March 20, 2012

The Inevitability of Suffering

A Latvian by birth, Archbishop John began his pastoral work in Russia where he inspired such love and devotion in his flock, that when the Communist revolution struck and trouble began, volunteers from among the workers organized a guard to watch over him day and night. Seeing in him a bold accuser of the new regime, the Bolsheviks never left the Archbishop in peace; he was constantly followed and several attempts were made on his life.

In 1921, at the persistent entreaty of the Latvian Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon, blessed Archbishop John returned to his native Latvia. Under his guidance life was restored to the much suffering Latvian Orthodox Church. Here too he continued to speak fearlessly, his voice sounding forth like an alarm bell; the image of Golgotha often appeared in his sermons. He never forgot the persecuted Orthodox in Russia and conducted a ceaseless open battle against the Soviet atheist regime. In turn, his political enemies did not forget him.

During the night of October 11th, 1934, Archbishop John ascended his own Golgotha. He was tortured and burned alive in the attic of the cathedral. Over 100,000 people accompanied the coffin to the cemetery, a living glorification of this beloved archpastor and chief confessor of the Latvian Orthodox Church.

By New Martyr Archbishop John of Riga

"From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disci¬ples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day." [Mt 16:21.23]

Like a thunderclap from a clear sky, so was the impression made upon the disciples by this revelation of the Lord concerning the sufferings which awaited him. Earlier He had told them that His path was also their path. You will be hated for My name's sake. The servant is not greater than his master. He who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. And in the lives of Christ's true disciples there is a time of suffering the Passion, when each must enter his own Jerusalem, ascend his Golgotha, and the fateful Cross, and rake up the fateful cup, even unto death

Even the sons of this world have their Golgotha. Unforeseen and uninvited, suffering enters the house. You must suffer whether you like it or not. The bitter "must"...
This "must" is bitter even for the faithful disciple of Christ. And the cross of suffering frightens even him. in his soul is heard the voice of Peter: Be merciful to yourself; do not let this happen; defend yourself. And this is not surprising, for after all, the great Sufferer Himself prayed: If it be possible, take this cup from Me. This is an altogether necessary "must", and we are powerless to stand against it.

From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things. If the way of the Lord led to Jerusalem, if His fate was to be decided by the scribes, the Pharisees, the elders, then it was natural that He had to suffer and be killed.

This Jerusalem towards which Christ directed His steps was not the heavenly Jerusalem, but an earthly city, full of the spirit of this world which had fallen away from its God, not recognizing, not comprehending the visitation of the Lord. This is the same Jerusalem which at the altar of the Lord, killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to it.

And the world, my brothers, even unto this day, stands on that same foundation. Perhaps it does not have the same outward appearance. Nowadays they do not crucify people on crosses, as they did Jesus Christ; they do not beat people with staves as they did Peter and John; nor are people stoned like Stephen. People have become too indifferent towards faith to suffer for its sake. Our path is less rocky, and whoever murmurs at the harshness and the evil of this world should know that he is far from suffering unto blood.

Nevertheless, now as never before, the words of the Lord contain a sacred truth: If you were of the world, the world would love you, but because you are not of this world but I took you from the world, the world despises you. It cannot do otherwise. The natural desire of man's heart is to live at peace with everyone. Youthful hearts often make decision for an unconcerned faith within themselves: "I want to get along with everyone, I mustn't antagonize anyone." But even the most well-intentioned man soon realizes that this is impossible. Even the meekest lamb is sure to meet on his way the ferocious wolf who says: "You are a thorn in my side."

He who believes must confess his faith. He who desires to serve God in the world must act according to his faith, but every confession inevitably arouses antagonism, and every action is sure to meet with hostility. To see that his honest persuasion and strivings are not recognized by the world, that his good deeds are everywhere met with opposition, that there where he sows only love he must reap evil—this is obviously very grievous to the follower of Christ. And he is often ready to ask together with his Master: "What evil has been done you?" or "How have I offended you?"

The truth which you proclaim and which you confess and which the world cannot gainsay; or the righteousness manifest in your life which silently reproaches the world; or the peace of the Lord written on your face which the world cannot forgive; or the heavenly other-worldliness of your behavior which shames and accuses their earthly way of life. This is how you have offended the world. And the world would sooner pardon you of ten vices and crimes... which set you on a level with otters, than forgive one good deed which elevates you above the rest.

Why did Cain murder Abel? Because Cain's actions were evil and the actions of Abel were good and righteous. Why did the scribes and Pharisees condemn the Saviour? Because He was light, and darkness cannot abide the light.

Do not be surprised, then, my dear brothers, if the world hates you. This is nothing unusual. Do not let the evil mockings and vicious hatred of evildoers lead you astray. Go along the straight road with the name of the Lord through the world which lies in evil and think to yourself: I must follow the straight road and the world cannot do otherwise.

It would not be the world if it did not prefer the lies of its errors to truth, egoism to love, its laziness to zeal for God, worldly vanity to righteousness. I am not a disciple of Christ, not His soldier, if I do what is pleasing to everyone, if I go along the broad path together with the crowd instead of keeping to the narrow path where there are few travelers. And so, let us step forward in the name of the Lord with the full realization that "I must".'

There is another aspect of this "I must." When the Son of Man told His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and there suffer much and die, He was aware that this was necessary for Himself. Because He was obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross, God raised Him up and gave Him a name which is above every name. If the Heavenly Father so willed that even His Only-begotten Son would drink from the cup of suffering, is it for us sinners who are so imperfect to shun this cup of suffering, this school of suffering, when we are such a long way from perfection and still have so much to learn in order to become worthy disciples of the great Sufferer?

