Modern man finds it hard to approach the Gospel in a simple and direct manner, to accept it as it is — without any philosophizing, with a trusting heart, like children and simple people, the way that it is absolutely required by our Lord Jesus Christ: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
“Except ye be converted” means — if you do not revert back, do not become like children, — of course, not in the sense of lacking knowledge and life experience, but in the sense of having a heart unburdened of your own individuality, and of various prejudices and passions, which take root and develop within each man with age, because of the inattentive attitude towards oneself, forgetting the words of Christ: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Math. 5:8). In order to accept the Gospel teaching, modern man has to experience much, to become humble, to reject himself, and only then the elevated content of the Gospel will be revealed to him with full clarity. The aim of the present notes is to examine some of those inner obstacles which prevent modern man from approaching the Gospel.
- The first obstacle on the path towards the Gospel has to be the habit of taking a purely mental, theoretical approach to the subject. The aim of the Gospel is not to satisfy the intellectual demands of an educated person, but to help him step onto the path of spiritual rebirth and renewal. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”(John 3:3). “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17)
As we see from the Gospel of Matthew, the rich young man was disturbed by spiritual questions, he liked the teaching of Christ and was attracted by it — but not to the extent that he would sacrifice his well-being for it. This particular predilection to worldly things did not let him become a disciple of Christ. When Jesus Christ told him: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me,” he walked away in grief.
If we look back at the past history of Russian pre-revolutionary society and Russian student life, we shall see that they were always greatly interested in the eternal questions about God, truth, the meaning and goals of life. But this interest was mainly intellectual, theoretical, and did not influence life. The Russian intelligentsia was little attracted by the Gospel, which first and foremost called for internal renewal, because it was mostly interested in abstract matters: philosophy, scientific discoveries, political and social teachings, but not with the question of the salvation of one’s own soul. But the Gospel preaches precisely that: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26).
If we compare the attitude of the Russian intelligentsia towards the Gospel with that of Christian ascetics and simple believing people, then we shall see an essential difference. For the latter, the Gospel is least of all a subject of theoretical study. In the Gospel, as in the word of God, they search for and find the indications of life’s path. This is the only thing they seek in it. For them, turning to the Gospel is the beginning of a new life, and is often the definitive break with the past. “Lo, we have left all, and followed Thee,” says the Apostle Peter to Jesus Christ (Luke 18:28). The Gospel completely absorbs the souls of Christian ascetics, leaving no place in them for any other interests or other life goals. They dedicate not only one corner of their heart to Christ, but give themselves entirely to Him with “unswerving thought”, as the church chant says (Troparion, Fools for Christ). Let us recall several examples of our Russian history, which is most dear to us. The Venerable Theodosius of the Caves, while still a small boy, rejects beautiful clothes and prefers to wear rags, wishing to imitate “the poverty of Christ”. He asks a blacksmith to shackle his bare body in an iron chain for the suppression of his sinful desires, and the blacksmith does so. Many times he runs away from his mother, works for others, takes up residence in the damp and cramped cave of the Ven. Anthony.
Another Russian saint – the young nobleman Theodore Kolychev, rich and handsome, leaves the palace of Ivan the Terrible, dresses like a simple peasant, works for other peasants, takes on a rigorous exploit in the Solovetsky Monastery. The rich land owner, Juliania Lasarevskaya, gave away everything she had to those starving during a time of famine. The Venerable Seraphim leaves home at age 17 on a pilgrimage, and spends the rest of his life in rigorous exploits for Christ’s sake. Paisius Velichkovsky leaves the Spiritual Academy and his deeply loving mother, rejects a guaranteed forthcoming prosperous and honorable position in society, becomes a wanderer from one monastery to another and lives in poverty. The widow of Colonel Alexander Melgunov rejects a secular, prosperous life and becomes the servant of a poor village priest, doing the dirtiest work.
