Orthodox America

  On Patient Endurance

by Archpriest David Lesko

Gleanings for the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, and for every day thereafter

O Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.

On the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the Holy Orthodox Church praises the memory of Saint Mary of Egypt, celebrating her desert life of penitential endurance, while recommending the patience of her struggle as an example of self-gathering sobriety to all. Without endurance, there is no Christian life; there is fluctuation and tossing, and the too real danger of self-scattered frenzy. In your patience possess ye your souls, Jesus promises (Luke 21:19), and to those who question how long struggling might continue, He answers that, he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved (Matt. 24:13). Nothing is clearer: patience must be actively patient ... to the end.

Discussing the Christian need for endurance, Father Alexander Elchaninov (+1934) noted that, "People keep saying, 'Life is hard!' And if you cite the example of the saints, the usual reply is: 'Well, they are not saints for nothing, it is easy for them!' A common error. It is the saints in particular who found it hard. They overcame not only worldly difficulties but the very essence of their humanity. The usual path of the saint - from the abyss of sin to the summit of holiness - is narrow and arduous. Whereas our course is always an easy one, along the line of least resistance; but the fruits of our course are bitter and burdensome, whereas the hard way yields the reward of true beatitude" (The Diary of a Russian Priest, London, 1973, p. 172).

On the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent then, as the Church praises the memory of Saint Mary of Egypt, it is good to recall again - for every day thereafter - that the path of holiness is hard, that blessedness is not to be attained by the "line of least resistance." It is good, in other words, to recall Saint Mary's struggle, and the struggles of others who, like her, for salvation's sake, endured.

The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, who reposed in the year 521, was compiled by the Holy Patriarch and Hymnographer Sophronius of Jerusalem (+638) on the basis of the testimony of the Elder Zosima, the priest-monk whom God had directed to her in the desert beyond the Jordan River. Much of it is written in the form of a dialogue.

"Zosimas asked her: "'How many years have gone by since you began to live in the this desert?'

"She replied: "'Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think, since I left the holy city...'

"Zosimas asked: "'Can it be that without getting ill you have lived so many years thus, without suffering in any way from such a complete change?'

"The woman answered: "'You remind me, Zosimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.'

"Zosimas said: "'Do not hide from me anything; speak to me without concealing anything.' "And she said to him: 'Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts - mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much. For I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world, while here I had not even water. I used to burn and succumb with thirst. The mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had learned once. But when such desires entered me, I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the icon of the Mother of God which had received me, and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast, I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.

"'And how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me on to fornication, how can I express them to you, Abba? A fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears, as if I saw before me my witness, who had appeared to me in my disobedience and who seemed to threaten punishment for the crime. And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me. But always I turned the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking her to extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. And I always had her as my Helper and the Accepter of my repentance. And thus I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. And since then even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand... The clothes I had when I crossed the Jordan became torn and worn out. I suffered greatly from the cold and greatly from the extreme heat: at times the sun burned me up and at other times I shivered from the frost, and frequently falling to the ground I lay without breath and without motion. I struggled with many afflictions and with terrible temptations. But from that time till now the power of God in numerous ways has guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me, I have imperishable food for hope of salvation...'" (Life of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, in The Great Canon, Jordanville, 1967, pp. 91-93).

For seventeen years, by her own admission, Saint Mary of Egypt endured. And in the 54th of his towering Homilies, Saint Isaac the Syrian (c.700) remembered a similar struggler, the Persian Rabban Shabur, who died in the middle of the seventh century.

"One of the saints said: 'There was an anchorite, a respected elder, and once I went out to him when I was in distress because of temptations. But he was lying ill, lying down; and when I embraced him, I sat with him and told him, "Pray for me, Father, for I am exceedingly harassed by the many temptations of the demons." But he opened his eyes, and regarding me attentively, he said, "Child, you are very young, and God will not loose temptations upon you." And I said to him, "Yes, I am very young, but I have the temptations of mighty men." And he said again, "Then it is God's will to make you wise." And I said, "How can I become wise? For every day I taste death." And in reply he said, "God loves you; be still. God is about to give you His grace." And he said again, "Know, child, that for thirty years I have made war with the demons, and until the time when I completed the course of twenty years, I had not received any help whatsoever. But thereafter, when another five had also gone by I began to find rest. And as time continued slowly on its way, it increased. The seventh year slipped by, and after that, when I was in the eighth, it was intensified to a much greater degree. And now that the thirtieth year is running past, and has already reached its end, rest has prevailed to such an extent that I do not even know to what measure it has advanced." And he added, "When I wish to get up for my office, I am permitted to say a single Glory be; but as for the rest, if I stand three days, I am in awestruck wonder with God, and feel no weariness at all."' Behold, the labour of many years, and what limitless rest it bore" (The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Boston, 1984, pp. 271-272).

Much less remotely, the Elder Gabriel of Pskov and Kazan (1915), onetime Father Confessor to the Holy New Martyr, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, wrote about the need for patient endurance - about his own experience of struggling - in the following way.

