On Obedience & Spiritual Struggle (Geronda Ephraim of Arizona)

NOTE: This is the 27th Homily found in The Art of Salvation. Taken from Rev. Fr. George D. Konstantopoulos’ website:   http://www.saintandrewgoc.org/blog/2015/3/9/homily-on-obedience-and-spiritual-struggle.html

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As I have told you in the past, when I first came to Mount Athos as a young novice, my elder (Geronda Joseph) would frequently give advice. Among other things, he would tell me, “My child, the fathers of old here on Mount Athos would tell us that if a disciple gives rest to his Geronda, he has made God content. If he does not give rest to his Geronda with his life in general, then he has not made God content either.”

I held on to this very small, yet immensely powerful piece of advice within my soul, and I made it my principle and my possession. I told myself, “This will be my goal in life. Since this recommendation is so useful, with God’s help and Geronda’s blessing, I will try to never sadden him as long as I live, and I will try to please him with my way of life.” Thus, I tried twice as hard to give rest to my elder. God knows to what extent I did not sadden him and how much I made his content. I have seen that when a disciple attempts to keep his elder’s commandments and orders, God’s blessings lead the way for him.

It is not possible for a disciple, who, with humility, has given rest to his spiritual father, to fail in the spiritual life and not acquire the Kingdom of God. It is inherently impossible. And when we say inherently impossible, we mean one thousand percent certain. When the disciple asks for guidance and then attempts to apply the advice he receives, it is impossible for him not to succeed and not to find the grace of God.

Through his complete obedience, perfect faith, and the life-giving power of humility, Saint Symeon the New Theologian not only sampled the grace of God, but he was given the grace of the Holy Spirit “by the bucketload.” He became the saint whom we all know and was given the title “New Theologian” by our Church because he received theology directly from above, from the grace of the Holy Spirit. He did not study theology in a classroom, but acquired it by laboring in obedience and devotion.

St. Symeon

Since God has called us through His infinite mercy to come here to the monastery and to wear the honorable monastic raso (cassock), we should take advantage of the time we have (now that we are alive) as best possible, so that our soul bears fruit and is filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. This way of life is full of blessings and great spiritual rest.

Initially, of course, a person must exert himself because he brings with him an entire world of passions, thoughts, images, and the like. A small amount of effort is required in the beginning; however, once the initial difficulty is overcome, God’s blessing follows, and the fruit of all the initial labors begins to blossom. A person then sees the road wide open before him, he is filled with joy, and he rejoices as he sees himself enriched with a wealth of experience acquired during the battles with the devil. The Fathers refer to this experience as “the second grace” of God.

The first grace is when we feel the love of God and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But experience constitutes a “second grace” that never disappears, that never fades away, and which remains indelible within a person’s soul. In the beginning we will be tempted. It is quite natural for us to be attacked–this is consistent with the path we have chosen. Ultimately, however, we gain this experience, this second grace, which has enormous value. This knowledge is not only valuable and beneficial to us personally, but it enables us to help another weak brother, another person who is being battled, or a novice. Other people helped us, did they not? In the same manner, we are also obliged to help others who are being battled.

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Hence we should not find it strange when a war arises or when we are assaulted by temptations. We should realize that the first grace withdraws, it abandons man occasionally in order to test him, and many times a person is brought to his knees by the unbearable weight of a particular battle or cross. At that time the second grace of experience arrives, as a good Cyrenian (vid. Mark 15:21), to lift the cross. It does not remove the temptation altogether, but it advises, “Be patient. This battle will also end, just as the precious one did. Be patient; it is a trial. Don’t you remember how much grace God sent you after the earlier temptation ended? This temptation will subside as well; be a little patient. Don’t you know that God performs miracles?” This how the second grace advises man. Thus, with the knowledge he receives and the courage he obtains from this advice, the temptation becomes lighter. He is strengthened in patience, courage, and faith in God, he finds rest spiritually, and bypasses the difficulty.