These examples clearly show the difference between the church, ascetic attitude to the Gospel and the secular one, typical of the intelligentsia. This difference is not in the rigor of the undertaken exploits, but mainly in the overall change of the soul towards the Gospel that we see in them. Not everyone has to shackle themselves in chains like the venerable Theodosius or spend a thousand nights praying on a stone, like the Venerable Seraphim, but even one who gives a cup of the cold water to one of these little ones in the name of Christ, is following the path of the Gospel.
Everything mentioned above can be expressed succinctly by the following words: the first obstacle on the path towards the Gospel is the habit of a theoretical and abstract interest to it, instead of a profound turning to Christ with the whole soul as to the source of life and immortality.
- The second obstacle on the path to the Gospel is the excessive preoccupation with oneself, one’s own person. There is nothing more spiritually deadly than to make oneself, be it consciously or subconsciously, the focal point of life. When man makes himself the center of his life, his own idol, he will never reach what he is searching for, i.e. real happiness. He will always be devoured by dissatisfaction and distress. Shower him with millions, give him the opportunity for unlimited entertainment and pleasures, world fame and glory, and after a short period of delight he will feel emptiness and loneliness. And he will feel that way until he can renounce himself. Without that, no matter what kind of elevated goals he sets, he will be doomed to ephemeral and illusory moments of joy, which will invariably be substituted by prolonged disappointment and boredom.
In order to be truly happy, one must consider a life goal outside oneself. The more significant and important the subject, which we consider the goal of our life, the more we dedicate ourselves to it, the more we forget ourselves because of it, and the more joyful and happy we become. Happy is the man, who unselfishly dedicates himself to his favorite activity, be it physical or intellectual. Happy is the scientist, who is completely absorbed in his scientific research, like some Archimedes immersed in his drawings, or Xenophan, who dedicated his life to studying the stars, or Spinoza, immersed in his religious-philosophical contemplations. Happy is the mother, wholly living for her children; happy are the brothers and sisters through their mutual love, and friends, through pure and sincere friendship.
The greatest happiness, the fullness of happiness, according to the Christian teaching, is in unselfish, complete love towards God and humans — not to abstract mankind, but to the neighbor who is near us – with all his infirmities and drawbacks. The terrestrial life of Jesus Christ and His teaching, in particular – His Sermon on the Mount and the farewell conversation with His disciples, His sufferings and death — are an example of carrying out the law of love.
And the entire salvation of our soul consists in denying oneself and, taking up one’s own cross, i.e. the burden of one’s own life, and following Christ. Only then will the heavy stone of inner dissatisfaction fall from our soul, and the soul will feel warm and light. A loving person will never get tired of living by loving. And no matter how much time his love will last, it will always seem to him that this love is just beginning. There is no danger for a Christian that his ideal will one day be fully realized or depleted, because the Christian ideal is not in outer achievements, but in inner development, which has no end.
The well-known phrase of Maxim Gorky: “Man — this sounds proud” has some meaning only as much we see in man the image of God; but if one applies this phrase to a person who is isolated from God and deprived of immortality, it will sound pathetic and senseless, for everyone knows the insignificance and powerlessness of man, who exists today, but tomorrow is blown off the face of the earth, like a miserable grain of sand, like a soap-bubble. The power and glory of man are only in the union with God and immortality, but are in no way in himself, in his isolation.
That is why everything that was said in this sectio can be summarized like this: to approach the Gospel correctly, one has to be freed from the habit of considering oneself to be the focal point and goal of life, one has to humble oneself and bow down before God, Who is the Highest and Only focal point and goal of life of everything that exists.
- The third obstacle upon the path towards the Gospel should be acknowledged as the enslavement of modern man to the materialistic, mechanical understanding of the world, his lack of awareness of the fact that the world is ruled and managed by a spiritual direction.
People do not understand that the world is a great Divine mystery, the depth of which cannot be explored and understood. Our partial and superficial knowledge we mistakenly take for cognition of its mysteries. Scientific achievements lead us to the conviction that the world creation is mechanical, to the assumption that the last secret of nature is about to be revealed, and then everything will become clear. In reality, the understanding of the universe is too near-sighted and pale, not taking into account the majesty and wisdom of the One, Who created it all, without trying to submit ourselves to His law and will.
