Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Marshmallows

I’ve mentioned in a couple of recent posts a holy priest named Fr Arseny, who suffered much for his faith in Soviet Russia during the Stalin years. The witness of his life brings me to a further reflection. (By the way, I recommend the book: Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, trans. Vera Bouteneff, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

My conclusion after reading the book is this: I am a marshmallow. Perhaps you are too. I would wager that at least 90% of Christians in America and Western Europe also are marshmallows. What I mean is that we are marshmallow Christians: soft, spineless, easily crushed, easily melted in the fire of trials and purifications. If we continue like this, we will have to add another marshmallowy characteristic: wholly without nutritional (spiritual) value to those who have any contact with us.

We really have no idea what millions of people consistently had (and have) to suffer for their faith. Of course, we all have our own sufferings, and they are real: illness, injuries, mental anguish, work and family and financial problems, bereavement, etc. This is part of the human condition. But people like Fr Arseny suffered things above and beyond ordinary human suffering. And it was precisely because he was a believer in Christ that he suffered so—but because of his faith and love for God he was purified like gold in the fire.

I mentioned something in a previous post about what he suffered: beatings, hunger, sleep deprivation, hard labor, exhaustion. The land itself where he was imprisoned was a kind of hell on earth: long, frigid winters (temperatures down to 50 below zero, with strong winds), springs characterized by melting snow and rivers of mud, and short, hot, sticky summers in the midst of literal clouds of mosquitoes—and soon it is winter again. He had to work 15-18 hours a day in those conditions, with the most primitive of tools and with the constant cursing and frequent blows of the guards, barracks searches at any hour of day or night, etc. Yet through him God brought peace and hope to many, and he was able to live in gratitude.

Many others among the simple faithful found themselves evacuated from their homes and sent with no money or food to some Siberian village where they knew no one, and told to make the best of it. Women were raped by soldiers, and many people died from intolerable conditions.

Now this isn’t meant merely to be a horror story, or something to shame you into realizing how easy you actually have it (though that could still be a salutary meditation). The real point is how these people kept (or found) the faith in the midst of these severe trials, how they prayed, how they trusted God and the Mother of God, how they were grateful for every kindness, for every divine intervention to keep them alive. They knew what was the “one thing necessary.” They believed in miracles and experienced them. God comes to the aid of those who are really in need, to those who call on Him with their whole heart.

One thing I found touching was the tender love the faithful had for the Mother of God, especially as she is represented in the famous icon of Our Lady of Vladimir. When they light a candle and pray before her, her sad but compassionate eyes look upon them with love, and she obtains mercy and grace for them from Him whom she carries in her arms. She actually appeared in that form to save a young woman who was about to be raped. Later the man regretted his action and actually went back to that woman to seek forgiveness, and when he saw the icon in her house he exclaimed: “That’s her! Who is that? She is the one who appeared to save you from me!”

These people lived in an atmosphere, an environment of faith in God, of repentance from sin, of hope for the life to come, in awareness of the constant presence of the Mother of God and the saints, who protected and helped them—even though the society around them was officially atheist, and they could be imprisoned for any manifestation of religious faith. They relied wholly on the mercy of the Lord.

So this is what I’m getting at: they knew what was the meaning of human life, they lived at the heart, the essence of it, because everything that was superfluous was stripped away from them. They knew love and tried to be good for each other, for the world was harsh, and the enemies of Truth were everywhere. In short, they were true Christians, not marshmallows. We see today what happens in free and affluent societies: many members of the Church, including clergy and hierarchs, begin to miss the point of the Faith. They reject some of the teachings of the Church and hence the uncompromising power of the Gospel, they tolerate immorality, wink at peccadilloes, model spirituality on modern psychology, run the Church like corporate America, and make uneasy alliances with the surrounding society, which is often anti-Christian in its mindset and morality. They don’t talk about Heaven and Hell, about the absolute necessity of living to fulfill the will of God, of how difficult and demanding it is to be a true Christian—as if salvation could be attained by presenting one’s baptismal certificate, or by simply being tolerant or “nice,” and “not hurting anyone.”

No, eternal salvation is the ultimate goal, the sine qua non of the meaning of human life, and though it is impossible without the grace of God, it will still cost you every ounce of your strength, your blood, sweat and tears. Everlasting life in a paradise of joy is not a “given,” a consolation for having merely existed for a certain number of years. It is the fruit of a life of faith and love for God, built up and expressed through trials and hardships, made genuine and unshakable through perseverance in adverse circumstances and even in persecution. To be saved, you have to be a martyr, that is, a witness, with your life, that God is real and is really involved in our world, that He loves us and became man to save us from our sins—yes, those sins which could keep us out of Heaven forever. Marshmallows are for roasting over a fire, and that’s exactly where they’ll end up.

Human life is a high-stakes adventure. God is with us, and He sends Our Lady and the saints to help us. But our role is indispensable, and the marshmallow Church in America needs our firm support, and our unfailing witness to the truth. We cannot afford to be marshmallows ourselves. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet… Strive for…the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:12-14). Put all your hope in the living God. You will find that He is a wellspring of strength, peace, wisdom, joy, and love. Just ask Fr Arseny.