Glory to God for All Things

The Narrow Road

There is a small collection of Christ’s sayings that center on the topic of the “narrow road.” The heart of the topic is that the way into the kingdom of God is difficult and very few will find it. The sayings are troubling.

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14)

So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen (Matthew 2o:16).

Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to will, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).

“And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”  When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:24-26).

The sayings are troubling because we think about the Kingdom of God in a passive manner. Heaven has become forensic – a legal reward for a life that meets the religious/moral requirements. These verses seem to indicate that the standard requirement might be quite strict and that very few will qualify.

In such a forensic model – the problem lies within the standard. God is looking for a “few, good men.” Deeper than the standard – the problem lies within God. In this model, we have been created by a very strict God, exacting in His demands, unwilling to yield to the weaknesses of human nature. Not just the universe, but the God behind the universe is stacked against us. Who then can be saved?

The difficulties presented by these sayings reveal difficulties with the Kingdom of God when it is misunderstood in a forensic or legal manner. If the Kingdom of God is just one more thing that we get into – in which simply being-there-as-a-reward is the point – the gospel becomes rather pathetic and the God behind it, alarming.

The way into the Kingdom is difficult, the path narrow, because the way itself is actually difficult and the path is actually narrow. These things are not true because God wants it to be hard for us to enter the Kingdom – they are hard on account of the nature of the spiritual disease that afflicts us.

No one is surprised to be told that the path to the remission of their cancer will be difficult (generally we are simply glad to hear that there is any path at all!). Nor do we blame the doctor for the difficulty of our treatment.

The spiritual disease (sin) that afflicts us stikes at the very fiber of our humanity, the very mode of our being. St. Paul describes sin as corruption (φθορὰ), a word that essentially means “rot.” It is what happens when the process of death works in us unchecked. Death corrupts us, body, soul and spirit.

The teaching of the New Testament is not about how to be admitted to paradise – it is about how to become the kind of human who can actually live in paradise. Paradise is not a moral achievement – it is an ontological change.

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption. (1Co 15:50)

The life of change and healing (being transformed from glory to glory into the image of Christ) is the narrow way. The borders of the road are marked with radical honesty and a willingness to endure and engage whatever is required for the transformation. We move from the fragmentation of our individual life towards the integration and wholeness of life in Christ, characterized by the fullness of self-emptying love. This is the life of grace – but grace can be painful and will take us down the difficult path. St. Paul was knocked off a horse and blinded by grace. Works would be easier!

Christ is quite clear about the narrow path – there are very few who find it. The conversion of Christianity from the narrow path to world-wide religion is the elevation of the wide-road of destruction to the place of a false salvation. The Christianity of ideas and arguments, entertainment as worship, morality as asceticism, is the path found by the many. It is an adaptation and misuse of certain ideas associated with Christ. It was not created by saints nor built on the blood of martyrs. It will run continue until its cultural usefulness has run its course. It will serve as an inoculation for many – making them immune to the grace of the narrow way. They will want nothing to do with Christianity.

If this is true, will only a few be saved?

In this lifetime, only a few will be saved. Only a few will live a life of self-emptying love. Only a few will endure the humiliation of honesty. Only a few will face the despair of hell and give thanks. Only a few will forgive everyone for everything.

Christ said that with men this is impossible. The very few who walk this path are living proof of the existence of God – for with God this path is possible. In Orthodoxy, we call these few, “saints.” They are signposts and an assurance that our own struggles are never wasted. The narrow path is not a delusion – it is an awakening.

If only a few are saved in this lifetime – will many be saved beyond? The gospel contains a paradox on this very matter. As clearly as Christ teaches that the way is narrow and that very few find it, He also clearly teaches a universal proclamation of the good will of God.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16-17).

In the words of St. Peter: “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life” (2 Peter 3:9).

The paradox rests between the few and the all. The temptation for many has been to reinvent Christianity as a religious shortcut for the all. In the shortcut, the narrow way is lost, and with it, the saints. One of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is struggle ’til a man’s dying breath.” This is the truth about true prayer (and true salvation) – but now we are told not only how easy prayer is, but even how easy it is to hear God (cf. When God Talks Back). On the narrow path most of the time is marked by silence.

Nevertheless, the paradox remains. I am confident of the good will of God and that His desire for all will be fulfilled in the mystery of His love. But to create a false paradise – a Christianity of the all in which no one is saved – is the path of destruction.

Strive to enter at the narrow door.

 

 

90 Responses to “The Narrow Road”

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  1. Mike says:

    These are the passages that always make my stomach drop. “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” is pretty woeful in all honesty. The idea that of all the people you know, people you love and care about, there’s a good chance a majority of them will be eternally miserable is very sad. The possibility that you could be among them is terrifying as well.

    I wonder if this is the reality of life. Do more people fail at achieving salvation or do more succeed? Or is there a deeper mystery, one that perhaps hasn’t been revealed to us entirely, that gives many many more the ability to achieve salvation after death? Logically, I feel the former is true. But when I comprehend the depth of God’s love for us, I struggle to believe it can be. I feel that God, in his all-magnificence, power, and love for mankind must have a deeper plan.

    Matthew 19:24-26 comes to mind. “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” Reading just this supports the idea that salvation is only for a small minority of truth-finders.

    Reading on gives a different idea. “But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”” This makes me think that Christ’s reference to the narrow way/gate is a reference to Himself. While salvation was near impossible of old, through his Resurrection Christ shattered the gates of death and opened wide the road to salvation. What was previously impossible by man was made possible by God.

  2. John says:

    Do you know of any published lists of the sayings of Jesus by topic? Have you ever tried to compile such a list? Also, a listing of all the commands of the New Testament would be nice. It is a little difficult to compile because many things that God clearly wants us to do are not actually stated as commands, the beatitudes would be an example.

  3. Karen says:

    Father, bless! You express an audacious faith here:

    “I am confident of the good will of God and that His desire for all will be fulfilled in the mystery of His love. But to create a false paradise – a Christianity of the all in which no one is saved – is the path of destruction.”

