I think I have finally discovered my vocation—or rather, a certain vocation within my vocation has been more clearly manifested to me. To be able to share this with you, I’ll have to give some background.
St Silouan of Mt Athos, a monastic saint of the 20th century, was known for the depth of his humility, prayer, and love for God and all creation. He made it a point to practice Jesus’ command to love our enemies as well. He had several visions and mystical experiences in his life, and in one of them he received an enigmatic word from the Lord—which has always disturbed me somewhat, and still does, though less so now, since I’ve found a way to apply an adapted version of it to my own life. I wasn’t looking for a way to do this, since I hadn’t even thought of it for a long time, but since it suddenly came to me in prayer, I thought I should pay attention.
The word is: “Keep your mind in Hell, and despair not.” Now this would be a lot easier to accept if it read instead: “Even should your mind be in Hell, despair not,” or something like that. But it is in the form of a command or commission from the Lord. I won’t try to explain what it might have meant in St Silouan’s vocation, only what it seems to mean in mine.
For whatever reason, I’ve never been able to dismiss, gloss over, reinterpret, or conveniently avoid the “hard sayings” of the Scriptures. The Old Testament is usually the place where people expect to find the strict judgments and the wrath of God, asserting that in the New Testament we find only the God of love and mercy. But that is not an accurate assessment. Not only will you find much love and mercy in the Old Testament, you will find, on almost every page of the Gospels (perhaps Matthew foremost among them) and the rest of the New Testament, serious warnings and even threats (with eternal consequences) directed toward those who would not do the will of God. My point is that the love and mercy do not cancel out the wrath and judgment, just as the wrath and judgment do not override the love and mercy. Every passage of Scripture has to be given its due weight and importance, for it is all the word of God.
In the Byzantine monastic tradition, the entire Psalter is prayed weekly, and a certain number of psalms are required to be prayed every day. Here are a few passages from the way the Church wishes us to pray every day: “Your arrows pierce me, Your hand presses me hard; Your anger has driven away all health from my body… my wounds fester and rankle, with my own folly to blame. Beaten down, bowed to the earth… so spent, so crushed, I groan aloud in the weariness of my heart… Heavily Your anger weighs down on me, and You overwhelm me with its full flood… Why do You reject my plea, Lord, and turn Your face away from me?… I am overwhelmed with Your anger, dismayed by Your threats…” (from Psalms 37/38 and 87/88). Every day! Now of course there are lighter sentiments also to be prayed daily, but as I said, that doesn’t make these others lose their force. I realize that as a monk I’m praying as a representative of the whole Church, but I still can’t help but personally feel the weight of those words.
So, a little while back I was reading some words from the Son of God, who is love: “Many will seek to enter and will not be able… You will stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us!’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’… you will weep and gnash your teeth when you see [all the righteous in the Kingdom of God] and you yourself thrust out…” (Lk. 13:23-28). I reached a kind of saturation point here and complained to the Lord as I went to prayer that I just couldn’t keep reading these grim prophecies and threats every single day. Immediately, out of nowhere (or rather, out of Somewhere), the words came to me: “Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.” What? I wasn’t expecting that. I thought something along the line of “don’t worry, I didn’t mean all that; you just relax and don’t let My words trouble you” would have been more apropos. But He can’t say that, because his words are spirit and life (see Jn. 6:63). They are “the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire” (Rev. 2:18).
Now it is true that there are many passages of Scripture that are intended to console us, but the word of God is not a mere lullaby meant to make us drowsily comfortable. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). Sometimes I feel like poor Jeremiah, who had to feel the hammer of the word of God, when he would rather not have felt it, and then had to speak the burning word, though he would rather not have to speak it. Or perhaps like Jonah, who fled his vocation only to be pursued by the Lord until he fulfilled it.
The word of God is the Hammer that breaks our stony hearts, the Fire that burns the chaff of our frivolous thoughts and disordered desires. It has the power to reduce us to rubble and ashes, yet another word immediately comes from the Lord: “Despair not.”
