1. The Path of The Cross
It is on tenuous footing and with steps of trepidation that I enter St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church near where I live each Sunday. On arriving early, and after lighting a prayer candle and offering veneration before the icons in the narthex, I enter the nave of the Church, and the feeling is always sublime, with a subdued yet powerfully warm, resonant, and inviting peace. As I view the icons of the Saints lining the walls of the Church and the iconostasis at the front of the Church, I am immediately struck with how poetically simple yet beautifully reverent the scene is, as if one is stepping back in time.
Had someone told me a year ago that I would even be here attending service, I would have likely given a questioning and perhaps disparaging look in reply. And the fact that, months later, I continue to return each week, and am going through the most arduous and soul-wrenching process of spiritual self-transformation I have ever encountered in my entire life, and that, as I am only at the very early and beginning stages of this difficult process – meaning it will most likely become even more formidable as time goes on – bears an incredible testament to the strength and authenticity of the Truth one is able to find here.
Entering into Orthodoxy feels like finding at long last what I had been searching for my entire life. As a lifelong avid reader and recently very world-weary pilgrim, it was a long and circuitous journey, and as difficult as all those years of searching and not-knowing had been, I now know without a shadow of a doubt the searching phase is ended and complete, and that now the real work begins. In my habitual independent and non-conformist leanings of the past, I had never really subscribed to any group organization, and tended to bolt if I felt encroached upon or manipulated in any way. I was more or less just getting through life in a state of survival-mode for years, and now found myself reading about Saints and monastics who were the most hard-core righteously spiritual people I had ever come across in all of my studies. Their lives suddenly gave a new and deeply profound meaning to the words ‘spiritual warrior’. My soul was literally cracked open and laid bare, and my heart was in anguish; and I absolutely could find no reason to leave, and every single reason to stay.
Not for the feint of heart, Orthodoxy will turn you inside out like nothing else can. It is a spiritual process of purification and holy sacramental healing. The Church is both Spiritual Hospital and Holy Sanctuary. Putting into practice the art and salvation of the soul as taught by the Saints and Holy Fathers is guaranteed to bring you to your knees time and again in repentance and tears. It can be a brutal and arduous process, as well as amazing, and even at times, exalted. In learning to walk the Path of the Cross, one begins to notice the countless times they have transgressed in their lifetime, and often in very tremendous ways, and so, begins to adjust accordingly. Human nature being what it is – an inherently fallen state – extraordinary patience and perseverance are required. The trail is steep, narrow, and rocky, and therein is also a bit of paradox regarding the internal work of the spiritual climb: in analyzing oneself over smaller and smaller details as one progresses, the stones that cause one to stumble may seem to be smaller in size, but those pebbles of transgression carry the weight of boulders.
It is said that Orthodoxy requires a “circumcision of the heart.” In a recent discussion of this analogy during an informal Theology 101 assembly, I was immediately reminded of the work of recognizing and acknowledging all those layers of hardness, and subsequent detachment, that the world had imposed upon my heart – including all those I had imposed upon myself by my own actions – and the process of psychologically cutting away that which no longer serves for the sanctification of the soul and living a life of prayer. More than anything else, I consistently found the biggest obstacle I repeatedly faced was myself. It was imperative that I get out of my own way and learn from those who came before and had reached a state of sanctification in their own lives. Obedience to this is absolutely crucial to my progress, and quite frankly lends itself to absolute freedom in a way I would have never imagined. To walk the Path of the Cross is to follow those who came before. One does not need to worry if one is doing “the right thing” or not: the Path of the Cross is infallible.
The world teaches us to be focused on externals largely based in fear. It is also teaching us to be very self-centered and narrow-minded in our arrogance and pride. Narcissism runs rampant, and humility is easily lost where pride runs free. The cost of putting all our faith and energy into the world of modern materialism engenders soul loss to such a degree that people don’t even realize they’re dying of thirst for lack of Truth while drowning in an ocean of perpetual materialistic deception and false prosperity. The world of possessions will fall away when we reach the end of our life, as will our body, but our soul shall surely retain the measure of delusion and pride with which it was fed in our lifetime, and its salvation is completely dependent upon our recognition of the “one needful thing” in this current lifetime.
In taking up the cross and following Christ and all those who followed Him, my life is undergoing profound transformation. At the onset, it was like being in a very long, dark, underground earthen tunnel where one is confronted with all the tangled roots of past offences that are still reaching out from all sides like the serpents of Medusa to ensnare the soul. I no longer have need to question where I am going or what I am going to do with my life, for that is unnecessary, but what I do have need of is the spiritual healing Orthodoxy offers. What I now entirely focus upon is authentic spiritual development in the Apostolic Christian tradition, which is, above all else, a path of heart and soul. Thus, I find myself confronted with my own darkness: my own co-opted and corrupted nature and the multitude of ways I have partaken and transgressed, voluntarily and involuntarily for my entire life, in both very small and very large ways, in that which constitutes a very dark and insidious agenda at work in the world today. Wrapped up in this realization was the essence of what the fear of God was about as I had never fully comprehended until now: of standing before God in prayer and tearful repentance of one’s own fallen nature in order that the heart and soul might be cleansed and purified so as not to be found offensive and unworthy before God.
