Orthodox America

We Must be Born Again  

When Christianity came to the human race, naturally there were found those people who, having read the Gospel, desired to realize it in their lives, at least to some small degree, at least one letter.

Indeed, when we read the Gospel, we understand that this is not just words, for in these words there is a power, in them is fire. This fire is not immediately apparent to everyone, but when it does become apparent to a person, he begins to think:  Who am I, after all? and how shall I lead my life in the light of these evangelical commands?  Those people who desired to fulfill in their lives the words of our Saviour, very soon realized that they are very difficult to realize in the circumstances in which we normally live. What happens normally? People get married, they have children; the children need to be brought up, to be cared for; someone has to work to support the family... And in this way they are overtaken by the cares of earthly life. Many understood that under such circumstances it is extremely difficult - although not impossible - to realize the Gospel ideal in their lives. How, then, was one to find a way that would allow one to realize to the maximum the evangelical precepts? It was this consideration that gave birth to monasticism.

Monasticism worked out specific forms of living. First there appeared great hermits, but not everyone could emulate them, inasmuch as it is very difficult to lead an ascetic life on one's own. Then there appeared the first communal monastic community, which at that time was not yet called a monastery; it was simply people who came together for the sake of their salvation. Gradually, monasticism acquired its customary character: it began not only to live apart, but also adopted a distinctive dress. The heart of monasticism is the sincere desire to realize the Gospel in one's life.

From monasticism came yet another very important concept: the need not only to avoid sin but to do something even greater. It is what the Saviour said to Nikodemos, who came secretly to converse with Him. Nikodemos was interested in learning the very essence, the ultimate meaning of the Saviour's mission on earth. And the Lord answered him. Now, He did not cite common truths: that one must not sin, that one must live well, be good, etc. No. He said that one must be born again!  To be born again - this is the essential  meaning of Christianity. And this is the meaning not only of monasticism, but of Christianity in general (although, of course, this task - to change oneself completely - stands at the center of monastic life). It is not only monastics but lay people who must be very vigilant towards themselves, towards their relations with others, who must control each movement of their soul. Because the aim is not only not to sin but to be totally reborn!

Can it be that the Lord descended from heaven, took on flesh and became man only in order to repeat to us for the thousandth time what had been said by all the prophets: "Do not sin"? No. Everyone knows that one must not sin, even pagans and primitive peoples, for the law of conscience is written upon their hearts, as the apostle says. Go, find the most savage tribe of men, and you will be persuaded that even they know that one should not steal, one should not take another's wife, one should not kill. This is part of the natural law, which is known to all mankind... Nevertheless, the unbelievable, the unique, the astounding happened: God became man. And the Lord, throughout the course of His earthly mission, three and a half years, tried to explain, at first to the Apostles at least, that He is God. And He could not. This was very difficult, because the human heart had hardened, people had become spiritually coarse; they could not understand that Christ was God. For them this was unfathomable: What did He mean, He was God? Even the devil, as our Orthodox Church teaches, did not believe and did not know that Christ was God. He saw in Him an extraordinary man, a wonderworker, but the devil had seen miracles before the time of Christ. Moses struck his rod and divided the sea, and the water stood "this way and that." Do not think that it was divided by some kind of winds, as some Protestants teach. In the Holy Scripture it is said specifically that the waters became like two walls, forming a passageway. The devil saw all this, but it did not impress him, for he was a former angel, and he was proud of the fact that he himself could perform many wonders. The devil thought that Christ was one of the righteous, and he knew that all the righteous had gone down into hades: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others - with the exception of the prophet Elijah and Enoch, who were taken up into heaven.

The Saviour performed miracles. Once He said, "Sea, be calm," and the waters became still and smooth as glass. It was then that the apostles asked themselves for the first time: "Who is this that even the water and the winds obey Him?" But the thought that God Himself had become man remained for them unbelievable. They still had a difficult way to go before they came to an understanding of this idea.

We already know that our Lord is Christ God. The age-old tradition of the Church tells us this. Now our principal task is to attain the Gospel ideal and to become united to our Saviour.

I happened to come into conversation with a young woman in Canada, who had graduated from university and become a psychiatrist. I asked her, "Tell me, what ideal do you hold up to people who are mentally ill? What are they to strive towards?" She answered, "The ideal of an average person, the common man." "What is that?" I responded. "Who can define the ideal of the common man? That is very vague. We have..." "Who is 'we'?" she asked. "We Christians," I answered. "We have a definite ideal - our Lord Jesus Christ. He is both God and Man, and for us He is the image of the ideal man."

And so we must strive to resemble, at least to some small degree, the Son of Man. This is what constitutes the meaning of Christianity. But here arises another question: How is one to approach this, what is one to do? Of course, the Lord also said simple things, that one must not sin, but this is not what constitutes the essence of Christianity. The essence is to make oneself incapable of sinning, to make oneself a stranger to sin. And what hinders our becoming so? Passions! Therefore we must become dispassionate.

Here we must understand what is meant by passion. Saint Macarius the Great explains that God gave us gifts; the greatest of these was love, then wisdom, then righteous zeal. These are the three principal gifts. And what have we done with them? We have distorted them, perverted them, and turned them into passions. For example, love... My God, what this word doesn't cover! - a whole succession of terrible sins, and all this is now called "love." Who did this? We did, tempted by the devil, who put on as it were human nature. These passions now torment us, for we have become a depraved humanity. Everyone, from childhood, is depraved.

According to Saint Macarius, we have been given the task of transforming these passions back into virtues. For example, from lust to return to true, pure love for God and neighbor. To put wisdom in its place. We deceive, we are cunning, we become rogues and cheats - these are manifestations of a perverted wisdom. The same goes for anger, scorn, hatred, murder - these are perversions of that zeal given us by God, for anger is to be used against our sins, against Satan, not against our neighbor.

