The Path To Salvation, written by Russian Saint Theophan The Recluse, elaborates how grace, sin, and salvation work within a soul. Since the way I came to the Church is an old story (wretched sinner who repents), I oftentimes felt that with this book I was reading my very own biography. It’s extremely useful to not only understand how God uses repentance to benefit the soul but also how to proceed with the faith in a way that earns you eternal salvation.
The necessity for spiritual guidance
Consequently it is necessary for someone who already has the desire to walk on the indicated path to the Lord to be shown in addition all the deviations that are possible on this path, so that the traveler may be warned in advanced about this, may see the dangers that are to be encountered, and may know how to avoid them.
It’s a huge deception to think you can save your soul without those more spiritually experienced than you are. As tough as it is for a rich man to be saved, like a camel going through the eye of a needle, I imagine it’s just as hard for the “I only need my Bible” types.
The Christian life
[The Christian life] has three stages which may be called: 1) Turning to God; 2) Purification or self-amendment; 3) Sanctification. In the first stage a man turns from darkness to light, from the domain of satan to God; in the second, he cleanses the chamber of his heart from every impurity, in order to receive Christ the Lord Who is coming to him; in the third, the Lord comes, takes up His abode in his heart, and communes with him. This is the state of blessed communion with God—the goal of all labors and ascetic endeavors.
There is a moment, and a very noticeable moment, which is sharply marked out in the course of our life, when a person begins to live in a Christian way. This is the moment when there began to be present in him the distinctive characteristics of Christian life. Christian life is zeal and the strength to remain in communion with God by means of an active fulfillment of His holy will, according to our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the help of the grace of God, to the glory of His most holy name.
By giving man freedom God has yielded to man a piece of His divine authority, but with the intention that man himself would voluntarily bring it as a sacrifice to God, as a most perfect offering. Therefore, if you have mastered yourself, now give yourself to God. When you sin, you not only lost yourself, but in losing yourself you took yourself away from God. Now, having returned from the captivity of sin, after you have mastered yourself, return yourself also to God.
Do everything for the glory of God, and in nothing—either outwardly nor inwardly—intend anything other than this glory. It should be the measuring stick of every endeavor and place its seal on each other.
One of the reasons I have been able to turn so fervently to Christ is because I exhausted myself with the pleasures of the secular world. I currently have no curiosity or “fear of missing out” (if I wasn’t deluded, I would have never possessed carnal desires in the first place). I had accomplished worldly things that many men wish, but none yielded any meaning or fulfillment. It was vanity of vanities, a colossal waste of time that damaged my soul and others, and I lament them bitterly. If I decide not to follow Christ with zeal tomorrow, I know that there would be nothing else to do in this world but to wait until my death to be sent to hell, because there is no meaning in this life without Him.
The power of baptism
St. Diadochos, explaining the power of baptism, says that before baptism sin dwells in the heart and grace acts from outside, but after baptism, grace settles in the heart and sin attracts us from outside. It is banished from the heart as an enemy from a fortress, and it settles outside, in the parts of the body, from where it acts by means of attacks in a fragmented state. This is why there is a constant tempter, a seducer, but no longer a master: He disturbs and alarms, but does not command. And so, the new life is born in baptism!
A distracted person has made his soul a highway, along which, through imagination, tempting objects pass by like shadows and tempt the soul to follow them. And then, when one is thus, so to speak, torn away from oneself, the devil secretly approaches, takes away the good seed, and puts a bad one in its place. Thus the Saviour taught when He explained who it is that takes away the seed sown by the wayside and who it is that sows the tares. It is the enemy of mankind who does both the one and the other.
There are some days when I cannot at all control the flow of thoughts in my mind. It feels like torture, because I do not desire to have all those useless and proud thoughts, and instead wish I could concentrate wholeheartedly on prayer, and yet it is impossible to do so with my limited spiritual abilities.
The foolishness of secular youth
…what can one say to someone who not only does not love Christian life and truth, but has never even heard of it? …he is a house without protection, given over to robbery, or a dry branch given over to burning in a fire. When the arbitrariness of youthful ideas throw a shadow of doubt on everything, when the arousal of the passions is causing a mighty disturbance in him, when the whole soul is filled with tempting thoughts and movements—the young man is in fire. Who will give him a drop of dew to cool him, or give him a helping hand, if there is not a voice from his own heart that speaks for truth, for goodness, and for purity? But this voice will not come if love for it has not been sown previously. Even good advice in this case will not help; there will be nothing for it to stick to.
Was I not the dry branch given over to fire until middle age after being tainted with nihilism, hedonism, and the subjectivity of truth by the culture-makers of the Western world who are controlled and empowered by Satan?
