9. Various Trials and Manifest Aid from our Lady the Mother of God
The Apostle Paul informs the fullness of the Church about his trials and his affliction, which were so extensive the he ‘despaired of life itself’ (2 Cor. 1:8). He stresses that he was ‘utterly crushed beyond his strength’; and corresponding to this we have the patristic interpretation and practice which describes how terrible and numerous are the trials which lurk in the way of those who wish to be saved. Of course, there are also other passages in Scripture which deal with the same subject, and it may be said that the chief prerequisite for salvation is endurance of many trials. But it is the Apostle Paul in particular who reveals to us the mystery and the meaning of tribulations – the chief of the Apostles, the giant of the Church, the exact image of Christ. If he, Paul, who constantly urges us to imitate him (1 Cor. 11:1), and who quite simply carried out all that has been commanded us (Lk 17:10), according to our Lord’s word – if Paul expresses himself in this way, saying that the tribulations that are for salvation and perfection can push one to despair even of life itself, then one can understand the furnace that our Fathers passed through, those who in ancient times and more recently have held to the same path (cf. Phil. 3:16).
When on occasion we would lose heart because of some minor exertion or for some such trivial reason, making it out to be something serious and unbearable, the Elder would shake his head and say what St Mary of Egypt said to Abba Zosimas: ‘May God protect us, Abba, from the snares of the evil one’. And this gave us an opening to make him to tell us something relevant from his own life and experience.
‘In all three areas which make up the human being – soul, body and environment, or the inner, the outer and the surroundings – we find the enemy dug in and fully armed. In all man’s thoughts or actions, the enemy does not let slip any occasion or pretext to harry him and try his faith. The diabolical war does not spare member or place or situation, but according to the circumstances it attacks and resists our own decisions. But its paramount aim is to strike at a person’s faith, and thus ridicule him for his treachery and denial. If it manages this, it deals us a grievous blow because it cuts off our eagerness and fervour, which is the head, and so can capture the whole of the body with no trouble. Everything happens for the sake of faith, but it is also faith that is in overall command. If faith is knocked down, then everything is shaken and the front line crumbles.’
When we asked him to explain why he laid so much stress on faith and made everything dependent upon it, he told us, ‘Before speaking for myself, I will refer you to what Scripture says: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6). Well, did Abraham just believe and not do anything else? He had so many trials in his life, as Genesis tells us, that it is hard to believe, and was God not so well pleased with any of them as with his faith? “He believed,” it says; and, as you will remember, Paul lays great stress on this. Of course, all the trials resulted from his faith. But in any event, in order to keep his faith totally he rejected everything and sacrificed everything. It was precisely this faith that was the well-spring of all his actions. We believe in our Christ: not just in His godly majesty and the various other dogmatic points of our faith, but also in His divine commandments. Yet the commandments in themselves are of no value, if they are not carried out in the name of Him who ordered them. Have there not been righteous actions in the world before, or now, or in the future? Who has gained anything from them, if they were not done in the name of God and for Him alone? So it is not the doing of the commandments but the faith in God for whose sake one has decided and acted, that is honoured and rewarded. If God has no need of our good things (Ps. 16:2, LXX) and salvation is not a matter of exchange but of grace (Eph. 2:5) and a free gift, then what is it in human activity apart from faith that is taken into account? Rightly, then, has the justification of all the saints been ascribed to faith and not to their works, which were also themselves perfected by faith. Believing in the beginning, we set out in subjection to His will, the will of our Christ, and in the course of obedience to Him “we keep to difficult paths” (Ps. 17:4, LXX), as David says. But the Lord tells us, “When you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:10). This shows us that what brings about salvation is not the quantity and quality of the works, which are simply a duty, but it is faith that counts, and the Lord praises faith, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt 25:25). Abba Mark says that the Lord will repay each one precisely according to his faith or lack of faith .
‘As I said, we have set out by faith and on the basis of this faith we continue on our spiritual career. The devil who wars against us and opposes us tries to show us faithless at the judgement and deprive us of the promise “Well done, faithful servant!”, and to relegate us to the place of him who was cut in pieces and put with the unfaithful (Lk 12:46). The key to the mysteries is faith, and this is what our Jesus required as a pledge from all who sought His gifts. In His general invitation to all people He demanded faith, even though faith also entails both laws and obedience. And when they sought some specific gift from Him, He would answer, “If you can believe” and declare that “all things are possible to him who believes” (Mk 9:23). As for those who immediately obtained their request and received the answer they sought for their need, he would praise them, saying, “Take heart, child; your faith has saved you” (Mt 9:22). As for those who came to Him established in ardent faith in His godly greatness, He would reveal to them in admiration, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:10). And elsewhere it says, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic…” (Mt 9:2). And in general, the whole of sacred revelation testifies to faith as the means whereby the divine gifts are imparted and the mysteries are interpreted.