    I always have an easier time believing the second part of that paradox. The first part is what I long for with all my heart. Indeed, unless it is true, I shall surely be lost. Even though I am striving (very feebly indeed) to “enter by the narrow way,” I don’t believe I have yet entered. I am inspired to renew the struggle by stories like this:

    http://everyday-saints.com/nathaniel.htm

  4. dinoship says:

    “The teaching of the New Testament is not about how to be admitted to paradise – it is about how to become the kind of human who can actually live in paradise. Paradise is not a moral achievement – it is an ontological change.”
    This needs proclaiming amongst Christians again and again!

  5. John Shores says:

    What is the relationship between forgiveness/reconciliation and the requirement to walk this narrow path?

    Also, what are the indicators that one is on the “right” path? The path of the Tao is also difficult, but does that mean it will lead to the same destination or that it is indeed the same path?

    The Christianity of ideas and arguments, entertainment as worship, morality as asceticism, is the path found by the many.

    Ouch!

    The paradox rests between the few and the all…Strive to enter at the narrow door.

    If “all” become saved in the end, what possible incentive is there to walk the difficult path now? Shouldn’t we all eat, drink and be merry (three of every person’s favorite activities) and enjoy this life as much as possible without worry that we will later end in some perdition?

  6. Father thanks again for these lovely words. “Prayer is struggle ’til a man’s dying breath.”

  7. Michael Bauman says:

    John Shores: Eat, drink and be merry, wow what a wonderful and attractive panacea.

    You are correct, if we are all to be saved in the fullness of time, and one thinks only in a forensic moral framework–there is no incentive to walk the narrow road.

    Think again on the differece Fr. Stephen and the Orthodox perceive: moral vs ontological. It is about a change in our being to become more like God created us to be.

    If we can experience the joy and peace of being in communion with God here and now with an ever increasing depth of communion through eternity (what St. Gregory of Nyssa meant by moving from glory to glory) then why wait?

    Eating, drinking and being merry (except for my wife Merry) does great damage to the soul and disfigures it much like the Portrait of Dorian Gray.

    There is a depth of being that is much like looking into a deep bottomless well that contains cool sweet water. Is it not worth a little sweat to draw it up?

    The unanimous testimony of the Apostles and the saints and many ordinary Christians throughout history is that not only is the work necessary, it is worth it. You get out of it not just what you put into it but vastly more…like the Prodigal Son. That is the place of repentance: recovering our right mind, turning around and going back to our Father’s house. He meets us in the the Person of Jesus Christ a great way off. Asceticism is about exhausting our earthly treasures and accumulating no more so that our heart be be with God.

  8. fatherstephen says:

    John Shores,
    I don’t think the path is ever anything but difficult. But I can find (by grace) the difficult path now. What difficult path may come later I don’t know. Perhaps eating, drinking and making merry only make the path that much more difficult. In my life, that has so far proven to be true. Ultimately, we take the path “for the joy set before us.” It’s probably a lot to ask for someone to take the path for anything less than joy. Fear will only take you a very short way – not nearly far enough.

    The difficult part of the Tao is a better journey than the broad way of destruction.

    It’s also important to understand that the “requirement” is not external – no one is making us walk anything. You want to be whole? Gotta take a hike.

    Forgiveness and reconciliation are things that happen on the path. Neither are forensic in nature. We have no legal debt that needs to be paid.

  9. fatherstephen says:

    Karen,
    I love this book! My wife devoured it, and I’m reading it slowly. The book is full of everyday people who walked the narrow road. I am particularly fond of Fr. Tikhon’s recollections of Bp. Basil (Rodzhianko).

  10. fatherstephen says:

    John,
    I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that. There is a small book “The Difficult Sayings of Jesus,” but I’ve never read it. I’ve always assumed that the beatitudes imply a command, or at least point out the end game of His commandments.

  11. Erik Lionberger says:

    Father,

    I am deeply moved by your words. I have been reading them now for several months.

    I am a catechumen now. Have been for about seven months. I find it very difficult to differentiate between what you describe as a moral goal and an ontological goal. For instance, changing old habits of sin into habits of the narrow path. At times, I am driven by the joy of God to “be good” and at other times I am shamefully driven by the world to “feel good”. I want the narrow path and the narrow gate but I’m not sure of the path that leads me there in the first place.

    In Christ
    Erik

  12. Michael Bauman says:

    Erik, part of the narrow way, IMO, is the very act of discernment in what is simply a moral band-aid and an ontological healing.

    I think that for all the necessity of moral acts (in the short term), they often obscure what is really needful for our salvation.

    Worship of God is necessary as a first step, avoiding the trap of attempting the unaieded taks of making of our lives what is pleasing and good for us (the American Dream?) remembering that what is moral in our eyes is not necessarily of any worth in God’s eyes.

    There is paradox all along the way, part of its narrowness I think and something that has always been a necessary part of the quest to know both ourselves and our Creator.

    Those who cannot endure paradox and not-knowing, are not going to be happy with the Church.

  13. Karen says:

    Father, indeed! I’m working my way through the online extracts and the book is on my Christmas wish list! :-)

    You commented to John Shores:

    It’s probably a lot to ask for someone to take the path for anything less than joy. Fear will only take you a very short way – not nearly far enough.

    Right now I’m halfway through Wounded by Love (Elder Porphyrios). Here’s a section I just read this morning:

    . . . The concept of fear is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners, those in whom the ancestral fallen nature lives on. The beginner, whose sensibility has not yet been refined is held back from evil by fear. And fear is essential since we are men of flesh and blood and earth-bound. But that is a stage, a low level of relationship to the divine. We think in terms of a business deal on order to win Paradise or escape hell. But if we examine the matter more closely we see that it is governed by self-interest. That’s not something that appeals to me. When someone progresses and enters into the love of God, what need does he have of fear? Whatever he does, he does out of love, and that is of infinitely greater value. For someone to become good out of fear of God and not out of love is not of such value.

