(According to St. John of Tobolsk)
The Cross – guardian of the universe
Each one of us wears a small cross. We do not wear this cross openly for show, but if we were pressured to take it off, we must not do so. This small cross reminds us that there is no Christianity without a cross. Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered on the Cross, with His Blood delivered us from damnation, and with His resurrection opened up the Heavenly Kingdom to us. However, He did not free us, His followers, from sorrows and suffering in this earthly life. On the contrary, just as by means of suffering and the Cross He Himself accomplished our salvation and entered into His glory, so He left an example for us to follow. This is the way of the cross. In His wisdom and boundless love for us, through His suffering the Lord has made the sorrows and suffering which we experience in this temporal life and which we have brought down upon ourselves by transgressing God’s commandment turn for us, faithful Christians, into a means of attaining eternal rapture according to God’s word: “Through many sorrows must we enter the Kingdom of God.”
What is the path of truth and where does the Christian find the way to it? St. John stresses first of all that the Saviour of the world indicated to everyone without exception the way of the cross – the way of life, the way of glory, the way to the City of Life, the way to the Kingdom. Without the cross there is no salvation for the soul, there is no hope for eternal rapture. There is no other way towards life and genuine inner peace safe by way of the holy cross. The entire time of our life is given to us in order to learn to bear our cross, and when the Lord comes to judge people, it will be the symbol of the cross that will appear in the heavens – this symbol at the last trial will be the sign by which the Lord will know His elect.
The Cross – splendor of the Church
What constitutes a cross and what are the different kinds of crosses?
A Christian’s cross is not only the visible sign of the cross, but also the decision to lead a virtuous life. According to Gospel teaching, a Christian’s entire life is a cross and suffering. This is particularly confirmed by the Lord’s words that “whosoever does not take up his cross and does not follow Me, such a one is not worthy of Me.” To bear one’s cross is to endure everything that brings sorrow, everything that causes suffering. To bear one’s cross means to endure in this world all the grief that the world causes for the sake of Christ. “To take up one’s cross, – says St. John of Tobolsk, – signifies readiness to die for Christ, signifies a spirit disposed to fearlessly meet every threat in the name of Christ, signifies non-attachment to this life.” God summons us to give Him one thing – to give Him ourselves, bearing our crosses. God does not demand any other price safe ourselves. The angel who spoke with St. Stavrophila pointed out various crosses to her: a cross with swords, lances, scourges, fetters, and chains “signifies the diverse sufferings of martyrs for Christ”; there is, for example, a cross of illness, which is not only beneficial, but sometimes even necessary; there is a cross to which are attached a staff and a sack – that is the cross of poverty. (Poverty and destitution can also serve as guides to virtue, if only they are born conscientiously. It is well-known that the acquisition of wealth is connected with many cares, the guarding of wealth – with fear and anxiety, and the loss of wealth – with great sorrow). Stavrophila took note of the cross which stood near the bed and asked about it. The angel explained to her that that particular cross signified sorrow at the loss of parents, relatives, and friends. Although it is difficult to lose loved ones, yet we should not grumble – they were taken away by the One Who had granted them in the first place. Afterwards Stavrophila noticed a cross with the image of a madman. The angel explained to her that this is the onerous cross of mockery, humiliation, and insult. Those who truly bear this cross are not ashamed or afraid to be mocked for the sake of Christ. Many Christians wish to serve God, yet at the same time seek glory and fame among people, loving humility without humiliation. St. John points out that oftentimes humiliation leads a person to gain an understanding of himself.
Often a person is burdened with many diverse crosses. In his oeuvre on the cross, Metropolitan John of Tobolsk most frequently mentions two examples of crossbearing: in the Old Testament – St. Job the Much-suffering, who accepted all deprivations and suffering so uncomplainingly, and in the New Testament – the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, of course, Who alone endured all the sorrows on earth and commanded us to endure our own sorrows.
Why is sorrow so inseparable from Christian life? Why does the Lord wish His elect to experience trials and tribulations and not be able to attain the Heavenly Realm without a cross?