Choose your friends wisely
There are certain circles of “friends” with very bad ways of life. Being drawn in with them, you do not notice how you become united with them in spirit, just as you do not notice, when you are in a foul smelling places, how foul you yourself smell. People themselves often lose awareness of the indecency of their own conduct, and they quite calmly become crude in it.
You must hate sin
Decisive and active resistance to sin comes only from hatred of it. Hatred of sin comes only from a sense of evil from it; the sense of evil from it is experienced in all its force in this painful break within repentance. Only here does a person sense with his whole heart what a great evil sin is; afterward he will run from it as he would from the fire of Gehenna. Without this painful experience, even if he begins cleansing himself in some other way, he will be able to cleanse himself only slightly, more outwardly than inwardly, more in actions than in disposition.
The lamentable life of a sinner
Once he has turned away from God, the person dwells on himself, and makes self the main goal of his life and activity. This is because at this point, after God, there is for him nothing higher than self, especially because, having previously received every abundance from God and having now forgotten Him, he hurries and takes care to fill himself up with something. The emptiness that has formed inside him because of his falling away from God causes an unquenchable thirst inside him that is vague but constant. The person has become a bottomless abyss. He makes every effort to fill this abyss, but he cannot see or feel it getting full. Thus, he spends his entire life in sweat, toil and great labors; he busies himself with various occupations in which he hopes to find a way to quench his unquenchable thirst. These occupations take up all his attention, all his time and all his activity. They are the highest good, in which he lives with his whole heart.
…the sinner is continually troubled about learnedness, the possession of many things, and the desire for many pleasures. He amuses himself, he possesses, he questions. He goes around in circles his entire life. Curiosity beckons, the heart hopes to taste sweet things, and he is enticed by the will.
If one looks at the sinner in his inner mood and condition, it happens sometimes that he is knowledgeable, but is blind with regard to divine things and the matter of his own salvation. Even if he constantly takes care and troubles over things, he is idle and careless in regard to arranging his own salvation; even if he continually experiences anxieties or pleasures of the heart, he is completely insensitive to everything spiritual. In this regard, all forces of being are afflicted by sin; and there is blindness, negligence and insensitivity in the sinner. He does not see his own condition, and therefore does not sense the danger of his situation. He does not sense his danger and therefore does not take the trouble and care to be delivered from it. The necessity to change and be saved does not even enter his mind. He has complete, unshakable confidence that he is at his proper station in life, wants for nothing and must therefore leave everything the way it is. Therefore, he considers any reminder about another kind of life to be superfluous for himself; he does not listen, and cannot even understand what it is for. He avoids and shuns it.
If a person does not deny sin and run from it, then that is because he does not know himself and the danger he is in for the sake of his sin. If his eyes were opened he would run from sin as he would run from a house engulfed in flames. Such blindness is the result of inattentiveness to himself—the person does not know himself because he has never entered inside himself, and has never thought about himself or his moral condition.
When I was being catechized prior to baptism, I remember asking my godfather, a monk, how it was possible for me to perform all those evils of my past. He replied, “Because you thought it was normal.” Yes, I thought being a “masculine” man meant to fornicate. I thought being “happy” was to rack up new and exciting experiences. I thought being “cultured” meant living as a rootless cosmopolitan by traveling around the world enjoying espresso macchiatos and chocolate croissants in quaint European cafes. Everything I did, the culture promoted in one way or another, and I never thought my behavior was wrong until after I reached out to God, because without Him, I could not possibly come to know good from evil.
How the demons attempt to block repentance
The prince of this world has an entire horde of servile spirits of malice that are subordinate to him. At each instant they scurry along every boundary of the inhabited world to sow various things in different places, deepen entanglement in the net of sin, repair traps that have become weak and broken, and especially to guard against anyone who might take it into his mind to rid himself of his bounds and escape to freedom. In the latter case, they hurriedly gather around the self-willed person. First they come one by one, then by detachments and legions until finally, the entire horde is there. This happens in various ways and forms so as to block all exits and mend the strands and nets, and, using the other analogy, to push back into the abyss any person who has begun to crawl out along its steep slopes.
When I sought repentance, and attempted to pray using my own words for the first time, a woman on the internet I had never met sent me a homemade pornography film featuring herself. That was a rare occurrence, but it happened at the exact time I was reaching out to God. In response, I fell back into mortal sin, and it took another month for me to attempt prayer again. If my spiritual eyes were opened at that time, I can only imagine the number of bullets demons were shooting at me.
Why do we allow Satan to befriend us?