    As we progress, the Gospel leads us to understand that Christ is joy and truth, that Christ is Paradise. Saint John the Evangelist says, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. The person who fears is not perfected in love. As we exert ourselves out of fear, we gradually enter into the love of God. The the torment of hell, fear and death all disappear. We are interested only in the love of God. We do everything for this love, as the bridegroom does for the bride.

    If we wish to follow Him, then this life, too, with Christ, is joy, even amid difficulties. As Saint Paul says, I rejoice in my sufferings. This is our religion, and this is the direction we must move in. It is not the outward formalities that count; it is living in Christ that matters. When you achieve this, what else do you want? You have gained everything. You live in Christ and Christ lives in you. Thereafter, everything is easy: obedience, humility and peace.

  14. Columba says:

    Father Stephen –

    The single best short piece on the Orthodox life I have read in 20 years.

    Columba

  15. fatherstephen says:

    Erik,
    The most essential difference is a behavior that is rules-based (moral), versus a life that strives to remain in communion with God. People easily begin to substitute the rules for God (even atheists are moral, most often). The relationship of love in which we seek to give ourselves to God is where we find the slow transformation of our being (ontological). For instance, it is good when we pray, to pray in order to unite ourselves with God, which is different than praying in order to “do my prayers.” May God bless your catechumenate!

  16. PJ says:

    John,

    This is somewhat random, but I stumbled upon a documentary about a Coptic monk on YouTube. He reminds me of you: A lapsed Methodist turned agnostic materialist turned, eventually, Copt. His story has many similarities with your own, especially his troubles with God. “I marveled at the creation but I did not see the need for a Creator.”

    Episode 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLXSZ0Ziq-Q

    Might be worth a gander, if you get the chance.

  17. Erik Lionberger says:

    Thank you Father,

    I find myself “praying” even when I think I’m not. And when I go to “do my prayers” I feel as if I’m not. Sometimes, I stop in the middle of the prescribed words and think, “God, do you really need me to say these exact words everyday.” Then, I feel as if he says, “No, come to me like a child would and tell me your story . . . ”

    -Erik

  18. Margaret says:

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen, and thank you for your thoughtful responses in the comments here following the post. God bless and keep you! Glory to God for All Things!!!

  19. Christopher says:

    Father Stephen,

    You say:

    “The Christianity of ideas and arguments, entertainment as worship, morality as asceticism, is the path found by the many.”

    What is the difference between morality and asceticism? Are they not both rules based? Isn’t asceticism just a stricter, self imposed, set of rules?

    Thanks,
    Chris

  20. George Engelhard says:

    God is not looking for a few good men. God is looking for a place to dwell, a home in our hearts.

  21. Andrew says:

    Well said, although I suspect the Lord meant this for those unable to perceive the Kingdom within..

  22. fatherstephen says:

    Christopher,
    It’s a very good question:

    What is the difference between morality and asceticism? Are they not both rules based? Isn’t asceticism just a stricter, self imposed, set of rules?

    The form of asceticism that you describe is frequently what many people engage in, and it is ultimately useless. It’s similar to what St. Paul describes as “will worship.” Learning to engage in ascetical practices in an inward manner, not as obedience to rules is difficult. Often we’ll bounce back and forth.

    I’ve been married 37 years – so examples from marriage often come to mind. I do many things for my wife (and she does more for me). I cook breakfast each morning. I could cook breakfast as obedience to a “rule.” The result would soon be resentment (“why do I always have to be the one who cooks breakfast”? etc.). There is no benefit in such a thing. Instead, I try to make it a gift every morning, an act of love and of thanksgiving – even an act of repentance). That has the great benefit of changing me, making me a better man, changing my heart, deepening my love for my wife, etc.

    Outwardly it’s the same thing, I cook breakfast. Inwardly, they are worlds apart. Asceticism is rightly done as an act of love and thanksgiving and right repentance. The result is transforming. When I do spiritual direction, a strong focus of my thought is on the inner life, not the outer. Many people begin fasting by concentrating on the rules and come to resent it and simply become grumpy, guilty Orthodox. I frequently make them reduce the rules to a place they can manage with thanksgiving. Learning to fast in the right manner is the key – not the rules. This is true of the whole of the Christian life. It is why we are saved by Economia, not Akreveia (a pastoral application of the canons rather than strict).

  23. Silouan says:

    Too many minds and not your own makes the path difficult. Be still where you and there is no more path.

  24. I think, first of all, of St. Anthony’s dictum, whatever you do or say have before you an example from Scripture. A Scripture comes to mind “my sheep know my voice, and the voice of another they will not follow”, or words to that effect. I have a 70ish second cousin; grew up in South East Tennessee- Shelbyville, Petersburg, and so forth, are our ancestral stomping grounds- Presbyterian and Church of Christ country. Through his spiritual seekings and wanderings he is now in Ann Arbor, in a Vineyard Church. We recently became acquainted, and when I share my Orthodox soteriology with him, he says, that is exactly what I believe, my soteriology is Eastern Orthodox. I send him a tract I’ve written to hand out with the Practice of the Presence of God so that an Orthodox Method is used to spin the book, and he has a friend, also in the Vineyard Church, who is of an ethnicity that is historically Orthodox, and the friend likes my tract, and takes it to heart. Another lady in the Vineyard Church, has in some way learned the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and by the grace of God, it is not a permanent fixture in her heart, as she pursues unceasing prayer.
    Another Scripture comes to mind “despise not prophesyings”. There are prophesyings going on out there in the Christians estranged from the Normative Tradition, but some are hearing the voice of God, and I do not wish to despise these prophesying going on, simply because they are taking place in a place that is not in our Jerusalem, but is out there is some wild and wooly Diaspora, and frontier of the work of the Spirit.
    A final Scripture comes to mind-thank you Fr. Anthony- ‘those who are not against us are for us.’ That is the Scripture my Orthodox pastor back in the hinterlands of Arkansas used to bring forth to speak of goings-on outside the Tradition; he was a man who had a signs and wonders ministry out in Mormon country, prior to Orthodoxy, that included speaking in Portuguese tongues in the presence of a Mormon lady, who left Mormonism as a direct and proximate result of that tongues speaking, and is now an Orthodox Christian.
    We are constrained by the Tradition for sure, but God is not, who is ‘no respecter of persons’- oops, another Scripture came to mind- and inasmuch as we are in singular times, what with the eschatological marker of the return of Israel to the land being played before our very eyes, there are going to be things sealed, as was spoken to the prophet Daniel, until the end, that are going to pop out, that are the works of God, Elijah and Enoch, making themselves known, as it were, and I do not wish to discount their actings because it isn’t in the Tradition.
    However, I must be quick to add, that I am personally quite bound and in love with our Tradition, I cherish the Bounds that will keep me from the deceptions of Antichrist, if I pursue purity of heart and poverty of spirit, wherein I hear the Voice of the Lord, that beckons me, the sinner, the prodigal, the foolish one, to Life in the Three in One that I have been called to love.

