering and loss. And there is a God whose grace can bestow meaning upon even the most scandalously ‘meaningless-looking’ tribulations.
    Without the Holy Spirit we function like human animals on –at best- a ‘psychologised plane’. But the instance that the Holy Spirit illuminates our being we are changed in our perception of everything.
    In the first instance we are walking in the dark: I stumble on obstacles and try to make sense of things around me in my benightedness and confusion, and I might even be extremely good at stumbling less than most (compared to many others in the same predicament). However, as soon as God’s light illuminates my insides, I see everything clearly, I walk with great ease, all makes sense to me: my pain, my loss, my illness, my child’s death, the loss of my job, it’s a radically Christian understanding of the world through the word/Logos/meaning. The first is under the prince of wickedness, the ruler of this world, the second is under the Prince of Peace, the one who has overcome and -although He clearly warned us that we will never avoid tribulations- His emphasis was on ‘do not fear. I have overcome’…

  69. Dino,
    Thank you for this great reminder in response to Sbdn. Andrew’s comment. A situation he described is so difficult, all involved ask “why, how could something so meaningless happen?”.
    But this reminded me about reading how Fr. Sophrony of Essex told his spiritual children that “why?” is the wrong question. We should always ask God “how?” – how can I endure this tradegy that is befalling me in a way that is pleasing to You Lord? Of course this is very difficult in many circumstance, but it would at least be a start, a better question. We may not ever get the answer to the meaning of our suffering, but we may get some help in knowing how endure it rightly.

  70. Agata,
    To ask ‘how [to endure]?’ requires profound humility (keeping our mind in the heart and in hades while joyfully trusting and hoping in communion of God’s Victory) and the most decisive watchfulness, a sort of hope against all hope that never takes its eyes from the Lord, no matter how great the agony – it is being crucified on a Cross and “despairing not” for the hope which is upon the Crucified and yet eternally exalted One.
    But the ‘why?’ (Matthew 27:46) is the ontological basis of our questioning which there’s no escaping. However, Christ has become our ‘why’. He is our answer.
    [I repeat once more that] I appreciate how in the Greek language, the word “Logos” also contains the definition “meaning”. The problem for us however, is the keeping-of-our-eyes-upon-Him, (Matthew 14:29) that is our problem in the midst of the tempest snatching our attention with great force. We wouldn’t lose His Light and meaning amidst the waves of ‘meaningless suffering’ (Matthew 14:30) if we could return our eyes upon the One who walks on water, return our mind and our breath back down to His ‘throne’-in-our-heart with all the calm force we can muster. And if -this is one in a million – we are allowed to fail in this ‘godwards fixation’ despite our efforts and our long preparation, not because of our own self-mania but for a providential reason that is revealed to us soon after, our long preparation and experience will retain enough peace in our tumultuous hell that (although far from the peace that surpasses all earthly concepts that comes from Grace) will keep whispering in our souls “and despair not!”

  71. sbdn,
    When Jesus was hung upon the cross they brought him a drink mixed with a drug that would help numb the pain. I think that it’s interesting that Jesus refused to anesthetize himself against the full force of what was happening.

    If we aren’t careful we will use our theology for that same purpose.

    What I like about you is that you are raw. There’s nothing wrong with that. Even Jesus at one point said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And, yes, you are right…having faith is easy from our armchairs. So, maybe we should say “By the grace of God, I would have faith.”

  72. sbdn,

    I read this scripture and thought of you: “Although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

    Perhaps it is the case that we are all faithless blasphemers, persecutors, and insolent. But, the exceedingly abundant grace of our Lord comes to us with the faith and love which are IN Christ Jesus. So, if we have any faith at all it is due to the exceeding grace, faith and love of Christ.

  73. sbdn andrew

    I too deal with people’s tragedies, but typically at a step removed. I witness and honor their suffering but I don’t see it happen (except in my mind’s eye).

    As you have implied, positions like yours often lead to chronic PTSD. It is a special vocation to enter others’ suffering so deeply as to risk your own emotional and spiritual health (and perhaps sometimes your physical health as well). You are called to be with Christ at the Cross.

    At the same time, it is important to not let yourself be unnecessarily destroyed by what you see. Christ is there too, with every person you save and every person you lose. And you carry with you the knowledge that this is not the end of the story.