St. John explains to us: “The temporal life is a path towards the heavenly Homeland, and by God’s unfathomable providence humans are subjected to daily sorrows, in order for them not to come to love the path itself instead of the Homeland. For this reason the earthly path is very arduous, so that people would not enjoy comfort in this life and thus be captivated by the beauty of the path, would not wish to continue on this path instead of trying to cross it as quickly as possible, and, proceeding merrily on their way, would not forget that the Homeland awaits them… And so the Lord dilutes the seeming sweetness of this life with the bitterness of sorrows, in order to encourage us to strive towards genuine and salvific rapture. O, woe is mankind! The world is bitter, yet it is loved. How greatly would it attract everyone if it were full of delight?!”
The Benevolent God has set it up so that whoever wisely bears his sorrows in this life will experience joy in the next one, while those who seek worldly joys will end up with sorrow. We find a vivid example of this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. St. Basil the Great notes that the rich man suffered so greatly in the flames not for unjust deeds, but for a voluptuous life.
However, if God knows the virtuousness of the righteous ones, why should they be tested? God tests the righteous ones not because He is not aware of their virtuousness, but in order to show others their great endurance. Many people do not understand with what disposition of the heart the saints venerate God, but oftentimes think that the saints serve Him for the sake of well-being in this life. However, by means of the cross and suffering, the righteous ones truly show the kind of love that attaches them to God. Patience is the greatest and most elect virtue. A righteous man cannot acquire patience without experiencing sorrow. St. John explains that a tree that is protected from the wind does not develop hardiness, while a tree that is subjected to the winds grows hardier and puts down stronger roots from being buffeted. God knows exactly which shoulders can bear what, and consequently sends everyone a measured amount of sorrows and misfortunes. We constantly complain and grumble that our cross is too burdensome and wish for a lighter cross for ourselves. The Metropolitan of Tobolsk remarks: “However, God alone knows that one person must struggle so much against the flesh, another person so much against one or another enemy attack, while a third must struggle longer than the first and the second, just as the strength of various vessels is tested differently: stronger vessels are tested with a mighty blow, while weaker vessels with a lighter one. For example, the master will barely touch a crystal vase, will hit a silver chalice more strongly, and will strike a bell with a hammer; moreover, a bell of greater weight he will strike more heavily, knowing that it is strong and will not break.” “At the same time, – says the holy hierarch, – we should remember that the Lord is not angry at anyone, does not disdain anyone, but looks upon each person’s fortitude and tests everyone’s strength as though on scales.” “There are many who love the Heavenly Realm, – teaches us St. John, – but few who love to bear the cross. Many love joy, but few love sorrow. Everyone wishes to rejoice in Christ, but very few wish to suffer for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of the bread, but few are willing to drink from the chalice of suffering. Many glorify His miracles, but few follow Him to humiliation and the Cross. O, how few are there who follow our Lord Christ! However, there is no one who would not want to come to Him. All wish to delight in joy with Him, but no one wishes to follow Him; everyone wishes to reign with Him, but no one wishes to suffer with Him; they do not wish to follow the One with Whom they wish to be.”
Before stepping onto the path of the cross, one must first of all learn to be concerned about desiring to follow the Lord with a brave heart and firm will. Then one has to pray to Him and entreat Him. There are many obstacles on the way of the cross: first of all one is tempted with earthly delights, and then there is the burden of carrying the cross for those who love fame. Since Orthodoxy is a religion of the cross, the only religion of the cross, it is so hated and misunderstood by the modern world: “For the world delight and fame are the main goal, while the cross reminds and summons to a completely opposite worldview and life. Nevertheless, there is not a single person living on earth who does not experience sorrow. Both death and suffering are inevitable for all.”
Let us return to the subject of the various kinds of crosses. Not only the righteous, but sinners also have their crosses. St. John says the following of the sinners’ cross: “Among all the suffering experienced by the human soul, there is no greater suffering than a conscience burdened by sin. For if there is no sore in a man’s soul, and if his conscience is not defiled, then even if he undergoes external sorrows, he finds a safe haven in his conscience and comes upon God there. But if he does not find tranquility in his conscience because of increased iniquity and because God is no longer there, what then will a man do? Where will he turn when sorrows begin visiting him? Whether he goes away from the field into the city, or from a populated place into his home, or into a place of the greatest solitude, – sorrows will follow him everywhere. He has nowhere to turn except within himself. But if there, too, he finds agitation, the smoke of untruth, the fire of iniquity, then he cannot find rest there, either.”