  25. Marjaana says:

    But isn’t it often that only after you’ve started “doing your prayers” you actually feel like doing it? That the feeling that you are doing it out of love and communication follows the action and not necessarily vice versa. If I waited until I felt like praying out of the wish to communicate with God I’m not sure how often that would be. I think I might stop doing it when I need it the most. And that perhaps the “formal prayers” and the “Jesus” prayer keep the “lines open” for the times when there is something more acute to to communicate. Kind of like telling your children that you love them when you put them to bed even though, for whatever reason, at that particular moment you might not FEEL very loving.

  26. PJ says:

    “But isn’t it often that only after you’ve started “doing your prayers” you actually feel like doing it? That the feeling that you are doing it out of love and communication follows the action and not necessarily vice versa.”

    I know this experience.

  27. fatherstephen says:

    Marjaana,
    My experience is similar to yours.

  28. drewster2000 says:

    Going off the “Wounded by Love” excerpt from Karen, I agree that the key to understanding the contradiction between the narrow gate and “wants that all would be saved” lies in obedience.

    Obedience – in the beginning fueled either by the carrot of paradise or the stick of hell – requires one to aim for the narrow gate. As Marjaana and Fr. Stephen were saying above, it starts as duty: say the prayers, make the breakfast, do the fast.

    If this is done faithfully with a good heart – like watering a seed in the garden – for a long time there is no evidence that there’s any point to the exercise. But in time the fruit of the labor becomes evident – and it is good.

    If on the other hand the aiming for the narrow gate is abandoned in favor of eating, drinking & being merry, not only is there never any fruit, but it soon becomes obvious (to our own minds) that there never was any point to the whole business and a God who would dream up such a scheme is surely a sadist.

    As mentioned before, the plant is watered, the breakfast is cooked, the children are raised – all really more for the benefit of our inward transformation than for the object of our obedience. We may eventually understand this if we’re willing to go through the experience. If we stand aloof, we never will.

    But all of this understanding isn’t actually required for us to comply with God. As He said, we must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. All that’s required is for us to walk toward the narrow gate (surely Christ Himself) one step at a time by doing the simple things we know to do.

  29. Eugene says:

    Fr. Stephen, Bless!

    In the context of this post, what do you think of St. Theophan the Recluse’s response (and I somewhat paraphrase here) when he was asked about the fate of heterodox or non-Christian people?

    “Why do you worry about them? God loves them and no doubt is leading them to Himself by paths that He alone knows. But if you, being Orthodox, leave Orthodoxy and change to another religion, you will lose your immortal soul.”

    Eugene

  30. fatherstephen says:

    I could not improve on it. My task is to live in Christ.

  31. George Engelhard says:

    When I am distracted, not paying attention during my prayers, I say them anyway. i may not be paying attention, but God is.

  32. John Shores says:

    Fr. Stephen:

    I cook breakfast each morning….

    You are totally whipped.

    Then again, so am I. (The term husband is derived from an Old Norse word “hūsbōndi” (hūs “house” + bōndi “slave”)*. As we all know, women run the world and just let us think we are in charge, even allowing us to give ourselves titles like “head of household” all the while sniggering behind our backs.).

    Here’s the question though: if your internal motive is to provide a gift and her response over time is just to expect that this is the way things are, that is that she no longer sees it as a gift, is the giving motive still valid? If the internal motive benefits no one but ourselves, is it still a good thing?

    I think we’ve all experienced this with our kids; we want to give them good things but they don’t see those things as gifts but simply as what’s expected.

    *I am totally making this up

  33. John Shores says:

    PJ: Thanks for the link.

    I find it interesting that Fr. Lazurus’ loss of faith was because he felt disconnected from humanity. I can totally empathize with that.

    I find it troubling that he takes the position that because we don’t understand everything about the physical universe that there is “room for doubt” (he was talking of miracles). I have heard this from many religious people but to me that is silly. I don’t understand the combustion engine. I just know that I have to keep putting gas in my car and getting tuneups on occasion. That does not then leave room for the idea that there are mystical creatures that make the engine run. But that’s a side issue here.

    He says:

    The hierarchical church has been a disaster

    …and yet he became a monk. I find this odd.

    The background music is driving me nuts.

    He says:

    The church is not Christianity.

    I have held this to be true for a very long time. However, I think the Orthodox would say that “the Church” is not the institution but rather the collection of those who follow Christ. That being said, what would you say is the purpose of the institution? Fr. Lazarus says that once you are a Christian then “you can find in the liturgy and sacraments of the church an expression of spiritual truth in material things which lifts people and gives people hope.” Is that the main purpose of the institution?

    When his mom died he said:

    “It left a hole in my life.”
    “I had no origin or source.”
    “I became disoriented. I was angry over her death.”
    “death was like a blackness, a darkness around me.”

    Couple this with his earlier statements that he felt disconnected from humanity and I can understand why was so discontent.

    I find this need to be connected somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, every man is and island. There is no way around that. Yet we have a great need to form archipelagos. We think that proximity is the same thing as communion. But there can never be true communion between humans. We each see and experience the world differently. Acknowleging this is very freeing. I often feel that our most powerful angst comes from embracing unrealistic concepts (hence the mental anguish associated with Protestantism). To my mind, accepting a fact is far simpler than wishing that it was not a fact. (I wish I was a black man with the ability to dance. But I’m just a rhythm-impaired honkey. No use trying to be black.)

