To Serve God

In a therapeutic culture in which our goal is to be our very best, it is almost impossible to serve God. The reason is quite simple: when my goal is to be my very best, the goal is my God. “Serving God” thus becomes a euphemism for a Christianity that we take to be therapeutic – and that its value lies in its therapeutic virtues. All of this is a stranger to the invitation of Christ, which begins with an exhortation to take up the Cross, promises persecutions and sufferings, and generally offers a fullness of life that has nothing to do with our cultural goal.

All of this has a very subtle way of working in our lives. Our culture has made us accustomed to maximizing our own comfort and control. We are managers of our world. This, of course, presumes that we, ourselves, are the best judges of our own best interests and are capable of managing things for a desired outcome. We are, in short, trained to be little gods.

At a certain point in modern culture, the liturgical life passed from a “given” to a “choice.” As such, it has become just one more thing that we manage in our world. Imagine getting up every morning and managing the sunrise, or the positions of the stars and planets. It’s an insane thought. It is a great comfort to know that the sun will rise regardless of my efforts and that it will be a stable part of my day. The same is properly true of our relationship with God. The more we “manage” that relationship, and actions such as liturgy and prayer, the less effective they will become. We are simply not up to the task.

Arriving at Church on a Sunday with questions, “I wonder what Church will be like today? Will I like it? Will it be interesting?” is to have already reversed the order of things. We treat what should largely be fixed and unchanging as though it should somehow mold itself to us, while treating ourselves as the stable and unchanging facts that are to be cajoled and assuaged into some better frame of mind.

Fortunately, human beings are creatures of habit. Despite our imagined efforts at management, we quickly fall into patterns of behavior that are indeed stable and predictable. The culture promotes change and variety. Change and variety, however, are little more than sales techniques. They are not what we really want.

However, living with a model of management and change in our heads, while actually desiring stability and predictability, creates “two souls” (dvoyedushiye in the Russian). We are nurtured in a worldview that is not nurturing, while we ignore the saving value of the stability that daily presses in on us.

The Christian spiritual life, rightly understood, encourages us towards stability. It teaches us (if we allow it) the necessary skills to live a stable life in a manner that saves us. Though our modern economies urge us towards constant choice and variety, these can be a poison in our life when they enter where it does not belong. We lose the humility and vulnerability of acceptance (and fear somehow that we will lose our “freedom”).

However, God and the service of God are not commodities. They are not the product of our choices or our management. Any God you can manage is no God at all. Neither is God inert and predictable. But He has humbled Himself, accommodated His self-revelation to what is necessary for our salvation. For this reason, He can be known.

It is difficult for us to change the habits of our hearts. Our lives are deeply formed by the illusions of choice and consumption. A stable prayer life, for example, may often be described by some as “routine” and “empty ritual.” That I pray today in a manner that differs from yesterday or tomorrow, carries no particular merit. It might very well represent nothing more than a celebration of my “mood.”

The illusion of choice and management also has a great propensity to create anxiety and depression. We do not have a culture of “acceptance,” even though most of our lives lies beyond our control. Our lack of power over what cannot be controlled and managed is thus perceived as failure and breeds anxiety and depression. And strangely, even the suggestion of nurturing “acceptance” will create an anxiety in the mind of some readers who will say, “But we must do something!”

Imagine yourself in a situation of life and work in which you have no access to the internet. Nor do you have any newspapers or magazines. All you see or know is what you actually encounter. Strangely, all you could actually do would be to “live.” This, in the best of situations, is the culture of a monastery. They are not “cut off” from the world. They are on this planet. But they are absent from the “matrix” of modern concern and anxiety, the illusion of managing history’s outcomes.

To serve God in this world, we need to accept Him as God. We cannot manage Him, nor even manage our relationship with Him. We simply need to do what is given to us. Pray the prayers. Give thanks. Share your stuff.


