A year and a half ago I was received into the Orthodox Church via chrismation and immediately began to look around for primers on what it meant to be Orthodox. I had spent nearly all of my Protestant education and personal efforts in studying doctrine and theology. These were not, of course, divorced from daily living, but all my life the emphasis was nearly completely on the rational understanding of various truths of the faith. This, of course, carried over into my journey to Orthodoxy, such that for some time I spent much effort on understanding. Thankfully, through God’s providential ordering of my marriage and our attendance at All Saint’s parish, I was made to slow down and at least learn that I needed to, if I did not quickly learn how to, live the Faith in the small ways.
Not surprisingly then, for the last year and a half I’ve read very little, comparatively speaking, doctrine and theology. I did not find the primers I was first looking for (when and how to fast, prayer disciplines, Scripture meditating and so forth), at least not the kind I thought I was looking for. I found, instead, and very quickly knew them to be that which I sought: the lives of Christians who’ve gone before us in the struggle of living the faith day to day. This has become increasingly true in the last ten months: and so I’ve read the books on Fr. Arseny, on Elder Porphyrios, Elder Sophrony, many elders of Mount Athos, the life of the Theotokos, and, more and more, a reading of Scripture for the lives of those depicted in them rather than for the doctrinal content I had for so long been taught and trained to seek above all else.
So, when I ran across the words of Elder Sophrony in his account of the life of St. Silouan, I resonated very deeply with the words:
Often remarked in Christians is the desire–an entirely natural desire–for visible tokens of our faith. Otherwise hope falters and accounts of miracles in days of long ago take on the nature of myth. This is why the recurrence of comparable testimony is so important; why this new witness is so dear to us, in whom we can see the most precious manifestation of our faith. We know that only a few will believe in him, just as not many believed in the witness of previous fathers; and this not because the testimony is false but because faith entails ascetic striving.
–Elder Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, (SVS Press, 1991), pp 1-2
I have wanted to know that God is not a God far off but a God nearby, on our right and on our left. I have wanted to know that prayer is not simply about feeling good afterwards, or even about getting what I want, but that there really is some actual connection to the heavenly realm, that heaven moves when Christians pray. Not because God is some genie in heaven doing our three wishes, or a Santa Claus fulfilling our Christmas list of requests, but because God has always desired, and accomplished in Christ, to be in deep communion with us, to breathe with us, to walk with us in the cool of the evening, to give his love and receive ours. To know these things not as some emotional uplift, but to know them in an ineffable way deep into one’s bones and flesh and heart.
But these primers have taught me not simply that my desire can and will be met–this deepest of desires to know that God is real and knows me and loves me and moves with me every moment–but that it will only be met within my struggle: faith entails ascetic striving.
Feelings come and go and are a horrible barometer of reality. The sun shines brightly, and we feel depressed. The monthly outgo exceeds the monthly income, and yet we are happy in the embraces of our children. But faith . . . faith is not feelings. Feelings will never authenticate faith. Faith can only be authenticated by our striving. Do we feel God’s nearness? No matter. It’s when we light the vigil lamp, cross ourselves and chant, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” that our faith is realized. Do we grit our teeth when we ask, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive us our trespasses”? well, we have said it, and we must do the actions which are forgiveness. If we are still angry and snarl, we do not the less forgive when we simply mention their name before God.
Given my analytical bent, and my long paedogogy in critical thought, faith is not something that comes easily to me. I cannot summon it up. Surely I am no different than anyone else in that I can cry out in sorrow and pain. But to have the confidence that my cries are heard is another level of trust I must struggle, and struggle greatly, toward. Still, there is at least the faith to call out to the one in whom faith is rightly placed. It is only a beginning, but it is a beginning.
And while from time to time the loss of heart is the cross of the moment, I am at least heartened by this: the Christian primers, those saints lives, I’ve been reading, help me to understand that the struggle of faith is, to lift a phrase, a long obedience in the same direction. It is not that I have not yet attained to the level of faith that moves mountains, which, after all, is only the size of mustard seed. It is, rather, that my struggle keeps me moving in that direction, that I may one day attain to mustard seed faith.
Holy father Silouan, pray for us.