    The background music is really driving me up the wall.

    OK, conversion time. This is the point at which I often hear “you have to jump in before you understand.” In Fr. Lazarus’ case, he says:

    I exchanged my university for a monestary.

    So, the first step of his conversion was related to posture (bowing to the ground) which released his sad emotions because he had no mother. He then had a vision of Mary and she said, “I will be your mother.”

    OK. Great. Good for him.

    To me, this is not a beautiful story. It stirs nothing in me. I won’t even argue the legitimacy of what he saw. How does this help me or anyone except him? I’ve always struggled with things like this because it makes these “saints” out to be rock starts – they are the few people who have had something extraordinary happen to them.

    You see, I have spent many hours prostrated and crying out, sometimes simply with a loud groan. I have had no such visitation. Now, as a protestant, this drove me nuts because it convinced me that I was not of the elect and was damned regardless of what I wanted or felt or did. As an agnostic, I can look on those times as a kind of evidence. Nothing happened. Therefore…

    I used to become very angry over things like this. “Why not me?!” But what good is such anger?

    This is partly why I have taken the “god can find me if he’s interested” approach. My experience, thus far, has been that searching for god like searching for the lost palantir.

  34. drewster2000 says:

    John Shores

    As regards cooking breakfast and the other person coming to take that for granted – that pertains to their spiritual journey, not yours. Your part is to offer the gift, free and clear.

  35. fatherstephen says:

    John Shores,
    Yep. Totally whipped (I sincerely hope so). I’ve only been making breakfast for less than a year now. But, since I’m a man, I get to brag about it. I’ll probably start my own, “I make breakfast for my wife” facebook page.

    I’m trying to imagine a woman saying, “I make breakfast for my husband and children every morning” and getting more than a yawn. Women have a legitimate complaint about stuff like this. My father was an incredibly hard worker. But few guys work harder (or as hard) than the average mom. Tellin’ the truth here. My wife also reads the blog. Love you!

  36. John Shores says:

    Fr. Stephen – I work from home, which means I also clean, do the laundry etc. I have often been told that I make an excellent housewife.

    I’m heading off to Ross to buy a skirt one of these days.

    My wife home-schooled five kids for 10 years. She’s superwoman, if you ask me. You’re right about how difficult moms women have it. Tell Mother Freeman that I think she is very fortunate to have such a good husband.

  37. mary benton says:

    Father Stephen – another excellent post.

    My sense is that the notion that very few find the narrow path is, in part, because WE cannot find it. In other words, it is not an accomplishment, something we earn or achieve by effort.

    In the self-emptying, it is no longer about me “finding” the path but surrendering to the Path (the Way). Thus all is possible for God once I have given up self in love.

    As you described the narrow road, I found myself longing for it – but, of course, with still way too much self involved. (I’m not terribly inclined to notions like obedience and humility…)

    I find paradox in the effortless effort. It is not my effort that changes me – but I will not change without effort. It is sometimes an effort to pray but the true prayer (communion with God) is not the result of my effort. I am not able to surrender in love by trying to – yet only my trying to can permit it to be.

    In the end, it is all gift.

  38. fatherstephen says:

    Mary,
    “Effortless effort.” That’s a wonderful phrase. It’s a keeper.

  39. George Engelhard says:

    We must be creature in order for God to be God. that requires being humble. And humility is not something I can achieve myself because my self is not by definition humble. It is egotistical. (I am speaking of the old man, not the new creation.) Humility is a gift from God. If we are not fortunate enough to be humbled in our daily life, then we must ask God to humble us. A good prayer for that is the following from the Post Communion prayer found in the Antiochian Western rite prayer book:
    Accept O Lord, my liberty, my understanding, my memory, and my will. All that I am and have Thou hast given me; and I give it all back to the to be disposed of according to Thy good pleasure. give me only the comfort of Thy presence and the joy of Thy love; with these I shall be more than rich and shall desire nothing more.
    Ten years ago, when I prayed that prayer for the first itme in earnest, God said to me, “O K, here it comes”. And He humbled me.
    Every Sunday, I pray to our Lord though His Extreme Humility icon that He will humble me and He does. I am not always happy or comfortable with the humiliation, but when I accept it I am blest.

  40. PJ says:

    John,

    I’m glad you watched the film, even if you found much of it disagreeable. Perhaps you will continue to chew on Fr. Lazarus’ words.

  41. Karen says:

    John S., with regard to agonizing and jumping through various “hoops” to get something besides silence from “God,” I can relate, and probably most of us can. There are always times for various reasons that we seek “God” (more accurately, usually we are seeking not God Himself, but something from “God” even if it is just a feeling or some word of wisdom). I put “God” in quotes here, because I am convinced when we approach what we deem “God” in this way (i.e., in a kind of desperation lacking real faith), what we are understanding as God is not really Him. I’m convinced from my experience that true faith is an instinctual and spontaneous response to the real experience of God. In other words, faith is the gift of God and is evidence that He has already shown up (in our awareness). I’ll write a little more on this later.

  42. John Shores says:

    PJ: I appreciated Fr. L’s honesty and his referencing his rational background. I just feel like the conversion is something like a Monty Python sketch where these guys are being taught how do defend themselves and the trainer says, “First, you pull the lever, releasing the tiger…”. Fr. L’s conversion experience is completely arbitrary and of no real help to a seeker. I know some people drink stuff like that in but I’m more of a practical-minded person. Personally, if I had his experience, I would never once tell anyone else about it. That experience is just too personal and to discuss it is like discussing your sex life. (Someone close to me once confided in me that he prays in tongues. My gut reaction was to ask, “And do you prefer the missionary position or do you prefer doing it in the shower?” I’m afraid that I have a rather puritanical idea about discussing intimate relationships.)

    I guess I like hearing how married couples met. I think that’s as far as I can get with a spiritual journey as well.