The devil has done nothing for you, only tyrannizes you with sin, but you willingly and indefatigably work for him. You befriend him through sin, and he does evil to you through it. He entices you to sin by promising its sweetness, but those who fall into sin he torments and tortures. Here he convinces you that your sins are nothing, but there he will present them to your reproach, as major points. He trembles with evil joy when someone falls into nets of sin and gets stuck in them. Realize all this and arouse yourself to hatred for this man-hater and all his works.
Satan has a single concern; that is, where a person is completely occupied in his consciousness, attention, and heart, that God not be the sole occupier, but that something outside Him be attached to his mind, will, and heart, so the person has something in place of God and only cares about what he knows and what he enjoys and possesses. Here there are not only carnal and mental passions, but also specious things such as learnedness, artistry, and worldliness that can serve as the bonds of satan for keeping blinded sinners in his power and not allowing them to come to their sense.
Before you come to the faith, Satan prefers that you not know of his existence so that you believe all the evil thoughts entering your mind are of your own instinct and nature, but once you decide to follow Christ, there is no need for him to hide. He will then use whatever means at his disposal to shake your faith and put you into despair that salvation is impossible.
God awakens the sinner with divine grace
We have said that the sinner is like a person who is sunk in deep slumber. Just as a person who is fast asleep will not stir and get up on his own in spite of approaching danger unless someone comes and rouses him, so will the person who is sunk in the slumber of sin not come to his senses and awaken unless divine grace comes to his aid. By the boundless mercy of God, this grace is prepared for everyone, approaches everyone in turn, and calls out clearly to each: Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light (Eph. 5:14).
The awakening of the sinner is that act of divine grace in his heart, the consequence of which he, as one awakened from sleep, sees his sinfulness, sense the danger of his situation, beings to fear for himself and to care about deliverance from his misfortune and salvation. Previously, he was like a blind man, unfeeling and uncaring with regard to salvation; now he sees, senses and cares.
However, this is still not change. It is only the opportunity for change and the call for it. Grace is only telling the sinner at this point, “See what you have gotten into; look then, take measures for salvation.” It merely removes him from his customary bonds and sets him beyond them, thereby giving him the opportunity to choose a completely new life and find his place in it. If he takes advantage of this, it is to his benefit; if he does not, he will be cast again into the very same sleep and the very same abyss of destruction.
In extraordinary situations the grace of God acts quickly and decisively, as we can see for example in the lives of the Apostle Paul, St. Mary of Egypt, and others. But in the usual order of things, the conversion will most often occur simply as the thought comes to a person to change his life and improve himself in his dealings with others and his inward inclinations. The thought comes—but how it needs to be strengthened so that it might prevail over the soul!
Saint Theophan’s breakdown of divine grace corresponds perfectly to God’s action in me.
How does grace work?
The divine grace that is everywhere-present and fills all things directly inspires the spirit of man, impressing thoughts and feelings upon it that turn it away from all finite things and toward another better, albeit invisible and mysterious world. The general characteristics of such arousals are dissatisfaction with oneself and everything pertaining to oneself, and anguish over something. The person is not satisfied by anything around him; not by his accomplishments or possessions, even if he has incalculable wealth; and he walks around as if heart-broken. Because he finds no consolation in visible things, he turns to the invisible, and receives it with a readiness to acquire it for himself sincerely and to give himself over to it.
Grace, though it be through a visible medium, is nonetheless always invisible and directly touches the spirit and draws it from the bonds that torment it into the divine light, into the realm of divine life.
St. Macarius of Egypt says that the grace which comes to a man does not at all bind a man’s will with force and does not make him constant in the good, even if he wants it or does not want it. To the contrary, the power of God residing in man gives place to freedom, so that the man’s will might be disclosed: Does it agree or disagree with grace? From this moment begins the unification of the will with grace.
I’ve always been a seeker of the truth, but my attachment to sexual sin made it easy for Satan to block my acceptance of the ultimate truth, and only when I humbled myself upon my sister’s death and started to know the extent that I was deceived by sexual liberation from the likes of Dr. E Michael Jones, the path was opened to me to accept grace without reservations and turn away from a life of evil.
He who relies on himself will stumble
He who finds refuge in his own power and strength shall be subject to slavery and humiliation. He who relies greatly on wealth shall have it taken from him. He who shows off great learnedness shall be put to shame. He who relies on solid personal connections shall have them cut off. He who counts on the permanence of the order established around him shall have it destroyed by the death of people he knows or the loss of essential material possessions. Is there any way to sober up those kept in the bonds of indifference through outward happiness other than by sorrows and grief? Isn’t our life filled with misfortunes so that it may assist with the divine intention of keeping us sober?
