4. On Trials and the Spiritual Law
The Fathers’ saying ‘spill your blood and receive the spirit’ could be described as the ever-memorable Elder’s permanent motto. Intrepid and courageous as he was, he left no room for queries or doubts in his life. But his ardent faith also contributed to this excellent combination, and so the results were always positive. Resolve and daring are the chief characteristics of man’s freedom which manifest his will, and with faith in God – which is all that is asked of our rational nature – they arouse and bring down upon us the divine energy which heals what is infirm and completes what is wanting.
With God’s help and with the above preconditions, to the Elder nothing was considered impossible; but by those unable to attain to this state, he was misunderstood and regarded as deficient or extreme. To everything that seemed difficult or complex, the Elder had a ready answer: ‘Where is God?’ – which for him meant that without fail, God will solve the problem. Such an attitude was a basic principle of his, grounded not just in a very profound faith – what the Fathers call ‘faith of contemplation’ – but also in the guardianship of the spiritual law, on which he based everything throughout his life. Whatever happened in general, he always judged it on the basis of the spiritual law; and in particular he judged our own personal affairs in this way, when they preoccupied us.
At the beginning of our stay with him, we usually paid quite frequent visits to him so that he could give us advice and see how we were getting on. Naturally, whether or not we told him what was on our minds, he would explain the meaning of events in detail, beginning from the results and analysing what had led up to them, right back to the initial provocation. He would explain where these things came from, and why they came and to what extent, with such precision that we were astounded at the place the ‘law of the spirit of life’ (Rom. 8:2) held within him. Once when we made a mistake (and how many mistakes are not caused by inexperience!) he gave me as a penance the pointless labour of a long journey. Because I knew that he never did anything without a reason, I did not ask any questions, but he told me of his own accord, ‘If we do not arouse a corresponding pain through arduous asceticism along with our repentance, we do not satisfy the judgement of the spiritual law, and it is possible that we may get some trial which we do not know how it will turn out.’ I can say that across the whole range of our actions and affairs, both general and particular, the basis and criterion was the spiritual law. And Abba Mark says, ‘real knowledge is patiently to accept affliction and not to blame others for our own misfortunes’ .
The Elder was also in the habit of referring frequently to the significance of trials, both as the totality of the various ills by which mankind is tested, and as events concerning individuals. On the basis of the spiritual law as the intellect of God’s comprehensive providence, he accepted ‘educative episodes’ as appropriate instruments for our correction, and called them trials. Even though he knew in depth the importance of the benefit derived from these and repeated the patristic saying ‘take away trials, and no one would be saved’ and the statement that they were ‘sure to come’ (Lk 17:1), he would examine with minute accuracy the causes and occasions which prompt them, and taught us how to avoid them as far as possible. His experience centred on this double duty, as he called it: to deal wisely with the causes and occasions of trials so as to forestall them on the one hand, and on the other – whenever they do occur – to confront them bravely, with faith and in hope of the ensuing benefit. ‘Unexpected trials are sent by God to teach us to practise the ascetic life, and they lead us to repentance even when we are reluctant.’ And again, ‘The afflictions that come upon us are the result of our own sins.’ With these sayings the Elder reminded us of the ‘professor of the spiritual law’, as he called him, Abba Mark the Ascetic.
The practical aspect of the life in Christ conceals the most complex mystery in human life. Two titanic forces linked together by man create an immense and unbreakable tug-of-war with man in the middle, each frantically pulling him towards itself in order to win him over. Two loves, standing in opposition and turned towards opposite poles, form the motive power of these two forces: love towards God and love of this world. The victim, man, is not always in a position consciously to discern his own preferences, and this gives rise to retrospective changes. The occasions and causes which serve to awaken human beings who are entangled in these forces are known as trials. Are we to describe them? ‘If I would count them,’ as the Psalmist says, ‘they are more than the sand’ (Ps. 139:18). But we should relate just a very little from the experiences of the Elder, who had the capacity to analyse trials with exceptionally subtle discernment.
In general he considered every trial benefial (cf. Jas 1:2), but he ascribed greater seriousness to them when explaining the particular temptations of negligence and self-conceit, which he described as devastating. Assuredly, God wills and calls all to follow Him, but not everyone accepts His call. Yet those who have accepted this calling are tested sorely, to the degree that He ordains and in proportion to the knowledge which He has given them. The negative side, which conspires against those called by God, is the love of this world which ‘is in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5:19), which in its crafty and hypocritical way manages to deceive some; as for the others who are not convinced by its deceit, it attempts to stifle their will with open and unconcealed force. The merciless pressure of the ‘changes’ brought about by this evil neighbour of ours does not leave our good intention and good start intact.
There are many causes, known in detail to our Fathers, which give rise to changes: they may be natural, stemming from needs of ours which are not reprehensible, or they may be acquired, stemming from passions and demons. But whether they come from the one cause or the other, the reality is that they conspire against our will.
In this uninterrupted tug-of-war trials are constantly present. None of those who sail this stormy sea of life remains untouched by the struggle with them. Inexperience, ignorance, weakness, the weight of our flesh of clay, our evil past, the passions, our habits and in addition the devil – all these evils change and check our right intention and vitiate our good purpose. ‘The law of sin which dwells in our members’ (Rom. 7:23), which is ‘the imagination of our heart which is evil from our youth’ (Gen. 8:21) slackens our progress along the good course marked out by our calling from God and the nobility of our intention. There is now no other way of waking us up and pushing us forward except for ‘contractual afflictions’, which are properly called trials.