“Prepare yourselves to confess the Faith, prepare yourselves for martyrdom! God’s thunder is all around us!” New Hieromartyr Nikon of Vologda.1
Cultivating the heart in Christ Jesus is vital to true Christianity and steadfast confession. Our Lord Himself warns us to guard our hearts so that they do not grow cold with the times (cf. Matt. 24:11). God’s thunder sounds forth to call the hearts of men back to Him, most of all to arouse slumbering Christians. Has our Lord not said, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of sorrow” (Matt. 24:6-8). Sorrows multiply because of sin. Sorrows multiply because hearts, the hearts of Christians, grow cold.
The psalmist cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 50: 12). Divine grace is never wanting for power and might. Yet, we may close off the chambers of our hearts to this Divine grace. When this is the case, then we must renew our hearts in the power of the Gospel. Our hearts having slumbered in death must be revived and rejuvenated in the waters of Life. Christ Jesus, Himself is the Resurrection and Life of our being. When we find ourselves withering then we must seek resurrection.
What does this look like? St. John of Kronstadt points clearly to the path of renewal upon which we are called to walk as Orthodox Christians. First, he clearly defines what is the spirit, nature, ethos, of a true Orthodox Christian, “a man who thinks, reasons, believes, hopes, speaks, and acts correctly, frankly, and firmly … and correctly believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and never again wavered in his faith and hope, did not change his mind regarding His divine Person. Is this not how a true Christian must be? Is this not how the entire divinely established society of Orthodox Christians must be? Is this not how the Orthodox Church must be?” (Season of Repentance, Jordanville, pg. 93). A true Christian person is one who is ever harmonizing himself with the revealed life of Christ in the Church. Having set our hands to the plow, we must diligently set our hearts on the things of Christ. If we permit them to look back and become cooled to the things of God, then we will be found unfit for the Kingdom of God (cf. Lk. 9:62).
St. John sets before our eyes the example of those who have plowed faithfully in the footsteps of their Master Christ, “And with what sanguinary feats, what struggles with the enemies of truth, with how many deaths of those who were zealous for the purity, sanctity, and orthodoxy of the faith and the Church, my brethren, was the orthodoxy of our faith acquired for all of us, our guide toward eternal life” (pg. 94)! The saints achieved great feats because their hearts were ever alive in Christ the Lord. Being ever led by the Holy Spirit, the saints, through participation in Him, are steadfast guides and examples for true Christian living. Thus, fervent believers may say with St. Paul, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has laid hold of me … forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).
With hearts afire with love for God, the saints marched joyfully through even the most terrible of earthly sufferings. “So were rivers of blood also shed for the preservation of the Orthodox faith by apostles, prophets, and martyrs; much suffering was endured by reverend fathers and other champions of the faith” (Season of Repentance, pp. 94-95). This truth resounded in the innermost core of their being – “We have found the true faith!” This is the true way of the heart to be enlivened, revived, resurrected and thereby enter into communion with the Living God.
But what of me? What of us? St. John challenges, “And what about us, children of the Orthodox Church? Do we follow its teachings, commandments, rules, statutes, and advice? Do we love to offer this service to God, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name (Heb. 13:15)? Are we renewed by it? Do we sanctify ourselves every day, do we correct ourselves, do we attain the perfection the saints attained? Do we perfect ourselves in our love for God and neighbor, do we cherish our faith, do we consider it the greatest mercy of God, the very first and greatest benefit of life the fact that we are fortunate to belong to the Orthodox Church, which is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” (pg. 95)? May I look within and soberly ask – do I?
And, indeed, to our shame, St. John skillfully reveals the paralysis of our hearts, (so we may arouse them to life!)“What is our answer to these questions, if we desire to answer honestly? To our shame we must confess that many, many Orthodox Christians not only do not have the Orthodox faith in their hearts and lives, but also do not have it even in their tongues, and faith has either completely disappeared from their lives or they have become completely indifferent toward any faith: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, Islam, even paganism. We hear from many people that you can please God in every faith, that is, as if every faith is pleasing to God, and as if God is indifferent to truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Look at the consequences of ignoring one’s faith, of the ignorance of the spirit and history of their Church, alienation from its life and divine services, the consequences of ignoring concepts of Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy, and other faiths” (pp. 95-96)!
How Christian indifference has damaged the world! Is not our indifference the primary cause of God’s thunder all around us? For, our Lord says to Christians, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). Salt preserves and guards. If Christianity becomes salt-less – without savor – then the world truly begins to descend into chaos, it succumbs to total corruption. Thus, in guarding Orthodoxy in my own heart, I am guarding it for the world, so that it would be salted. It is vital that each Orthodox Christian guard and cultivate the salt of Truth in his own life, it has vast consequences.