The process of repentance
The limit to which the work of self-reproach should bring you is the feeling of inexcusable guilt, a state in which the heart is saying: “I have no justification—I am guilty.” In this act of reproach of conscience a person confirms one after another of his sins, and says: I am guilty of this, and of that, and of a third, and in absolutely everything I am guilty. He reproaches himself for all his sins and begins to feel that they are weighing upon him with all their heaviness. In coming to know your sins one can even view them from without, but in reproaching them they can be seen inside our own selves, and they weigh on us. They weigh even more on us because we can make no answer for them. Having reached this point, what can a sinner say but: I am wretched!
As soon as the person pronounces within his heart: I am wretched, immediately one painful feeling after another of repentance for sins is born within him. He is ashamed that he has given himself to such low deeds, upset that he has pampered himself and betrayed himself to his evil will, pained that he has brought himself to such a state of moral decay, and terrified that he has offended God and placed himself in such a dangerous position, now and for eternity. These feelings go around from one to another, and the person burns in them as in a fire.
…recalling all the sins you have committed and renewing the now ripened, inner commitment not to repeat them, rise up in the living faith that you stand before the Lord Himself Who receives your confession; and tell everything that burdens your conscience, without holding anything back. If you have approached it with the desire to shame yourself, you will not cover yourself, but will express as fully as possible your disgraceful weakness for sins. This will serve to satiate your humbled heart. You must be sure that every sin you have told is torn from the heart, for every hidden sin remains there even more to your condemnation, because the sinner stood with his wound near the Doctor that heals all things. By hiding the sin, he closed the wound without regretting that he torments and disrupts his soul… Tear out all that burdens you without hiding anything.
The discovery of the crafty one’s intrigues leads a sinner to the certainty that he is in malicious, hostile hands, that he is being duped into harming himself, that he is being deceitfully led down some gloomy path toward destruction, and that the demons want to rejoice in this. This inevitably engenders a sense of fear for one’s own well-being, caution, suspicion, an aversion to the sly one and his inventions, the vices and passions, and to one’s entire former life. From here it is a close transition to the Source of truth, good, and bliss: that is, to God.
Humble yourself as often as possible before God in repentance, falling down before Him and praying for mercy. Seeing your labor, He will grant ceaseless contrition and, if necessary, an abundance of tears by which the face of your soul will be washed and finally become completely clean.
During repentance, there will be tears. You may cry more than you have ever cried in your life. In prayer, we ask both God and the Theotokos for tears of repentance to purify our souls.
The simple truth
Truth is akin to the spirit. When it is uttered simply and sincerely, truth finds the spirit. When it is surrounded by images and is figurative and embellished, it remains in the imagination. When it is encumbered with concepts and arguments, it is detained in the intellect or soul, not reaching the spirit, which is left empty. One could say that all unfruitful preaching is on account of the intellectualizing that fills it. Just explain the truth in a simple way; say what it is, and spirit will be overcome.
The importance of ascetic struggles
Refuse [the body] delights and pleasures, restrict indulgences in even the most natural needs; lengthen the hour of vigil, decrease the usual amount of food, add labor to labor. Mainly, in whatever way you want or are able, lighten the flesh, thin its corpulence. Through this the soul will free itself of the bonds of matter, will become more energetic, lighter, and more receptive to good impressions. The material body prevailing over the soul communicates to the soul the body’s lethargy and coldness. Physical ascetic labors weaken these bonds and eliminate these effects.
From this minute of his new life, the repentant sinner commences his podvig, struggle, and labor, and begins to bear the burden, the yoke. This is so essential that all the saints accept the only true path to virtue to be pain and hard work. On the contrary, lightness and ease are a sign of a false path, for the kingdom of God suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Matt. 11:12). Anyone who is not struggling, not in podvig, is in prelest. The Apostle says: Whoever does not endure is not a son.
…all the saints who climbed to the heights of Christian perfection following their conversion embarked upon the most severe ascetic labors of self-mortification—fasts, vigils, sleeplessness, solitude and so on. This was done in a consciously chosen measure that was inspired by grace. They did it all to quickly achieve divine contemplation, and they did achieve it quickly. On the contrary, even temporary ease, pauses, and self-pity have decreased and always decrease the pace of spiritual progress
You should keep in mind that ascetic labors and behavior, with all their essential requirements and value in preserving and developing spiritual life and restoring the natural state, have no power to do this in and of themselves. They themselves do not create spirit and purify our nature, but the grace of God working through them does, which gains access or is channeled through them to our powers. Therefore proceed in them with all diligence, zeal, and constancy. But attribute any progress you make to the Lord, so that under their cover He Himself might create us as He wishes and knows. When commencing an ascetic practice do not fix your attention and heart on it, but pass it by as something extraneous. Open yourself to grace like a ready vessel utterly dedicated to God.
