„During the terrible times that we are facing, without many spiritually guides, those who want to please God through a pure life, have only God Himself and the teachings of the Holy Fathers as guidance and teacher”. (Saint Paisios of Neamț).
What was the great starets referring to by „the terrible times that we are facing” in 1766, when he was writting the words of this motto? Was he referring to temporary circumstances, as the Tatar invasion in 1758, the riots from Iași, in 1759 and Bucharest, in 1764 – 1765? Did he forsee the Russo-Austro-Turkish War that was going to devastate Moldova and Vallachia between the years 1769–1774? Without doubt he was referring to a period that was in many ways terrible, but, mainly, he was considering the spiritual twilight of mankind. This twilight was foreseen by Holy Fathers from the earliest of times. For example, Avva Ischirion from the Patericon, at the question: „What did we do?”, [those from Antiquity, he was from the fourth century], he responded: „We have fulfilled the commandments of God”. And the brothers asked: „What about those that will come after us [those from the Medieval Times], what will they do?” And he said: „They will achieve half of what we have fulfilled”. And the brothers also asked: „And those after them?” Avva Isichirion responded „Those from that generation [the last, so from the Modern times] will have nothing to fulfill. But temptation will come to them. And those who will resist in those times, will be bigger than us and our parents”.
Avva Filicos also referred to the same „times that are to come”, as the blessed Ischirion and Paisios did, when he was asked to say a useful word for the soul, saying: „You want to hear a word of wisdom? Now there is no word left. Before, when the brothers asked the elders and fulfilled what they were told, God would have shown (to the elders) how to speak (to the brothers). But now, because, it is true, those ask, but do not fulfill what they hear, God has taken from the elders the gift of the word and they do not know what to say, because the ones to fulfill are no more”. And, of the same times, another elder said in the Patericon: „The Prophets wrote books. Then our Fathers came and fulfilled (what had been written). Then others, after those, had learned them by heart. And with the coming of this kind (this generation) from now, they have copied (the writings) and put them on shelves, without using them”. We may understand the following: they were published in critical editions and were forgotten in libraries, without putting them in practice, without living them.
Therefore the Fathers have been unanimous in foreseeing the „terrible times” of crisis, of decline in spiritual life, when people become weaker, they lose interest in the teachings of the Fathers (even if they know them), they do not follow them in their life and so the gift of spiritual guidance stops and the masters of perfection, the spiritual fathers, become more and more rare. But do we not know already about this evolution? Does it not itself suggest the history of the secularization of the modern world?
One should observe, however, that foreseeing and describing this decadence – common in other spiritual traditions – does not suggest despair and resignation; these prophecies have always been brought as a warning and an impulse for recovery. We do not find in the words of the Fathers fatalism or resignation from the ideal of perfection, since that is the course of the world, towards decay and spiritual drought. Since the Fathers knew that in times when the dryness intensifies, spiritual growth remains possible for those that seek it, they guided and encouraged those who were willing to gain through struggle the Kingdom of Heaven. We can see that from the emphasis in the advice that „each day and hour must be a new begining”, to restart the climb after each fall. We can see this in the interpretation of Theophilus of Alexandria who, when asked by Amma (mother) Theodora: „What is the meaning of the words of the Apostle «Redeeming the time»?” (Epistle to the Colossians 4, 5), he responded: „The word (redeeming) shows the gain (that we can acquire). Meaning: the time has come for you to be defied? Through humble thinking and long patience, redeem the time of the defiance and take benefit from it. The time has come for you to be vilified? Through suffering this test, redeem time and take use from it. A lying gossip was directed to you? Take use from it through patience and hope. For if we are willing, everything adverse to us will become a gain”.
Paradoxically speaking, but providentially, „the terrible times of nowadays” are most favorable for spiritual fulfilment. The effort that is required from us is minimal: today it is enough to resist temptation. Not doing (harm) is, therefore, more important that doing (good). We will find the rare father we are seeking as soon as we have decided to listen to his advice. Until then, the teachings of the great masters of spirituality from former times are in our hands. Their books that were hard to obtain, to interpret, copied in the past, await us, dusty, on shelves, or give us happiness in editions beautifully printed and accessible in libraries, at the church shop or in kiosks, in markets and streets.
As Saint John Chrysostom said in his speech on the occasion of the Resurrection of Christ: in the Eleventh Hour Christ welcomes those who are last as those who came first, rewarding their acts, but He is satisfied with just the intention of the weak to come to the Banquet of Heaven. Today we are granted that, at least, „to make a new beginning”. We did not persist as we should have, have we stumbled because of our weakness? Let us not be descouraged, and start again, knowing that „in the condition I will find you, I will judge you”, hoping, therefore, that we will be found at our end in a decorous state at least in intention, if not in fact. With rare exceptions (as starets Zosima), the positive heroes of Dostoevsky, even the Karamazov brothers, Alyosha and Dmitri, have fulfilled themseves by this: through honest seeking and accepting suffering.
Are there people who aspire to greatness to whom the current times do not seem favorable? The subversion of today is in plain sight, brutal, cynical, not hiden as in the past under false appearances of elegance, correctness and beauty. Does it seem that we are too weak in front of the aggression of eroticism, violence, injustice, and the pseudo-intellectualism of our times? The Apostle said: „Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ`s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12, 10). And we have been warned: „In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” (John 16, 33). Let us take into account, especially, that we are not alone, because, behold, we have been promised: „ I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28, 20). And „ If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8, 31).
„Epiphany”, nr. 3, December 1997