  1. So well said. I am reminded of the old saying “Let go, and let God”. How often we take burdens and concerns to Him in prayer, and instead of trusting them to His care, we worry and fret and in a sense – grab them back – to carry around again. We need to learn to leave things at His feet, and know that He is God, and he will take care of them. The burdens we take into confession, the same thing seems to happen too often. We are forgiven for that act, but then find ourselves doing the same thing again. I was struggling, at one point, with forgiving. I know how important that is to our salvation, but it was a hard thing for me to do because of the impact on our lives of the wrongs. A priest suggested I try this – “I forgive _______ because of Jesus”. He said to say it 100 times. I think I got to 50 before I realized the impact of that phrase. It was to focus on Jesus and His sacrifice for us – to buy our forgiveness from sin. To make us realize the sins of others against us would never be worth losing the forgiveness that He bought us. Our pain could never be as much as His. Thank you for reminding me to leave my burdens and pain at His feet and let Him deal with them.

  2. Thank you Father Stephen

    I’ve come to understand Satan’s temptation of Christ Jesus, where he takes him to the top of a high mountain to be precisely the temptation to look down upon earth, abstracted from its Livingness, manage and control it. After all, if you’re at the top of a mountain there is no thing [sic] above you

    Baptism is going under the waves, to lose our sense of control (?)

    Every blessing on your writing

  3. This is my favorite line: “ The Christian spiritual life, rightly understood, encourages us towards stability. It teaches us the necessary skills to live a stable life in a manner that saves us.” I read a book once, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,” by Eugene Peterson. Same idea. A stable life in a manner that saves us. Somehow, we want fancier answers to spiritual growth. This path, however, is both easy and difficult, each in its own ways, but is the path to spiritual maturity.

  4. Copy pasting Walter Kennick’s post:
    Thank you Father. This is so encouraging and affirming.
    I wish when i turn as old as you, i get the wisdom and serenity that reflects so obviously in your writing. Best Father.

  5. Thank you for this very timely reminder.

    Recently I decided to contribute to a program for children of fathers killed in war. I was surprised by my own elation and emotion at hearing about the kids. The things everybody seems to have known forever always come as a surprise to me .

  6. Very well said, Father. This actually reminds me: the other day I was listening to Fr Thomas Hopko’s old podcast episode on the American concept of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” He had a very thoughtful and eye-opening perspective with insights I had never encountered before. I have a strange question for you: do you think it would be accurate to say that much of American Christianity is “verbally orthodox” while its lived substance is actually a form of Arianism?

  7. So encouraging thankyou …..”Arriving at Church on a Sunday with questions, “I wonder what Church will be like today? Will I like it? Will it be interesting?”

    Realizing ( after 40 years) that church is not about me, or the amazing/bad music or the talented/poor preacher ..brought amazing peace, freedom and understanding around church going.

  8. This is precisely what I needed to think upon. I have had a tendency all my life to seek new, variety, “growth” as a Christian person. Now, in my life, I am seeing the importance of stability. My question is, How do we find that stability when life itself and others in charge of us change and bring to us new things to manage without us trying to manage and hang onto routine itself? Sorry if this isn’t making sense.

  9. I appreciate the highly repetitive nature of Orthodox liturgy. It puts the analytic brain nearly to sleep, allowing immediate awareness to shine. Let us attend!

  10. Michelle,
    There are plenty of things: jobs, relationships, finances, children, health, etc. – that deluge us with demands and changes. These are often beyond our control. The challenge is in letting God Himself be the stability within us.

  11. Hi Fr. Stephen. I struggle to find a sense of God sometimes in the day to day hubub. It feels like I have to constantly remind myself that God exists. When I’m at church its easier or when I watch a religious movie, etc. But it feels like I always fall back to a kind of secular existence. How have you combatted this? I understand reading scripture, praying. I just find it hard to make these habits “stick”. Thanks,


  12. Laurie,
    What you’re describing, it seems to me, is “God in my head.” God seems present when we think about Him (in a particular way), and not present when we forget to think in that way. As such, a secularized world becomes a sort of “default” position.

    How I’ve combatted that sort of forgetfulness has been with a heavy dose of “natural contemplation” (theoria physika), which is encouraged by a number of the Fathers (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Maximus the Confessor – if I’m remembering correctly). That is the active contemplation of created things and their relationship to the Divine Energies. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” It is actively considering, in depth, that fact that every existing thing only exists as it is sustained by the Divine Energies. This is not “pantheism” (in which everything would itself be seen as God) but it is recognizing God’s Providence (which is another name for the Divine Energies) causes all things to be.

    If this is nurtured as a regular habit, it becomes more and more manifest. St. Paul acknowledges this:

    “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20)

    Of course, we’ve been taught not to look at the world in this manner, but to think of it as though it were self-existing and without reference to God.