‘With the addition of divine grace and aid there are necessarily greater temptations added too, according to all the testimony of our Fathers. Here one can apply that wisest of sayings, “Take the fault upon yourself, and expect temptation unto your last breath.” “Fighting without and fear within” (2 Cor. 7:5) is the continuous state of one who is at the stage of warfare’; and, as the ever-memorable Elder told us, ‘no occasion was missed for a cross. My body, exhausted from the hardship of the long war of the flesh, became an easy target for illnesses and fatigue. Then, as I said, people with their own mentalities and demands created problems, even those who showed some intention of staying with us, and this tired us spiritually and put pressure on us to change our rule of life, and tended to hinder me in particular from stillness and prayer. On these matters, of course, I did not give way at all; but the war pressed me sorely. Faith and prayer remained my constant consolation. But by some ineffable economy, it is in the order of changes that these too are withheld. That is the low point, when one comes close to St Paul’s saying that “if it were possible we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8).
‘Once when I was in that sort of state, sunk deep in misery from this pressing weight, I shut myself in my cell and sat down on my stool, concentrating my mind so far as I could on the prayer, so as to strengthen myself. I don’t know how long this effort of mine kept up and how long I called upon the divine mercy with great humility. Suddenly I felt consolation within me and was filled with light, as always happens in that state; my heart overflowed with divine love, and I went outside myself. I was in a brilliant light and in front of me there stretched a boundless plain, like a sea, with no sign of a horizon anywhere. I seemed to be going east, only I was not treading on the ground, nor did I feel any weight or restriction. But I was dressed in my shabby old clothes, as I could see. I was moving very quickly, and I was wondering how this could happen without effort, and what was going on, and where I was going. And then I began to think, How am I going to get back, since I don’t know at all where I have come and what all this is. It seemed as if I stopped and looked around me in puzzlement, although not with fear, and I seemed to hear voices in front of me, quite a distance away. I headed in that direction and walked briskly in order to find the people who were talking and ask them what all this was, and suddenly I found myself near a sort of hollow in the ground, like the underground arcades they have in big cities. As soon as I came close enough to see the way down clearly, I saw a general coming out; he appeared to be someone of great authority. He looked at me without diffidence and spoke to me in a familiar way, as if he knew me very well: “Welcome, Father Joseph. Come on in and pay your respects, because I’ve been waiting for you”. I shrank back, embarrassed, because I was aware that I was dressed in my torn, unwashed old rason. But he came up and took me by the hand, and we went down a luxurious stairway, like spiral stairs it seemed, and below we could hear singing. When we got to the bottom – it did not seem far down – I saw a vast hall, or rather the narthex of a church, because there were beautiful stalls full of radiant youths, all similar in age and in features; it was they who were singing the hymn I had heard earlier. When I saw all this I stopped, unable to do anything. I just wondered at this magnificence, and the beautiful melody of the singing. As soon as we got down to the floor, my guide left me and went in towards the east, where it seemed the body of the church was. The youths invited me to come into one of their stalls, and treated me with such familiarity that I would have thought they had known me for years and were bosom friends. From inside, in the church, one could hear a different hymn, and it was clear that it was addressed to our Lady the Mother of God. I wanted them to let me sit somewhere there on the floor and admire all this grandeur. Then the door opened and out came the general who had brought me there, and he called to me joyfully, “Come, Father Joseph, come in. We are going to pay our respects.” In my shyness I did not move, but he took me by the hand, and we passed through the midst of those shining youths and came to the entrance. When he opened the door and drew me into unimaginable splendours, into that immense grandeur – I don’t know whether it was a church or heaven or the throne of God – I stopped in my tracks. All my perception, all my inner vision, all my being was flooded with that glory and that light which was indeed uncreated, and beyond all whiteness and unimaginable delicacy.
‘Then I saw in front of me the superb iconostasis of that majestic church; just as light has its source in the sun, so it was from there that all the glory and majesty shone forth. Then I was able to make out two large icons to the right and left of the Holy Doors, of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His all-pure Mother, who was holding on her lap as a baby our Lord who is before all ages. Once I managed to have a better look – because that vision captivated me totally – they no longer seemed to me like icons but like the Persons themselves, really living, and the all-holy Babe shone so brightly that everything fell silent, because illustrious officers had been singing all around. Then my guide motioned me to go up and venerate the icons, and he turned me towards our Lady the Mother of God, the Consolation of all Christians. I don’t know whether I moved or how much, and, while I was turned towards Her and was trying to admire Her glory and majesty, my guide, who appeared to enjoy great familiarity and intimacy, said to our Lady in a tone of entreaty and a very clear voice which I remember even now, “Mistress of the world, show Your glory to Your servant so that he is not swallowed up by grief!”
‘Then – what can I say, worthless as I am and most unworthy of men? Her most holy Visage shone like the sun, and then – according to the capacity of my mortal nature – I clearly saw the Lady and Queen of all holding in her arms the Saviour of the world, our Lord Jesus, full of grace and majesty; not like an icon, but living and full-length. As soon as I had seen that godly glory of our Lady up to a certain point, I could no longer stand up and fell to the floor; I began to weep, whispering, “My Lady, my Lady, do not abandon me.” Then I heard Her blessed and most sweet voice, surpassing every consolation, saying to my guide, “Take him now to his own place to continue his struggle, and let him place his hope in me.” Then I felt someone prod me on the shoulder, and when I tried to get up I found myself in my own cell where I had sat down in the beginning and been praying, and my face was wet with tears. From then on, I felt such love and reverence for our Lady that her name alone would fill me with spiritual joy. The words “Let him place his hope in me” were my constant consolation from that time on.’