Some think: "How much more fervently and more willingly I would serve my Lord if only my life's path were easier, if it weren't so thickly strewn with sharp rocks." In saying this, you yourself obviously do not know who and what you are, what is beneficial for you and what is harmful, what you need and what you don't need.

It is true when they say that a man tolerates least of all his own well-being. Days of happiness, days of success, when everything goes according to one's wishes—how many times have such days woven a fatal net which captures man's soul? What dissoluteness grows in man's heart, like rust on the blade of a battle sword when it lies unused, or like a garden which becomes overgrown if not tended by the gardener's shears.

Tell me, O Christian, what preserves you from the haughtiness which so easily penetrates even the strongest hearts, even the hearts of Christ's disciples? Is it not the cross and suffering? What humbles the passionate inclinations of the flesh which so quickly and easily spread in times of well-being and prosperity, like insects in a swamp on a sunny day? What teaches you to shun this uncleanness? Is it not the rod of misfortunes and sorrows? What arouses you from the sleep of self-assurance in which we are so easily lulled to sleep by times of earthly happiness? Or what is more conducive to lazy vegetation than cloudless, carefree days of prosperity? At such times, isn't a storm to be welcomed? What will draw you out of the dangerous state of insensibility? Will not sorrows? Will not illness? What tears us away from our worldly attachments, the love for the world and all that is in it? Is it not necessity and misfortunes? Do not trials teach us to take life more seriously? Do not sorrows teach us to be prepared for death?

Wild brambles in the heart cannot be uprooted without the pruning shears of the heavenly Gardener, and the good fruit of truth and righteousness will not grow without the rain of tears and sorrows. True obedience cannot be experienced other than by the drinking of the bitter cup of grief, when one can only say: Not my will, but Thine be done, Father... And submission to the will of God is never seen so clearly as in days and hours of storm, when in the midst of threatening and frightful waves the Christian gives himself totally into the hands of Him Whose very hands hold these tempests and waves.

When can the steadfastness, courage and strength of a soldier of Christ be better demonstrated than when trials and obstacles must be turned into Christian deeds, than in the war against evil or in times of danger? All the noble strength of the Christian soul, of the Christian character, shines forth most brightly in times of distress, misfortune, and suffering. All the miracles of God's grace are most evident in times when the waters of grief and misfortune flood our souls and we are forced to recognize our helplessness, our weakness, and thus in turn we surrender all our strength and understanding to Almighty God.

And are you going to ask, what for? And why? When God Himself chastises and calls you to account? Or, when the Lord sends you to the school of the Cross, will you say: "I have no need of its teachings?" Rather, you must say: "I need this; I must go to this school of the Cross; I must suffer with Christ in order to be raised with Him. When the Lord chastens me, I must think and feel like a child chastised by the loving right hand of the Lord, like a grape vine under the gardener's pruning shears; like iron beneath the smith's hammer, like gold in the purifying furnace, like a cluster of grapes beneath the burning rays of the sun. This 'I must' is of God, and I must not shrink from it."

Even the ancient Greeks and other peoples bowed before the divine will, before sacred duty, before the immutable destiny and man's dependence upon the divine. The submission of one's will before this divine "I must," the exact fulfillment of the decrees of the divine will, in the wise this was called 'wisdom', in heroes it was 'courage', in the righteous it was 'sanctity'. How much more willingly must we Christians fulfill our duty when we know that we are not being led by a blind faith, but by the good will of the Father which led even Christ to Golgotha and the Cross, but through Golgotha and the Cross to the glorious Resurrection. And so we must put our trust in Him even when we cannot comprehend the meaning of this guidance. Mankind would have been deprived of so much goodness, such glory and blessedness, if the Saviour had harkened to the voice of Peter: "Defend yourself."

Let each soul bow before the divine "I must," for the will of God is good, perfect, guiding all to salvation. And you, O son of dust and corruption, bend your neck under His almighty hand before which your strength is as nothing; trust to Divine wisdom, before which your light is but a dark shadow; give yourself over to the fatherly guidance of Him Who desires, not enmity and sorrows, but peace and blessedness for all men and all mankind. When you submit your thoughts and your will to this thought and will, then no cup will be for you too bitter, and no cup too heavy; you will be able to bear it; no path too narrow you will be able to follow it; no trial will tempt you beyond measure; you will be able to withstand it. Such is the will of God.

If you are surrounded by your wife, your children, friends, and everyone you love, and if they try to persuade you to have pity on yourself, not to destroy yourself—pay no attention to their tears and their pleadings; point to the heavens and say: "Do not burden my heart; so it is pleasing to God and I must; you are reasoning according to man's wisdom and not the wisdom of God." And if from your own heart cries out the voice of flesh and blood and begins to persuade you: "this cannot happen to you, defend yourself," turn away from this counsel of your own heart and follow after that which glorifies God.

We can more easily bear our afflictions if we keep in mind the example of our Saviour. See with what peaceful and holy determination He goes to meet His passion. And then follow Him along the path of the Cross until, with His last breath, you hear from His lips the Divine words: It is finished. And then ask yourself: aren't you drawn by this example? Doesn't this make clear the commandment, He who wishes to follow Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me>. Doesn't this lead you to the conviction of that disciple who said, I cannot wear a crown of roses when my Saviour is wearing a crown of thorns?

At the cross of Christ, even the most suffering soul among us can find consolation: I have endured and even now endure much, but my Divine Saviour endured still more. If you find this example too lofty, read what the holy Apostle St. Paul says: Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep. In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren. In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. (2 Cor 11:25-27). See what he endured for Christ's sake; how many times he was beaten, stoned, imprisoned... and then understand how far we are from him.

Everywhere the Cross is the sign of Christianity. A Christian can simply not be without his cross. Amen.