    It’s interesting to me, that we by-and-large don’t even look at living things as though they were alive. We kill things (bugs, trees, plants, etc.) pretty much entirely as though their being belonged exclusively to us and for our convenience. We do not see them as being alive, much less being in relationship with God, and as existing through God’s good will. We are destroyers. As such, our hearts have become hardened, and it shows up in all sorts of ways.

    So, we should come to our senses and begin to pay godly attention to creation, whose groaning is heard by God Himself.

  13. Laurie and Michelle, your stories reminded me of a moment, long ago with my mother. She was a member of Martha Graham’s dance company in the 1930’s After she left NY she taught dance the rest of her life. When the movie Oklahoma came to town in the 50s, she took me with her to see it. In the middle of the movie there is a barn raising dance that goes on for quite awhile. She loved that dance. She knew the choreographer and a couple of the dancers. She was alive with joy.
    Her dance technique was focused on “the center”. Movement and breath came from and returned to the physical and spiritual center but it was her joy of the dance that set her apart. That too came from her center . Her joy became love for those around her and there was a depth and constancy to all that she did including dance as healing. She also told me “God is real, you need to find Him.” Her principle of “my center” combined with the Joy of being (difficult) has helped me.

  14. Thank you, Father Freeman! As I am getting a little older, early 60’s, I am becoming ever more quickly aware of how much I do not control.
    On another note, I find it absolutely amazing at how much we all constantly demand our freedom, and do not even realize enslaved we have become to our cell phones without even a whimper, because it seems to promise greater “control” and omniscience over our world.

  15. David,
    No doubt, our present technology presents unique challenges. I feel certain that some manner of discipline regarding its use would be helpful. I know a number of people who have returned to using “flip-phones” (versus “smart” phones) and are pleased with the result.

  16. I was speaking with a coworker this morning about suffering, how we are simply surrounded by it. She conveyed her sense of helplessness, and even despair, regarding her inability to do anything about it. Basically, not being able to manage it. But i was thinking: control is an illusion, isn’t it? It seems that if we could change our mind (“repent”) and think differently, we could realize the Kingdom of God is truly at hand, here and now. At the least, this truer perspective on reality would relativize the problem of suffering, I think. It wouldn’t do away with suffering or compassion (“suffering with”) but may even increase the latter, thus lessening the suffering we all experience.

  17. “In a therapeutic culture in which our goal is to be our very best, it is almost impossible to serve God. The reason is quite simple: when my goal is to be my very best, the goal is my God. “Serving God” thus becomes a euphemism for a Christianity that we take to be therapeutic – and that its value lies in its therapeutic virtues.”
    Is the problem that God is a “goal”, or that the “goal” is “my” God, or both? Or something else? To me the life of being a Christ follower is therapeutic, not as it’s primary value. And not as our societies sense of therapeutic, (whatever that is). But as peace in the midst of chaos and despair. Thanks for addressing ‘managing God’! so many of ‘God’s’ managers around ! And sometimes you are accused of being ‘Satan’ if you voice opposition! And it is all done out of ‘love’! I pray to speak the truth in wisdom. forgive and know it is done out of their sense of love. But often stay silent , which easily turns into resentment and its dangers.

  18. “The Kingdom of God is present here and now” YES, YES, and YES.
    That humbles me and gives me Hope and givew me Peace. Thanks be to God!

  19. One thing I drew from this article…

    Obey God above else…and that often looks like mundane routine.

  20. Drewster,
    I would have said, “Keep the commandments.” I don’t exactly know why, but I imagine it’s the abuse of “obey God” in some Christian circles that makes me hesitant to say it like that. The commandments of Christ are pretty clear and definable – and practical. They are, if you will, sufficient. The fact that they are clear and definable also prevents us from becoming too neurotic about everything.

  21. Laurie, Michelle and Michael,
    I loved stopping my the blog today (“Hello” to all dear friends here, and of course Father Stephen, first of all) and reading your comments on how to remember God more actively during the day.

    Michael, your story made me think of something I experienced both in my spiritual journey (under the direction of Fr. Meletios Webber) and in my Pilates training, with one unusual teacher (how nice to learn your Mother was such an accomplished dancer! That community was close to the Joseph Pilates and the method’s beginnings in the 1960ies in New York).

