On Great and Holy Saturday, I was—by the grace of God—baptized into the Orthodox Church.
At baptism, one is given a cross that he will typically wear (or at least keep somewhere close and safe) for the rest of his life. The cross that my godparents and I selected had Russian writing on the back. My godparents were curious as to what it said, and asked their son to translate. Apparently, it reads:
There is no fire that sanctifies like the fire of hell.
Orthodox spirituality—perhaps especially of a distinctively ‘Russian’ flavor—can be quite intense. Though the words on my cross did not scandalize me, the enigmatic phrase lingered in my mind over the next few days, as Pascha finally arrived.
Providentially, I began reading We Shall See Him As He Is—the spiritual autobiography of Elder Sophrony Sakharov of Essex, disciple of St. Silhouan the Athonite—during Bright Week. St. Silhouan was famously visited by Christ Himself, who told him to “keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” While I had read St. Silhouan’s life—written by Elder Sophrony—about a year ago, I had not recalled this event when my godmother told me what was written on my cross. Recalling this brought the words on that cross into a new light.
As I delved into the text, I was startled by the extent to which Elder Sophrony expanded upon and elucidated the meaning—and experience of living out—this exact commandment in his own life, chiefly through bitterly penitential prayer. As we grow in knowledge of God and His commandments, we also grow in the awareness of our own wretchedness, which should lead us to true repentance. The experience of this growth is simultaneously joyous and painful:
By the grace of repentance the soul is lifted up to God, enraptured by the manifestation of Light . . . The soul is torn in two—torn between the horror of seeing oneself as one is and the surge of hitherto unknown strength through beholding the Living God. In a curious fashion despair over myself prevailed to such an extent that even when He was with me and in me I could not stop weeping for my sin, which appeared to me in its metaphysical essence to surpass all patent transgression.
Having experienced the Uncreated Light, Elder Sophrony attests that it illuminates all, and to such an extent that the true depth of his sin was revealed before God and before himself. This brought what he describes a ‘holy self-hatred,’ while recalling the Lord’s commandment that “unless a man hate . . . his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
This experience of suffering in the light of the knowledge of one’s own sin is not a movement through pain to some painless joy beyond. Rather, the rapture and the revelation is the exposure and despair. The two are inextricably linked:
Almost concurrently—descent into hell and infinite glory! And this is the way for Christians: they condemn themselves to torment and, in return, receive the gift of the Father’s mercy, which there are no words to describe. Such is the abundance of life brought to us by Christ [cf. John 10:10]. Christ-life embraces both hell and the Kingdom. It incorporates in itself the extremes of suffering with the heights of bliss. It makes the little man great, universal, god-like in all things . . . Unhappily, ‘few there be that find it’ [Matt. 7:14].
When we walk the path of the Cross, we experience resurrection in the very suffering of following the Savior’s agonizing path. Resurrection isn’t entirely separate and later, rather it is the very taking up of the cross and dying to ourselves that constitutes our resurrection life.
In much the same way, becoming aware of our own nothingness before God and descending into the ‘hell’ of suffering constitutes a mystical following of Christ’s own kenosis—humbling Himself so far as to take on flesh in the womb of the Virgin, to die a dishonorable death on the cross, and even to descend into Hades. It is only by way of this movement of descent that the movement of ascent occurs.
It is natural for us to be drawn to the Supreme Good but our progression must begin with a descent into the abyss of hell. St. Paul, having repented of his past, says of Christ: ‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above the heavens, that he might fill all things’ [Eph. 4:9-10]. And this is precisely our route after the Fall.
What is the Christian life, if not union with Christ and entrance into the life of the Holy Trinity? Participation in Christ’s life-giving death and resurrection, by the grace of the sacraments in the Church and the ascesis of bearing our cross and following Christ’s commandments is the path of salvation.
And there is only one other path:
We must choose one of two paths: either, in our pursuit of psycho-physical delights and comfort, shun God and so die spiritually; or, in our striving for a supra-natural form of being, let ourselves die to this world. In this ‘dying’ lies our cross, our crucifixion. Many perish in their efforts to attain their ideal, though it only be a temporary triumph. But the Christian, in the freedom found in God for his immortal spirit, is ready to suffer in order to realize supreme truth. In this lies the virtue of the Christian, the like of which is not met with in the natural world.
As a neophyte—and as one who has yet begun to repent—I feel unworthy to even gaze upon these deep mysteries of the faith, which have been illuminated through an experience of true repentance in the Light of Christ.
But just as Elder Sophrony counted himself lowly and unworthy of the lofty spiritual inheritance that his blessed elder (St. Silhouan) bestowed upon him, we who are of no account must humbly look to those who have trodden the path before us and seek their prayers.
In so doing, we too may be accounted worthy to see ourselves as we are—with all the suffering this entails—and in turn be vouchsafed to ‘see Him as He is’ (1 John 3:2).