The Last Battle

IMG_0740The Scriptures end with the description of a battle that is truly “apocalyptic” in its scale: all the forces of evil arrayed against all the forces of good. It is grand theater, having caught the imagination of countless generations (and even Hollywood). I do not know quite what to make of the description. That it describes a reality, I do not doubt. What that reality will look like to its bystanders (if any there be) is another question entirely. Things that seem hidden now will surely be made manifest – but will that manifestation have to await the completion of things? My own suspicion is that the answer is yes. We’ll see it all quite clearly when it is all quite clear.

Another vision is cited in my earlier post and is worth a short ponder:

The answer to that diatribe [the argument against God and the goodness of His work] is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

“Their lives frequently hidden from the larger view” … is the point which seems worth pondering. Why should not those who are having the greatest impact on the world be the one’s who seem most hidden? Christ Himself came to us in a way, though manifest, that was all but hidden from the view of the world of that time. Galilee. Really.

Met. Kallistos Ware relates this story:

In one of his letters, St. Barsanuphios of Gaza (sixth century) says in passing that, at the present time, there are three person whose prayers protect this wicked and sinful generation from the wrath of God, and because of these three persons and their prayers, the world continues in being. And then he mentions their names. John, he says is one them; Elias is the second; and the third is a person in the province of Jerusalem. Now the third person, presumably, designates himself, living in Gaza. But the first two, John and Elias, are otherwise totally unknown to us. So here we have the word of a saint, gifted with insight, that the people who were preserving the world from destruction in his day were three persons, two of whom are entirely unknown to history and the third of whom was a hermit in the desert.

The things which seem important are often of little true consequence. Does it matter that the President of the United States had a beer with two men? Does it matter that a hollywood figure dies tragically and suddenly? Does almost anything most people treat as important matter at all?

Who sustains the universe and why does it exist?

The difficulty with political schemes and grand plans is that even at their greatest moment – they have done very little. It may be that everything they have done carries less weight than the prayers of a hermit in the desert.

And so we are called to pray – to stand quietly before that “still point of nothingness” that “disposes all things.”

Such things seem quite hidden – unless the definition of “manifest” means “what God sees.” Perhaps prayer is not about my “prayer life.” Perhaps prayer holds the entire universe in existence.

The last battle may be fought quietly in a human heart that stands sentinel before God and says, “Lord, have mercy.”

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25 Responses to “The Last Battle”

  1. Father Hermogen Says:

    “Perhaps prayer is not about my “prayer life.” Perhaps prayer holds the entire universe in existence.”

    Thank you for that, Father Stephen.

    Pray for us as we begin the Dormition Fast tomorrow. May you end it well!

  2. Lizzy L Says:

    I am reminded of the story of Sodom, that God agreed not to destroy it if 10 righteous men could be found in it. (Sadly, they were not found.)

    I am also reminded of a tradition in Jewish mysticism of the Tzadikkim, the 36 holy people whose presence in the world ensures that God will not destroy it. These holy people are hideen; nobody knows who they are. They themselves may not know that they are Tzaddik. It is said in the Kabbalah, that for the sake of these hidden saints, God preserves the world.

  3. Fr. James Coles Says:

    Great job on this blog, It is excellent. I have just linked it up on mine to spread the word!

    Peace!

    Rev. Fr. James Coles
    http://frjamescoles.wordpress.com

  4. Dharmashaiva Says:

    Something I just read:

    “Let us assume that there are seven educated preachers who live holy lives. Their rhetorical skill is unparalleled. Each has a parish with ten thousand parishioners. Every day their words are heard by seventy thousand people. Thousands who hear them are moved to repentance and return to Christ. Whole families are saved. Nevertheless, one monk whom no one sees and who sits in a cave somewhere has a much greater effect with his humble prayer. One produces a greater effect than seven. That is what I see. I am sure of it. That is how important a monk’s prayer is. He is on his own in his cell, but the reverberations of his prayer reach everyone, even if they are far off. With his prayer, the monk participates in all the problems which people face and works miracles. His contribution, accordingly, is greater than that of the most gifted and worthy preacher.”

    “Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios”, 171

  5. Rick Doughty Says:

    I’ve always had a suspicion that a Ukrainian grandmother is holding the world together. -R

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Thomas Hopko says his mother told him, as he was leaving for seminary, “Go to Church. Say your prayers. Remember God.”

    Holding the universe together, no doubt.

  7. Mark Galbaugh Says:

    Of course, there are not 3 people left who genuinely pray. Could be millions, only God knows.

