Keeping Work In Its Proper Place: Spiritual Counsel For Today's Orthodox Christians

Fr. Sysoev.jpg

Fr. Daniel Sysoev, the New Martyr, with his wife, Matushka Julia

Today I happened to find a website dedicated to making available the life and written works (in eBook formats) of Orthodox Christian missionary priest Fr. Daniel Sysoev, who was executed in his Church by a masked gunman in 2009. But why is this significant to me, or why might it be to anyone else? Well, in his reflections on the Prophet David's Psalm 54, in his section entitled "The Sorrowful Labor of Men", the martyred priest has accurately described the exact difficulties I've mostly been contending with these days; days which are not at all friendly towards Orthodox Christian living. Perhaps some of you are experiencing it too. His description, presented as commentary on David's Psalm, is directly quoted as follows:

" 'Day and night they go round about her upon her walls; iniquity and toil and unrighteousness are in the midst of her. And usury and deceit have not departed from her streets’ (Ps. 54:11–12).

Who goes around the city upon its walls? Iniquity. It races along its walls like a whirlwind. The prophet lives amid a hurricane of iniquity day and night. And this whirlwind deprives people of rest and the ability to live a Christian life. You can see this for yourself by walking the streets of Moscow at night. Or in the daytime; it is the same thing. This came to pass in the literal sense in Christ. By day He was betrayed, and by night He was arrested. That is, day and night iniquity was within the city walls. The people were tireless in their efforts to destroy Christ. Hatred for God may be seen on a local level today in Moscow or in any other city or village, but this hatred was manifested in full in Jerusalem on the dread day of Great Friday. What defines the life of this city? ‘Iniquity and toil and unrighteousness are in the midst of her’ (Ps. 54:11).

Here the Slavonic translation—trud, meaning ‘labor’—is imprecise. Toil means not just labor, but laboring in sorrow. People toil, and their toil consumes them. Many companies today take the view that if you leave work at quitting time it is an affront to the company. Toil depletes a person, drains him of strength, sucks him dry like a vampire. The devil, the secret mastermind behind this iniquity, whispers, ‘Toil away, toil away. You are idle, very idle; that is why you want to go and serve your God.’ Remember what Pharaoh said to the Hebrews in Egypt? The devil says the same today: ‘You are idle; church takes up too much of your time.’ In their day the Renovationists of the 1920s planned to transfer all feasts to Sundays, to leave more time for work. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? ‘You have too many feasts. You must slave, slave away for me.’ The devil says, ‘Religion is a personal, private affair. It cannot concern society.’ To this day this logic is encountered: ‘Religion is the private affair of each person. Do not dare to push your religion on society.’ In other words, religion is not to be practiced on social time, but at the same time all our free time is to be spent on social affairs. How does this come about? You work as much as possible, and when you come home your wife or husband tells you, ‘The family is the greatest asset in our society, so you must care for your family.’ After completing your household affairs you collapse on the spot, and you have no energy left for God. Then on Sunday your friends or relatives come and say that Sunday morning is the only time you have for visiting with your relatives. The logic is to take away all of our time so that we never have a moment to catch our breath and think of God. This is why it is said that: ‘iniquity and toil are in the midst of her’ (cf. Ps. 54:11). They give you no chance to catch your breath.”

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But what weapons, if any, does Fr. Daniel counsel us to use in our fight against this enemy that “gives us no chance to catch our breath”? I believe we may be able to find an answer to this in another section in his commentary entitled “THE WINGS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT”, also directly quoted as follows:

" 'And I said: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly, and be at rest. Lo, I have fled afar off and have dwelt in the wilderness. I waited for God that saveth me from faintheartedness and from tempest' (Ps. 54:7–9).

David longed to have wings like a dove. Why like a dove? Why not like an eagle, for instance? Because he desired to have the wings of the Holy Spirit. Who will give me the wings of the Holy Spirit, so that I can fly away and find rest? Without the Holy Spirit, without the Spirit Who is named the Comforter, it is impossible to escape the attacks of the enemies. It is the dove’s wings of the Holy Spirit that can carry a person away and deliver him from the snares of the enemy. Many people declare, ‘We must do everything by our own efforts. We have to live in reality, not escapist fantasies. All you churchgoers are living in your fantasy world, suggesting that we solve our problems in the next life.’ Remember how we were accused of this in the Soviet era? To this day antitheists accuse us of attempting to escape from this world. And we agree completely: ‘Yes, of course we wish to escape from this world. Why should we not find rest? Why must we be chained to this world like galley slaves and slave away for another?’ Escaping is actually not always a bad thing. When asked why she escaped from prison, Joan of Arc answered, ‘It is lawful for any prisoner to escape.’ This is indeed the case. Why should a person bound by the shackles of this world not escape? And so David prays, ‘I want to receive the wings of a dove, the wings of the Holy Spirit, so that in meekness, humility, and purity I might attain rest, which exists only beyond the bounds of this world. ‘Lo, I have fled afar off and have dwelt in the wilderness’ (Ps. 54:8).