Lechers, moneygrubbers, the rich, and the ambitious – all bear their crosses. In all of those states there is something which causes sorrow and suffering. Carnal sin has the characteristic of stinging the one who engages in it. St. John of Tobolsk offers the following comparison: “Carnal delight is like a bee which, while delivering sweet honey, pricks a person with its sharp sting.” And wealth is often labeled as bramble in the Gospel: just as brambles prick and bring pain, so is wealth acquired with great effort and guarded with great fear, while the loss of wealth is united with great suffering. A rich man is constantly concerned over acquiring or guarding his wealth. And is not an ambitious man to be pitied? In order to attain power over people, he must first become a slave and demean himself before others.
Even marriage has its own cross. The hierarch of Tobolsk lists the reasons why marriage has its cross. One of the blessings of marriage is the indivisibility of the wedded union, yet this also constitutes a fettering to some degree. St. John writes: “Each of the spouses is fettered by the concerns imposed upon each one by the wedded union, which deprives the spouses of freedom by the fact that none of them is self-ruling any longer, but their power is divided among the both of them.” Children, on one hand, are a comfort to their parents, but on the other hand they are a source of grief and tears. The hierarch explains: “Whether children are born or not, whether they remain alive or die, they equally bring sadness to the parents. One man has many children, but not enough food for them, while another does not have an inheritor to his estate, which he had acquired by dint of great effort. From one man death has snatched a meek and beloved son, while another’s living son is depraved, and thus both men are worthy of compassion when one cries over his son’s death and another over his son’s life.”
St. John of Tobolsk teaches that man must prepare himself for the way of the cross. The Lord said that whoever wishes to follow Him must deny himself and take up his cross. St. John explains that self-denial involves three actions: denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Christ.
What does it mean for a person to deny himself?
A person denies himself when he makes himself over through repentance – he rejects the “old man,” i.e. the kind of person he had made himself through sin, and becomes the kind of person he had been created by grace. For example, if someone was full of pride, but then turned around and became humble, that means he denied himself. If a lecher turned to a life of abstinence, that means he denied himself. If a greedy man ceased amassing riches and began to give them away to the poor, such a one has truly denied himself. Archbishop John offers the following example of self-denial from a homily on repentance by St. Ambrose of Milan:
“A certain youth, wishing to rid himself of sinful love for a prostitute, went off to a distant land. When his passion quieted within him, he returned to his home country, and meeting his former beloved, paid no attention to her. The prostitute, quite surprised at this, thought that perhaps he did not recognize her, and coming up to him she said: “I am so-and-so.” “But I am no longer the same person,” – replied the youth and departed from her.
The Cross – confirmation of the faithful. How to follow the way of the cross?
With what attitude of soul should we accept and carry our cross? What are the conditions of genuine and salvific crossbearing? What kind of cross should we bear, and what is the duration of our crossbearing?
St. John describes all this in great detail. The cross should be taken up without delay. Crossbearing should never be put off. Some people intend to seriously take up spiritual life when they reach a venerable age or when their children grow up. Archbishop John ponders this: “Is it fair to give one’s young years to the world, and to God only one’s unfashionable old age; to give to the world one’s entire life and the strength of one’s powers, and dedicate to God only one’s decrepit flesh, exhausted by passions? Of what praise will you be worthy, if you dedicate to prayer and spiritual labors only a body that has been accustomed to a pampered life and is burdened with old age? A crown is earned only where there is combat and heavy spiritual labors.” But perhaps, without postponing the labor of crossbearing until old age, one could still delay it for at least a few years? To this the hierarch replies: “If a person could know in advance the time of his departure from this world, he could then give part of his life to the world and its delights, and dedicate the rest to the cross and repentance. But God, Who had promised heaven to the crossbearer and forgiveness to the penitent, did not promise even tomorrow to the lazy and inconstant ones… All ages are pleasing to God, but youth most of all… If you take on the Lord’s yoke too late, then instead of acquiring grace you will have to spend your time in repenting over your past life.”