Nevertheless, the most modern scientific findings, more and more, refute the crude materialistic understanding of the world, which was being foisted upon the world by militant atheism. First of all, it becomes more and more evident that everything we see, hear or perceive is to a greater extent the product of the activity of our cognizing spirit, than the objective qualities of the things surrounding us. Color, odor, taste, sound – everything that forms the outer image, the beauty and attraction of the objects surrounding us and the phenomena of the visible world: the blue color of the skies, the radiance of the stars, the greenery of the fields and forests, the sounds of human voice, etc. — all these things are the derivatives of our spirit, the result of the reflection of the world surrounding us in our psyche. True, the things surrounding us do exist on their own, but our perception of them is created by the work of our spirit, which leaves its stamp on them. Our spirit is to some extent the creator of the surrounding world. Our very concept of matter and its properties is the result of the activity of our spirit. Our understanding of matter changes when our spirit is enriched by new knowledge and new observations. Even in ancient times, the human mind came to the conclusion, that the world surrounding us represents the constant movement of micro-particles, atoms, which are not accessible to our immediate perception.
What is an atom? What is its nature and structure? Is this the minimal particle of inert matter, which is divisible and indivisible at the same time, or is it something active, alive? The latest scientific research asserts that this basic element of matter appears to have an absolutely immaterial nature, i.e. it possesses neither extent, nor inertness and is the center of some living moving energy. According to this theory, matter, as a dead and inert substance, stops existing and turns into something immaterial, into some kind of energy. Thus, a new concept of the world appears. Inert substance gives way to living energy, and this is already something of a transition to a spiritual beginning. The spirit is triumphing over matter in the very structure of the world.
Let us look at the relations between matter and spirit from another angle, the personal. What do we consider to be the most essential and valuable within ourselves? If the spirit is a simple appendage of matter and does not exist by itself, then, of course, we must consider our body to be the most real and valuable thing. Then we should dedicate all our attention and care to it. But even the most consistent and staunch materialist will not declare that the real goal and main interest of his life consists of the functioning of his stomach or the health of his organism, and not in the feelings he experiences: the feelings of joy and sadness, friendship and enmity, love and hate, etc. Love of the beautiful, interest in knowledge, delight in works of art, thirst for spiritual perfection and development, moral and religious emotional experiences, spiritual communication with other people, social activity — this is the true circle of the highest and dearest interests of mankind. If everything spiritual is thrown out of human life, then what will remain? Emptiness!
What always inspired and attracted people to exploit and self-denial? Only the ideals of the spirit. Our bodies die and collapse; the substance of which they are made is drawn into the cycle of matter, but the ideals of the spirit remain imperishable and continue to inspire and unite mankind.
It is precisely here – in the world of spiritual values – that the most elevated interest and true life of mankind are concentrated … The spirit is the true, real, moving force of life… The triumphant power of the spirit reveals itself with particular clarity in religious movements, and especially in the history of Christianity.
When the Gospel appeared, it shook and turned upside down the ancient concepts and relations between people. It introduced new thoughts, new tasks into the minds of people, if not into actual life, then into the consciousness and the ideal, and inspired mankind with them.
An elevated concept about God and His relationship toward people appeared. The needs of the spirit were advanced with particular force. A tremendous rise in man’s spiritual powers and abilities occurred, inspired by the commandment of Christ: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Human creativity was given a new, infinite content, in the spheres of thought, painting, architecture, music, poetry. In Christianity, we see the striking phenomenon, when the victory in the struggle of life turns out to be neither on the side of the rough physical force, in spite of our usual assuredness, nor on the side of hatred, malice and merciless cruelty, but on the side of conscious defenselessness and meekness, armed only with faith, prayer and ardent love. With only the power of inspiration, fiery faith and ardent love for the Lord Savior and the blessed inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Christians bore and overcame persistent and merciless three-centuries-long persecutions from powerful Roman authorities, which strove to eradicate and exterminate the despised (by them) new teaching about love and brotherhood, meekness and resignation. The enemies of the Gospel, armed with all the enlightenment of their era, added physical tortures to coarse mockery of the Christian faith, portrayed Christian teaching in a caricaturistic way both on stage and in literature, but nothing could shake or weaken the triumphant power of Christianity. There existed some cases, when actors, coming out onto the stage to mock the Gospel, suddenly started professing their belief in the Crucified One and became martyrs.