David literally fled from his enemies into the wilderness, as we know. This however also refers to a kind of inner wilderness. There is a secret inner wilderness. This is known to Christians and Buddhists alike: there exists a certain secret place where there are no evil deeds, no passions and lacerations of the soul. Buddhists assume that the inner wilderness is needed in order to dissolve oneself, but Christians know that it is needed in order to collect oneself. All world religions teach that amid hustle and bustle it is impossible to rise above the cares of life. This is obvious to any intelligent person. Christians suggest that one flee into this inner wilderness, barren of passions—to a place where there is no corrupting power of the devil, where the dark plants of vainglory do not grow, since there is no water of boasting and ostentatiousness. A place where there are no people to take thought for when you do not wish it. A place where there is nothing to provoke the passions. The devil often says, ‘But you must fight! You must not flee from the cause of falling into sin; that is a sign of weakness.’ To which we must answer, ‘Yes, of course it is a sign of weakness, but we are weak, and so we had better flee.’ It is better for us to flee from evil and not come into contact with it. With good reason God said to Lot, ‘Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.’ … But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:17,26). In the same way we must learn to flee into the mysterious inner wilderness. Even the outward wilderness is very helpful in the work of salvation. With good reason those who wished to attain supreme purity fled into the wilderness, where only the sun shines, where there are barren sands, meager vegetation, and soul-soothing silence. There no outward noise and commotion are found, which cause commotion within; there a person can overcome inner sin and be decisively born in Christ. In Rus there was a favorite Russian song called ‘Praise to the Wilderness.’ It was written based on the magnificent life of Joasaph, prince of India. Barlaam, the prince’s teacher, tells him that there is a wondrous place, more beautiful than all the royal chambers; a place where one can attain happiness. It is the ordinary wilderness, in which hundreds of saints praise God, where psalmody does not cease, where people fight battles and conquer Satan, where ascetics abide in outward silence, while within they hear the secret words of God, Who speaks with a person’s heart. All normal Russians knew perfectly well that if a person does not withdraw into this wilderness at least occasionally he will drown in the maelstrom of death. For this reason from time to time they would flee into the wilderness, going on pilgrimages—not simply to large lavras, but to remote monasteries, to experience the fragrance of the spiritual wilderness. Anyone who has been on holy Mount Sinai or in remote Russian monasteries has experienced that fragrance of the silence of the wilderness, which soothes the soul in the literal sense of the word. 'Stand ye in the ways' (Jer. 6:16), as the prophet Jeremiah says. A person stops, stands still, and sooths his soul there. Gradually he begins to understand himself, and then to hear the Word of God. It is for this reason that pilgrimage exists. Priests recommend traveling somewhere far off at least one week a year. A monastery of course is best, but a village with a temple of God is also possible. It is also a good thing to flee into the spiritual wilderness for at least a few minutes each day. How? We live in the wonderful holy city of Moscow, where there are seven hundred active churches, and nothing prevents us from going to church for ten minutes a day. Dinner will not be ruined if I stop by the house of God for ten minutes after work. Nothing bad will happen, and I will awaken and experience the mysterious breath of God. I go into the church to pray to God and to experience the power of the Lord.”

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I don’t know, brothers and sisters in Christ, whether any of these reflections of our holy martyr, Father Daniel Sysoev, can be of any use to you. But due to overwhelming work, family, and social circumstances I’ve reached an impasse that gives me no choice but to try to pick up some of these weapons and start fighting for my spiritual life – and I mean RIGHT NOW! I’m strongly compelled to wonder, lately, if many of you are experiencing the same need. For now, I’ll recede to some far-off place, and leave you to contemplate these offerings from Father Daniel, so you may consider their value for yourselves.

Bibliography* All direct quotes of Fr. Sysoev exerpted from "Explanations of Selected Psalms: Blessed is the Man, Part 1" by Fr. Daniel Sysoev

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