    That does not mean that you do not scream. And certainly you do not try to silence the screams of others. But in your tears you offer a compassionate presence that is a balm to others during their most profound pain. Do this, and they will remember you later as they are healing. And perhaps they will wonder what it was that enabled you to be there for them…

    (I don’t know you so I’m not trying to give you personal advice – rather, to share the reflections that your words stirred in me.)

  74. Thank you everyone for caring so much to take pieces of what I have shared and “feeling the burn” of what I am trying to express. All of this is encouragingly “dissolving” as has been said far above and for that I am…thankful! This is a rather safe place to confess behind avatars, while our Lord receives the real content of our prayers. None of this, however, goes anywhere if it does not venture in a touch and maybe an embrace of frightening attempts at honesty. I think its okay to admit openly to our frailty and dependence: “I believe, help me Lord in my unbelief.” And for that admission, did not Christ blessed faith to “move mountains”? Those of you who confess to “not knowing” have said just as much as those who venture in deep proposals. That sometimes involves wrapping my heart around the problems in order to place my mind to find mysterious wonders–perhaps the two are inseparable. I take the “why” or even the “how” questions to be one in the same admission to “not knowing” and are imperatives to hopeful and trusting submission to endless learning, continually getting up, and finding Christ…in the most unexpected places. So, I find myself encouraged by all, to the fulness of Christ and not arrive at Christ finally found.

  75. Dino,
    I really dig everything you say. I’ve gone to sit with a monk. He says absolutely nothing. Only streams of tears flow down his cheeks. He only speaks Greek. I only speak red-kneck, backwoods “American.” Tears flow down my cheeks also. He turns and looks deeply within me. I tremble and look questioningly. He nods. We sit like that for awhile, have some tea. I get up to leave. He blesses.
    I am filled beyond words. There are no words for this. Its love, I guess….

  76. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live…”
    Every time I have stepped into Christian “hot water” His Spirit has filled me and carried me beyond description. Then later, I quietly take credit in my heart for what Christ has just done. Still fallen, I’m afraid. Thanks be to God for the experience. God has made me quick on many fronts and uses that, but I am a slow learner… growing like a tree. It is more blessed to give than to receive but I still need to be receptive as He gives — and then follow the example. His love melts my heart. This blog, Father, and the comments are lights in this present darkness. Lovely, and we carry on. +

  77. Amazing post.

    It is indeed, difficult to see God’s hand at work in suffering.

    In the Reformed Tradition, in the Heidelberg Catechism, there is a heading under the Providence of God that echoes similar thoughts. The beautiful words are that all things come to us from his fatherly hand. As you said there isn’t God stuff and Other stuff.

    Lord’s Day 10

    Q &A 27

    Q. What do you understand
    by the providence of God?

    A. The almighty and ever present power of God
    by which God upholds, as with his hand,
    heaven
    and earth
    and all creatures,
    and so rules them that
    leaf and blade,
    rain and drought,
    fruitful and lean years,
    food and drink,
    health and sickness,
    prosperity and poverty—
    all things, in fact,
    come to us
    not by chance
    but by his fatherly hand.

  78. Neighbor,
    Thank you for those well chosen words. Slow learning as in growing like a tree that is pruned is the pain I am also afraid to receive, from which more branches and young blossoms must hopefully sprout. I am reminded of Alexandros Papadiamantis’ phrase in one of his short stories:
    “…even if he did manage to learn something, he would forget it before he learned it.”

  79. nfThe pain and suffering of childhood cancer is one of the atheists’ favorite weapons in attacking the idea of God. I understand their position. The fact of the Holocaust has been a similar spiritual burden to me for many years. How could a God allow such things to happen? If He exists, he must be evil! And how can anyone tell these victims to “take up your cross and follow me?” That is hard-hearted and cruel, to say the least.

    But I am learning, I hope, that it is not my job to tell anyone else what to do with their cross. It is my job to bear my cross and help others to bear theirs. That is all.

    As for the the problem of theodicy, I hope I am also learning to take Job 38:1 to heart: “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?'” In other words, I hope I am learning to be humble enough to stop judging God and how He runs His Creation.

  80. Learning,
    Of course, if “God were evil,” surely things would be excruciatingly terrible for everything and all things. It is not so much that we have a “problem of evil.” We have a “problem of goodness.” The exquisite goodness of God – found even in some of the survivors of the holocaust or children with cancer, utterly confounds the charge of pure evil. Instead, we are left with a conundrum and a paradox. If atheists would stand still occasionally in front of the conundrum and paradox and engage in wonder, things might seem different for them.

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