With joyous faces and prayers for their executors, Christians underwent the most fearful tortures and courageously met death, in which they saw a door to a new, eternal, joyful life with Christ. From the above-mentioned it is clear, that Christianity is a powerful expression of the spirit, the triumph of the spirit over matter, freedom over necessity, live over death. It is time we rejected the purely materialistic and mechanical approach to the world. Both matter and mechanics have their place in the world, but the supreme, regal, dominant status belongs to the Spirit, which is the real, concrete, living, free, independent, substantial force, more real and more understandable for us than so-called matter.
The Apostle Paul says: “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). Liberty is a basic, essential, inseparable feature of the spirit. But what is liberty? Usually we consider liberty to be independence from any kind of limitations, be they internal or external. Such an understanding of liberty, first of all, bears only a negative character. Then — limitations, internal or external, are a necessary condition for the development of true liberty.
The Gospel teaches that he, who has not yet triumphed over sin within himself, is the slave of sin and does not have true freedom. In essence, freedom in its positive sense is the ability to create. Matter is inert, stagnant. It comes into motion not on its own, but only due to external influence, and preserves this motion until it comes to an obstacle, again from without. Only the spirit has the ability to start acting creatively, it is above the necessity to create, it is not bound by it. “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). Here is the purest and most powerful manifestation of the creative freedom of the Spirit!
Miracles are explained by this feature of the Spirit. A miracle is not a breach of the laws of nature, as is commonly stated, especially if one takes into account that the so-called laws of nature are usually nothing more than a sequence of events for us, the necessary inner connection of which is not fully understood by us. A miracle is nothing else than the triumph of the creative power of the spirit over the inertness of matter.
Free power of the human spirit constantly performs miracles over the inertness of matter surrounding us. The highest, all-powerful freedom of the Divine Spirit, which gave the world life, can perform miracles which are beyond human powers and which are extraordinary to people, but which still fully correspond to the nature of the Divine Spirit.
If life is truly a great mystery, of which only an insignificant corner is revealed to people, then undoubtedly people do not possess any logical grounds to doubt not only the possibility of miracles, but also the real, concrete existence of angels and demons, the bliss beyond the grave for the righteous and tortures for sinners, of which the Gospel speaks unequivocally.
To summarize everything said above, we can assert, that for the correct approach to the Gospel one must free oneself from the prejudice of a mechanical understanding of the world and see the dominant power of the free Spirit in the world. One has to remember, that life is a great mystery, which is only partially revealed to us.
- Another important obstacle to accepting the Gospel is the confusion and ambiguity of our concepts about faith and knowledge, and, in connection with this, the inclination to assign superiority to knowledge rather than faith.
We treat knowledge as something unquestioned, firmly substantiated, completely objective, logically irrefutable and compulsory for everyone; at the same time, we consider faith as something arbitrary, subjective and without proof. However, such a comparison of knowledge and faith in reality turns out to be erroneous. First of all, the very definition of knowledge, as something indisputable and well-substantiated, does not correspond to the real state of things. This is, possibly, the ideal of knowledge, but it is not its present state. One has only to compare, for example, the ancient teaching about the four elements and electrons, or the ancient astronomic theories about the structure of the universe with modern astronomical discoveries, or the medical ideas of Hippocrates and Galen with the knowledge of contemporary anatomists and physiologists, and so on, to see how unstable, changeable and even contradictory are the so-called scientific truths. That, which was proclaimed by some generations as indisputable scientific truth, as the greatest achievement of human reason, was considered by consequent generations as some naive, childish error. Thus, knowledge is not something definitely and finally substantiated: it constantly changes and grows, depending on the development of human experience, on the increase of observations, the improvement of the tools of cognition. Therefore, such expressions as “science admits”, “science denies”, etc. should be used with reservations and without self-assuredness. Knowledge is nothing but the result of the experience of our five senses, which is checked by our mind. This experience only grows and becomes more certain, but never goes beyond its boundaries, which are determined by the five senses and reason, and, therefore, gives us only a superficial picture of the world.
