Orthodox America

A World Apart


Man is, for the most part, an adaptable creature. It is a trait which generally works to advantage, especially in today's mobile society. In spiritual life, however, this same adaptability has wrought great harm. We have become accustomed to behavior and morals which wouldn't have been tolerated just decades ago. Sins become scarcely noticeable habits, "life-styles". We feel comfortable in the world, as fallen as it is, as far removed from its original pristine beauty, and we are quite attached to it and to its pleasures. God created us for Paradise, but we have made this world our home.

A true Christian is not of this world. Here we are supposed to feel like strangers, pilgrims; we are called to be citizens of heaven. How can we weaken our attachment to this world and stimulate our longing for the next? We have become so well adapted, so integrated into the ways of this world that the image of Paradise has all but faded away; we are scarcely aware of its loss. If we would but listen to its piercing echo in Adam's lament:

Woe is me, a sinner! What has happened to me? Alas, what was I and what have I become! What have I lost, what found? Instead of Paradise, this perishable world. Instead of God, and life in the company of angels, the devil and demons of impurity. In the place of rest, hard labor; in the place of gladness and joy, the sorrows and tribulations of this world; instead of peace and endless felicity, fear and tears of sorrow. In the place of virtue and justice, injustice and sin. Instead of goodness and dispassion, evil and passion; instead of wisdom and intimacy with God, ignorance and exile; instead of detachment and freedom, a life full of worries and the worst kind of slavery. Woe, woe is me! How, created a king, have I become in my folly a slave of passion? How can I have embraced death instead of life through my disobedience? Alas! What has happened to me, pitiful that I am, because of my thoughtlessness? What shall I do? War and confusion beset me, illness and temptation, danger and shipwreck, fear and sorrow, passion and sin, bitterness and distress. What shall I do? (St. Peter of Damascus, "The Eight Stages of Contemplation" in the Philokalia)

Expelled from Paradise, Adam and Eve spent the rest of their lives in tearful repentance. "How could they lack occasion always and constantly to weep?" writes St. Symeon the New Theologian. "They would think of the gentle Master, that unutterable delight, the unspeakable beauties of those flowers, that life free from all cares and toil, and how the angels ascended and descended to them..." The measure of their grief reflected the greatness of their loss, for God had made them a kingdom in which they should live "a life of happiness and prosperity." St. John Damascene describes the garden of Eden as "a very storehouse of joy and gladness of heart...: it is temperate and the air that surrounds it is the rarest and purest: evergreen plants are its pride, sweet fragrances abound, it is flooded with light, and in sensuous freshness and beauty it transcends imagination: in truth the place is divine... (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith XI)

Still more grievous than their exile from the garden was the disfigurement of their souls, for man's condition before the Fall "joined together moral purity, clarity of mind, the perfection of first-created nature, and nearness to God, with a general spiritual childlikeness." (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology). In Paradise Adam "delighted his mind with celestial beauty. After his transgression, on the other hand, his thoughts became base and material, and the simplicity and goodness of his mind were intertwined with evil worldly concerns" (St. Macarius of Egypt).

The purpose of Christ's advent was to restore human nature to its primal beauty and to open again the gates of paradise. Those who left this world to follow Christ, the saints, regained Adam's blessed state in Paradise and experienced "the unspeakable bliss of them that behold the infinite goodness of [the Lord's] countenance" (Morning Prayers). Protomartyr Stephen saw the heavens opened and beheld the glory of God (Acts 7:56); the Apostle Paul was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words (II Cor. 12:14); Blessed Augustine, having broken his youthful attachment to sin, enjoyed such sublime communion with God as to write: "all my abundance, which is not of my God, is poverty" (Confessions); St. Symeon described the ecstasy of being filled with divine Light: "It cast out every earthly care....Besides, there was poured into my soul in unutterable fashion a great spiritual joy and perception and a sweetness surpassing every taste of visible objects, together with a freedom and forgetfulness of all thoughts pertaining to this life (The Discourses). Having been lifted up into the heavenly abodes, St. Seraphim of Sarov exclaimed to his friend Motovilov, "Oh, if only you could know what joy, what sweetness await the souls of the righteous in heaven, then you would be determined in this temporal life to endure any sorrow, persecution and calumny with gratitude." And St. John of Kronstadt, who likewise experienced the unutterable joys of heaven while still on earth, wrote in his diary, "All earthly bliss passes away, of itself, and through the vicissitudes of life; whilst the joys of heavenly bliss will never end, never pass away. Is it not then worth while to despise all the enjoyments of this transitory world, and of this still more fleeting life, in order to strive with the whole heart after spiritual and abiding joys?"

We who have little experiential sense of such heavenly delights find it painfully difficult to set our affections on things above, not on things on the earth (Col. 3:2). We have, however, the example of the saints, who have tasted the sweetness of Paradise, and they can inspire us and give us courage to detach ourselves from this present world-whose prince is satan-and to seek first the kingdom of God. For this purpose many have secluded themselves in monasteries, their progress hastened by the common and concentrated effort. Even for those of us yoked together with families and jobs, a certain detachment is necessary, a withdrawal from worldly affairs. We must streamline our lives in order to introduce a great measure of stillness wherein we can listen to God. Above all, we must constantly check the alignment of our hearts, for, as St. John of Kronstadt explains:

That to which a man turns, that which he loves-that he will find. If he loves earthly things, he will find earthly things, and these earthly things will abide in his heart, will communicate their own earthiness to him, and will find him; if he loves heavenly things, he will find heavenly things, and they will abide in his heart, and give him life.