    Karen: I look forward to the “more later.”

  43. Eugene says:

    John Shores: Your etymology of the word “husband” may not be correct, but you know what? “Lord” and “lady” come from hlaf-ward (the guardian of the bread) and hlaf-dige (the “doer” or maker of the bread).

    Just thought you’d be interested.

    Eugene

  44. PJ says:

    John,

    I don’t think there is any formula, any “practical” how-to manual when it comes to God. When discussing man standing before the Lord, you are talking about existential confrontation, which does not fit neatly into any rubric. The best we can do is speak honestly and humbly about our experiences.

    However, I do agree that I am uncomfortable when people talk about their spiritual lives, especially in glowing or ecstatic terms: “I prophesied…” “I had tongues…” “I saw Christ above the tabernacle…” It does indeed seem intensely personal. However, no doubt Fr. Lazarus was urged into revealing his story. I doubt he went in search of them!

    That said, I wish you wouldn’t talk this way: “And do you prefer the missionary position or do you prefer doing it in the shower?” You don’t know who battles lust, and the devil and the passions only need the smallest window to sneak into the mind and heart.

  45. PJ says:

    By the way: A good and holy Advent to everyone!

  46. James Mahoney says:

    Does anyone else feel there’s some sort of parallel between “effortless effort” and the “achieving by non-doing” of the Tao Te Ching?

    Just something I want to see you smart and wise folks discuss.

    Thanks,
    James

  47. John Shores says:

    Hi Eugene – Actually it was “hlafwerd” but, yeah, I knew that. One of the things I learned in my Linguistics class. Fascinating study.

  48. John Shores says:

    Sorry PJ.

  49. PJ says:

    No worries, John.

  50. Silouan says:

    To James Mahoney,

    Your answer rests in the spontaneous simplicity of a smile as when greeting a perfect stranger like a long lost good friend. There is no discriminating thoughts. It just happens.

    :-)

  51. Karen says:

    John S., In Wounded by Love, Orthodox monk, Elder Porphyrios, writes (and, in context, he is speaking of Orthodox Christian religion in particular here):

    For many people . . . religion is a struggle, a source of agony and anxiety. That’s why many of the “religiously minded” are regarded as unfortunates, because others can see the desperate state they are in. And so it is. Because for the person who doesn’t understand the deeper meaning of religion and doesn’t experience it, religion ends up as an illness, and indeed a terrible illness. So terrible that the person loses control of his actions and becomes weak-willed and spineless, he is filled with agony and anxiety and is driven to and fro by the evil spirit. He makes prostrations, he weeps, he exclaims, he believes he is humbling himself, . . . Some such people experience religion as a kind of hell. They make prostrations and cross themselves in church and they say, “we are unworthy sinners,” then as soon as they come out they start to blaspheme everything holy whenever anyone upsets them a little. . . .

    I don’t know if that sounds familiar to you or resonates with your experience, but it does with mine. Before I add some more thoughts, I wondered, if you were to characterize where you “aimed” your efforts or focused to direct your prayers during the time that you described where you were prostrate, crying out to “God,” etc., how would you describe that? For example, I’ve heard some folks describe an “iron ceiling” through which their prayers couldn’t penetrate, or a “silent sky,” etc.

  52. Karen says:

    (cont.) John S., with regard to sharing spiritual experiences–especially those of the ecstatic variety–the Orthodox practice as I understand it is to discourage sharing such things with anyone except a trusted spiritual father (or mother)–usually one’s own priest/confessor, and to be quite skeptical of their authenticity. IOW, we are not to readily accept them as coming from God, rather to assume they are more likely a temptation and distraction from God–a kind of spiritual “fool’s gold.” The Orthodox attitude toward such spiritual manifestations is very cautious indeed. Even those experiences discerned to be authentic we are encouraged to keep close to our heart, much as Mary, Christ’s mother is said to have done about the revelations given by God to her (Luke 2:19). Those gifts of God that are to be sought above all else by each Orthodox believer are love (of God and neighbor) and humility.

  53. dinoship says:

    Karen,
    I very much agree with you here!

  54. Micah says:

    Father Stephen says:

    Strive to enter at the narrow door.

    If I may Father, is there anything else we are allowed to understand about this door, other than the fact that it is narrow — which of course — it most certainly is?

    Thank you!

  55. fatherstephen says:

    Micah, it would obviously have many understandings.

  56. PJ says:

    Is not the door/gate Christ Himself?

  57. fatherstephen says:

    PJ, of course. But the adjective “narrow” widens its meaning.

  58. PJ says:

    ” But the adjective “narrow” widens its meaning.”

    No pun intended? Heh.

  59. Micah says:

    Narrow, but beautiful I’d saY!

  60. Karen says:

    Father, you and your readers might also enjoy this if you hadn’t already seen it. It certainly validates your audacious faith!:

    http://araborthodoxy.blogspot.com/2013/01/fr-touma-bitar-on-eternal-perdition.html

  61. Micah says:

    PJ, it also deepens it!

  62. David Lindblom says:

    Fr. you said:

    “In this lifetime, only a few will be saved.”
    and:
    “The very few who walk this path are living proof of the existence of God – for with God this path is possible. In Orthodoxy, we call these few, “saints.” They are signposts and an assurance that our own struggles are never wasted. The narrow path is not a delusion – it is an awakening.

    These statements make it sound as if the only ones who will be saved are the saints of the Church. Not the rest of us since the only ones who walk this path successfully are the saints? Since the saints only make up a fraction of the population of Christians then truly, you believe, when Christ said “few” He really meant “few” as in only a fraction of Christians will be saved. How can anyone read this w/o despairing? The lives of the Saints are no assurance to us if we ourselves are not Saints. At best I am no Saint nor will I ever be.

    It is surely Lent and I always have some struggle to fight w/. Articles like this help hammer in another nail in the coffin holding any hope of salvation. Mind you, being damned would be what I deserve…I am a very great sinner after all. No sarcasm intended. But after reading this and other things I wonder where the mercy of God is at in all of this? Even after 4.5 years of being Orthodox I still must have too much of my 30 years of being a Protestant in me. The longer I’m Orthodox the more any hope or assurance of salvation dies. But, again, it’s what I deserve.

