When he met the old man, the missionary was amazed at his knowledge of Scripture and Orthodox Christian doctrine – especially since he could not read or write and, like the other natives, had been taught nothing about the Faith. “There was no ‘normal’ way for him to know these things… The old man replied quite simply that two companions had informed him of these things. ‘And just who are these two companions of yours?’ he asked the old man. ‘White men,’ he replied… ‘They live nearby, in the mountains. And they visit me every day.’ The old man then provided a description which tallied very closely with the way in which the Holy Archangel Gabriel is portrayed on icons: in a white robe with a rose-colored band across the shoulders.” As this story unfolded, Saint Innocent learned that the old man had been visited regularly – daily, in fact – over a period of thirty years by two angels of God, who had taught him the depths and mysteries of Orthodox theology. When Fr. John asked if he could himself meet these spirits of God he was informed that he could. But “something unexplainable” then happened to Fr. John, as he reports to the bishop:
“I was filled with fear and humility, and thought to myself: ‘What if I really were to see them – these angels? I’m a sinful man, unworthy of talking to them. If I were to decide to see them it would be nothing but pride and presumption on my part. If I were to meet real angels, I might exalt myself for having such great faith, or start thinking too highly of myself… No, I’m unworthy; I’d best not go’.”
In this account we glimpse the element of the supernatural, the “other-worldly”; the fact that there is another world besides this one, and another life, different from the life we lead here; and this other world sometimes, according to God’s will, impinges upon us here in this life, in this world. This means that in order for us to have true Orthodoxy, and in order for Orthodox Christianity to have any kind of future at all, we must ourselves first of all have some sense, some awareness of that other world and its closeness to us.
Knowing about “other-worldliness” isn’t about having supernatural or some kind of “occult” experiences. But it is about remembering that this life is only very temporary, a pilgrimage in fact, and we should not hold onto it tightly because, ultimately, all of it will be taken away from us at death, anyway, and then we will have only the virtues that we have managed, by God’s grace, to acquire.
This is an extremely important message for us Orthodox Christians to bring to the world: that there is indeed another world, that this is not myth or a fairy tale but something which is real, and that this present life here on earth is a preparation for that life which is to come, that there is accountability and responsibility and judgment, as well as reward or punishment awaiting us after death, and that the saints and angels are aware of us (as are also the fallen angels, the demons) and are longing to help us join them finally in the Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of appearances to the contrary, the world really does want to know this, wants to know the truth of this, and is longing to hear it from us in a convincing way.
Orthodoxy is an ascetic Faith
Several of the 20th-century teachers of the Church – men like St. John of Shanghai, Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, Fr. Seraphim Rose, and others – have explained to us more than once and in several ways that Orthodoxy is, above all, an “ascetic” Faith. What does this mean? The future of Orthodoxy – if it actually even has a future at all – depends on whether we understand the essence of Orthodoxy, which is asceticism.
Our word “ascetic” comes from the same root as the word “athlete,” and this is not a coincidence, for the ascetic and the athlete have some common characteristics.
The athlete works out, trains hard, and exercises in order to develop the muscles of his body so that he can compete in various kinds of sports or special events. He works very hard. He may go to an exercise gym every day and work for several hours. He follows a special diet and in every possible way takes good care of himself.
The ascetic is an athlete, too – an athlete of the spirit rather than of the body. The ascetic also exercises; however, he exercises not his biceps or other physical muscles, but the various dimensions and faculties of his soul. He “works out,” spiritually, through prayer and fasting, through standing at vigil, and by preparing properly to receive the sacraments. He, too, must compete, but not in a sports arena with a javelin or in some other event; no, the ascetic competes in the wide arena of this world, and his adversary, his opponent, the Devil, is quite real – as Holy Scripture teaches us. The athlete runs a race, but we, too, as Saint Paul tells us, run a race, a race to obtain the crown of immortal life with Christ in heaven. But to run this race, we must be athletes of the spirit.
It is this ascetic dimension of Orthodoxy that makes Orthodox Christianity different from every other Christian religion on the face of the earth. But from what I’ve said thus far, “asceticism” is still just an abstract concept. What does it mean in practice?
Again I turn to Saint Innocent of Alaska. While he was working with the Aleut and Klingit Indian tribes of the Alaskan peninsula, he was very anxious to properly communicate to them this “essence” of Orthodoxy. So he wrote a little booklet that has become a kind of classic and is widely read and studied today by people like us who are otherwise very far removed from the native Americans of the Northwest. The little book is called The Indication of the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven. In this important little book Saint Innocent talks about asceticism in the same way that our Lord Himself does: he compares it to the carrying of a cross. Our Lord said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:24-25), and: “Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Now in life there are two kinds of crosses, Saint Innocent explained. The first kind of cross consists of those daily annoyances, temptations, and difficulties that come to everyone just because we are human beings. Ill health, financial setbacks, misunderstandings with others, various kinds of afflictions – all of these are crosses, but they are what Saint Innocent calls “involuntary crosses.” That is, they come to us according to God’s will, whether we want them or not. If we bear these crosses without complaining, without murmuring, then they become ascetic labors that are for our salvation; but if we complain and murmur, then they are for our condemnation. It is extremely important to understand this.
The second kind of cross, according to Saint Innocent, is what he calls “voluntary crosses” – that is, those special ascetic exploits or labors that we voluntarily take upon ourselves, such as strictly keeping the fast days and seasons of the Church year, standing for long hours at vigil services, and other kinds of asceticism or crosses that we may, with the blessing of our spiritual father, take upon ourselves.
These are some of the ascetic aspects of our Holy Faith which are signs of true and authentic Orthodoxy, ancient Orthodoxy, the Orthodoxy of the saints.