No matter how correct our activities might be, if we do not dedicate ourselves to God in doing them we will not attract grace. It will create in us not the spirit of truth but a spirit of deceit, and produce a pharisee.
How about the Buddhist monks who have a tradition of asceticism? All vanity, all form with no Godly content. They experience some peace because meditation doesn’t stir up their flesh like modern behaviors of listening to pop music or partying in the city, but peace and quiet are all they’ll get from it as a reward since none of their labors are done for the sake of Lord Jesus Christ. Same goes for the Muslims who pray five times a day. The time they spent praying is not spent in carnal sin, at least, and they are oriented to the truth of a spiritual reality, so perhaps their punishment in the next life will be somewhat lessened, but since they have the wrong revelation and pray to the wrong God, it is done in vain.
Annihilate your desire for fleshly comfort
Give the body what it needs but deprive it a little, and, leaving it behind, turn entirely towards the soul… Whoever pities the flesh cannot have the Spirit of God abiding in him. Satisfying individual fleshly desires and indulging desires sporadically because of inattentiveness and distraction make one grow cold. What then can be said of those in whom fleshly delight has become a law? Fleshly comfort is to the Spirit as water to a fire. The flesh is the seat of all passions, as St. Cassian teaches and as all experience proves, and therefore our persecution of it withers the passions. Whoever pleases the flesh even in small things cannot be within himself, for he is within whatever it is that pleases his flesh. Therefore he is not concentrated, and thus he is cold.
Not a single saint had an easy life; they all lived austerely, in persecution, weakening, withering and hatred of the flesh. St. Isaac the Syrian considers persecution of the flesh to be a condition for salvation. Whoever pities his flesh stands on a path that is delusive, slippery, deceptive and suspect. The flesh should be persecuted in all its parts, members and functions, so that these members may be presented as weapons of righteousness.
Outwardly treat your flesh with a sort of hatred, keeping it in cold and roughness, and so on, so that it has no softness or comfort.
The most important physical ascetic labors that persecute the flesh are: fasting, vigils, labor, and purity. The last is the most effective of all, and the most necessary. That is why virginity is the fastest way to Christian perfection.
What a hard teaching for us today! With aid from the culture, our lives are completely oriented around maximizing ease and comfort. The geniuses of Silicon Valley do nothing but eliminate minutes of inconvenience from our day with newfangled apps and algorithms. Within view of this typing, I see my soft armchair and 100% wool blanket imported from France. How many naps have I taken on that chair to rest my tired body? If I peer around the corner, I can see the kitchen. Stocked in the pantry are over a hundred ingredients for me to make the tastiest of foods, and how often has it happened to me that I thought I may die if I eat just one hour past my normal feeding time? I woke up today and my lower back was tender—maybe I shouldn’t do any prostrations from my already meager effort, because I may sustain a serious injury. After all, I assume I will live for many more years; perhaps I can do a prostration tomorrow. Woe to us who crave comfort and ease!
“Everyone is sinning so maybe my sin isn’t so bad”
God does not look at numbers. If everyone has sinned, He will punish everyone. Look at how many people were born before the flood, and all perished except for eight souls. In Sodom and Gomorrah five cities were consumed by fire from heaven, and no one was saved except for Lot and his daughters. The torments in hell will be no easier just because so many are being tormented there—on the contrary, won’t this only intensify the suffering of each one?
An indicator that you are committing evil is if you reason that “everyone else is doing it.” Christ teaches that salvation is through the narrow gate, not the wide path of the world. The remnant of Christ is so small that, as an Orthodox Christian, you shouldn’t regularly encounter your beliefs and practices outside of a church setting, even if you live in an Orthodox country. The default opinion a random secular person has of you should be “weird” or “extreme.”
Choose one or the other: Either crucify Him, then perish eternally—or crucify yourself, and inherit eternal life with Him.
The Jesus Prayer
Standing with awareness and attention in the heart, pronounce ceaselessly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” without picturing any sort of image or face, but with faith that the Lord will see you and attend to you. In order to become strong in this, you should assign a time in the morning or the evening—fifteen minutes, a half hour, or more—however much you can, just for saying this prayer. It should be after morning or evening prayers, standing or sitting. This will place the beginnings of a habitual practice. Then during the day, force yourself minute by minute to say it, no matter what you are doing. It will become more and more habitual, and then it will start working as if by itself during any work or occupation. The more resolutely you take it up, the fast you will progress.