Therefore, the task set before us consists not only in not sinning but in making ourselves incapable of sinning, in attaining dispassion. This is the aim of Christianity. If we do not understand this, then we do not understand what is Christianity. If, on the other hand, we do understand all this, then, in looking at an evildoer - and evildoers can also be highly gifted - we should say, "What a pity that this fellow is so gifted in evil. He could be a great wise man, but he has perverted the gift granted him." When we see a profligate, we should not despise and laugh at her (certainly not take advantage of her) but say, "What a pity that this woman, having such a great gift of love, is making such foul use of it and is distorting it." This is what our attitude should be towards sinners. To become incapable of sinning is a difficult task indeed; it is the task of our whole life, for the Saviour said that in order to do this one must be born again. When the Jewish teacher Nikodemos heard these words from the Saviour, he exclaimed, "This is as difficult as entering again into our mother's womb." Then the Saviour accused him: "You are a teacher of the people and yet you do not understand this." That is, he did not understand that one must be born again spiritually.

Yes, this is a great task: to become dispassionate, that is, to become saints. We mustn't be afraid of this word. What is a saint? A saint is a normal person, a person as God made him. It is all the rest who are abnormal. We are all abnormal, for we have departed from God's norms. The Lord, after all, created man sinless, immortal, pure, holy, wise. And what have we done with these gifts? We have perverted them. And now there acts in all of us passions that compel us to do things that are sinful. Passion is a great and terrible power. We repent of our sins, but it is shameful to confess the same sins over and over again, our whole life long. It begs the question: Will that day ever come when we no longer fall into the same sinful actions? It will, if we seriously undertake to war against our passions.

Take the Octoechos or a canon to any saint; there is not a single liturgical text in which the passions are not mentioned, in which there is not an appeal to the Lord, to the Mother of God or to a saint, asking for help in uprooting our passions. We read all this, and it's as if we do not understand; we continue to fall into the same sins. Instead, we should take deeply to heart the idea that we must rid ourselves of sin and become normal - from the spiritual point of view - people.

In our prayers, we must always have the thought: "Lord, deliver me from my passions." There is nothing more important than this. Let this prayer constantly be with you; whether you pray in the morning, or at night, knock on the door of God's mercy, that the Lord help you to rid yourself of passions.

A true physician, a good psychologist, and especially a spiritual father, if they look at our face, can immediately identify the passion that principally affects us. Look, for example, at the face of an alcoholic... Similarly, each of us must come to know his chief passion. Here again, we must ask God to reveal this to us. And He will, either directly or through some person or through our guardian angel, or in a dream - if it is a spiritual dream and not some foolish fantasy, which is what most often comes to us.

When we learn what is our chief passion, we must rise up against it with our whole soul. This is of utmost importance. And then we will see what this passion will begin to do. It will begin to roar like a lion; it will refuse to take on its primordial nature, given by God as an undistorted gift. We will see how many difficulties and temptations must be endured by that person who has come to know his soul.

We often say, proudly, "Oh, I can see right through that person." We see nothing, we penetrate nothing, we do not know even our own selves. Try to understand yourself first of all, then you will begin to understand others. When we come to understand our own sinful essence, then we begin to pray day and night that God deliver us from our passions. What else should we pray for if not this? For if we cease to be vessels of passion, many sins will simply fall away from us. Where will sinful actions come from if the passion that provoked the person to sin no longer exists in that person? From nowhere!

For that person who understands this, there awaits a frightful battle, but the Lord will help him, together with his guardian angel. And what about the prince of this world, the devil? He also keeps a sharp eye over all humanity, and just imagine, suddenly he sees that some little soul wants to quit his realm. Immediately he assigns a horde of demons to attack that person, and they begin to tempt him, particularly, trying to divert him from heartfelt prayer. How? A demon will say very artfully, "Make more prostrations. You are making a thousand? Not enough. Do more. And say the Jesus Prayer." Meanwhile, he is sneering. And what happens? There is no Jesus Prayer; there is only a drum rattle. The essence of the Jesus Prayer lies in its meaning, its purpose, which is to open the heart to the Lord, that He might free it from demons. Remember, the heart is never empty: it is always occupied with something. For this reason, one must first free the heart from passions. Passions are not always crude, as, for example, murder or hatred; they can also be very subtle. And being full of them we think that we are dispassionate, while we are all passionate.

Freeing ourselves from passions is the beginning of our spiritual struggle. When the Lord frees us from them, then we begin to pray with the heart. And once we attain to prayer of the heart, demons can no longer lodge there, for the heart is filled with God's grace. We become deified, and with the help of Divine grace we pray to the Source of this grace - God. In this way we become united with God.

If the Lord gives us, even for just a moment, to know the grace of prayer of the heart, we will never forget it, not for as long as we live. Remember how the elder Zosima saw Saint Mary of Egypt standing in the air during such prayer? This is how prayer uplifts a person. The way to heartfelt prayer is the only true way for us; do not seek another way. Whoever has come to know such prayer remains outwardly the same as other people, but inwardly he will be completely different, because he will be with God. This way is open to all, to both monastics and lay people. Therefore, let us strive for prayer of the heart, for dispassion and for holiness. The acquisition of this is the greatest miracle. It is easier to turn a stone into bread and a serpent into a fish than it is to change one's soul and to be freed of passions. But with God's help, even this can be accomplished. Let us hold fast to this holy path.

Transcribed and abridged from a taped talk with the nuns of the Lesna Convent, 1997; printed in Pravoslavnaya Rus', No. 4 (1649), 2000, Jordanville. Translated from the Russian.