What is faith? Several notions are tied into the word “faith”. First of all, faith is the feeling of certainty in some truth. In this sense, faith can be inherent in people belonging not only to the sphere of religion, but to the sphere of knowledge as well. Socrates, Galileo, Columbus can be examples of such faith. Such faith can be the result of personal observations and thoughtful analysis, and the consequence of believing the words of people whose truthfulness is beyond doubt and who are authoritative for us. Thus, a child never doubts the truthfulness of the nanny’s stories about goblins and mermaids. He fully believes in them, but such faith is blind. It is built upon trust, but not upon conscious experience. Such blind faith is usually contrasted with knowledge, which is given superiority for being built upon conscious experience and analysis.
Secondly, faith can mean a special kind of knowledge, different from scientific, reasonable knowledge. Faith is that knowledge which can be justly called insight, penetration into the inner, most profound essence of life, which is called by the Apostle Paul “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebr. 11:1). Such penetrating knowledge is not equally accessible to everybody. There, where one person does not see anything, another one sees the most profound truth and makes a great discovery. Thousands of people saw and see how an apple falls from the tree, but this event led only Newton to make the great discovery of the law of gravitation. Thousands of people saw and see water boiling in a teapot, but only James Watt had the brilliant thought about building a steam-engine.
But let us turn to the Gospel and in it find an example of ardent faith – a pennant! Jesus Christ cured the one born blind, and that man immediately recognized in Him a great righteous Man and a prophet, who had come from God. His attitude to Christ the Savior looms especially brightly when compared to the attitude of others. The learned wise men and Pharisees, who saw the cured man with their own eyes and conducted the strictest investigation of this matter with interrogations of the neighbors and parents of the cured, did not recognize Jesus Christ to be a righteous man and a prophet of God. “This Man is not of God, because He keepeth not the Sabbath day” (John 9:16). “Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence He is, and yet He hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth His will, Him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this Man were not of God, He could do nothing” (John 9:30-33). The episode about the cure of the one born blind reveals many amazing things: in one and the same fact, precisely determined and indisputable, different people saw different meanings: the cured evidently saw the power of God; the Pharisees stood before it like blind men, wandering aimlessly. How can this be explained?
Should we say that in this case the one born blind revealed blind, naïve trust, and the scribes — strictness and impartiality of scientific thinking? One could hardly say that! On the contrary, reason and profundity of perception is on the side of the cured man here. He saw the truth which the others refused to see. This was mentioned by Jesus Christ in his conclusive words: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind” (John 9:39). The same perspicacity was shown by the sinful woman, who bathed the feet of Jesus Christ with her tears, and this fact is mentioned in the church chant, which says: “The woman who fell into many sins, O Lord, having perceived Thy Divinity” (Stichera of Great Wednesday). No one in the house of Simon the Pharisee, including Simon himself, perceived the Divinity of Jesus Christ with the same clarity, the same force and the same affection, as this “chaste adultress”, “casta teretrix”, according to the church chant.
Let us also recall the Holy Great-martyr Barbara. Isolated from the world by her father, living in total seclusion, she, with great penetration into surrounding nature, could see in its wonderful beauty the Artist and Creator, Whom neither her father nor anyone else among those surrounding her could see.
From the above-mentioned it becomes clear, that the question of cognition is not as simple as it might seem. It is not enough to have five correctly working outer senses and follow normal logics to know something, but one should also possess some kind of spiritual sensitivity, or as they say, the capability of intuitive perspicacity. This ability of intuitive perspicacity is expressed both in the sphere of scientific reasoning (Newton, Einstein), and in the field of religious cognition. With this capability in mind, V.S. Soloviev wrote that it is much harder to believe in God, than not to believe. In order to have faith, there must be spiritual elevation, acuteness of spiritual sight, spiritual sensitivity, while atheism requires none of that. Atheism does not need spiritual elevation: it is satisfied with apathy and indifference to the most important questions of life, which it light-mindedly sets aside with its logical constructions. In order to intuitively penetrate the depths of life, one needs to have an artistic soul, which in addition was taught by spiritual exploit and strict examination of oneself.
