The most powerful weapon

My Catholic heart sings for joy this Easter week while my “Orthodox” heart is still deeply drawn to Holy Week.

And yet isn’t that how it must be for us throughout the year? Regardless of the calendar dates of our commemorations, it is, for us, always simultaneously a dark and wrenching betrayal unto death along side of the glorious destruction of death unto Resurrection.

We cannot know them apart from each other. The former is the legacy we both give and receive. The latter is our hope and our Truth.

Just over a month ago, I wrote a couple of posts on the topics of Spiritual warfare and The weapons of war. These were topics I knew that I would come back to but I had to wait until it was time.

Now it is time.

As we enter more deeply into the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the question returns to my mind: what does all of this mean? How am I saved by what Jesus did?

Many people more wise and learned than me have written volumes on this topic. I do not pretend to know as much or more than them. I will write only of what has been given to me to share.

During this holy season, despite having other intentions, I found myself reading The Enlargement of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias and Christopher Veniamin. Though I have not yet finished it, much has been given to me from what I have read – in particular, understanding of the well known words that St. Silouan received from Christ, freeing him from his terrible struggle:

“Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.”

{For readers not familiar with St. Silouan, in short, he experienced a vision of Christ during his youth. When he shared this with his spiritual father, the monk made a remark within his hearing, wondering in amazement what he was to become if he had such an experience so early in life. This comment contributed to St. Silouan having great struggle with pride and vainglory for many years.}

When I first read of these words given to St. Silouan, my gut reaction was, “Huh?” This made no sense at all to me. How or why would one keep one’s mind in hell? And how could that conceivably be helpful, even if it were possible?

That was my reaction until, today, when I realized that I belong in hell.

Allow me to explain. If you are thinking that I am exaggerating or engaging in false humility, know that I would have thought that of any “good” person saying the same thing – until today. Bear with me.

First, I must consider what hell is and what it is not. Hell is not a place, as in a geographic location, that people are assigned to go to be perpetually burned alive as a punishment for their sins. Many have been taught such primitive ideas and, sadly, have learned some very wrong ideas about God.

As sin is the turning away from God, hell is the death that, by definition, must occur when I willfully separate myself from the Source of life. If living completely and unreservedly for God is the fullness of life, then living for myself (making myself god) is eternal death.

I cannot disconnect myself from Life and not be dead. I cannot be partially dead. I cannot be temporarily dead. I can only be eternally dead.

I depart from the one true God so that I can be god? I am dead and “in” hell.

I have sinned and turned from God. I belong in hell. Like St. Silouan, I must keep my mind in hell, i.e. I must never forget this truth. I belong there.

But I do not despair. This is where I learn more of the meaning of what Jesus did.

Jesus was executed, put to death in a very vicious, bloody manner that He in no way deserved. But there is nothing in that that makes Him particularly unique. There is nothing in that that saves. Many have been unjustly and brutally killed in our world. What is it that He did?

Yes, we believe that He rose from the dead. But how does that save me? The question still lingers and nags…

There is one part of our creed that not much is taught about in most Christian churches, but it is key: He descended into hell.

What little attention this article of faith is given is often an image of Jesus going to a “place” (Sheol) to proclaim the Good News to the just souls who had died prior to His coming (thus, not really hell). But this, (forgive me, Catholic Catechism) misses the key point.

Let us look at this way: Jesus descended into hell. To say He descended does not mean that he went to a place that is down, but rather than He completely lowered Himself.

Christ went down to the lowest of low places with a humility beyond any human precedent. He who never once turned from God, His Father, and therefore never disconnected Himself from the Source of life, voluntarily entered the eternal death that I came to be in because I did turn away.

This is what it means to say that He took upon Himself our sins or that He became sin for our sake. My turning away has a consequence (I belong in hell) and He who did not belong in hell lowered Himself to accept that consequence for me, with absolute love and utter humility.

It is His humility that saves me.

We use the word “love” so much that we almost forget what it is – that the pure love of the Gospel cannot exist without humility. To fully love other/Other is to be empty of self.

When considered in this light, it is inconceivable that anything but the humility of Christ, of God Himself, could save me from my sin. My sin, our sin, our ancestral sin, is to want to be gods. Pride can only be destroyed by humility.

And our Savior has done just that.

When people question what we mean, “How can you say He destroyed death? People are still dying all of the time,” we know something that is perhaps hard for us to summarize in a few words. It is our Truth – but how can we tell it?

We know we belong in hell. But we are full of hope and joy.

We also know that we are still at war. And that is one reason why so many question whether Christ really accomplished anything. What did He really do? There is still so much sin and suffering and death.

Yes, we are at war. The enemy has not admitted defeat, even in the light of Pascha. How can he not see it? Why does he not give up his effort to control our world?

Pride.

The sin of our adversary and the root of our own.

In understanding what saves us and why we are still at war, we discover the most powerful weapon we could possibly employ in this spiritual battle: humility.

The weapon the Savior used to free us, now given to us to keep ourselves and others from falling back into the enemy’s hands.

There is no more powerful weapon to use against the evil one – for he cannot understand it. The adversary wants only to ascend, never to descend – and so will never truly harm us as long as we follow the Way of our Master, ever going down into deeper selflessness.

We, of course, do not know how to do this. Humility is very hard for us to learn, so ingrained is sin in our nature. So we keep our minds in hell and despair not.

Of His Spirit He has given us, that we may live as He lives.

To Him be eternal glory.