We know, through the enlightenment we receive from this “second grace,” that it is mandatory for temptations to arise, and for us to be battled by the devil, our passions, and our fellow man. It is a requirement that we be battled. However, we will also struggle; we will also make an effort. This effort will serve as the cornerstone upon which the beautiful house of God’s grace will subsequently be built. Then we will be left with the invaluable experience of the methods, ways, and cunningness with which the devil battles us. If God does not allow us to be battled, how will we learn this art and science? In time of war, we should be brave and courageous; when we contend with the devil, we should be relentless and crafty. This is what Saint Synkletiki advises us: “The devil is cunning when he battles us, we should also be cunning when we resist him.” When we courageously oppose and repel the devil, we have achieved a victory. From this point onward improvement begins and the door leading to grace and the Kingdom of God opens.

Saint Synkletiki
Saint Synkletiki

There is nothing wrong with battles. War does not signify disaster. It serves as a wake-up call for us, as an invitation to withstand, be crowned, and have the Angels command us in the next life. Work does not harm an employee; rather, it fills his pockets with money. If we want to become rich spiritually, we must welcome temptations and see them as a war, as an incentive to fight with the evil demons of passion and weakness, as an opportunity to be victorious and advance with the grace of God. If we do not overcome particular passion, it will continue to thrash us for the rest of our life. We will drag it behind us like a piece of filthy garbage. This is why God permits us to be battled; so that we can win and be freed from the disgraceful passions that defile our soul. We all feel and sense the filth of the passion and the devil when we are battled by a passion. Conversely, when someone is liberated, clean, and pure, he senses the fragrance of innocence and purity. Something similar occurs with the clothing we wear. If it is dirty and smelly, we feel repulsed, uncomfortable, and want to remove it quickly. When, however, it is washed, ironed, and has a fresh, clean scent, we enjoy wearing it and do not want to take it off. This is how we feel spiritually with regard to the passion.

When a person does not exert himself, his life becomes torturous because he suffers from his guilty conscience for yielding to the passions, and he feels discontent within himself. Conversely, when someone struggles, he feels happiness and joy; he feels that spiritual life truly contains the vitality of Divine Grace…

“…We are God’s children, yet we do not know Who our God is. We have a Heavenly Father and, in reality, we do not know Him. We believe that He is our Father, but our heart does not acknowledge this and has not tasted this; the eyes of our soul have not seen this Father. If we saw what kind of a Father we have, we would cry out like mad due to the infinite joy of having made such an invaluable discovery. We are the children of an awesome Father: awesome with respect to riches and gifts. When someone attempts to speak about this Father, he runs out of words. The closer someone comes to a light, the more he begins to lose his vision. Eventually he is blinded by the light and can no longer see anything. Similarly, as someone draws nearer to God, he begins running out of words and is no longer able to speak about Him. It is a great misfortune for us to have such a Father and yet remain in such spiritual poverty, in such spiritual misery, and not feel His love and bliss.

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Why were we created? God did not create us simply to show that He has the power to create human beings. He brought us into existence so we can share in His bliss and delight in Him. He created blessed creatures to live in happiness. We, however, strayed from our destiny through our disobedience and have reached the point of being completely unable to recognize our natural Father. Instead, we love so many other things, while not loving God at all. If we loved God, we would keep His Commandments…

“…Things are very simple, but a sustained effort is required on our part. God is ready to help us at every moment. The saints in Heaven are interceding and praying for us because the grace of God guided us to follow their way of life. They also experienced temptations and sorrows; they also had ups and downs during their lifetime. They have enormous experience, and they realize that we contemporary people are weak and do not struggle properly. This is why they pray for us from above. They beseech God to help us, so that we do not fail to achieve our goal and our purpose.

Since we have the intercessions and prayers of our saints, let us have faith that God will help us to make a good beginning even now. Amen!

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