This is what I was referring to about my interior vocation: I believe I am to bear the hard and heavy words of the Lord—for the sake of those who won’t, for the sake of the heedless who refuse to listen, and even for the sake of the superficial Christians who want the joy without the sorrow, the blessing without the pain, the peace without the struggle. It’s all about souls and their salvation. That’s why I also do the “Save a Soul” thing and the “Mop-up Ministry” (see the links in the Pages sidebar). Perhaps this is simply the vocation of all monks and I’m just beginning to get it now. In the Byzantine tradition, a consecrated monk is called a stavrophore, that is, a cross-bearer. This refers not only to the self-denial and cross-bearing required by all who would be disciples of Christ, but bearing crosses for others, hearing the hard words, struggling with the unrelenting demands and the fierce power of the irrepressible love of Christ which impels us to live only for Him who for our sakes died and rose for us (see 2Cor. 5:14-15).
I have also noticed that in the Divine Liturgy we really approach God in fear and trembling. No less than seven times (mostly in reference to the Holy Mysteries) the priest and/or the faithful (usually the priest) begs not to experience “blame or condemnation” or “judgment or condemnation” (or a similar formulation) as we come into contact with the Holy. In another case, the priest begs God: “Turn not Your face from me nor reject me from among Your children…” It seems to me that if the Church did not think it likely that we might indeed incur judgment or condemnation, we wouldn’t be required repeatedly to beg for protection from it! Our liturgical texts thus give the impression that we are terrified of God, yet evidently we are called to bear the weight of those heavy words, to come to Him anyway, without despairing of his mercy and generosity as we approach, even though we are “sinful and useless servants.”
Accepting the hard sayings of the Lord for the sake of others (as well as for myself, who also need to hear them), cannot be some sort of pious fiction if it is to bear fruit. I really have to feel, to experience the weight, the fire, the terror of the divine words—and yet despair not. Didn’t Jesus Himself have to do the same thing, to carry the burden of the Father’s will and word, feel that heavy hammer (literally: driving nails through his hands and feet)? This was part of his vocation: “My soul is sorrowful unto death… Take this cup away from Me!… My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me”? That was the real thing. He really felt it, and He did so for our sake, since only thus could we have any hope for salvation. As for me, a servant is not greater than his Master. If He couldn’t escape the demands of the Father’s decree, feeling the ancient prophecies in his own flesh, then neither can I.
To say “God is love” is not to divest Him of the force of command or of his jealous safeguarding of the truth that sets us free. It is unquestionably true that his love is everlasting, his forgiveness is free for the asking, and his peace and joy flow like the River of Life in the New Jerusalem. But his word will not return to Him empty; it must fulfill the purpose for which it is sent (see Isaiah 55:10-11). In order to bring salvation, when it meets resistance it will become a hammer; when it finds a frozen heart it will become a fire beneath it; when it finds a sleeping soul, it will shake it awake.
And it will press its weight on the cross-bearers. I don’t know if you who read this have felt anything of what I have here described, but if you have borne the anguish and terror, and are perhaps wearing out under the strain, I say to you: despair not. Keep your mind in the whole of the word of God, the blessing and the curse, the promise and the threat, the ecstasy and the agony, and if it sometimes “hurts like Hell”—despair not. For it has pleased the Father to give the Kingdom to those who follow in the footsteps of his Son, who do not shrink from the demands of the Gospel or soften its words, and who are willing to be a cross-bearer for others, so that they may finally hear those words for themselves—for the sake of their salvation.
For one who knows what it is like to sink beneath the waves of a tumultuous inner life, the simple command, “despair not,” is life-preserver. The Lord is saying that it is OK to hear the difficult words of his, to bear the brunt of them, to be forcibly seized by them—in fact we must, if we are not to live in some fantasy land of a safe and risk-free life. But in assuring us that we need not despair, God is saying that He gives us the grace to stand before that One whose eyes are a flame of fire, and who immerses us in that fire of love and truth so that his image is perfected in us.
So, feel the two-edged sword of the word of God, “piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow” (Heb. 4:12), but despair not. Be aware of the evil, madness, and pain of the world, but despair not. Face the sorrows, disappointments and absurdities of life, but despair not. Yea, walk though you may in the darkness and the shadow of death, despair not.
Behold, love lies even behind the threat, the ultimatum. For Jesus Himself descends into every hell, even our self-made ones, proclaiming the Gospel of redemption and resurrection. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). So despair not.