"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C. S. Lewis

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Personal Reflection on Life... and Death

The Holy Elders of the Optina Hermitage (Оптина пустынь) of Russia have always held a dear place in my Orthodox heart, though I am an American. It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that the monastery became the center of Russian staretsdom. Those startsy attracted countless numbers of Russian Orthodox people who longed for the full Christian life people such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vasily Zhukovsky, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and Vasily Rozanov. This was a period when Orthodox Christianity was not flourishing in the rest of the "Orthodox" world which was under the oppression of the enemy of Truth.  

In 1898 came to America the humble hieromonk Tikhon (Bellavin). Of course, we know him as Saint Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, (31 Jan. 1865 - 7 Apr. 1925). He was head of the Russian Orthodox Church in America, becoming himself an American citizen,  and looking at the Orthodox faith in America not simply as "Russian" or "for" Russians, but as a faith for the life and salvation of all people. In 1907, because the godliness of his life and vision were widely recognized and loved, he was called back to Russia where, in 1917, at the very moment that the Revolution would defy and threaten all true freedom, he was raised to the dignity of Metropolitan of Moscow. For this he suffered greatly, never losing his divine vision of Orthodox Christianity for all mankind.

What the startsy of Optina taught, St. Tikhon lived. And so, when I read the words of St. Nikon of Optina, I hear the words of our blessed first hierarch saying,  "We must strive so that all our life, as a whole, and not certain hours and days, is based on the Law of God. We must arrange all of our activities so that they are in agreement with the will of God. Only under these conditions will our hearts be pure, and only the pure in heart will see God (Mt. 5:8)". And what is this Law?  Jesus said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it [literally, just like it]: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor {literally, everyone else] as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

St. Barsanuphius of Optina tells us, "Life is blessedness, and not simply because we believe in blessed eternity, but here on earth life can be blessed if we live with Christ, fulfilling His holy commandments. If a man is not tied to earthly goods, but will in all things rely on the will of God, will live for Christ and in Christ, then life here on earth will become blessed."  And St. Ambros of Optina tells us, "We live in a vale of tears. Therefore we must pass the time sometimes weeping, sometimes leaping... Everything will quickly pass by, will flash by like a shadow, like an echo, and eternity will begin, permanent, unchanging, and hopefully for us, blessed and radiant."

So, my friends, how ought we to live our life this life? My earthly father reposed yesterday. My heart is full of sadness as I remember his many good and loving deeds. And I am made to consider, in this brief life what is truly worth striving for? God makes it rather clear as we hear in the words of His saints, while the world around us, in the grasp of death, screams that we must spend life in pursuit of ourselves. But in the end, when the gentle voice of our Lord and the shouting yell of our adversary are silent, we are left with only one thing... the truth of a life lived. What shall it be?

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