One the contemporary Elders, and now recognized Saint, who has helped me the most over the past decade or so has been Saint Porphyrios of Kavsokalivia. The book, Wounded by Love, is about his life and some of his sayings. It’s a book that I have read several times, and each time it has inspired and corrected me. The broad inspirational appeal of Saint Porphyrios can be partly seen in that my wife, whose approach to the spiritual life is quite different from mine (she’s artsy and I’m bookish), has read Wounded by Love at least five or six times. (Reflecting our different styles, my copy has several neatly underlined spots with crisp cross references noted in the margins, while my wife’s copy is completely circled, underlined and written through and around with her comments, inspirations and ideas for application—in at least seventeen different colours.)
Over the past several years I have bought every book on St. Porphyrios that I could find in English. Most of them (all of them, perhaps) are translations from Greek, and many are rather awkward translations [there’s the English teacher in me coming out]. A book that I am enjoying right now is called With Elder Porphyrios: A Spiritual Child Remembers by Constantine Yiannitsiotis (translated by Marina Robb and published by the Holy Convent of the Transfiguration of The Saviour in Athens in 2001). In this book Yiannitsiotis tells stories from his personal experience with St. Porphyrios. One of the stories is the following:
Children I will tell you a story. Once there was a shepherd girl, who lived on the mountain and kept sheep. She worked hard all day to take care of her sheep, to give them water, to guard them from wild animals, to bring them back to the fold at night, to milk them and to keep them in order. When night fell and her parents were fast asleep, despite her wariness from hard work, she would jump over the wall of the fold in secret and run in the darkness, in between rocks and thorns, until she reached the mountain ridge opposite to meet the shepherd boy that she loved. And when she met him, she was very glad, despite her trouble and sacrifices, and indeed, because her meeting with her beloved had cost her so much trouble and sacrifice she was even happier. Excuse me, monk that I am, for speaking about lovers, but I’m doing it so you can understand what I want to say better. Thus, the soul ought to have her own lover, Christ, to be pleased like the shepherd girl who fell in love with the shepherd boy. And what are human love affairs compared to Divine Eros? Short-lived and illusive, whereas Divine Eros is eternal and true. The soul that is in love with Christ is always fortunate and joyful, whatever happens to her, however much hard work and sacrifice this Divine Eros takes. Indeed, the harder the soul works and the more sacrifices she makes for her beloved Christ, the happier she feels. The soul falls in love with Christ when it gets to know and to follow His commandments. When the soul is in love with Christ, she also loves people; she cannot hate them. The devil cannot enter the soul that is in love with Christ…. Where all [the soul’s] space is taken up by Christ, the devil cannot enter and dwell there, however hard he tries, because he won’t fit, there is no room for him. That is the way we can live the true Christian life.
What a powerful parable! I so want to be like the shepherd girl and love Christ as she loved her lover. I want to experience the Divine Eros. But I must confess that mostly I don’t. Mostly I don’t, but I do, or have, a little. I have experienced the Divine Eros enough to long for it, to know that I don’t have it, to know that mostly I experience eros for lesser things, things that pass away (things short-lived and elusive), things that are often not good for me and even hurt the people around me. But this doesn’t disqualify me. Love for what is less can sometimes teach us to love what is more. Love for what is beautiful, true and good in the creature can (and I think often does) point us toward love for the Creator. Or if not love for the Creator, at least a desire to love the Creator.
St. Porphyrios tells us in his little parable that “the soul falls in love with Christ when it gets to know and follow His commandments.” I have often thought that ideally love should motivate me to keep Christ’s commandments—and perhaps that is true, ideally. But in my actual experience it is something more akin to fear that motivates me. It’s not that I’m frozen in fear, afraid that God doesn’t love me or will somehow punish me. No, rather, it is a fear of myself, a fear of the freedom that God’s love gives. I fear that I will wander away from God’s commandments. I fear that I will dig a pit and fall into it myself. I fear that in a fit of blind selfishness I will hurt the people I love the most. And it is this fear that often motivates me to strive to draw near to Christ’s commandments, which, St. Porphyrios tells us, makes our soul fall in love with Christ.
This theme of the commandments of Christ, or the Gospel commandments, reoccurs often in ancient Christian spiritual writing. Sometimes, my first reaction when I hear this expression is to think of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The word itself, “commandments,” carries for me a legalistic connotation that makes it difficult for me to imagine anything but a rule-based system of rewards and punishments based on moral achievement—i.e. keeping the Ten Commandments and corollary moral imperatives in external, visible ways. But this is not what the Church Fathers and Mothers are speaking of when they refer to Christ’s commandments. Christ’s commandments are the fulfilment and proper interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Christ’s commandments are that we love God and neighbour with corollary imperatives such as: watch and pray, forgive, be kind, be generous, be gentle, repay evil with good, take the lower seat, bless (and do not curse) and similar commandments. These are indeed moral commandments, but they are not the legalistic kind, at least they are not easily seen or measured on the outside.
And I imagine that once one’s soul loves Christ as a lover, the Christ-like behaviour that the Gospel commands will come more naturally, will feel less forced. Then the hard work and the short nights will seem like nothing to be with my Lover. Then the rocks and the thorns and the weariness of my mind and body will seem as nothing, will actually accentuate my love for my Lover. But until then, godly fear will continue to motivate me much of the time. Until then, I will draw near to and hold on to Christ’s commandments as a ship in a storm holds on to a buoy.
I’ve lived that way you descript. You come to a point when you realize no matter how hard you try, YOU will not be able to keep all these moral commandments. I had to get over that, but Christ in you can and he will. As the bonds grow, so will be the awareness and he always honors the effort. I too never want to sin against him, this fear and trembling I know. In the end I always feel the question arising.,,, even unto death, will you die for me? In his death are the fruits of Love and the continuation of his Life…and not in ours I found. May His Life prosper in those who believe, are sanctified and ordained by him. (even to pro-create). I love Him with all my heart.
Thank you for this post! As I read it, I wondered if the English teacher in you had yet come across the book ‘The Grace of Incorruption” by the late Donald Sheehan (edited by his wife). If you haven’t, I think you would much appreciate it! The first half of the book is a collection of essays incorporating his Orthodox understandings (he’s a 1984 convert) into various literary works. The second half is his translation and commentary on Psalm 118. All marvellous!