  63. fatherstephen says:

    David,
    You’re reading this in the most negative way possible – when there is no nail being driven.
    We should trust in God for our salvation – and not be afraid. In this lifetime, indeed, in only a few will the salvation of God be clearly manifest. Perhaps that will be helpful. Most of us will die in hope, at best.

    But I trust in the mercies of God above all. The “few” who manifest those mercies, do so, because in God’s mercy, He chooses to reveal them to us to encourage us not to lose heart.

    If we want to get down to it, I would be confident of the mercy of God beyond any possible measure. The death and resurrection of Christ is the clear evidence and testament to God’s unbounding mercy towards all. But in this life, that mercy (of a salvation in which someone is truly conformed to the image of Christ) is rarely seen in its fullness (or even close).

    I hope that is helpful. Who cares what we deserve? We will not get what we deserve, now or later. Let it go.

  64. Michael Bauman says:

    David, I can understand your concern put as I have pondered this same question with the same concern over the years I put it in the context of the fact that God’s will is that all should be saved. The fires of hell were prepared for Satan and his angels, not for man.

    The parable of the Prodigal son teaches that He will meet us much more than half way if we repent.

    Lastly St. Paul in 1 Cor. describes the trial we shall all go through especially in verses 12-14:

    12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;

    13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.

    14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built there upon, he shall receive a reward.

    I take this to mean that while universal salvation is not a fact, God’s grace allows for many, many more to be saved than just the few–even those with stubble to show. The saints will experience the fire of God’s love less a fire than as the all consuming love it is.

  65. benmarston says:

    But I also read comments by Saints who say that God is bending over backwards to save us, and in Liturgy, after we receive Communion, we sing ‘who has saved us’. This isn’t a ‘once saved always saved assurance’, but it is the assurance that comes in an existential and sacramental sort of way.

  66. benmarston says:

    I think that God’s chastisements are one of the greatest evidences of our salvation. For He chastises sons, not reprobate. Here is St. John of Kronstadt “The Lord has created me, has brought me from nonentity into being, and after I had fallen, has restored me through His sufferings and death;
    He has cleansed me, a sinner, has made me His son by adoption; He has promised me the inheritance of eternal bliss;
    He has enlightened me through the light of His Gospel;
    He punishes and forgives me like a father;
    He lights me with the sun;
    He gives me daily food and drink;
    and above all He gives me His sweetest and life-giving food—His Body and Blood;
    He has diffused air for me to breathe,
    and above all He has poured upon me His Holy Spirit.

    He clothes me in beauteous garments; above all, He inwardly clothes me with Himself, as it is said: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

    He gives me rest in a spacious and clean dwelling, and promises me an eternal, resplendent abode in the heavens; He endows me with health: above all, He gives me spiritual health in abundance, through prayer and especially through the Holy Sacraments and other means.

    What shall I render to Him for all this? What can I do for Him in return?

    I cannot do anything, except to be faithful to Him with all my might, through fulfilling His Commandments and by offering a firm and unchanging resistance to sin and the Devil.”

    ~St John of Kronstadt

  67. David Lindblom says:

    Thank you for the responses. I will ponder more w/o such great negativity. As I alluded to in my other post, whatever doubts, fears, angers etc I may have seem to become major issues come Lent each year. I have struggled w/ doubt about my salvation for most of my Christian life, I had hoped it would be different once I found the Faith. Maybe this is one of my little crosses to bear? :)

  68. Rhonda says:

    Hi David,

    Part of St. Ephtem’s Lenten Prayer has us asking for chastity & patience (along with humility & love). Chastity in our modern understanding has been diminished into an understanding involving merely sexual connotations. This is neither the correct nor complete understanding of chastity as a virtue according to Orthodox Tradition. The true meaning of chastity for us is “wholeness” or “whole-mindedness”.

    We are not “patient” naturally; not with others & most especially not with ourselves. I never heard of patience with self for our failings as a Protestant. I think it is due to the instant salvation prevalent in most Protestant thought vs. the journey of salvation of Orthodoxy. Instant salvation does not require struggle & therefore does not requre patience…everything is done for you, usually once & for all (once saved always saved).

    Orthodoxy calls for us to struggle to toward theosis & deepen our union with God. Struggle necessarily entails patience with ourselves as we repeatedly fail to live up to the standard set before us which is Christ. Chastity (whold-mindedness) is also required & also takes struggle & patience. This whole-mindedness is what will help us see that our fears & doubts are the nothings that they are.

    I spent 34 years wandering through Protestantism. I have been travelling the Orthodox path only 10 years. It has only been the past 4-5 years that I feel I have truly started to somewhat understand Orthodoxy (right belief) & Orthopraxis (right practice) & how they work together in our salvation. Again patience is the key as one’s upbringing is not quickly nor easily overcome.

  69. David Lindblom says:

    Rhonda, thanks for your post. I can really identify w/ what you’re saying concerning our previous Protestant experiences. The Orthodox way is rather hard to get my head around but I’m getting there. However the old way of understanding salvation is very easy and straight forward to grasp and patience is definitely a problem w/ me. Thanks again.

  70. Michael Bauman says:

    The struggle is not just against sin it is also a struggle to be joyful and giving thanks for all things-not in a superficial manner but deeply from the heart. Part of patience too and obedience.

  71. mary benton says:

    David –

    I think (ironically) one of the hardest challenges for those of us longing for union with God is to realize that we cannot achieve it (achieve, as in accomplishing through our own effort).

    There is nothing I can do to assure my salvation, i.e. to assure myself that God’s mercy and unconditional love are mine.

    Fortunately, I don’t have to “do” anything – because it is already given to me (and you). God gives His love completely and freely and nothing we do can change God. Our task is to change ourselves so we can fully appreciate what we have already been given.

    (Fr. Aiden’s blog series on St. Isaac writings was very helpful to me in seeing this more clearly.)

