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Understanding Bloody Struggles, Despair, and Freedom on the Spiritual Plane

November 4, 2012

“These are the times that try men’s souls…the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we may obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods.  It would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.” — Thomas Paine

Without a struggle and shedding your blood, don’t expect freedom from the passions. Our earth produces thorns and thistles after the Fall. We have been ordered to clean it, but only with much pain, bloody hands, and many sighs are the thorns and thistles uprooted. So weep, shed streams of tears, and soften the earth of your heart. Once the ground is wet, you can easily uproot the thorns.”— Elder Joseph

It is striking how human experience seems to teach similar lessons on different planes of being. Thomas Paine was speaking about the freedom of individuals in society with hardened structures of oppression, whereas the Elder Joseph was speaking about the freedom of the soul from the strictures of the passions. In both cases, freedom and a new state of being require bloody struggles that try our souls. Success requires both continued motivation fed by looking towards the celestial beauty of the ultimate goal and a realistic commitment to the practical difficulties inherent in a struggle that can bear fruit.

Many writers today mix quotations from different sources, but such mixing for the sake of making interesting comparisons does not always make the texts more comprehensible. In fact, the very similarity between such passages can hinder a person from properly appreciating spiritual matters. At first glance, the costly freedom of Thomas Paine seems more palatable than that of the Elder Joseph. But we must remember that in the spiritual realm, words need to be stretched in order to convey meanings that can hardly be held by such weak human vessels. They also need to be situated within the fabric of revelation in order to resonate properly. A common mistake people make is to compare two texts as though they exist on the same plane, when in fact they don’t. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I tried to keep the two planes distinct.

Now, many of the words in Elder Joseph’s passage—“shedding blood,” “bloody hands,” “much pain,” and “many sighs”— may seem repugnant to some. But if you bring to mind the Lord Christ’s “blood of the new testament, which is shedfor many for the remission of sins,” if you recall His “being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” if you remember that “unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to sufferfor his sake,” the struggle becomes sweeter and nobler, and that field of our soul becomes all the more precious and worthy of hard work. Then, the “hard sayings” of the Elder Joseph become a balsam as well and can begin to be understood.

Part of  Elder Joseph’s text indicates that changing bad habits is a hard and painful exercise. The Elder Joseph the Hesychast, however, also lets the believer in on a secret: tears of repentance can make the endeavor easier and even fill the soul with a joyful gladness. When we reach the point of spiritual tears, all we can think about is how to make right all the things we have done wrong. When such a thought is lodged in the soul, that powerful thought can be used to stop us whenever we feel ourselves drawn by trite thoughts suggesting that we respond in a sinful way or according to the dictates of our bad habits and passions. These tears also clarify our vision as a rain cleans the atmosphere of dust and debris. And with the clarified vision of the truly repentant heart, the believer recognizes how far he is from the beauty of his Creator and uncovers other passions and bad habits that need to change to reach his blessed goal.  In his work Christ Our Way and Our Life, Archimandrite Zacharias points out, “For the arduous and demanding practice of inner prayer, the hesychast draws strength from grace-given despair. The more his awareness of his sinfulness deepens, and the more desperate his profound feeling of estrangement from God becomes, the more energy he will have to call upon the name of Jesus.  This despair can come close to the fearful boundaries of madness, but it generates fervent prayer, which causes the whole man to cry out for his salvation.  Hence someone who practices inner prayer must be firmly established on the way of Christ, that is, on the downward path, inspired by the Holy Spirit; this purifies him radically from the consequences of Adam’s sin.”

This so-called “charismatic despair” leaves no room for thoughts or cares of this world. It’s the beginning of a radical purging of the mind and the nous so that its own perception of distance from God drives the believer to his knees in repentance, so that God can lift up the humbled and purified soul with His compassion and grace. And though this state is described as charismatic despair, it has nothing to do with clinical depression that generates lethargy and a world closing in on all sides, for charismatic despair generates energy and the awareness of horizons that open up into the infinity of divine beauty. Likewise this state may be described as “close to the fearful boundaries of madness,” but there is no psychotic break from reality, but rather a rare clarity that sees what is the one thing needful and does whatever it must to obtain it. Ultimately, words are poor conveyers of spiritual experiences and can be misconstrued. Thomas Payne and the Elder Joseph or the Archimandrite Zacharias and modern theories of psychopathology are not really talking about the same thing. But remembering the example of Christ, adopting the way of repentance and cultivating godly tears can lead to that state where one understands what is intended and glorifies God for the gift.

  1. Would this explain Christ’s words on the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Was this the ultimate expression, for our sakes, of “charismatic despair”? Or am I completely off-base?

  2. Ventseslav Hadjiiliev permalink

    Bless me father Alexis!

    I and my mother think that Your prayer for us has evident results. Some new spiritual joy and energy came into me and my phamily.Thank You for them and the wise words giving hope! If it is possible have us in Your holly prayers in the future too! I am trying to make some efforts but still not too decively. Bless us!

    with great respect :

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