    The force of prayer is undeniable. The error would be to say that God only hears the prayers of perfect saints or fervent hermits, & not the sinner struggling through the day. Or that only contemplative prayer is the only prayer that does any good, & the quickly whispered Ave Maria by the sickbed of a loved one really isn’t true prayer. There are as many ways to pray as there are people to pray & circumstances in which to pray.

    I also mention that the prayer of the Church – the Divine Office & especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass & Divine Liturgy – is ever-present before God. In Catholic teaching, one (but not the only) reason for private prayer & devotional practice is to prepare one to participate in the liturgy & recieve Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

    The point about the grand schemes of men is well-taken.

  8. Alexander Says:

    Thank you, father, and thank you for the wonderful addition, Dharmashaiva!

  9. Mike Farley Says:

    Thank you, Father, truly. I’ve taken the liberty of linking to your post here.

  10. Sean Says:

    Father, what an awesome article! How truly spectacular this thought is, that the prayers or few are those which keep the world standing. Having been raised orthodox I have often been told this but I am always in awe when considering how enormous the power of prayer is and how, really, the unseen and untold things, the things and acts nobody notices and nobody cares about are, eventually, those which have the greatest impact on our collective life.

    It is also my observation that, both in matters of faith but also generally in every aspect of our lives, the greatest and permanent changes, either for the best or for the worst, are brought about by small things, by insignificant steps towards a specific direction. And that, luminous like fireworks, some deeds and notions may seem, they remain, however, shortlived like fireworks as well, leaving nothing behind them but the passing memory of flashing light, with no real consequence.

    You are, as always, absolutely right, as you note the fact that even though many people (myself included) feel so important and think they pompously contribute so much in this world, it is really those who do not wish to be seen, or heard by anyone except the One, who pray for us and sustain us and keep us safe.

  11. Drew Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Please excuse my ignorance, but I have a question about the following sentence from your article.

    “It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God”.

    The word “emptiness” is rarely used in reference to Christ, albeit from my limited experience. Usually when I see emptiness I imagine the abyss, or nothingness. When I originally read this sentence I paused but then continued as I was hoping its meaning would make itself known through subsequent passages.

    I think it means that Christ, as a vessel, is nowhere near capacity, as well as His Saints, and that vessel is the conduit through which we will be delivered to the fullness of God. Another side of me thinks there is more to it than what I see. Maybe it is not something I am ready for.

    Can you speak to the meaning of this passage as it relates to the article?

    In Christs Love…

  12. Ryan Says:

    In Philippians, the word “kenoo”, to empty, is translated in KJV as “make Himself of no reputation”. The previous line says that Christ was Himself equal to God. Father Stephen can better explain whether your idea of the word’s greater leaning is as you say.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Drew,

    The word only occurs in the passage in Philippians (2:5-11) which speaks of Christ “emptying” himself. But it is an image that is much favored by a number of Eastern fathers and spiritual writers. It is particularly so in the work of the Elder Sophrony. It is a word used to describe his utter humility – He Who truly is the Fullness, yet emptying Himself in His love for us. The one Who is Life, dies for us. He Who is Paradise, enters Hades that He might rescue His creation.

    This is true of Christ – but we are enjoined in Philippians to “have this mind within you.” That is, we, too, are to “empty” ourselves in humility – ultimately the only possible way to truly love as we are commanded. “Whosoever seeks to save his life, will lose it.” And “Whosoever loses his life for my sake, and the gospels, will save it.”

    A small article I wrote some time ago might be of help (as well as just searching on the site search for “emptiness.” I use it a lot, in the manner of Fr. Sophrony.

  14. Drew Says:

    Father Stephen (and Ryan),

    I am glad I asked the question. I see better what is meant by the passage. Many thanks for your time in explaining and the referenced article.

  15. Brian Says:

    This definitely puts things in perspective and gives ample food for thought on the word “humility.” It also reminds me of a phrase in today’s (August 15, Feast of the Assumption) second reading:

    “…then comes the end,
    when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father,
    when he has destroyed every sovereignty
    and every authority and power.”

    As the saying goes, you can’t take it with you, not even power.

  16. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    “…three person whose prayers protect this wicked and sinful generation from the wrath of God, and because of these three persons and their prayers, the world continues in being.”

