Father Herman was once invited aboard a ship that had docked in Kodiak and during a conversation with those on board he asked them what it was that would bring them the most happiness. Some wanted wealth, others wanted a top ranking job in the Navy, another wanted a beautiful wife, etc. ‘What could be better, higher, more worthy of love and more splendid than Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who created the world, adorns, gives life, sustains, nourishes and loves everything – Who is Himself love. Should we not love God above all things, and wish for and seek Him?’
The reply was, ‘Why that’s obvious, how can we not love God?’ And Father Herman responded ‘I, a poor sinner, have been trying to learn how to love God for more than forty years, and I cannot say that I yet love Him properly. If we love someone, we always remember them, we try to please them continually. Day and night we are concerned about them. Our mind and our heart is concerned with the object of our love. How do you love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and keep His commandments?’ The crew admitted that they did not. ‘Then, for our good and for our happiness, let us all make a vow: at least from this day, this hour, this very minute, we should strive to love God above all else and do His will!’ –The Life of St. Herman of Alaska
If your life is anything like mine, it’s busy. So much happens in college. We can start with the school work: hours of work a day. If you play a sport, there’s a few more hours most if not every day. Throw in a few other organizations, trying to spend time with friends, working a job, figuring out what you’re doing next semester, next year, or with your life in general, and to say you have your hands full may be an understatement.
We have so much stuff to be concerned with, and at some point we are likely to switch to survival mode. We try to just survive each day, avoiding thinking about anything except what needs to be done to survive that moment. Anything that isn’t completely necessary gets dropped out: “I can’t attend this talk because I have to work on this paper.” “I guess I’m only sleeping four hours tonight.” “Lunch isn’t really that important.” “I have to miss Liturgy this Sunday because I have a late event on Saturday.” “I need to skip my prayers tonight because I’m behind on sleep.”
Uh oh. It comes on subtly enough, but in the overwhelming onslaught of life’s craziness, God can get lost sometimes. We may find ourselves in a situation where we slip and fall, doing things that we shouldn’t be, thinking things we shouldn’t think. You, like me, may sometimes find yourself in a situation in which you are putting so much energy into everything that you are doing that you let it distract you from God for even days at a time. You may suddenly see something that puts your mind in a place when you felt close to God, and you realize that you have been completely neglecting your spiritual life.
And that’s our chance. One of the beautiful things about life is that we control whether or not we let the things that we just did affect us. Saint Paul said “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:11-12).
Salvation is happening right now.
It doesn’t matter what we did last year, last week, or even in the past hour: our job is to cast of the works of darkness (right now) and put on the armor of light (immediately).
What an amazing gift! We are going to slip and fall at some point: we will break the fast, we will end up somewhere on the internet where we shouldn’t be, we will knowingly skip our prayers, we will engage in gossip, we will choose to skip church. And the devil will try to get in our heads and say, “Well you’ve already sinned, you might as well keep going and enjoy the pleasure. Go ahead and eat that burger for dinner, you already forgot it was Friday and had meat for lunch. Get five more minutes of sleep instead of praying, you already skipped your prayers last night. Keep talking about your friend behind her back, you’ve already started. Don’t go to church this week, you already skipped last week and haven’t been to confession yet. Spend ten more minutes on this website, you’ve already been here an hour.”
His words will seem so enticing, they will make so much sense. Except we forget that now is the hour of salvation, not next year, not next week, not ten minutes from now. We forget the words of St. Herman saying that we need to strive to love God from this moment, not later. The moment that God grants us the realization that we are doing something wrong, we need to turn back to him immediately.
It’s hard, but God never promised that it would be easy.
However, we make it easier on one another when we do it together. In the words of St. Herman, “Then, for our good and for our happiness, let us [the Orthodox Christian college students of North America] all make a vow: at least from this day, this hour, this very minute, we should strive to love God above all else and do His will!”
May God give us all the strength to live up to that vow, to constantly reevaluate our lives to make sure that everything that we do is for God’s glory.
Paul Murray is a senior psychology major and Spanish minor at Franklin & Marshall College, and he attends Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, PA. His home parish is St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in New Kensington, PA, and he has spent the past three summers serving as a counselor at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh Summer Camp and the Antiochian Village. In his free time, Paul ties prayer ropes and writes descriptions of himself in the third person for blog articles.
From the years of my youth, many passions combat me, but you who are my Savior, assist me and save me. –from the First Antiphon of the Anavathmoi of the Fourth Mode
As the hymn declares, many temptations arise in the soul in one’s youth. There is a certain awakening of passion that was unknown in childhood that comes to life as we approach adulthood. In this vulnerable time, the demons seek to ensnare us by allowing the body to snatch control from the soul so that the natural order intended by God is turned topsy-turvy: instead of the body being led by the soul, the soul becomes a captive to the desires of the body. Another time I’ll write more about this. Today, in continuing with our patron saint theme, I’d like to introduce you to a few saints (among many) who in particular intercede on our behalf when we are attacked by an onslaught of lustful desires.