Concerning the kind of cross we bear, we have no choice – “whichever one is sent, that is the one we have to bear. We must remember that the beginning of the cross and of every sorrow comes from God, Who is not only Absolute Goodness, but also the primary Source of all good. Nothing evil comes from Him” – He is All-good. His power is beneficial and salvific. The end of crossbearing is also good, since it always leads to goodness and salvation. For this reason, any cross sent by God cannot be evil. One should not feel ashamed of one’s cross, but rather bear it good-naturedly. This means that wherever we find the chance to bear the cross, we should take it up with joy. The cross should be carried without any vanity. The Lord looks not at what a man does, but with what intent he does it. Along the way of the cross we should remember above all that in all our actions our intent should be right, in order that all proceed towards God. One should not bear the cross on one’s own or rush ahead, but one should go along with Christ and His servitors. When we carry the cross without a guide or instructor, we rely on our own mind. St. John of Tobolsk explains that “a soldier going into battle does not choose his own way. He does not do things of his own accord, in order not to fall away from his banner, but follows a leader appointed by the king. He follows his orders and carrying his arms proceeds as prescribed, and thus accomplishes his mission properly.”
“Why is it wrong to ascend into heaven according to one’s own will?” – asks Stravrophila. The angel replies to her with the words of the venerable Elder Mark: “Because one’s own will is the leg of pride, and with it no one was able to ascend into heaven. Whoever goes along willfully and without reasoning and the instruction of the Gospel, such a person will stumble a great deal. Many people undertook great spiritual labors, underwent much deprivation and suffering for God’s sake, but because they acted willfully, without reasoning, and thought that they did not need help and instruction from others, all their efforts turned out to be fruitless and in vain.” One should not grumble about one’s cross being too heavy. It only seems great. In reality it is not so, but only seems to be so to those who do not look upon it properly. People are agitated and suffer not so much from the cross itself, but because they have a wrong perception of it. It happens that one and the same cross is placed upon two people. To the earnest person it seems light, while to the fainthearted one it seems heavy. The cross is one and the same, but the difference is in the perception of it. We always think that our grief and our cross are the heaviest. Thus, someone who suffers from his eyes, believes his illness to be the most unbearable. Whoever suffers from whatever will always believe his own suffering to be the worst in the world.
The cross must be borne daily. St. John instructs us: “The cross is of great duration, but do not abandon it, for your reward will be eternal. Constancy will sweeten the very effort. If someone exercises in something daily, that exercise becomes increasingly easier with time, and then the habit itself will turn into nature… Those who sail the sea for the first time are agitated and fearful, not being used to it, while those who have sailed many times and have experienced numerous tempests, bad weather, various dangers and shipwrecks, feel calmer in their ships than many do who remain on land… Daily labors and patience ease the heaviness of sorrows for us.” The archbishop then explains that not a single cross will seem protracted to us if we give it width, length, and height. The width is love – it only does good and makes sure that the good that was done does not perish. The depth lies in courage and long-suffering. To measure the height of the cross means to project one’s mind upward, towards the Lord God. Whether we wish it or not, we must still bear our cross and sorrows. If we bear them with gratitude, we will then earn the greatest rewards, while if we become impatient and grumble, then not only will we not ease our burden, but we will make it even heavier. As we bear our cross, we should remember that another necessary ingredient is prayer. Prayer greatly eases the cross and provides help in all sorrow. The more a Christian appeals to God, the less he thinks of his sorrows. Whoever has his mind aspiring constantly towards God can no longer pay too much attention to the sorrows of the cross.
In his work St. John speaks of the motivations for crossbearing. He explains his thoughts with the following idea: “During the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ there were four crossbearers, but all of them bore this burden with different motivations. The two thieves who were brought out with the Lord bore their crosses in order to receive just deserts for their deeds… Simon of Cyrinea bore the Lord’s cross like a hireling… and the Lord Himself, in bearing His cross, was primarily concerned with pleasing the Heavenly Father and fulfilling His will.” The hierarch points out three motivations: the first one – that of a sinner – to accept and bear the cross as punishment for one’s sins; the second one – that of a hireling – to carry the cross in hopes of a reward; and the third – filial – to bear the cross not out of fear of execution and not in the hopes of remuneration, but out of pure love, in order to please God. In this we see the three degrees of crossbearing: fear, hope, and love. The hierarch of Tobolsk writes in this regard: “Here, in short, is the difference in these three degrees: the one who is moved by fear bears his cross patiently; the one who excels in hope bears it willingly; while the one who has attained the perfection of love embraces it with ardent zeal.”