The easiest means for ascending to ceaseless prayer is the habit of doing the Jesus Prayer and rooting it in yourself. The most experienced men of spiritual life who were enlightened by God found this to be the one simple and all-effective means for confirming the spirit in all spiritual activities, as well as in all spiritual ascetic life…
The Jesus Prayer appears deceptively easy, but it is tough to say it more than a few times without being attacked by random thoughts or distractions. Try it if you don’t believe me, and then ask yourself, why is it that you can’t say the prayer for a short while without being distracted but when you subject your eyes and ears to video games or filth like pornography, there are no distractions at all.
Spiritual labors attract grace
Labor, force yourself, search—and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. Do not relax and do not despair. But all the while remember that these labors only comprise the experience of our struggle to attract grace; they are not the grace itself, which we do not yet have. We have not yet acquired the main thing: grace-filled awakening… It is equally dangerous to think that there is a reward due for these labors, and grace should be automatically sent down to you. Absolutely not! This only prepares you to receive it, but the gift itself is entirely dependent upon the Giver. Thus, making assiduous use of all the prescribed methods, the seeker should go on, awaiting God’s visiting, which, by the way, does not come with discernment, but when it comes no one will know from whence it came.
Use all effort and force, as much as you can, to keep yourself in that salvific state into which you have been placed. Like a flammable material, if you hold it a long time before the fire it not only will become hot, but it may also catch fire. So can the desire to lead a grace-filled life be inflamed if you hold it as long as you can under the influence of grace.
Therefore estrange yourself from anything that might put out this igniting little flame, and surround yourself with everything that might feed it and fan it into a fire. Go into solitude, pray and think over with yourself how you must be.
In the meager states of grace I have been granted, I can assuredly tell you what causes them to promptly end: the audio from a television, modern music, reading news or social media feeds on the internet, overeating, and talking with someone about anything except for God. To end a state of grace you merely need to get on the internet or eat a big meal.
Does your heart love sin?
A sinner takes care of himself like a tenderly loving mother takes cares of her little child: He is sorry to deny himself anything, to go against himself. He cannot overcome himself, or punish himself for anything. Further the Saviour obliged us to deny everything in the world in order to save our souls: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mk. 8:37)
…self-pity, sensuality, man-pleasing and earthliness (that is, the belief that there is only life on earth) are the characteristic features of a sin-loving heart; they are the deeply rooted inspirers of sin and its chief warriors. We sinners ourselves would not be able to discover them, and if the Saviour did not show them to us, of course we would not know them. Now that they are disclosed, we can see that it must be so. Having fallen from God, man turned to himself, and he was punished with self-pity—this comes essentially from falling into sin. The fallen one is disturbed within; he has fallen from spirit to flesh, and torments himself with sensuality. The main field on which sin reveals itself and rages is in the society of sinning people, where rules and relationships feed and support sin. While all these claims on sin are proceeding successfully, it is called happiness. But while such a course of affairs is only in this life, the future life demands something completely different, about which not a thought is given—it does not fit into the head, even less so does it find sympathy in the heart.
…roots of sin are the inspirers of all thoughts that rise up against a man when he is ready to make a move away from those realm of sin to the side of goodness. A whole swarm of tempting thoughts confuses, terrifies and disrupts. Self-pity cries: “What kind of life is this? I see only labors, burdens, sorrows, and deprivation ahead, and there is no end. It’s like walking through thorns and thistles with bare feet—continuous wounds!” Sensuality raises its protest: “Give up this thing and that thing, and stop doing the other, in other words, everything that I had a taste for, and occupy yourself only with the spiritual! This is uninteresting, dry, unappetizing, lifeless.” “What will they say? They’ll think I’m strange and won’t have anything to do with me. Meanwhile I’ll have to break this and that tie—then what shall I do? And from other quarters I can even expect enmity.” This is the cry of man-pleasing.
Everything sinful is something foreign to us, and therefore we should always separate it from ourselves. Otherwise we will be traitor to our own selves.
When someone tells you they are “happy,” what they’re probably saying is that they are successfully achieving sin. They have an attractive sex partner, are making a lot of money, live in a fun area of town, are satisfied with the number of likes received on their Instagram selfies, eat tasty food, live in comfort, and so on. When someone asks me if I’m happy, a question I receive often, I want to answer, “Happy with what? My fallen nature? My propensity to sin and turn my back against my Creator? Happy at the evil growing in the world? Happy at my disgusting thoughts, my incorrigible heart, my callousness towards my neighbor?” Such an answer would be unacceptable to the hearer: I will be labeled as “crazy” or a “pessimist,” but such is the reality for someone who is concerned about the salvation of their soul.
