Updated: Jul 10
No, because we are born in the image and likeness of God, so we do have love inside us. But it depends if we activate this love or not. For example, if we love ourselves more than God, then the love for God is blocked out and we can’t even help ourselves.
That’s what it is when we are selfish and that’s what it is when we put ourselves above others.
I remember as a kid, I thought everybody was good.
That’s good. That’s how we are created. Then you realise sooner or later that in practice everyone is not equally as good. That’s a positive thought though.
This is what I had in my mind; that everybody is good. Even my father told me to be careful. I could not understand why he was saying this to me. I had this idea, because I was brought up in a communist country and people were always helping each other with a little bit of sugar or something. I could only see everybody as good. So when my parents warned me to be careful, I couldn’t see what is so scary when everyone, I thought, was good?
This is another way that God uses to help people in finding themselves. The difficulties can soften our hearts to open up to others and to God. You can either do this yourself with prayer and love, as we said before, or God provides the way - when He gives us difficulties. We slowly melt and it’s like we understand others better through our difficulties because we ourselves went through rough times. If you know what it is to be hungry when you see someone suffering, you feel for them. Sometimes even the thought of death can make us realise that this life is just material and nothing other than our salvation really matters.
I have an example from my journey in the monastic life that shows how we can be attacked from a thought that someone could pass on to us and then we may suffer from it for years until our hearts soften up. When we have suffered ourselves, then we understand others better:
There was this old priest-monk in our Monastery and he was from the old generation of monks. Back in his time they had an idiorhythmic monastic life. Every monk had to take care of himself. Not like the new generation of monks that moved into the Monastery later on and supported the cenobitic way of monasticism. In the previous generation of monks it was common to have in your room some food. Me being from the new generation, I only experienced one way of life in the Monastery and it was different. It was the new monastic way.
One day, someone told me that this priest-monk had in his room this and this and this. I hated it, but my logic started judging. Without talking about it to anyone I judged him in my mind. I kept this judgement not thinking of confessing it for years. Eventually I realised how holy this person was and how I was attacked from my brother’s words and that this was from the devil and I should have never accepted the thought. Back then I didn’t know any better.
Clearly I was not at the level to be able to understand that I should have nepsis, reject the thought and not keep it in my mind. [For more on nepsis, click here]. I didn’t even realise that it would have been wiser to confess my silent judgment than suffer from it every time I saw the poor man. The thought was stuck in my mind for years. I could never see him as a good person, until I realised the level of his obedience. When he broke his ankle, his elders did not let him go and fix his leg. Of course back then it was not easy to get in and out of Mt Athos. He ended up dragging his leg for the rest of his life, he could not walk properly. He was literally dragging his leg and he suffered this out of obedience to his elders. So, having something in his room was nothing. He was used to this monastic way of life anyway. And his sacrifices and everything he did were so much greater than what I could understand.
I was carrying this negative judgment inside me for years and years. I had to mature and be humbled in many ways before I realised that there is a greater picture than the one my narrow mind could see and that it’s not for me to judge this old priest-monk who was there all his life, especially as I had just joined the brotherhood. This is to give you an idea of how hard we might often be on someone. Like the first son, we judge the second [prodigal] son. And the second son can become a Saint and us, the self-called 'righteous ones', can just waste our lives in judging others and also waste our souls.
Obedience - Emptying Yourself - the Will of God
You could gain authority, positions, influence etc., and you are doing it for the right reasons, but if you are still not denying yourself you are wasting your time?
If you can’t obey, if you don’t achieve these things under obedience, it means that you follow your own will.
Your own will as opposed to God’s will?
Yes, so if you go to the chanting box without obedience, and if you don’t stay there with obedience, that’s following your own will.
Yes, that’s where you need a spiritual father.
Forgive me but it is very important and I need to repeat myself. Yes, because this person can become a priest, this person can become an Abbot, this person can become a Bishop or even as a lay person, a judge or a psychologist and if these people haven’t emptied themselves beforehand, they can do exactly what the Pharisee was doing in the parable. They can preach but not fulfil what they are talking about. Their examples, words or judgments could often lead people away from the truth and also scandalise people. Following Christ is one thing, and, following Christ after emptying ourselves is another. If we can’t empty ourselves and we say we follow Christ, we are just following our ego. We make our ego God and we don’t follow Christ. We are idolaters and dangerous.
What happens if we push ourselves more than what we should in order to empty ourselves? Is this dangerous too?
Yes, but by saying that, we should also know our limits and if we think that there is something above our strength then we should not attempt doing it. If you try to go above your strength to imitate exactly what the desert fathers were doing, you will reach rock bottom physically, psychologically and even spiritually. And all this just because we thought we can do what others did. Everyone is different. If we have weaknesses, we have to acknowledge them.
Have discernment, have understanding of what we are capable of and what we are not capable of yet. One day maybe, but not now. If we don’t do this, it’s like we don’t empty but we destroy ourselves and we don’t have any strength left to fill ourselves up and embrace God. And we won’t. Then we will lose everything and be lost.
We should proceed step by step. The more space we give inside us to God, the more we will be filled up with Grace. And then, even if we are not perfect, slowly we will become as perfect as possible. Even the Saints were making mistakes. It doesn’t mean that someone who is holy or spiritual will never make a mistake in their lives and it doesn’t mean that everything that a Saint did was perfect. We also see that Saints might talk about the same issue and have different opinions and ways of approaching something. They might even say things that are not one hundred percent accurate. But they were still holy people and they were still spiritual and they are still Saints.
If you want to reach perfection you can either try to humble yourself on your own (freely and according to your strength), or God will find ways to humble you. That’s if you have the right will. The second way is usually harder than the first, in my opinion only because we do not have control over whatever happens. It demands our trust and love for God. God will close in front of us every distractive door to enable love, appreciation and patience to follow the one-way road of His Goodness. To humble ourselves on our own we need a lot of self-control and, not everyone who loves God has it on the same level. If we invent ways to humble ourselves though, it means that we are spiritually smart and God will find it easy to approach us because of the softness of our heart.
Let’s say you’re married and you have an argument with your wife. If you are the first one to say: “sorry and let’s move on”, that’s extremely big. But if you say: “I might be wrong but you’re not right as well”, then forget about it. God will have to find ways to humble you in your everyday life. Humility is an everyday practise.
I’m always saying sorry, but I’m always wrong.
The problem is if you don’t say sorry and you are wrong. Next time don’t do it. You will be right and won’t have to say sorry.
This [article series] has been transcribed and edited from a talk in a young families gathering in Perth, Western Australia, organised by the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John.