by St. Fr. Justin Popovich
It is very difficult for infinite and eternal life to make its way into the narrow human soul and into the even narrower human body. Held behind bars, the inhabitants of this earth suspiciously stand their ground against anything coming from without. Cast into this prison of time and space they are unable—from atavism or perhaps from inertia—to bear being penetrated by something outlasting time and outlying space, something that is eternal. Such an invasion is considered as aggression and they respond with war. A man, given the fact that he is being corrupted by the “moth” of time, does not like the intrusion of eternity into his life and cannot easily adapt himself to it. He often considers this intrusion sheer unforgivable insolence. At times he might become a hardened rebel against eternity as in its face he perceives his own minuteness; at other times he experiences fierce hatred towards it as he views it through an earthbound and worldly human prism. Plunged bodily into matter, bound by the force of gravity to time and space, his spirit quite divorced from eternity, the world-weary man takes no pleasure in those arduous expeditions towards the eternal. The chasm between time and eternity is quite unbridgeable for him because he lacks the capacity to cross it. Thoroughly besieged by death, he covers with scorn all those who say to him, “Man is immortal; he is eternal.” Immortal in what respect? In his weak body? Eternal in what respect? In his feeble spirit?
In order to be immortal, a person must, at the very core of self, feel himself immortal. For him to be eternal, in the center of self consciousness he must know himself eternal. Without this, both immortality and eternity will be conditions imposed from the outside. And if at one time man did have this sense of immortality and awareness of eternity, it has long ago wasted away under the weight of death. And we learn of this wasting away from the whole mysterious makeup of human beings. Our whole problem lies in how we might rekindle that extinguished feeling and revive the wasted-away awareness. Human beings are not able to do this; it must be done by God, who incarnated His immortal and eternal Self inside man’s self awareness when He was made man and became God-human. Christ incarnate bridged the chasm between time and eternity and restored relations between them, so that in Christ, through his body the Church, man can once more feel himself immortal and know himself eternal.
The ever-living personality of God-human Christ is the Church. The Church’s life, purpose, spirit, plan, and ways are all given in the person of Christ. The mission of the Church is to make every one of her faithful organically one with the Person of Christ. Through the Church, our sense of self is turned into a sense of Christ and our self-knowledge (self-awareness) into Christ-knowledge (Christ-awareness); our life becomes life in Christ and for Christ and our personality becomes personality in Christ and for Christ; and within us begins to live not ourselves but Christ in us (Gal 2:10). The mission of the Church is to form in her members the conviction that human personhood is properly composed of immortality and eternity and that man is a wayfarer wending his way in the sway of mortality and time towards immortality and eternity.
The Church is God-human, eternity incarnated within the boundaries of time and space. She is here in this world, but not of this world (John 18:3), in order to raise it on high where she herself has her origin. The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and the Holy Ghost to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of being and doing. Her ecumenical, all-embracing purpose is beyond nationality to unite all men in Christ without exception to nation or race or social strata. “There is neither Greek nor Jew, their is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), because “Christ is all, and in all.” The means and methods of this God-human union of all in Christ have been provided by the Church through the holy sacraments and in her God-human works (ascetic exertions, virtues). And so it is that in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the ways of Christ and the means of uniting all people are composed and defined and integrated. Through this mystery man is made organically one with Christ, and with all the virtues of faith, prayer, fasting, love, meekness, and giving alms, a man is consolidated in this union and preserves himself in its sanctity, personally experiencing Christ both as the unity of his personality and as the essence of his union with other members of the body of Christ, the Church.
The Church as the personhood of Christ, is a God-human organism and not a human organization. As Christ is indivisible, so is his body the Church, and it is a fundamental error to divide the God-human organism of the Church into little national organizations. In the course of their procession down through history, many local Churches have limited themselves to nationalism, to national methods and aspirations, ours (Russian) among them. The Church has adapted herself to the people when it should properly be the reverse: the people adapting themselves to the Church. This mistake has been made many times by our Church. But we very well know that these were the “tares” of our Church life, tares which the Lord will not uproot, leaving them rather to grow with the wheat until the time of harvest (Matt. 13, 29-30). We also well know (the Lord so taught us) that these tares have their origin in the devil, our primeval enemy and the enemy of Christ (Matt. 13, 25-28). But we wield this knowledge in vain if it is not transformed into prayer, the prayer that in time to come Christ will safeguard us from becoming the sowers and cultivators of such tares ourselves.
It is time—the twelfth hour—for our Church representatives to cease being nothing but the servants of nationalism and for them to become bishops and priests of the One, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The mission of the Church, given by Christ and put into practice by the Holy Fathers, is this: that in the soul of our people be planted and cultivated a sense and awareness that every member of the Orthodox Church is a Catholic Person, an eternal person, a person who is God-human and is Christ’s and is therefore a brother to every human being, a ministering servant to all men and all created things. This is the Christ-given objective of the Church. Any other objective is not of Christ but the Antichrist. For our local Church to be the Catholic Church of Christ, this objective must be brought forward continuously among our people. The means of accomplishing this objective are themselves God-human because a God-human objective can be brought about exclusively by God-human means. It is on this point that the Church differs radically from anything which is human or of this earth.