Thus, one has to see the difference between the two types of knowledge: reasonable, outer knowledge, which helps us to perceive the outer relations between objects, and contemplative, inner knowledge, which helps to see the profound essence of things. For instance, beauty can be perceived intuitively, with the help of inner feelings. Likewise, faith in God is intuitive knowledge, which arises from a sensitive soul and is accompanied by deep religious emotions.
The fact that belief in God can be called “knowledge” is clearly confirmed by the words of the Lord: “And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). A similar thought can be found in the Prophet Isaiah: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider” (Is. 1:3).
But while scientific-positive cognition requires only reasonable preparation of a certain amount of formal development, the intuitive-spiritual cognition is closely connected with the moral state of the person: it requires purity of heart and strict living. If it is unattainable to all people, then it is only because of their sinfulness. If sometimes we say and think, that it is impossible for us to know God, then this happens for three reasons:
- Because of our lack of observation and attentiveness;
- Because of our habit, instilled in us by contemporary European culture, not to contemplate an object, but to try to make it fit some category understandable to us;
- And because our soul is overloaded, littered with a great number of constantly changing impressions and feelings, which prevent us from thoughtfully observing life.
The philosopher Anaxagoras, who set “the contemplation of the stars” as the main goal of his life, could, without any doubt, perceive God better, due to the very conditions of his life, than any modern factory worker, deafened by the noise of machines, or the “cultural man” with his cinematography, automobiles and every possible type of sport. Deafened by the noise and fuss of our surroundings, we note neither in ourselves, nor around us, the quiet movement of true life. We should stop and listen to this inner life of the world, and look attentively at what is happening within us and around us. Then we would learn to see God, Who, according to the words of the Apostle Paul “… be not far from every one of us: For in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
Try to look over your life attentively and in it you will see many circumstances, meetings and discussions, which are usually perceived by us as accidental or unimportant, but under more profound analysis reveal, that some unseen but caring Hand, without forcing us, constantly points our life toward the path of goodness, saves and helps us. Try to remember all these events, write them down, develop your ability to observe them, and you will possess great factual material, which will give you the ability to be convinced both in the existence of God and in His Providence by experience. This experimental way is the best and maybe the only means of knowing God, as St. Basil the Great said, who asserted that when we see the influence of Divine Providence in our life and the lives of others, then we begin to know God and to love Him. We should not be convinced of God’s existence through logical conclusions. Knowledge of God is gained only through personal religious experience. The Divine Existence cannot be proved; it must be only inwardly felt. If this does not happen, then there exists some obstacle which prevents one from feeling the Divine Existence. The blind person does not see the stars not because they do not exist, but because his eyes are damaged.
Thus, everything said above can be summarized like this: one cannot compare knowledge and faith, as something objectively trustworthy to something subjectively arbitrary and unreliable. Faith, as a feeling of assuredness, is the necessary element of any knowledge. However, one should differentiate between scientific-positive, materialistic, reasonable knowledge and spiritual-intuitive, contemplative, penetrating into the depth of life, knowledge, which is faith. This is the highest level of knowledge, which originates from spiritual sensitivity and which is inseparable from the exploit of attaining moral perfection. It is faith, alone, that with Divine help leads us closer to God and to understanding the Gospel.
Archpriest Sergius Chetverikov, later Hieroschemamonk Sergius, was ordained into the Great Schema in the summer of 1942, at the monastery of the Venerable Job, in Vladimirova in the Carpathian Mountains. Father Sergius always had a great love for monastics and, while he was still in Russia, received spiritual guidance from the last elders of Optina Monastery. Some of his works were already published before the Russian Revolution. Father Sergius reposed when he was 78 in Bratislava, where he lived together with his son.