I remember the first time I was approached by an evangelist, hoping to save my soul. I was waiting to enter a concert venue, one of many impetuous young men standing in line. Yet he approached me alone, perhaps sensing my discomfort with his preaching. He couldn’t have known that at age ten I had announced to my parents (to their chagrin) that I was an atheist, and that only science is true. Nor could he have known the depths to which I had fallen in only a few years hence. I became his intended that day as he laid out his case for Christ. I listened, with respect, even as my friends jeered; but in the end I remained unconvinced. It all seemed so trite: a sales pitch for heaven requiring practically nothing from me in return. No rigor, no enlightenment—just a simple affirmation. My mother would always say, “Everything worthwhile is worth working for.” Any religion so easily mastered was not worth mastering at all.
It would be several years before I learned from my parish priest the meaning of the word podvig—a spiritual labor undertaken for salvation. This was a concept that made sense to me; not easy religion, but an ethos, a way of life. I had come to faith in the midst of the Divine Liturgy, overwhelmed by the God who knows my name. I realized at that moment how much I would have to suffer for him. Anything less would be unbefitting the Lord of Glory. I accepted that there are no simple answers, no shortcuts to salvation. “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt 7:14).
In Unseen Warfare, St Theophan the Recluse summed up the entire spiritual life as fulfillment of God’s will (and he only needed a few hundred pages to explain it). What may seem a simple task is the most difficult work of all, partly because our rebellious will bulks at submitting to the divine will, and partly because we strain to discern his will in the first place. Often, we misapprehend what it even means to follow God. We envisage life in Christ as a sort of destiny specific to each of us, as though the three persons of the Trinity were akin to the three Fates. We act as though our story has already been written, or even carved in stone, and that our job is to figure out what God has dictated.
We’d like to think we’re special, a cut above the rest. While it is true that God has, at times, appointed an individual to a specific vocation—like Jeremiah and Paul—this is not the case for most of us. All are called to the same purposes: to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be loved, to be merciful and accept mercy. All are summoned to bow before the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). All are exhorted to seek the righteousness of God, so that everything else may be added. All are enjoined to purify their hearts that they may see God, in this age and the next. What is unique to each is how to actuate these things within the place and time one occupies, using the gifts one receives.
Once, a young monk (who later became a bishop) visited the parish of my youth. At that point in my life, I was perplexed as to whether I should pursue the monastic life or get married. Naïve Christian that I was, I assumed God had chosen for me; it only remained for me to read his mind. But when I asked the monk for a word, for some sign of which path to choose, he looked at me quizzically. He then related a quote from St John Chrysostom: “God kisses our good intentions.”
When faced with various goods, it is not a matter of choosing the unique good that God intends for us, but rather of choosing the one through which we believe we will more faithfully serve him. And once chosen, we should incline all our mind and heart toward accomplishing this task out of love for God, never taking our hand from the plow and looking back. Even so, like everything about the Christian life, discerning which path will be the one better suited for us is not easy. Like Jacob, we must wrestle with God, allowing ourselves to be wounded in the tussle. Discernment requires brutal honesty and a desire to humble ourselves. Our heart must be pierced as we face our sins. Our ego must be crushed as we admit of our hypocrisy. And we must do this again and again, day after day. There is nothing sexy about the spiritual life.
Christ declares, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12). In medieval Russia, a pious Christian would actually ask their spiritual father for a podvig. Not that life wasn’t already difficult enough, but they understood that redemption is not easily obtained. I once heard a saint say, “In America, will anyone be saved?” We’ve become accustomed to comfort, addicted to pleasure. But worse, we have learned to take the path of least resistance, the easy way out. It infects everything we do: our fasting, our prayer life, our liturgical attendance, our defense of dogma, our study of the Scriptures, our preaching of the Gospel, our generosity towards others, our ability to stand up to injustice, etc. Our faith has become anemic. But until we are prepared to bear our cross up Golgotha, we will not be ready to see the light of Pascha.