Achieving unity with God
Mental and heartfelt longing for God, that has come by God’s good will, prepares a person to truly receive God. It is a kind of unity in which, without eradicating human strength and personality, God manifests Himself as one that worketh in him both to will and to do (Phil. 2:13); and the person, according to the Apostle, does not live but Christ lives in him (Gal. 2:20). This is not only the person’s goal, but also the goal of God Himself. All is created in God and endures in God. Free creatures are given over to their own volition, but not finally and not forever, so that they would give themselves to God All-powerful, not making any particular kingdom of themselves independent of God’s kingdom.
“If our human nature is not kept pure or else restored to its original purity by the Holy Spirit, it cannot become one body and one spirit in Christ, either in this life or in the harmonious order of the life to come. For the all-embracing and unifying power of the Spirit does not complete the new garment of grace by sewing on to it a patch taken from the old garment of the passions.” [St. Gregory the Sinaite] The Lord cannot abide there fully, for the dwelling is not yet prepared; it is impossible to pour the grace to the brim, for the vessel is still faulty. Doing that would mean squandering and killing the spiritual treasure in vain.
A free creature, according to his consciousness and determination, acts from his own self, but this should not be so. In the kingdom of God there should not be anyone acting from himself; God should be acting in everything. This cannot happen as long as freedom stands for itself—it denies and turns away God’s power. This stubborn resistance to God’s power will only cease when our free, or self-acting, individual will and activity fall down before Him; when we pronounce the resolute prayer: “Do Thou, O Lord, do in me as Thou wilt, for I am blind and weak.”
Preparing yourself for God’s judgment
…with the knowledge of your sinful life, you saw that you were unable to answer for yourself and came to contrition; do not cease now to stand mute before God’s face. Judge yourself always and in everything without any self-justification or deceitful evasion. Hate your will, desires and reasoning. See yourself hanging over the abyss and unworthy to be spared.
“I am worthy of every judgment and torment, but for the sake of God’s boundless desire for our salvation, out of which even His Only-begotten Son was not spared, I will not despair of my salvation. I do not know when and how, but I believe that I will be saved. Only Lord, let me struggle throughout my life, seeking salvation and Thee, in the hope that Thou wilt not neglect to help me, for the sake of Thy mercy and the intercessions of the God-pleasers. O Thou Who knowest the hearts, save me!” This is the right feeling! These feelings can all be fittingly called activity of spiritual life. And truly, when they are present, it means that spiritual life is happening.
Components of the fruitful spiritual life
For the mind: 1) Reading and hearing the Word of God, the writings of the Holy Fathers and the Lives of the God-pleasers. 2) Studying and impressing upon yourself all the God-given truths in brief statements (the catechesis). 3) Asking questions of those older and more experienced. 4) Mutual informative discourse with friends.
For the will: 1) Submission to the whole church rule. 2) Submission to civil order, or to family duty, for they are conduits of God’s will. 3) Obedience to God’s will as manifested in your fate. 4) Obeying your conscience in the doing of good deeds. 5) Subjecting yourself to the spirit that is zealous to fulfill its vows.
For the heart: 1) Attending holy Church services. 2) Prayer, as specified by the Church; home prayer rule. 3) Using holy crosses, icons and other sacred substances and objects. 4) Observing holy customs established and promoted by the Church.
For the body in general. Wear out (muscular), constrain (nervous system) and emaciate yourself (the stomach). It is obvious how through these ascetic practices the body little-by-little returns to its natural state, becomes alive and strong (muscular), bright and pure (nervous system), light and free. It becomes a most capable instrument of our spirit and a worthy temple of the Holy Spirit.
If you do only 10% of the above list, you will be labeled an extremist in no time. Secular family members will conduct an intervention to tear you away from the “cult” you have joined to re-enter life and be “happy” with the joys of nihilistic materialism.
Leave the world behind
…leaving the world does not mean running away from the family or society, but abandoning the morals, customs, rules, habits and demands that are entirely antithetical to the Spirit of Christ which has entered and ripens within us. Citizenship and family life are blessed by God; therefore we should not turn away from them or have contempt for them, nor for anything belonging to their essential good order. But everything lustful and passionate that has come into them like a malignant tumor that tempts them should be held in contempt and renounced.
The vain, passion-soaked world is inevitably transmitted to our souls, and arouses or infuses passions. Just as one who walks near soot turns black, or as one who touches fire gets burned, so does the one who participates in worldly things become embued with passions hateful to God. Therefore, when the penitent comes back to the world he falls again, and innocently becomes depraved. This is almost inescapable. The mind is immediately darkened; he becomes forgetful, weak, captive and plundered. Then once the heart has been wounded there follows passion and action, and the man has fallen. Witnesses to this whole history of depravation, as well as witnesses to how necessary and inevitable it is to abandon all of this, are those converts who flee all of these customs as if they were fire.