    But didn’t you say on an earlier blog that God isn’t wrathful?
    I really need understanding on this…

  17. Ryan McNamara Says:

    His Energy is love to those who love Him, and wrath to those who hate Him. His Love seems wrathful to those of us who are in need of correction. How we experience His Energy depends on us who are changeable, not Him who is not. Do I finally have this right, Father?

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Anonymous,

    Not Wrathful on a literal level. But the tradition stills uses the language of wrath.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Ryan,

    Sounds right.

  20. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Thank you–still trying to understand–if God is not wrathful on a literal level, what is the prayer of the three people protecting us from?

    Yes, I have noticed that the tradition uses the language of wrath–like yesterday at the vigil–by the door–the priests prayed about the wrath and indignation stirred up against us–I think that was the language.

    In fact, I see it all over the place.

    If one of the main points of Orthodoxy is that God is at heart not wrathful, then why does the tradition use the language of wrath so much?

    I struggle with this a lot….and would be grateful for any further elucidation.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    We experience wrath – the destruction brought upon us by our sins (not sent as a punishment from God). We pray that God intervene and spare us from such consequences in His mercy. Sometimes even the mercy of God is experienced as “wrath” i.e. God’s correction. Even then we pray to be spared His “wrath” in that by His mercy we be corrected lightly and quickly.

    It’s just that “wrath” is fairly nuanced in Orthodox usage – at least as analyzed in the theological tradition. God is good and is never our enemy – nor even punishing us as the dispenser of justice. None of us would stand a chance if that was the nature of things (we could not bear justice).

    St. Isaac of Syria (Met. Hilarion Alfeyev has a good volume on him) is probably one of the better reads on the topic.

  22. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Thank you! That is helpful, and I will look for the book on St. Isaac right now!

  23. Alexander Says:

    > if God is not wrathful on a literal level, what is the prayer of the three people protecting us from?

    Here’s my take on it (don’t take it as the church’s explanation, it’s only how I understand it). Each of us is here, in this life on earth, only while he/she has some improvement/growth/movement toward God ahead of us. Once there is none ahead – there is no point in keeping us here, as we’d be becoming only worth (related to that moment’s state), thus our life in eternity would also become only worth unless we’re taken away from right at that moment. That is true for a saint who has grown into his full potential, or for any other person who has such temptations ahead that he will fail and end up a lot worth than at the moment. The same could be said for this whole world: once it has no potential for its inhabitants to grow closer to God – it becomes “downward movement” for everyone after that, so at that moment it should end and be replace with the World-to-come. So, while there are at least a few saints praying _here_ – there is still potential good (becoming better) to be expected of this place; and once there is none – it’s the end for this temporary world. Which means, in my understanding, it’s not the “wrath” that causes God to destroy this world (at some point in the future) but simple reasoning; but for us, who live here, world destruction sounds scary – that’s why we see it as something negative, such as “wrath”.
    Forgive me if it sounds confusing or even wrong. Maybe Father will correct me.

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    Alexander,

    There are many ways to think about this – though I generally resist thinking about it. Making sense of it inevitably reduces things to a place that cannot be true. God sustains the universe. The mystery of prayer is the invitation to participate in the life of God (and this remains a mystery). According to some great saints – our prayer participates in that sustenance of the universe – though there is no dogma in this matter. That three monks should, in the life of St. Barsanuphios, have been the key points of prayer is a mystery that seems to have been known to St. Barsanuphios, but not to anyone else. What the case is today who knows? I suspect time has nothing to do with it. The purpose of our existence here on earth should not differ from our purpose beyond the earth. If we are in Christ, and live to the praise of the glory of His grace, it makes no difference where we are. We are in paradise.

    It is not something to think too much about – or to work out an understanding. Better to listen to the story – take what is obvious and leave the rest. The obvious point, for me, is that what is important to God and even the universe may remain quite hidden from others. It is God that matters.

  25. Andrew Battenti Says:

    Another thought provoking article Fr. Stephen, thank you.

    “What were you doing when Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 11 February 1990?”

    This was the question one major newspaper asked it’s readers today. A good question perhaps, but also a reminder that man is always busy making something that will one day be nothing, or nothing that will one day be something.

    Archimandrite Zacharias, speaking on the theology of St. Silouan, calls this “charismatic despair”. Realizing that nothing he does can ever make him worthy before the eternal Judge; man must open his heart, or die.

    The grace of Christ is able to turn man from a tool making animal that can sometimes laugh; to a spiritual being whose prayers are able to reach the ears of the Lord of all creation. This is an unimaginable ontological leap forward and well worth singing about.

    Christ is in our midst!

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