Reflections on the Orthodox faith and life in this crazy 21st century world by an Orthodox priest and a few of his friends.
Friday, March 13, 2009
WOA #3: The Garden of the Heart
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. (Proverbs 4:23, NIV)
Last time, we learned that we cannot walk the path of salvation without God's help. Trying to do it solely with our own efforts is foolish and impossible. But that does not mean that our actions play no part in our salvation. Nothing could be farther from the truth! As St. Paul write in Philippians 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure."
The work that God wants us to do is sometimes compared to the work of a farmer (see, for example, 2 Tim. 2:6 and James 5:7). Colliander uses the same analogy in chapter 3 of Way of the Ascetics. Listen to what he has to say:
"If the husbandman wishes to have a rich harvest, he must work early and late, weed and aerate, water and spray, for cultivation is beset by many dangers that threaten the harvest. He must work without ceasing, be constantly on the watch, constantly alert, constantly prepared; but even so, the harvest ultimately depends wholly on the elements, that is, on God.
The garden that we have undertaken to tend and watch over is the field of our own heart; the harvest is eternal life" (7).
The world often tells us "Take it easy! Live it up! Don't be so hard on yourself." But the Fathers tell us otherwise. Colliander gives but one of many possible examples of this. "Persecute yourself, says St. Isaac of Syria, and your enemy is routed as fast as you approach" (8).
The phrase that St. Isaac uses is at first startling. "Persecute yourself?" To some, this might smack of masochism or just plain old insanity. But the saint is using extreme language to make a point (the Fathers are not famous for understatement!). By "persecute yourself," I think the saint means the same thing that Jesus meant, when he told us "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23).
In other words, if we are to be saved, we must be tough on ourselves. We must not live our lives according to the world's easy standards (cf. Rom. 12:2). We must pray more, read more, fast more, give more, and sin less than the world would have us. This is the Way of the Ascetics. This is the path of theosis.
And God has placed within us the potential "both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13; see also Luke 17:21). As Colliander writes, "The stairway to the kingdom is within you, secret in your soul. Cast off the burden of sin and you will find within you the upward path that will make your ascent possible" (8).