This is one of the reasons why the enemy seeks to convince Orthodox Christians to compromise the Faith and conform it to a more worldly model. As St. John elaborated above, indifference to Truth is as cold as death. Sadly, in our times this indifference is promoted as a “loving” way. Once again I’ll point out (I don’t grow tired of pointing it out!) a primary promoter of this indifference – Ecumenism. At its heart is a love of anti-truth. And it acts like a tranquilizer in the hearts of Orthodox. Those who allow this drug into their hearts begin to think that they must update and improve Orthodoxy, for they are infused not with eternity but “progress” that ends in the abyss. “There are the innovators both ancient and modern – for this motivation may be observed at work in our own times – the progressive ‘theologians’ who delight in novelty, who blaze supposed new paths. Such have little interest in the solidified tradition of Orthodox theology, a tradition which has gained a timeless stability within the context of struggles and clashes and by the means of the work of holy and great figures. Regarding those innovators of all ages, St. Basil the Great writes: ‘The doctrine of the Fathers are despised; apostolic traditions are set at naught; the devices of innovators are in vogue in the Churches; now men are rather contrivers of cunning systems than theologians; the wisdom of the world wins the highest prizes and has rejected the glory of the cross,’” clearly teaches the Patristic minded Protopriest Theodore Zisis (Following the Holy Fathers, Timeless Guides for Authentic Christianity, pg. 12).
And the Scripture testifies of such, “Those who boast in what is for show (or appearances) and not in the heart” (2 Cor. 5:12). The golden-mouthed preacher, John, elucidates, “They boast in what is seen, in what is for display. For of such sort were they, doing everything out of love of honor; while they were both empty inwardly and wore indeed an appearance of piety and of venerable aspect, but were desolate of good works” (Orthodox New Testament, Vol. II. Buena Vista, pg. 226).
When a man stifles the inner renewal of his heart by rejecting the living grace of the Spirit in the Life of the Church (remember one may still be physically in the Church), then he seeks other spirits to substitute for his lack of the Holy Spirit.
Thus St. John of Kronstadt instructs us, “A Christian as a member of the Church, must know his faith and try to live according to it, be saved by his faith, because the enemies of our salvation do not sleep, and seek our destruction at every hour; a Christian must not abandon his faith, as being simply a specialty belonging to a mere few, or like an unnecessary toy, appropriate only for childhood, or as something worthy only of the uneducated masses” (Season of Repentance, pg. 96).
If we desire the world around us to find life, then as Christians we must first and foremost be zealously (may the Lord grant us a zealous spirit!) cultivating our hearts in the holy things of the Lord. As all the saints teach, only in the Body of Christ, His Church, may a person truly be purified. Remember we must be willingly and actively applying this grace in our lives! “Yes, my brethren, only the Orthodox Faith purifies and sanctifies human nature stained by sin; it renews the corrupted, especially through the mysteries of baptism, repentance, and communion. It illumines those who are darkened, heals those who are wounded by sins, warms those who are cold, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit makes fragrant those who reek of the passions … Would you like to be convinced of this? Read the lives of the saints, the history of the Church, and you will see firsthand all of these miracles in the lives of the saints” (Ibid. pp. 97-98; 98-99).
When our hearts grow cold through unbelief then we must reinvigorate them in the energizing life of grace. This power of grace is always potent and mighty, yet our hearts may become poor conductors. “How authentic true Christians were … Why does it not also effect such a saving change within us? Because of our lack of faith, or unbelief, because of our frivolity, corruption, and impenitence in our hearts; because of the passions that grow strong within us and have complete control over us, because our falling away from the Church, and because many of us do not in the least instill within ourselves the spirit of the Church, and many others insincerely, weakly, and only slightly more formally belong to it. Because of this, all the modern social vices arose in us: murder, suicide, regicide, arson, theft of public property, exorbitant luxury, debauchery, extravagance, and the pursuit of all sorts of sensual pleasures” (Ibid. pg. 99). When Christians grow cold and lose the salt of the Gospel in their lives, great sorrows come upon the earth. Our Lord Himself warns us, “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come upon you expectantly” (Lk. 21:34).
And so we need a revival, not a revival of the Faith as if it were lacking, for the power of Truth in Christ is never lacking. Rather we need that our hearts be revived in love for Christ Jesus and His way, the way of Holy Orthodoxy. Truth stands in no need but our hearts stand in need of Truth. Who knows what will happen if each of us diligently seeks this revival in his heart? Who knows what flood gates of mercy such repentance may open on our world in desperate need? Let us reject every false illusion and compromise, let us embrace fervently the grace-filled way of our Lord. Let us hear with somber hearts the thunder of God all around us, calling us back to Him and His ways. Let us, empowered by grace, renew a right spirit within. Our weak legs will grow stronger as we strive to walk faithfully on the path of Life. “For us to be true Orthodox Christians, we must, first of all, have a living, constant communion with the Orthodox Church; that is we must partake in its prayers, teachings, and mysteries; we must diligently study our faith and be instilled with and live in its spirit; we must be guided by its rules, commandments, statutes, and more important we must restore within ourselves the image of true and deep repentance of a true Orthodox Christian according to the image of the saint, old and new, or better, according to the image of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Season of Repentance, pp. 99-100).
1Moss, Vladimir. The Russian Golgotha. Monastery Press, 2006. pg 199.