    Both of them suggested to look at the world – and especially people in it – not “from the head”, but “from the heart”. It’s an intentional exercise, and an effort which completely changes the perspective.

    I think of you rather often, and remember you sharing thoughts from the book “Long obedience in the same direction”. 🙂
    I am completely, helplessly stuck in an “obedience” that seems to have no solution, no end or – what is worse – no purpose (with my ailing and very unhappy Mother, who I take care of), for her or me. But I continue to remind myself that God must have some purpose in it, even if it feels “too long, too boring and too real” (for me it’s also too hard and too senseless). So I simply accept these things, and hope some day that will take me through the gate beyond which I will find and perceive Paradise. 🙂

  22. Fr. Stephen,

    I affirm your edit. “Keep the commandments” is much less nebulous. Anyone can justify their actions by saying they were simply obeying God. Which god exactly? And how can you be sure what it/he/she was saying?

  23. I realized that I had lived most of my life in survival mode. This is probably due to my childhood. I see that even much of my faith has been a psychological/spiritual and academic endeavor done in the name of me trying to heal, live my baptism (Orthodox Christian), and grow in Christ. These attempts are so futile until I remember that my life is not my own. It’s even hard to say sometimes, but it heals and changes everything.

  24. Agata,

    I would remind you that acceptance of your circumstances is only the first step. The second is to turn to God and ask Him to make lemonade out of your lemons. You would not believe how much He revels in pulling incredible rabbits out of totally worthless hats. Just as in “Tuesdays with Morrie”, I’m quite sure there is much more God can bring out of your situation than forbearance – and He may be only waiting for you to ask. Even hell turns into heaven when He is around.

    Take heart. God is good and He loves you.

  25. I don’t know how strictly relevant this comment is to this particular blog post, but it’s a nagging question(s) I’ve been struggling with. I also realize that my thoughts may very well be blasphemous, in which case forgive me. You have the power to prevent this comment from being posted, and I perfectly understand if you do so.

    There’s a lot of talk of bearing one’s cross, self-emptying, self denial, etc. as the path to salvation, becoming more Christ-like. However, I find myself lately very confused about these things. For instance, how is it that the age to come will (with the exception of Hell) be devoid of suffering? I read the lives of the Saints, and they seem to live a life of cosmic masochism where the enjoy and revel in constant and ever increasing suffering. Sometimes it feels that the primary way (or even the exclusive way) in which God expresses His love for us is by inflicting pain and torture on us, and we’re supposed to love it. Asking God for a materially better life, or trying to eke out a higher standard of living for oneself is effectively condemning yourself to Hell. After all, you cannot serve God and Mammon. If any and all material, sensual, physical, material pleasure and satisfaction is sin, and suffering is so good for us, then doesn’t that mean that the age to come will be nothing but suffering? Does that mean that all the fruits in the Garden of Eden were all tasteless, or even possibly disgusting? It seems that any “animal” joy is unacceptable to Orthodox Christianity. And if there are material comforts awaiting those who are saved, wouldn’t they hate it? How would St. Paisios react if God gave him a massive palace, all for himself, or a delicious feast? Wouldn’t he reject it and willingly send himself straight to Hell? At the very least, he would give it all it someone else… who, also being holy, would give it to someone else, and so on and so on, at which point it just all becomes a weird, annoying joke. Why does the Orthodox Church have feast days where we are forbidden to fast? Isn’t anything other than fasting an inexcusable excess? Isn’t anything other than being a homeless beggar dying of cancer while being skinned alive an excess?

    Of course, trying to figure out what exactly the age to come is both pretty much impossible and largely foolish. But the impression I have ingrained in my mind is one where “God becomes all in all” and therefore becomes everything for everyone. But this frankly makes me question whether or not I even want to be saved. I don’t want to just stare at God’s face for all eternity and enjoying whatever vague spiritual high that brings, yet apparently that is all I can hope to expect, other than infinite physical pain for everyone. Sure, maybe I just don’t love God enough. I know I don’t, nowhere even close. But if the price he demands of us is absolutely everything, and the reward is so alien and incomprehensible, then why should I even care? How could I? If this is the life that Christ’s Incarnation, life, crucifixion, death, and resurrection have opened up for humanity, then I can’t help but feel hopeless, and in a weird way irrelevant. After all, saints are God’s measure of what a ‘normal’ human is. Am I so horrifically abnormal that I don’t want to spend my eternity hanging on a cross and being speared by angels, staring at Christ shining brighter than the sun?

