Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | April 7, 2008

Archimandrite Zacharias on Suffering

Archimandrite Zacharias addresses both suffering of the heart and physical pain directly in “The Enlargement of the Heart”. Seems from the questions… both he and many of our clergy share the common contemporary ailment of neck pain which I share as well. In my case, it’s termed “degenerative discs” for which there is just not much you can do… and as long as they don’t pinch the sciatic nerve (the preferred abuse)… it’s just a manageable dull “awareness”… always there, but not debilitating.

This somewhat surprising turn in the discussion sessions of the book caught my attention. For me, there is no doubt that my direct experience both fed my conversion to Orthodox or at least my search for something more authentic, something less focused on contemporary “koans” and questions, and more directed at sharing the “findings” of the vast recorded experience of the “company of witnesses”. But also I can attest that in my desire to discontinue pain killers after the first day (of medication), I discovered the utility of prayer beyond a level I had known… to the Theotokos, and to Christ in the Jesus Prayer.

In these things, God ceased to be a construct or academic exercise… but became real in ways I am ashamed to admit had not proved the case before. Thanks to the wonders of selective memory, with remembrance of similar pains lost… I simply could neither fathom a prior physical pain on that scale…. nor its restrictive impact… but only experience the sense that all other life seemed to stop for me, and its continuance beyond was unreachable… even unthinkable… and only a “great out there”. Life became something other people did. And yes… it is similar some ways to the impact of the death of a loved one in the confrontation with eternity and sense of powerlessness…. not the same, but similar… There just seems to be nothing else other than pain. You search and you cannot find… but eventually, in His mercy, you allow yourself to realize Christ suffered far worse… even at our hand, even to this day… and He is there or here… and if he can do this for love, then surely we can manage so much less… and at last your attention shifts a little – even if only a little – and you begin to heal.

All the same, you are also forever changed… and God willing it is for the better. And yet my wondering on this lies more in how we can possibly explain this to someone else… someone else we love and would help if we could. Again, there is a sense of powerlessness and inability to find the words that gives ear to others who have tussled with these problems far better.

So I offer some of Archimandrite Zacharias’s notes here both to stoke my memory and as some utility to others:

“…the only-begotten Son voluntarily and without sin, took pain upon Himself and transformed it into a means of expressing His perfect love. With this love He healed His creature from the great wound caused by the sin of our forefather and made him into a new creation. This is why pain is so precious in the practice of the prayer (Jesus Prayer), and its presence is a sign that the ascetic is not far from the true and holy Way. Without experiencing pain, the Christian cannot know the depths of being, and remains a stranger to the love that conquers sin and death.

“Pain is a way of showing concretely that we have love. As Christ showed His love by suffering for us, so we also, when we endure pain, show our gratitude to Him, and put ourselves on the Way of the Lord. Pain has the following beneficial aspect: for example, if now I break my finger, my whole mind is there because it is painful, my finger burns with pain. I broke the bone of my finger and my mind is concentrated there. If my heart is broken with pain, my mind will go there naturally; and that state is very beneficial. Weeping, fasting, vigilance, accepting offense, all these things have one purpose: to unravel the “deep heart”, to help the mind find the “deep heart”. That is humility finds the heart, while pride buries it. Someone who is proud cannot feel his heart, he has no heart. Vainglory covers the heart completely. So we have to go through the pain of humiliation in order to find the heart, because the heart is not only the physical center of the human being, or the psychological one, but also the spiritual center of personhood. The whole Bible speaks about the heart as the place where the choice is taken for God, as the place where man meets God and where God speaks to him. What is precious in the eyes of God, says St. Peter, is the “hidden man of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4). Pain helps us to find the deep man of the heart.”

“..it is very difficult when you have this physical pain, which does not allow you to concentrate and stay your mind in the heart, but the pain can become a sacrifice to God if at that moment of pain you say, “Glory be to Thee O Lord, glory be to Thee, O Lord.” Just release this little cry from time to time, “Glory be to Thee O Lord, glory be to Thee, O Lord.” The pain will remain, but you will be given grace that overshadows the pain.”