Let us ponder these ideas of the hierarch.
First of all, we must bear our cross as a punishment. Does not man, who offends God every minute, deserve punishment? If we accept the fact that we have received our cross for what we have done, then we will endure it good-naturedly. In the face of all kinds of crosses and all kinds of sorrows, it is useful to keep in our hearts and our minds the thought that we are suffering justly because we have sinned.
Secondly, in bearing our cross we must have hope of reward. The soul which hopes for reward endures everything willingly, and from among everything that it endures it counts nothing worthy of comparison with future benefits; thus it joyfully accepts everything, in order to receive that for which it hopes. Every effort seems lighter when it is expected to be rewarded. If people work so strenuously for their daily subsistence, what kind of labors would they not undergo for the sake of eternal life?
Thirdly, the cross should be borne out of love for Christ. True love does not feel bitterness, but rather sweetness. Whoever loves does not become fatigued, because for a loving heart all effort is pleasant. Whoever works for God with a love which expels fear, such a one does not feel the burden, does not experience the sorrow, does not seek reward. For those who have acquired love for God, neither fire, nor sword, nor poverty, nor illness, nor death seem burdensome.
St. John of Tobolsk teaches that the cross should be borne with joy and with thankfulness: “It is not surprising to thank God in times of well-being, but when a man who is overwhelmed with woes and sorrows in the sea of life offers thanks to God – that is a true sign of great endurance and good disposition. Even idol worshippers and pagans know how to offer thanks for benefits, but only Christians offer thanks for their crosses, sorrows, and tribulations… A single “thank God,” uttered in the midst of misfortune means much more than a thousand expressions of gratitude offered in the midst of fortune.” St. John repeats the profoundest thought of St. John Chrysostome, who compares those who offer thanks in misfortune with martyrs for Christ: “There is nothing holier than the tongue which thanks God in misfortune. Such a person is truly on a par with the martyrs and receives an equal crown with them. For before him, too, there stands a tormentor, who pressures him to renounce God through blasphemy; there stands the devil, who torments him with painful thoughts and clouds his heart with sorrow. Thus the one who suffers sorrow and thanks God receives a martyric crown.”
In concluding the second part of his teaching on the cross, Metropolitan John speaks of three forms of crucifixion: crucifixion of the flesh, crucifixion in respect to the world, and co-crucifixion with Christ. Before going on to the fruits of crossbearing, let us briefly turn our attention to these three forms of crucifixion.
(1) Crucifixion of the flesh. We are speaking here of the fact that not all of us are slated to be actually crucified on a cross. Only some of God’s very elect received such a fate. We must imitate Christ by figuratively crucifying our flesh through suppression of all its passions and lusts.
(2) Crucifixion in respect to the world. We crucify ourselves in respect to the world only when the prince of the world, i.e. the devil, comes and does not find anything of his own in us. And the world will crucify itself in respect to us when we refuse to accept any sinful desires. Love for Christ’s cross engenders life, while love for the world leads to death. Thus it is necessary for us to become mutually dead to each other: we to the world and the world to us. In speaking of this world we do not mean nature, the heavens and earth, but rather sinful everyday deeds – human glory, honors, praise, wealth, delights. The Lord’s words on this subject are quite apt: “If the world hates you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:18-19).
(3) Co-crucifixion with Christ. How can we become co-crucified with Christ? St. John of Tobolsk speaks of Apostle Paul, who said: “Yet not I live, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). The hierarch clarifies this with the following example: “A branch that is cut off its natural tree and grafted to another, dies completely for its original tree, but continues to live only through the second one to which it is grafted, and receives its life and energy from it. Similarly the one who becomes grafted to Christ and the tree of crucifixion dies for his former earthly life, and receiving the power of grace and virtue only from Him, lives a new life in Him.”
Cross – glory of the angels and wounding of the demons.
What are the fruits of crossbearing?