    I feel like I have the premise of these things all wrong, but I don’t know how I am wrong, and so I’m stuck in this loop of constantly rebelling against the god that hates me because I am not a virgin caveman whose constantly starving himself, because I want him to give me a nice, pleasant, okay life, because I don’t want to be a monk, which is apparently the only acceptable way to live in the eyes of God.

    I’m not very good at organizing my thoughts. They were never very organized to begin with. Apologies if this reads like a long rant. I’m not particularly angry as of writing, although I will admit that all of this does frequently upset me greatly. Again, I would not be surprised if you just block this comment and nothing further comes of it. But, if nothing else, pray for me, a sinner. Glory to God for all things.

  26. Oh boy, I’ve clearly misunderstood how formatting works on this site. My comment became one massive block of text. That was definitely supposed to be multiple separate paragraphs. My bad.

  27. In my experience God gives two great gifts that can not be counterfeited: contrition and joy. Both are summed up in Mt 4:17.

  28. Saveliy,
    I think I would say that the premise and perception of these things is wrong – but I can see how that is possible. God does not begrudge us happiness or well-being. The Scripture even says that Christ “went to the Cross for the joy set before Him.” There is no love of suffering, per se, in the Scriptures. But, the way it is described by some – you could come away with that impression. Christianity is not masochism and should not be described that way (but sometimes is).

    The only way through this, I think, is through the lens of love. When we read 1Cor. 13 – we see the blueprint of the Christian life. My most consistent experience of love has been my marriage. I certainly didn’t get married in order to suffer – but as life unfolds, with children, etc., it certainly encounters suffering. Making a sacrifice for my wife or children has never really felt much like suffering. It felt like love – and – for the most part – it was a joy (which is not exactly the same thing as pleasure).

    What the after-life is, exactly, none of us knows. What I believe is that it is utterly permeated with the love of God and of all things. It is only love that “makes us one.” I’ve had tiny glimpses of such love in my life – and those glimpses hint that it is worth everything else.
    As much as you can – keep it simple. Seek to love others, to love God. Don’t worry about the rest. It’ll fall into place in time.

    “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
    Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
    Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.For we know in part and we prophesy in part.But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
    When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
    And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1–13)

  29. Saveliy,
    Your description of the struggle, podvig, is one I have heard before it is easy to fall into.
    I concur with Fr. Stephen about marriage being a good crucible. Unlike Fr. Stephen though my first wife reposed 15 years ago. She had to battle diabetes, depression and debilitating arthritis. Through it all she made prayer ropes and made baby blankets for babies saved from abortion…then she, by accident, overdosed on her diabetic meds, fell into a coma and died. But let me tell you ‘the rest of the story”.

    As she was in the coma our priest and two fellow parishioners were chanting prayers as I, my son and her best friend stood by her side praying as well. At one point each of the three of us suddenly but clearly saw my wife’s Guardian Angel intently praying with my wife. He was lost to our sight when she died

    Three weeks later was Pascha. I went out of duty still deeply sad. But, somehow, our Lord showed me the Joy of the Ressurection and let me know He had given His gift to her.
    A life of struggle, pain and sorrow but capped with astounding Joy by His Grace and Mercy. Her struggle was blessed. Her best friend joined the Church because of what she witnessed. The friend’s youngest daughter just got married last weekend. The story of my late wife’s podvig and the Mercy of Christ in the midst is still unfolding. ..

  30. I too question the supposed zeal of extreme asceticism. It seems to be too close to prelest.

    The Pharisees questioned Jesus because He and His disciples ate and drank. Even Christ was considered too worldly by some.

    We do know however if we are in pain or in painfully difficult situations that we are encouraged to have faith, to believe God has not only not abandoned us, but is not punishing us. Rather it is His love of all and salvation of all that is at the core of all events, even the most sorrowful—and I speak from experience in these matters of severe tragedy.

    Can we embrace the pain we experience without masochism? It seems when I accept my circumstances— not giving in or giving up— holding my pain in prayer as part of my prayer, the psychological weight of the pain is lifted. Admittedly the pain isn’t necessarily diminished, but embracing it in love has an interesting affect on the potential poison, the impact on the soul from the experience.