While I am able to easily comprehend the reverence and holiness of the Sacraments and Divine Liturgies, I am still learning to appreciate the full magnitude of their value. It feels akin to a blockage, not unlike a locked gate, that has surrounded my heart. The years of growing up and living in a world that left its mark of denigration upon me since childhood now feels like innumerable layers of hardness encompassing my heart. I had become a very judgmental person and for most of my life operated in such a manner, and as the world left its mark upon me, I in turn, did so to others, unaware, ignorant, and full of pride. In seeing the roots of my own self-centered and arrogant behavior and attitudes and digging them out, I had to step in front of the proverbial mirror time and again in focused self-analysis before I was even able to begin to see the roots that needed pulling, so blind was I to my own shortcomings and erroneous perceptions. But it was what I couldn’t see that actually became the impetus for the beginning of the true opening of my heart. For many years, my life was frequently touched by that which was to show me without any shadow of a doubt that the unseen world is far less of an illusion than what is seen, and the unseen realm of spiritual warfare is extremely formidable, and apparently, often especially so for those choosing to enter the Church. Following a recent experience of such, during which I was definitely feeling the effects, I was literally able to feel layers of hardness receding and dissolving under the watchful advice and prayers of those who were now guiding me into Orthodoxy. It was a revelatory moment for me, and perhaps indicative of things to come, and when I now attend services, and in attending to prayer work as well, I feel a deep and palpable resonance from within my heart, as if everything is sourced and expanding out from there. But I am also under no illusion with this, as there are still many layers yet to uncover and much soul-refining work to be done. It is my hope that with eventual participation in the Holy Sacraments, there will be an even greater release and dissolution of blockage.
What is Orthodoxy teaching me? To live from the heart. To love. To forgive. To heal relationships. To look at every instance of prideful thinking that arises within me throughout each day and choose otherwise. To recognize and weed out all the impurities that have been imposed upon me from myself, others, and from the world. To recognize that all are struggling. To be humble. To understand and recognize how little I know, and to let go of ego and pride. To learn that obedience brings with it an amazing sense of freedom and release from the chains of self-deception so that I am able to fully receive Holy guidance. To be patient and persevere. To fall, and not be afraid. To get back up and keep going. To understand the adversary and recognize evil in all its multifaceted and nuanced forms. To learn that the fear of God might be less about fear and more about humility and love. That the importance of prayer work cannot be overstated, and is the heart and soul of every true spiritual life and is intimately connected to the Path of the Cross, and that prayer is an incredibly powerful tool in helping others and receiving intercessory assistance and guidance on ones journey. To learn to let go of trying to control and direct my life and know that I am already very well-directed by the Holy Spirit and that every lesson and teaching – whether difficult or exalted – is for my benefit and allows me to grow even deeper in Truth. To pray, and to pray often – not only for my own soul, but far more importantly, for the sake of others, so that they might find peace and healing and love. Orthodoxy, above all, is a labyrinthine path of the heart, into the truest center of that which is Love. And I have barely even begun.
As a kid I had always found respite and solace in libraries and books. As an adult, I am still always reading for the same reasons and more. About a year ago I came across and read the book ‘St. Paisios of Mount Athos’ by Hieromonk Isaac, and my life was simply completely altered and forever changed. To this day, I credit the Saint for bringing me to Orthodoxy; he remains very near and dear to my heart, and I’ve been poring over Orthodox books ever since. One quickly learns in studying the lives of Saints that their influence and intercessory powers carry far beyond their earthly repose, and that truly, they are always quite near and available to those thus seeking guidance and assistance, lending even greater reality to life beyond this earthly existence.
As I further consecrate my life to the Lord and to the Path of the Cross, both literally and figuratively, I am naturally and intrinsically drawn to monasticism, and, in a certain sense, my life is becoming a monastic endeavor: as I live, eat, breathe, and work in this world I am surrounded on all sides by that which is of a fallen and corrupted nature. This world truly is a desert. It is a wilderness of deception, of trials and errors, and in a certain sense, I have been very much alone and living in solitude for what feels like most of my life. Orthodoxy has given me the keys to successfully navigate the terrain, and living a life of prayer is intrinsically linked to this. It has been a long and winding road to get to where I am today. and looking back, I see that there most definitely has been and still is a formidable opponent dogging me the entire time and doing everything possible to keep me from arriving here to stand praying before the altar of Christ. Conversely, there has also always been very powerful and notable guiding spirits as well, subtly leading me and giving many moments of confirmation along the way.
