The priest, Seraphim, spent 30 years of his life in the Soviet Gulag. During that period he was tortured from time to time and was assigned the duty of cleaning out the contents of the latrines. Other prisoners avoided him because of the stench that hung about him at all times. He was a living saint and saved the souls of many around him.
His story, in brief, is told in the book, Fr. Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses.
I mention him because his story came to my attention while I have been thinking about the topic of the will of God. He came from a noble family. He was a prince. But he found that he was drawn to the monastic life – and – over the objections of his family – entered a monastery. He spoke of his incarceration:
Later the camp administration decided that monks, priests and bishops would be perfect for cleaning out the latrines and digging out human excrement. Twenty-eight of my thirty years in camp I spent working on that assignment! Whichever camp I was sent to, I was immediately assigned to this job—perhaps it was suggested in my file. It is heavy work, especially in wintertime: you have to chisel out the frozen mass and transport it away on sleds or carry it in pails. The smell penetrated your clothing, your hands, your face—people would avoid you, swear at you, and sometimes beat you up. The camp administration took special pleasure in sending clergy to do such work, saying, “This is just the job for you, you are a priest, aren’t you?” and they would add blasphemy about the Church and its rites.
He found himself overcome by the work and the filth. Worst of all, he said, he could not make the sign of the cross, his hands were so filthy. And thoughts began to attack him. But he met a holy Bishop who was performing the same task. The Bishop gave him advice:
“‘It is essential to pray,” said Vladyko Ilarion, “so that the surrounding world disappears and only your prayer remains. Do not cross yourself with a dirty hand, but lift your eyes up, then down, then to the right and to the left. You will have made the sign of the cross, but when you are back in the barracks and are clean, do cross yourself with your hand. When you pray during your work, when you are deep in prayer, you will not see the dirt or smell the stink. That is what I do and it does help me to bear the horror of it all. God will protect you from vain thoughts….Help everyone in any way you can—this is the law of God.”
Fr. Arseny said of him:
“I saw Father Seraphim…as a restorer of souls who had been covered with dirt. Yes, he was a true restorer. Carefully, just like those who restore icons by removing layers of dried oil and dirt with a scalpel, taking care not to harm the original, Father Seraphim would carefully, gently approach a man and remove layers of sin from his soul, revealing first a small window of purity and then making this window bigger and bigger, and then finally clean up his whole soul. How careful you must be, how spiritually attentive to the injured soul not to harm it in trying to direct the man to the path of light. You must not hurt his pride, you must not show him how sinful he is—you could end up pushing him away so that he might think, ‘I am such a sinner that I cannot be saved!’ For a long time I used to observe Father Seraphim attentively. I wanted to borrow his spiritual experience from him and sometimes I could not understand how he could give light to the soul of a man who did not seem to deserve forgiveness.”
It is a frightful thing to think about the will of God in the context of such holy souls. Much of our contemporary thought on the will of God is centered around the “American Dream,” or some version of success. It is not wrong to desire a home and to provide for a family. But neither should these things be the object of our concern:
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:31-24)
The mystery of the will of God is the mystery of our salvation. Whether I eat, or what I eat is of little concern, or, rather, is beside the point. But there are things about eating and all other things that indeed pertain to our salvation. And regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, those circumstances are working to our salvation, by the good will of God who will not be thwarted by evil or our own incompetence. If our salvation depended on knowing the will of God, no one would be saved.
You desire and you do not have – you kill and covet and yet you are not able to obtain. You quarrel and fight and yet you don’t have because you do not ask. You ask and yet you don’t receive because you ask badly, so that you can spend it on your desires. (James 4:2-3)
We seek the “will of God,” but we seek it badly when we ignore His commandments in the process. We are told to “seek first the Kingdom” and to “give thanks for all things.”
Perhaps the most disordered version of the Christian faith is its reduction to the status of religion. Every culture in every place and time has had a religion. Cultures have sought the blessings of whatever deities they honored for fertility, prosperity, and happiness. They also sought blessings for the destruction of their enemies and many other things as well. What sets Christ apart from such culture servants? Christ did not come in order to compete for the underwriting of our culture’s success. He came to deliver us from the destruction of sin and unite us with His Divine Life.
It is certainly possible to know the will of God, just as it is possible to know God. But this is a very difficult thing at first and filled with problems. Fr. Zacharias of Essex writes that:
…discernment is necessary so as to refute every delusory suggestion, because the will of God in this world is manifested in the same relative outward forms in which the natural human will and the demonic will present themselves to the human mind.
The will of God does not belong to the world of cause and effect – it is not part of the material order. The Father “causelessly causes” all things that exist. That creation exists is manifestly true – but how it exists eludes us. Rational rules of contradiction and non-contradiction are of no use in exploring the will of God.
And so, we keep the commandments and give thanks always for all things. In this manner of life, within the community of the Church, we have a measure of safety (as all children need). And we grow, learning to discern our way forward. My own experience tells me that the more one grows, the less concern there is for choices and decisions. Whatever comes to hand becomes increasingly sufficient. If we have Christ, it is enough – and glory to God for all things!