This is the nameday for St. Theophan the Recluse, and so I dug through this old post about “Unseen Warfare” and came up with this gem:
Like most sincere Christians, you are probably already expressing your readiness and are longing to reach the height of such perfection. Blessed be your zeal! But prepare yourself for labor, sweat, and struggle, beginning with your very first steps on the path. You must sacrifice everything to God and do only His will. You will meet within yourself a multitude of desires, all clamoring for satisfaction, whether or not it agrees with the will of God. Nor can you reach perfection all at once — sometimes a lifetime is required.
St. Theophan is such a complicated writer for some, I think. If you’re looking for justification to be more diligent, more ascetic, you can hardly find anyone with better credentials that this 19th century Russian luminary. But his seminal work Unseen Warfare also contains one of the most unqualified smack-downs of that awful Phariseeism that we Orthodox fall prey to that I’ve ever seen. I never read it without seeing the terrible temptation of wrong-minded zeal:
Some people — those who judge by appearances — say the perfect Christian life consists in carrying out fasts, vigils, prostrations, sleeping on bare earth, and similar severities of the body. Others will say it consists in saying many prayers at home and attending long services in church. Still others think perfection consists entirely of mental prayer, solitude, isolation and silence. …
On the other hand, these same activities may do more harm than good to those who take them as the sole basis of their life and their hope. It is also dangerous to undertake them independently or inappropriately, without the direction of a spiritual father or guide. The harm can come, not from the nature of the deeds, but through the fault of those who use them improperly — giving attention only to the external practice, allowing their hearts to be moved only by their own will and the will of the devil. In their case the devil, seeing that they have left the right path, gleefully refrains from interfering with their activities, even allowing them to increase and multiply their efforts in obedience to their vain ideas. …
As a rule, people who rely on their righteous deeds as their sole basis of life and hope display certain discernible characteristics:
- They always wish to be considered better and more important than other people.
- They want their own way and are stubborn in their decisions.
- They are blind in everything concerning themselves, but are very clearsighted when it comes to examining the words and actions of others.
If someone else is held by others in the same esteem, these people think they enjoy (or should enjoy), they cannot bear it and become openly hostile to that person. And if anyone intereferes with them in their pious activities, God forbid! They immediately become indignant, boil over with anger, and become quite unlike what they are believed to be.
A lot of us Orthodox converts are so hungry for righteousness in a world that’s grown increasingly foul and unrighteous that we just jump in at the deep end without considering that even the best of the Orthodox tools are just a means to an end. When you make them the end in themselves, they are subject to a terrible kind of idol worship that can tear an individual, a family or a church apart. We could probably all tell some horror stories along those lines.
I suppose the reason for that overzealousness is an impatience to hear what St. Theophan said above, that even IF you can reach perfection, it may take you the rest of your life. We aren’t willing to park our modern haste for one of our life objectives, not when we consider ourselves so very fine for having the goal in the first place.
So in honor of St. Theophan, I won’t fast today, since it’s not a fast day. I won’t try to sleep on the floor or do any other extreme thing that I can dream up. I’ll endeavor to live simply, to remember God, to consider what little steps I can make to encourage progress. I may not even succeed at those small objectives, but with the prayers of this saint, then again, I just might.