This is the law: Abandon everything that is dangerous to the new life, whatever ignites passions, brings vanity and extinguishes spirit. And how many such things there are! Let the measure of this be each person’s heart, sincerely seeking salvation without deceit and not only for show. Now is the time to cease from all theaters, balls, dances, music, singing, travels, strolls, acquaintances, jokes, sarcasm, laughter, and idle time. It is time even to change the time or arising from bed, sleep, eating and so on. At other times and in different places it may be otherwise. But the measuring stick is always the same: Abandon what is harmful and dangerous to life, whatever extinguishes the spirit.
The thought that you could live like a Christian while holding on to the world and worldliness is an empty, deluded thought. Whoever lives by this thought will never learn anything more than pharisaism and imaginary life, that is, he will be Christian only in his own opinion, and not in fact. At first he will destroy with one hand what he created with another, that is, what he gathered while away from the world will be stolen from him at his first re-entrance into it. From this it is a direct path to opinion, for what was stolen from the heart may still remain in the memory and imagination.
Nevertheless it is a frightening prospect. “How can I leave the world?” one may say. It is only frightening superficially, while inwardly leaving the world means entering paradise. From the outside there appears only hatred, sorrows and loss. So what to do? Fortify yourself with patience. What is more valuable—the world or your soul, time or eternity?
Ouch. These are hard sayings that strike my conscience. I like being idle, making jokes, and wasting time with non-spiritual pursuits, but here Saint Theophan is telling me that I’m choosing them over my salvation. I believe him, but I’m weak. If one day I pray a little extra, or stand in a long church service, I’m “tired” and want to relax with my smartphone or a delicious meal. For every spiritual step I take, I insist on a worldly reward here and now, because I’m too impatient for the heavenly reward.
Confess your sins as you go
Make a confession minute by minute, that is, every impure and blameworthy thought, desire, feeling and movement confess as soon as you realize it to the all-seeing God with contrition of spirit; and ask forgiveness for it and the strength to avoid it in the future. Ask that you be cleansed from all impurity in that moment. This activity is very salvific. It is like wiping your eyes as you walk against the dust, and it requires strict attention to the heart.
Of course you must also confess your sins during the sacrament of confession.
Man is totally passionate until he converts. At conversion the spirit, being filled with zeal, is pure. But the soul and the body remain passionate. When the cleansing and healing has begun, the soul and body resist and fight for their lives against the spirit that persecutes them. These attacks usually come through soul-related and bodily powers; they strike at the spirit, for through it are these powers estranged. But sometimes there are movements aimed directly at the spirit. These are the fiery arrows that the enemy shoots from his physical-emotional/psychological ambush at the prisoner escaping from his tyranny. Regardless of the fact that there is a part of us which is healed and whole, the attacks of sin and passions are obvious and felt throughout our existence.
The Lord allows [tempting thoughts] with the special intention of purifying us, in order to test and confirm our devotion, faith and constancy, and to more intelligently create our inner man. Therefore we must cheerfully endure them, even if they are too grievous for a newly grace-filled heart. These are temptations such as blasphemy, despair, and unbelief. The main thing is to never incline towards them, never adopt them, and to keep the heart free from them, separating them from yourself and your freedom of thought and faith.
A bad thought tempts, but a good-appearing one deludes. Whoever is carried away by the first is considered to have sinner or fallen, but whoever is carried away by the second is in a state of delusion. Is it possible to portray all delusions in all their beginnings and characteristics? Their foremost characteristic is that a person assuredly considers himself to be something he is not—for example, called to teach others, capable of an extraordinary life, and so on. Their source is the very subtle thought, “I am something, and something not unimportant…” The zero thinks of himself as something. The enemy clings to this very subtle pride and ensnares the man.
One of the major points I learned from The Path To Salvation is that the externals of prayer, prostrations, church attendance, and scriptural readings should all support the internals of repentance, humility, zeal, compunction, and self-denial. If you are doing the externals only, but do not have an inward spiritual struggle, your efforts are being done in vain. Always check your external behavior to see if it’s improving the internal.
As you can probably discern from the above passages, The Path To Salvation is not an easy book. I would not recommend it to those who aren’t already in the Orthodox Church, because the “Orthodox mind” is helpful to put the teachings in context and not fall into despair from some occasional hard sayings. That said, this is an incredibly useful resource on learning how to develop an Orthodox faith that saves.
Learn More: The Path To Salvation on Amazon