    Waiting for God to make “lemonade” is a good thing. But sometimes we don’t recognize the lemonade until years down the road.

  31. I believe it is important to say also that God is not the cause of bad events. But that He has entered all, to transform our suffering, our entering into death, into an entering of Life here and now. He is emptying tombs of all sorts.

    Father please correct if I have misspoke in these comments.

  32. Saveliy,
    In the Saturday vespers service we sing psalm 104, celebrating God’s providence for all his world, particularly “Wine to gladden the hearts of men, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the heart.” The story of the prodigal son is an icon of our God. The father didn’t take his son back to feed his pigs, but killed the fatted calf.
    The lost sheep/coin is found and neighbors are called to rejoice. (Repentance of one is cause for rejoicing in heaven!) We aren’t Christians that try and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but hopeful, thankful mud that needs reminding that life does not consist of food, drink and possessions, but in love one for another.
    All the best,

  33. To expect ourselves to EVER have 100% pure motives in ANYTHING, let alone serving Christ, is an impossibility. So we press on, asking Christ to ever purify us, but woe be us if we get too internally tied up, overly introspective, questioning our motives, that we fail to proceed at all. We give Him ourselves, the mixed bag that we are, and ask him to sort the wheat from the chaff, inside of us.

    The idea of “let go and let God” – I’m not sure that is Biblical. We have a faith that is deeply imbedded in the idea of synergy, and I much more like the popular “Serenity Prayer, “ where we ask God to help us change the things we can, to accept the things we cant, and the wisdom to know the difference.

  34. Fr. Stephen; Saveliy,
    Thank you for sharing this.
    There are so many types of suffering. I believe that quite often the reason for suffering is hidden in the mystery of God. But we do know Christ shows us compassion and teaches us that God is merciful.
    I think Fr. Stephen said it beautifully:
    “ The only way through this, I think, is through the lens of love. “; “ It is only love that “makes us one”. “

  35. Drew,
    Thank you for your note back, I really appreciate it. I have been asking God to help me “taste the lemonade”, but it’s not coming yet (at least in no obvious way). But I wait and keep my faith, no matter what. Tenacity and stubbornness (in holding on to God’s promises) are my only positive qualities left .

    I really like your comment too. I don’t think “let go and let God” works, how can it? He cannot do things we need to do.

    A nice spiritual direction I came across recently:
    “….. thank the Lord! He has everything in its place and in its time. And all this is called Life in God”. (Archimandrite John Krestyankin)

  36. Saveliy,
    Fr Stephen nailed it in his response about simplicity and love. I have just a couple follow-on thoughts you might consider.
    I’ve been reading about St. Paisios a little recently, and I’ve been humiliated/blown away/discouraged by his asceticism at times, as it sounds you have been. But the thing I noticed especially in ‘St. Paisios the Athonite’ (a rather gripping biography published by a monastery in Vasilika, Thessaloniki, Greece) is that Elder Paisios was waging fierce war against the sin within him, not trudging around whacking himself with a cudgel because he loved pain. And as his contemporary St. Porphyrios said, “Without sacrifice there is no room for grace.” Both St. Paisios and St. Porphyrios lived ascetically because the more they did so, the more they began to directly experience the grace and piercing love of God – immense pleasures far, far greater than the physical pleasures that we normal folk cling to. It’s the same reason that ascetics at the Kiev Caves or Pskov Caves locked themselves in trees or became schema monks. The more they forsook the pleasures of this life directly out of love for God, the more their hearts filled with His presence and the more they desired Him and became “wounded by love.” It’s an easy misunderstanding, I think, to fixate on one side of Orthodox asceticism – the suffering – without realizing what actually fueled these great warriors of Christ.
    As Father Stephen would likely encourage us to remember (and as I heard from my old priest Fr. Michael Molloy), we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the extreme ascetics as we are a 1 or a 2 on the scale compared to their 100. We have nowhere near their resolve and strength of spirit, or their spiritual situation – and God doesn’t expect us at all to try to model their feats. Instead, we should just struggle a little where we are to deny our own wills, as best we can.
    P.S. You might enjoy The Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander. It expresses patristic asceticism in a very down-to-earth, therapeutic way that isn’t pain-loving at all, and that anyone can learn from without being a monastic.
    I hope things are going well for you.

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