These means are none other than the ascetic exertions and virtues and they can be successfully practiced only by God-human, Christ-bearers. God-human virtues exist in an organic kinship, each having its source in the other as they bring one another to completion.
First among the ascetic virtues is the effort of faith: The souls of our people must constantly pass through this exertion. These souls may then be given up to Christ with no reservations and without compromises, having extended down to the God-human depths and ascended to the God-human heights. It is essential to create in our people the sense that the faith of Christ is a virtue beyond nationhood, is ecumenical, catholic, and trinitarian, and entails believers in Christ waiting on Christ, and only on Christ, with every event of their lives.
The second ascetic virtue is the God-human virtue of prayer and fasting. This virtue must become the way of life of our Orthodox people, the souls of their souls, because prayer and fasting are the all-powerful, Christ-given means of purging not only the human personhood but also society, the people, and the human race at large of every defilement. Prayer and fasting are able to cleanse our people’s souls from our defilements and sinning. The souls of our people must fall in step with the Orthodox life of prayer. Prayer and fasting are not to be performed merely for the individual, or for one people, but for everyone and everything (“in all and for all”), for friends and enemies, for those who persecute us and those who put us to death, because that is how Christians are to be distinguished from the Gentiles.
The third God-human virtue is love, that love which knows no bounds, which does not question who is worthy and who is not but loves them all; loving friends and enemies as well as sinners and evildoers, without however loving their sins and crimes. It blesses the accursed and shines on both the evil and the good as does the sun (Matt. 5: 44-46). This God-human love must be cultivated in our people because its catholic character is what sets it apart from all self-proclaimed and relative loves ––among them the pharisaic, the humanistic, the altruistic, and the nationalistic––and from animal love. The love of Christ is all-embracing love, always. By prayer it is acquired because it is a gift of Christ. The Orthodox heart prays with intensity “Lord of love, this love of Thine for everyone and for all things—give it to me!”
The fourth ascetic virtue is the God-human virtue of meekness and humility. Only he who is meek at heart can appease fierce hearts that are in uproar. Only he who is lowly in heart can humble proud and haughty souls. But a person can show all “meekness unto all men” (Tit. 3:2) only when he turns his heart of hearts into the Lord Jesus who is “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). The soul of the person must be rendered meek by Christ’s meekness. The Lord humbled himself with the greatest humility—he was incarnate and became a man. Should you be of Christ, humble yourself as a worm and embed your flesh in the pain of all who are in pain, of everyone found in sorrow and grief, in the trial of everyone who is impassioned and thus tormented, and in the trauma of every animal and bird. Humble yourself lower than them all and be all things to all men, but be of Christ and according to Christ. When you are by yourself, pray: “O humble Lord, by your humility, humble me! Meek, gentle Lord, assuage my fierce soul!”
The fifth ascetic virtue is the God-human virtue of patience. The patient endure ill-use, do not render evil for evil, and forgive in total compassion all assault, slander, and hurt. To be of Christ is to feel yourself perpetually crucified to the world and persecuted by it, violated and spat upon. The world will not tolerate Christ-bearing men just as it would not tolerate Christ. Martyrdom is the state in which a Christian brings forth fruit. For the Orthodox, martyrdom is purification. Being Christian does not simply mean to bear suffering cheerfully but to pardon in compassion those who cause it and to pray for them as did Christ and the archdeacon Stephen. And so, pray “Long-suffering Lord, give me forbearance, make me magnanimous and meek!”
Our Church’s mission is to infuse these God-human virtues and ascetic exertions into the people’s way of living. For therein lies salvation from the world and from all the soul-destroying, death-dealing, and Godless organizations of the world. In response to the sophisticated atheism and refined cannibalism of contemporary civilization we must give place to those Christ-bearing personalities, who with the meekness of sheep will put down the roused lust of wolves, and with the harmlessness of doves will save the soul of the people from cultural and political putrefaction. We must execute ascetic effort in Christ’s name in response to the cultural exercising which is performed in the name of the decayed and disfigured modern way of being, in the name of atheism, civilization, or various Christless ideologies. The call within our Church today should be to return to the way of the Christ-bearing ascetics and to the Holy Fathers, among them Saints Anthony, Athanasios, Basil, Gregory, Sergios and Seraphim of the Russians, Savva, Prochios, and Gabriel of the Serbs, and others like them because it was the God-human virtues that formed their saintliness. Today only Orthodox ascetic efforts and virtues can bring about sanctity in every soul, for as Christ is the same yesterday, today and unto all ages (Heb 13:8) so is the means by which the Church makes Christians. Whereas the human world is transient and time-bound, that of Christ is ever whole. for evermore.
Orthodoxy will always generate ascetic rebirth. The ascetics are Orthodoxy’s only missionaries. Asceticism is her only missionary school. Orthodoxy is ascetic effort and it is life, and it is thus by effort and by life that her mission is broadcast and brought about. The development of asceticism ought to be the inward mission of our Church amongst our people, and the parish must become the ascetic focal point by prayer and fasting and the liturgical life. The parish community must be regenerated and in Christ-like and brotherly love must minister humbly to Him and to all people. This much is groundwork and indispensable. But to this end there exists a prerequisite––that our bishops, priests, and monks become ascetics themselves. That this might be, then, let us beseech the Lord. IC
Adapted from the article The Inward Mission of Our Church found at