Before I get started, I’d like to make two little notes on this particular temptation: beware of its pervasiveness on the one hand–plenty of research has shown how pornography, for example, changes the chemical make up of your brain in a similar manner to a drug addiction; and do not despair if it is a difficult struggle for you: you are not alone–many fathers of the church (here’s just one example) attest to the difficulty of overcoming lust, its ability to creep up on you even when you think you have it under control, and the ease with which we are able to fall prey to this temptation even if we have acquired other virtues.
So here are some fellow warriors to help with the battle. All of these saints struggled with lust, especially in their youth, and all of them in turning to Christ, overcame that passion. I’ve included their own prayers for help that I hope you can integrate into your own prayer life as you prayerfully struggle with sexual desire and ask for the intercessions of these saints.
St. Mary of Egypt (April 1) is perhaps one of the most revered and beloved models of repentance in the Orthodox Church. By the end of her life, she was perhaps the greatest spiritual pillar of her time. But her story begins with a young girl interested primarily in parties, socializing, and seducing–a young girl who lost her virginity at twelve and spent the next 17 years pursuing sexual partners to satisfy her lust. When she is eventually drawn to repentance by the Theotokos, she prayed,
O Lady Virgin, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word! I know that I am unworthy to look upon your icon. I rightly inspire hatred and disgust before your purity, but I know also that God became Man in order to call sinners to repentance. Help me, O All-Pure One. Let me enter the church. Allow me to behold the Wood upon which the Lord was crucified in the flesh, shedding His Blood for the redemption of sinners, and also for me. Be my witness before Your Son that I will never defile my body again with the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Cross of your Son, I will renounce the world, and go wherever you lead me.
Many people know and love the story of the bandit who became an Abba of the desert. St. Moses (August 28) was the leader of a band of murderers and robbers who rampaged through Egypt in the early fifth century. When he was turned to repentance by St. Isidore, he struggled for many years with the lingering passions from his former life, especially lustful and violent thoughts. In his struggle, he became incredibly humble, never deigning to judge a brother for his struggle knowing the pervasiveness of his own sinful desires and the destructive consequences they had in his past. There is no particular prayer of St. Moses that I could find, but take courage in this story from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
On one occasion Abba Moses of Patara was engaged in a war against fornication, and he could not endure being in his cell, and he went and informed Abba Isidore of it; and the old man entreated him to return to his cell, but he would not agree. And having said, “Father I cannot bear it,” the old man took him up to the roof of his cell and said unto him, “Look to the west,” and when he looked he saw multitudes of devils with troubled and terrified aspects and they showed themselves in the forms of phantoms with fighting attitudes. Abba Isidore said to him, “Look to the east,” and when he looked he saw innumerable holy angels standing there, and they were in a state of great glory.
Then Abba Isidore said unto him, “Behold those who are in the west are those who are fighting with the holy ones; and those whom you have seen in the east are those who are sent by God to the help of the saints, for those who are with us are many.” And having seen these, Abba Moses took courage and returned to his cell without fear.
St. Justina (October 2) was an amazing woman of fortitude. She was a convert to Christianity as a teenager and brought her parents to belief in Christ as well. She dedicated herself to Christ, refusing a marriage proposal from a suitor. When, through the power of the sorcerer Cyprian, Justina was tempted by multiple demons (during her prayers, nonetheless) to lustfully desire the suitor she had just rejected, she offered up this prayer,
O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, lo, mine enemies have risen up against me and have prepared a snare for my feet! My soul is brought low, but I have remembered Thy name in the night and am made glad. When they compassed me round about, I have fled unto Thee, hoping that mine adversary might not rejoice over me, for Thou knowest, O Lord my God, that I am Thy handmaiden. For Thee have I kept the purity of my body, and to Thee have I entrusted my soul; wherefore, preserve Thou Thy lamb, O good Shepherd. Do not permit the beast which seeketh to devour me to consume me, and grant me to prevail over the evil desires of my flesh.
From the time of his youth, St. John (September 28) was tormented by sexual desires. No ascetical feat seemed to be a match for the passion that raged in him. Even when he became a recluse, still he struggled greatly with lust, and the devil did his best to shake St. John’s determination to overcome this passion–so much so that he sent a serpent to terrify him and frighten him into forsaking his seclusion. On Pascha night, in the midst of these torments and his own temptations, St. John cried out to Christ,
O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I am not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.