6 thoughts on “The most powerful weapon

  1. albert

    I have been quiet during the past few weeks, a holy time–letting God’s words at church speak, trying to listen for God, who also comes through your words here, and the ones before. Gratefully,

  2. mary Post author

    Thank you, Al, for your listening witness.

    As I have reflected more on what is written here, I have realized a couple of things. First, if I am to pay more than lip service to the “keep thy mind in hell” part of the message, I (personally) need to ask God to help me see my sinfulness. Part of my sinful nature, I have discovered, is wanting to avoid really knowing my true sinfulness, its impact and its ugliness. It is so much easier to glide along, thinking that I am a good person! But if I ask God to help me see my sinfulness, He WILL show me.

    Once I start really seeing it, it becomes uncomfortably easy to keep my mind in hell but more challenging to not despair. My mind wants to quickly accept God’s mercy and go back to thinking about what a good person I am! I really don’t like looking at my sin.

    Of course, I can only survive keeping my mind in hell by believing in and accepting His mercy. Yet I believe the safest place for my soul is to hold onto both visions together: the ugliness of my sin and the beauty of His mercy. If I let go of the former, it is simply too easy to slip into thinking that somehow the goodness God displays in, through and around me is Mine.

    And I am lost once more. May God have mercy on me.

  3. albert

    I re-read this part, Mary, more than once:

    “. . . hell is the death that, by definition, must occur when I willfully separate myself from the Source of life. . . living for myself (making myself god) is eternal death.”

    It makes so much more sense than the picture I had imagned since childhood (until I pretty much gave up, both on hell and on church going). Only recently, once I met an Orthodox priest and started attending liturgies in the Eastern Christian tradition, did I learn that the tendency and the actual movement, away from God (”sin”) can be understood as a spiritual illness rather than as effront to God or, worse, yet another nail in the crucifixion. I have never been able to get the idea that we hurt God by our choices, or that God could suffer–even though, mysteriously, He did once, and that suffering was somehow redemptive.

    So if the church is like a spiritual hospital (which I have been told), it does not make sense that the doctors and nurses there would prescribe thinking always about sin–which is how I interpret St Silouan’s advice, “Keep your mind in hell.” I would expect instead a- positive therapeutic program, like prayer for example, especially in formal groups using time-honored words; or like helping others, through generosity/self-sacrifice and through the daily responsibilities of our work or family lives.

    Probably I am missing something about Silouan’s meaning. Maybe he really means, “Be on the look-out; and if tricked, or worse, dont give up.” I hope that is the message.. Otherwise I have a hard time thinking that anyone might best apporoach God by keeping her mind in hell. It is a shocking statement, unless it means recognizing that the instinct for survival and gratifcation is nearly impossible to manage without help. Or unless it is meant to shock us out of a complacency which can become deadly if untreated.

    Another thing I am learning from the Eastern Christian tradition is the importance of a spiritual father (or mother, if I may add). I have been told that it is as easy to get lost in trying to heal oneself, whether through reading or through individual enlightenment, as it is in trying to “find oneself” by wandering around in search of satisfaction and thereby losing sight of God.

    But you know all this. I’ll resist worrying about you (I am still in the “Huh?” stage). Besides, i do understand the power of pride. And so I am comforted to think that your refection here is really about an irony that others have expressed; namely, the closer one gets to God the more horrible the prospect of separation.

  4. mary Post author

    Thank you again, Al, for your deep and compassionate reflections.

    I should have added that the message Christ gave to St. Silouan was for him – and not for everyone. Hence, we should not all be trying to force it to make sense for us. What I have shared here is how it suddenly and unexpectedly started making sense to me – in a positive and helpful way.

    At some points in my life, when I needed the more gentle “spiritual hospital” that you write of, this would have been very detrimental to me. Plagued by scrupulous conflicts about sin, picturing myself deserving of hell might have pushed me over the edge I was already perilously close to. I am certain that there are many individual stories others could provide that are equally legitimate.

    However, our divine Physician is both infinitely compassionate and infinitely wise. And I believe He knows that, at this stage of my journey, I need to look at my sinfulness more directly in order to truly repent and draw closer to Him. I am grateful for this.

    I might further add that being in one place is not “better” than being in the other. What is important is that we come to Christ with open hearts, trusting that He knows what we need. (My remark about being “lost once more” was intended, by the way, to suggest how easily I can fall back into pride if I do not work to do otherwise. I am no more lost than usual 🙂 at this particular moment.)

    Thank you for the wise advice about a spiritual father or mother. I pray for one and trust that God gives me what I need. In the meantime, I gave been gifted with some spiritual companions that have been very helpful to me. Many blessings to you – and to all who read this exchange in silence.

  5. mary Post author

    Thanks, Al, for drawing attention to Fr. Stephen’s fine article and keeping me thinking.

    I too have thought more about it. I truly believe that our divine Physician knows what each of us needs at any given stage of our lives and will provide it. (We, of course, do not always understand what we need.) St. Silouan needed to hear the message he heard when he heard it. I needed to hear it just recently – when I finally understood it. I could not understand it before because I was not ready to and God knew that. Some people may never need to hear it – and that is fine, because they will hear what they need to hear.

    Too often we humans debate things, as though we will arrive at the one answer that is going to fit everyone. Faith vs. works, etc. Our human ideas get in the way at times, I believe. Though discussion can be instructive and clarifying, we will not arrive at a universal answer in that manner. The one answer is not an idea, of course, but a Person, Christ Himself.

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