St. John does not limit his teaching only to explaining the need for crossbearing and describing how to bear the cross and the sorrows. He also speaks of the numerous fruits of crossbearing, both in this life and in the next. By means of the cross the Lord cuts off the causes and motivations for future sinning. St. John writes: “Foreseeing that some may greatly sin, the Lord visits bodily illnesses upon them, in order that they not sin, since it is more beneficial for them to suffer illnesses that lead to salvation than remain in good health leading to perdition of the soul. Many people in illness retain purity of morality, while in health they fall into vice; in the course of a bodily illness they refrain from offending anyone, but as soon as they regain their strength, they proceed to offend and insult innocent people. O, how many people become iniquitous in health, who in bodily suffering were estranged from vice! Illnesses cut off the sinning.”
The cross not only restrains from sin, but generally vanquishes the devil. The cross is an invincible weapon against Satan; it is a helmet protecting the head, a shield covering the breast, a plate of armor deflecting the enemy’s arrows, a sword which never allows the devil to attack man. The cross also cleanses us of sin – for this reason sorrows are oftentimes called cleansing. The hierarch says: “Like an ill person, who, by not allowing the doctor to cleanse his putrefied wound, becomes subject to even greater suffering, so the sinner, if he is not punished, is the unhappiest of all men.” Stavrophila asked the angel: “Why are people who lead unblemished lives often subjected to severe trials?” The angel replied: “Those who appear perfect to people, in the eyes of God still have some imperfections, from which the merciful heavenly Father cleanses them through His merciful wrath. Look at various artists. After creating an object, they show it to others, and inexperienced people find it perfect, but the artist himself knows what the object still lacks and corrects it… People who are not knowledgeable in art look at things one way, while the experienced artist looks at them differently. Similarly the holy men who please God appear to us to be sinless and perfect like the angels, but the Lord knows what is still lacking in them, and therefore sends them sorrows and trials for purification and improvement.”
The cross pours forth spiritual nourishment. St. John provides an example of this in the pressing of wine from grapes: “The grapes, for which a wine press is usually made, use the air freely while they still hang on their branches; but until they are put into the wine press and pressed, the grapes are not yet wine… How useful are grapes while they hang from their branches and have not yet been pressed into wine? They spoil very quickly or are eaten by birds, but when they are pressed, they turn into wine which is kept for a long time. Similarly a soul that is oppressed here by its cross and its sorrows will be preserved in the eternal dwellings.” The cross turns us into God’s temple. “God’s temple, – says St. John, – is not a building made of stone and clay, but a person who carries God’s image within him. Such a temple is not adorned with visible gold and precious stones, but rather with spiritual virtues, and these virtues are acquired through spiritual endeavors and sorrows. It is not surprising that even in physical temples the exterior appearance is that of a cross, i.e. that the churches built for the glory of the true God are usually cruciform in shape… Only those who are oppressed by sorrows, who suffer woes and illnesses, become the temples and dwellings of God.”
The cross unites one with Christ, and the Lord resides within sufferers. God’s presence may be recognized from the sorrow itself, because without Him who could have borne, who could have withstood, who could have endured the sorrow? St. John compares suffering with a ring: “Just as the ring is the sign of engagement, so the physical or moral suffering which people humbly undergo for the sake of God is a sign of their being among God’s elect and of the soul being engaged to God.”
St. John enumerates a whole series of other fruits of crossbearing, but we believe that most important for modern man is his reply to the following question: “For what will man receive the greater crown – for crossbearing and suffering, or for good deeds?” – “To do good and to endure suffering are both Christian duties. But even a small measure of suffering endured for the sake of God is incomparably more precious than many good deeds done without effort; and it is more beneficial for a person to patiently endure even a small measure of sorrow for the sake of God’s glory and love than to do great deeds without sorrow… By God’s providence, through suffering mankind has become reconciled with God, sin has been destroyed, and the heavens have opened…”
The venerable Anthony and Theodosius the Great erstwhile prophesied that in the end times zeal towards the labors of Christian life will weaken, and there will no longer be such holy fathers as those who shone forth in ancient times with their endeavors and grace-filled gifts. Piety will fade, and monastics will live in the world without differing in any way from laymen. But among these Christians of the end times, as the ancient holy fathers of the Church had prophesied, there will be those who will be saved through endurance of sorrows, i.e. their crossbearing. In God’s eyes they will be greater than all the great ascetics of ancient times.