“I knew a sixty year old Cypriot lady who had cancer. She came to the monastery, and told me, “I have cancer. The doctors told me that in six months I shall die.” I said to her, “Androula, then go for the meeting with the Lord, hold on to His word: whether we die or live we are the Lord’s (cf Rom. 14:8), and prepare for the meeting. You have six months. Wonderful! It is the greatest moment of your life.” She was a woman of prayer. I never console people, “Ah, you will live, it will pass.” I say rather, “Prepare for the meeting”, even if they live afterwards.”

Question: “We are told over and over again that we must fight against the pain. The medical disciplines of our culture say, “You fight against it.” The language of the medical discipline is the language of war against pain, war against suffering, and we are bombarded with the whole sort of thing, television and so forth, the whole culture is built this way now.”

Answer: “Yes, but this is the way of the world, and the world is at enmity with God. We know this is the case, and whoever loves the world cannot please God. Well, these things are done slowly, slowly by experience. Forgive me, I will tell you something. I made a small experiment in the following way for myself. I knew from the writings of the Fathers that three things are most pleasing before God. The first, they say, is pure prayer, and to do all our works purely. The second is monastic obedience, because that is a total sacrifice. In monastic obedience, freedom, which is the most precious thing that a man has, is laid at the feet of Christ. The third is giving thanks in illness and tribulations. And once I went to hospital to have an operation, and I thought I would try what the Fathers say. In the week after the operation I was convalescing in the hospital, and all the time I was there I said no other prayer but, “Glory be to Thee, O Lord. I thank Thee, O Lord, for all things.” And it was so beautiful there that at the end of the week I did not want to leave the hospital. So, we have to try these things: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).”

The whole of this follows a discussion of prayer and repentance which I’ll get to later. At the moment, pain – both sorts – seems to be the soup du jour. So if you’ll forgive the sequencing, I’ll try to get back to the preliminaries before Pascha.


Responses

  1. I can identify with both yours and Archimandrite Zacharias’s experiences, specifically your words:

    Life became something other people did. And yes… it is similar some ways to the impact of the death of a loved one in the confrontation with eternity and sense of powerlessness…. not the same, but similar… There just seems to be nothing else other than pain. You search and you cannot find… but eventually, in His mercy, you allow yourself to realize Christ suffered far worse… even at our hand, even to this day… and He is there or here… and if he can do this for love, then surely we can manage so much less… and at last your attention shifts a little – even if only a little – and you begin to heal.

    And Father Z’s

    And once I went to hospital to have an operation, and I thought I would try what the Fathers say. In the week after the operation I was convalescing in the hospital, and all the time I was there I said no other prayer but, “Glory be to Thee, O Lord. I thank Thee, O Lord, for all things.” And it was so beautiful there that at the end of the week I did not want to leave the hospital. So, we have to try these things: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).”
    ***************
    God knows I choose the easy way over the way of suffering, more times than not, but I know the value and the longing or pull toward that other “way”; not that I would become this willing suffering transfigured martyr without a whole lot of kicking and screaming along the way.
    I’m not that good, but I think I would more consistently choose this way that the Fathers speak of but for the difficulty (or maybe it’s allowing others difficulty to influence me???) to balance, or maybe integrate is a better word, this state of not living in the world, what appears to others as ungrounded-ness that occurs between myself and everyday “normal” life.

    My pain condition is chronic, though severity varies; When you are in mourning, or have an illness, people tend to give you your “time and space”, but only a “socially acceptable” amount before you are expected to rejoin the world; add to that a kind of hostility on the part of family/friends toward that weird “Orthodox spirituality”, and the pull in the opposite directions is enough to pull you apart.

    I just wondered if you had any thoughts, or experience in this aspect.

    More spiritual guidance, I am sure would help, and that may be where the balance, the grounded-ness lies…answering my own questions in your com-box is probably bad blog manners. Sorry.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I do have some experience on these things, but not as a counselor. A good priest… your priest… someone who knows you.. is a far better resource and can be of far more help in a shorter space of time. My experience is simply that folks typically mean well.. but even when they know you well.. may themselves not know how to be helpful. Fr. Z”s comment elsewhere was that counselling folks is very hard to do… perhaps can’t be done if you haven’t faced the same grief in your own life… and even then it is hard. Most of us are afraid of these things in our own lives… let alone as they affect others. The courage of the priests who try against the odds to offer something is remarkable on its own…. and so too, those who are willing to let themselves be counseled.


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