If anything, the Path of the Cross is, above all, an arduous journey to the center of your soul. It is a cyclical path of self-annihilation and renewal, sacrifice tempered with tears, humility born of love. By the light of holy fire souls will be cleansed, and hearts made new. It will leave the hardest and most brazen of hearts dazed and shattered, the most despondent and downtrodden souls uplifted and exalted. But the real work takes place in the trenches and deep internal reaches of the heart. It is brutal and uncompromising psychological work, and there are no short cuts, not even a single one. Patience and perseverance are absolutely required at all times, as is vigilance, and an unwavering faith that God alone is the architect and healer of our souls. While we are conditioned to believe a life well-lived in this world is one of true freedom, what is often deeply misunderstood is the degree at which deception is insidiously woven into and actively working on so many levels to enslave and chain us to that which is ultimately nothing more than a completely false narrative of purely Luciferian origin.
One thing I will sometimes hear people say is that they don’t like all the “rules” they feel are imposed upon them by religion. With Orthodoxy, I find that the Truth so moves the heart and soul as to enable one to recognize the multitude of ways they have transgressed the truest teachings of Christ, and one is compelled to become more disciplined with their every thought, word, and action, not because they are told to do so, but because it weighs so heavy on the heart and soul when they don’t. It is simply a very powerful and insightful process of spiritual struggle, of finding humility and grace, and in so doing, finding it in others as well. Orthodoxy is teaching me to heal all those idiosyncratic behaviors that were damaging my relationships with others. In short, I am learning to dive so deep into the well of this love, that, in the process, every shadow of its antithesis is being dissolved, as well as every illusion of what I thought love was from a worldly and thus relatively superficial perspective.
Orthodoxy is, for me, becoming a path of profound humility, with a deep and abiding faith that is infinitely stronger than anything this world can dish up in attempt to throw me off course. In some ways it feels like I was Orthodox long before I even found the faith: for many years I carried a sense of devoutness and prayer within my heart and soul that I never lost nor let go of. Did I fall short of the Christian ideal during those years? Absolutely, countless times and then some, and it weighs like a sorrowful dirge upon my soul. In those days I had already begun to walk on the Path but did not exactly see it for what it was. Now that I am walking with clearer perception, I am able to see the myriad of ways I can give my life “so that the people might see”, and every moment of every day counts as a win or loss and a chance to make a difference, no matter where I am at or who I am with. Wherever we are is a direct gift from God to pour forth from within and onto the world the spirit of love and gratitude. We are all exactly where God most needs us to be in every moment of our lives, and it is up to us to recognize and answer the call, and to step up and take care of this business of the soul.
Lest I am mistaken, by the words written here I do not mean to even begin to suggest that I am learned in any of this, and beg forgiveness if such is the case. I am merely a beginner, who happens to write. I have many, many obstacles and layers of pride and hypocrisy within myself to uproot, uncover and depose; in effect, it is a process of “unlearning” all that I have ever been taught by living in a world steeped in deceptive illusion. I am still as of yet quite new to this, and, not unlike a child, immature in my knowledge and practice of Orthodox Church traditions and liturgical cycles. I will always be but a novice upon the Path of the Cross, and as discernment and knowledge grow, so too, shall wisdom and faith, but intuition tells me that I will walk this path a lifetime and still feel as though I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what there is to know.
And so it is. May it be unto me according to Thy will, O Lord.
And for the kid who once hid out in libraries, and who now lays broken upon Your shore, I am a bit of a mess, Lord, but I am Yours:
When the world rebuked me, O Lord, you took me in. And when I most needed humility, You sent me that which brought me to my knees, that I might remember You. When my soul needed cleansing, O Lord, you washed me with tears of repentance that flowed upon my face. When I needed sanctuary, O Lord, you gave me Your Church. And when I needed healing, O Lord, you sent me the grace and beatific love of Your Godly people. May their days be filled with peace and prayer, and all that is holy and sacred. Amen.
Though I have written them down, these are not my words, nor do they belong to me. They belong to the people. I am simply writing what is in my heart, and my heart belongs to God. I am but a very, very small part of this equation. In its entirety, this is written simply and humbly in prayer for those who struggle in their own search for Truth. May the divine solace of God’s grace be with you always.
With deepest respect and gratitude for the following works:
‘Saint Paisios of Mount Athos’ – by Hieromonk Isaac
‘The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian’ – Translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery
‘Father Serphim Rose, His Life and Works’ – by Hieromonk Damascene
‘Everyday Saints and Other Stories’ – by Archimandrite Tikhon
‘Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica’ – compiled by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood
‘Saint Arsemios the Cappadocian’ – by Elder Paisios of Mount Athos
‘The Philokalia’ – compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth
‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’ – St. John Climacus
‘The Arena: Guidlines for Spiritual and Monastic Life’ – by Ignatius Brianchaninov
‘Orthodoxy and the Kingdom of Satan’ – by Father Spyridon Bailey
‘With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man’ – Saint Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels, Vol. I
‘The Art of Salvation’ – by Elder Ephraim