"'I will begin with the Love of God. Perhaps through your knowledge or through your intellectual capabilities you know far more about the Love of God than my wretched self. Glory be to God! But if you have been smitten in your heart by the Love of God, and if it has illumined you within and without, consumed and transformed you, then, of course, no carnal thoughts nor any other such dark shadows would be in you heart, and nothing would be able to satisfy it except the love of God. Forgive me, my beloved, and don't imagine that I want to hurt you in any way. No, absolutely not! I wish that I could explain to you, as to my closest friend and brother in Christ, the feeling of God's love - that very feeling which I myself for so long and so strongly wanted to receive and did not. These desires were the pangs of my spiritual birth, and these pangs lasted very long, for more than thirty years. I think that the warfare with sin out of the hope of the future joy of union with the Lord and our Creator was of two kinds. One, of my own war with my nature, and the other was God's battle. But all this was so mysterious and hidden from me through Providence from on high that I could only begin to understand it afterwards. I was exhausted in the battle with myself, with the raging passions of my flesh, but in the face of this, there remained in me a higher and nobler desire than all my sinful impulses. It gave wings to my soul, and I felt that only this desire could satisfy me and nothing else in the whole world, this eternal, creating force given by the Creator: Love toward God.

"'I thirsted to love God with all my heart. But how is one to love? If one is to love God, one has to be worthy of God. But on the contrary, I saw myself to be not only a sinner, but to be persisting in my sins... "'And so it was pleasing to my Lord that I should fall ill, and I became ill. But I had not yet tasted of this love. I fell ill and wept fervently during the time of my illness that I would triumph over my sins, but I did not yet have this love. I was quick to repent not just once or twice. I repented a great many times and received joy, for I saw that sin began to lose its hold over me, so that my soul no longer delighted in sin. Sinful thoughts did not arise in my heart, and my repentance was united with thanksgiving to God.

"'The more I suffered, the better I would feel. I felt a powerful longing to receive Communion, and I was given Holy Communion often. After receiving the Holy Mysteries my spirit was winged with unutterable hope in God,and my heart overflowed with thanksgiving to our Lord Jesus Christ. In this immeasurable love of God towards the world in the redemption of the human race was revealed to my wretched self. This love, as it were, began to make itself known in me throughout my whole being with such yearning for the Lord that I did not feel my sufferings...

"'I was deeply aware that I was a sinner, but at the same time a fiery hope in the saving love and mercy of the Lord truly uplifted my spirit. Tears of tender-feeling poured forth from my eyes. And what my heart experienced at such moments, I cannot describe. I felt no need of food. I was burdened when others visited me. I was blissful, struck with love for the Lord. I was willing to remain even eternally alone and suffer, if only I could be with the Lord and be filled with love toward Him'" (One of the Ancients, Platina, 1988, pp. 92-95).

Finally, only yesterday so to speak, Tatiana Goricheva, who was born in the former Soviet Union in 1947 and who immigrated to France in 1980, published a spiritual diary in 1985 in which she recalled having met a nun Mother Onuphria, whose patient struggle, though different, was just as intense as that described by Saint Mary of Egypt nearly fifteen hundred years ago. "Mother Onouphria told me that she woke up on the day after taking the habit as a nun, not only without any living sense of the presence of God, but also with a coldness in her soul which told her that her whole faith was only a deception,that there never had been a God and that there never would be one. After taking the habit, Mother Onouphria, formerly a woman with a strong and burning faith, felt that she was an atheist. And this state of feeling abandoned by God lasted for several years. God was absent and the whole world around her changed into a dark, gloomy cave. Mother Onouphria told the starets everything. He explained to her that God sends such testing only to particularly strong children, the most elect and those whom He loves best... God wants us to love Him freely and not for any reason - just as He loves us. God as it were raises up those whom He has chosen into His 'solitude'... This sharing in the suffering of being abandoned by God was experienced most powerfully by Jesus Christ Himself on Golgotha" (Talking About God Is Dangerous, New York, 1987, pp. 40-41). "But I see," wrote Saint Anatoly of Optina (1894) to another nun, " that you wish to throw off your fashionable shoes with ornaments and your ballroom dress, and this very minute become holy, righteous, to shine right away. No, Matushka, it does not happen that way with spiritual things. Here, patience comes first and foremost; after that comes more patience; and finally all this is crowned by - patience once more (A Collection of Letters to Nuns, Jordanville, 1993, pp. 228-229).

The Holy New Martyr, Archimandrite Simeon (Kholmogorov), author of the Life of the Elder Gabriel, remembered that the latter used to say: "'For a long time, I attempted to break myself, and I couldn't succeed. Then finally I broke.'" But, he added, it unfortunately "remained indefinite what exactly he 'broke' within his heart..." (One of the Ancients, p. 96). If a consensus can be discerned though, among all the strugglers whose testimonies constitute the ascetical literature of the Church, can it not be maintained that what "broke," for the Elder Gabriel and for all, was the seal of the stone closing tight the tomb of their hearts? Saint John of the Ladder (603) affirmed nothing other than this.

"The man who has withdrawn from the world in order to shake off his own burden of sins should imitate those who sit outside the city among the tombs, and should not cease from his hot and fiery streams of tears and voiceless heartfelt groaning until he, too sees that Jesus has come to him and rolled away the stone of hardness from his heart, and loosed Lazarus, that is to say, our mind, from the bands of sin, and ordered His attendant angels: Loose him from passions, and let him go to blessed dispassion..." (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1:6, Boston, 1978  p.5).

In your patience, possess ye your souls, Jesus promises.