From Archimandrite Sophrony’s On Prayer
There, on the Holy Mountain, my life found its right track. Almost every day after the Liturgy I knew a feeling of Easter joy.And strange as it may seem, my constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that ahd taken over my heart. Two seemingly totally incompatible states met together in me. I am recording facts. I did not understand myself what was happeing to me. Outwardly I was no less fortunate than most people.
Later, things became clear to me: The Lord had granted me the grace of repentance. Tes, it was a grace. The moment despair slackened, prayer cooled off and death would invade my heart. Through repentance, my being expanded until in spirit I touch upon both hell and the Kingdom…
The heart is such a strange thing – well revealed by the great Elder’s writings. To be both in a place of despair and yet in a place of prayer. It is why “technique” has so little place in the spiritual life. There are things we can do, and yet all that we do is and must be in relation to God. God is not an object or any such thing. He cannot be found by technique. Christ offers the simple formula: ‘ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
The answer to the human heart is to be found in a relationship that is personal, a relationship that is marked by freedom and love. Strangely, we cannot change the heart by our own actions, but only by the gift of God. Thus we pray and thus we wait – ’til He have mercy.
In this sense the goal of the human life is a state of constant repentance – again, not that we can repent as an action of our own. Repentance is the state of the heart when it is in communion with God. This is the reason that Orthodox spiritual writings place such great store in the “gift of tears,” and similar attitudes of heart. It is, in my opinion, why Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like. One ought to do justice, with this there is no disagreement. But it may also be the case that the difficulties one encounters in life is itself are the very occasions in which repentance is born. It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.
Nothing could bear witness to this better than the life of modern man. We enjoy a better “quality” of life than any generation previous to us, and yet that “quality” is somehow not the meaning of our life.
Thus asceticism, in which voluntarily make our lives more difficult, is seen as an utterly necessary part of our spiritual being. It may not necessarily be the “hell” which Archimandrite Sophrony writes about, but there is still the reality of true asceticism. There can be no Christian life that does not embrace the Cross, and by this is meant as well a life that is shaped by the taking up of the Cross.