  72. Eleftheria says:

    David,
    One more comment, from the prayers before Communion.
    Keep in mind always that the abyss of His compassion is greater than all of our sins.

  73. David Lindblom says:

    Michael, Mary & Eleftheria thank you for your encouraging words.

  74. Tim C G says:

    What about the thief on the cross? He didn’t have a lot of time to worry and stress out about finding the narrow path. He just received God’s grace through his faith in Jesus Christ. He believe Jesus was who He said He was, Lord and Savior, God in the flesh. Maybe it’s so simple that the majority can’t figure it out.

    Also most people don’t want to give up their love of money, materialism and worldly comforts for the new life in Christ. I have struggled with this. Putting Jesus first in all things (dying to self) can be hard when the world, the flesh, family, work, etc. are pulling the opposite direction.

    Thank you God for Your grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. With people it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

    Tim

  75. benmarston says:

    Lord, have mercy on us sinners; if the righteous scarcely be saved what of the ungodly and sinner.

  76. PJ says:

    Jack,

    The idea that the Gospels (and/or the Epistles) were arbitrarily tinkered with — never mind radically revised — is absurd, given the substantial uniformity of the papyri and codices. Had scribes and theologians blithely tampered with the New Testament, then the manuscript families would exhibit profound differences. This isn’t the case, contrary to the ridiculous mathematical acrobatics of certain skeptics. This is not to mention the fact that large sections of the New Testament are preserved implicitly or explicitly in the writings of the fathers. Indeed, it has been said by numerous authorities that if every New Testament were destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the works of the fathers. Many of these men wrote long before Augustine and Justinian (who, by the way, lived two generations and one and a half thousand miles apart). Of the 19,000ish lines in the NT, less than fifty are in serious doubt, and none of them are doctrinally important.

    Eternal torment can be found in the earliest patristic writers, in men as different as Tertullian, Ignatius, Justin, Theophilus, Pseudo-Clement, Minucius Felix, and Irenaeus. Here you have Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Africans; pagan-born and Christian-born; philosophers and clerics; all of whom are testifying to the existence of this doctrine in the first two centuries of the Christian era.

    This isn’t to say that there weren’t and haven’t been dissenting voices. But the idea that eternal punishment — never mind 50% of Jesus’ words — were fabricated by mean-spirited 5th century crypto-pagans is beyond silly.

    The whole “eternal suffering in fire” may have analogues in pagan cosmology, but it is obvious what material Jesus and his apostles were working from: it wasn’t Plato, but rather the Jewish apocalyptic tradition.

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  80. benmarston says:

    Fr. Bless! I am a convert from evangelicalism, and found the transition to an ontological understanding of salvation as opposed to a forensic, thelitist-based, most welcome. However, when we hold that in this life only a few attain the ontological change to grant assurance of Heaven, and for the rest we have to hope in mercy- I am stumped because I do not see that this hope in mercy can be understood at all except in a forensic, thelitist-based manner. I suppose one answer is to say that salvation is ultimately mystery, but the purpose of theology is to make such things intelligible.

  81. fatherstephen says:

    Ah, benmarston. No, it is still to hold that an ontological change is the hope of all. What Orthodoxy holds is that the fruit of this change is abundantly manifest in but a few (the manifest saints). It is both a hidden work in many (I think many are deeply unaware of what is happening in them). But only if you hold to an “instantaneous” change after death would it be necessary to speak of that mercy in a forensic manner. Agreed, most of everything that takes place in us after death remains a mystery to those of us who dwell here.

    Salvation is union with God and the accompanying transformation into the glorious image of His beloved Son. This, it seems to me, can only be understood in an ontological manner (else those words are but metaphors). That it begins now, and is frequently not seen as complete in this life, accords with Scripture (1 Jn. 3:2).

  82. benmarston says:

    Father, what you say here is helpful, but there is then, this thought. The Scripture which started this blog was that the way to Life was hard to find, ‘few there be that find it.’ and not few ‘there be that manifest it’. I accept salvation as ontological, but I am wanting to square Jesus’ words in the Scripture with ontologism (if that is a word).I suppose one could say that few ‘find’ Life in the sense that they have been so united to Life that it is manifest, made open to all. Thanks for hanging in there with me on this one; sometimes, I get ‘stuck.’

  83. fatherstephen says:

    Benmarston,
    There are two very difficult questions in this matter. One is found in the gospels, asked by the disciples: “Will there be many who are saved?” The other is equally problematic: “Will there be any who are lost?”

    And the answers have much in common. Christ’s response to the disciples was that salvation is impossible for men. But that with God all things are possible. It seems to me that the second question, whose answer is not truly known to us, is equally addressed by Christ’s response.

    If we look at our salvation, particularly in an ontological manner, then it is indeed impossible. One of the Cappadocian fathers said, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.” That pretty sums up the nature of the impossibility. Thus, in an ontological approach, grace, the very Life of God, is utterly essential. Salvation is union with the grace of God.

    From the perspective of God, He is willing that all should be saved (2 Pet. 3:9). The grace for such salvation is given to all. Will any, or a only a few, or many, or all accept such grace? God alone knows that. As the gospel notes, “Few there be that find it.” That is certainly true in this life. The evidence of that reality is abundantly manifest. One of the problems of the forensic model is that it makes salvation “theoretical.” It vastly increases the number of those who “find” it, and whose lives are utter contradictions of the gospel and a scandal to the world. The ontological approach, grounded in a reality rather than theory, admits, “few there be that find it.” We shouldn’t despair. It is still quite possible that many, perhaps all, will find it within the stretch of God’s eternity. That is known only to Him. But all who find it, will find a true salvation, truly ontological, grounded in their very being and existence, and not as a forensic theory.

    But that is the broad stretch of eternity. We live now. And the gospel for now is clear – “strive to enter by the narrow door.” Christ is the door. But the “striving” is the Christ-filled life, moment by moment, in union with Him.

  84. ben marston says:

    What I hear is “strive to enter by the narrow gate”. That is a good admonition. I shall try to take it to heart today. ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” Lord have mercy.

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