One year ends, another begins.
Behind us are the spiritual mountains we have climbed, before us those we must climb if we are to endure in the faith.
It is a difficult journey, one that requires close attention to each step we take. The right steps lead you deeper into life in Christ, the wrong steps to demons and the abyss below.
Life as a Christian is a never-ending journey up one mountain after another, year after year. Or, as the twentieth-century Orthodox priest Elder Sergei of Vanves (1903-1987) says: “The spiritual life is a long-term thing. You have to be ready to battle ‘the old man’ within yourself for the rest of your life.”
The French Orthodox philosopher and theologian Jean-Claude Larchet has compiled 310 of the elder’s sayings in Elder Sergei of Vanves: Life and Teachings (Divine Ascent Press). The Elder’s comment on the length of the spiritual life, which refers to our shedding of the ways of Adam to put on the cloak of Christ, is number 283.
Larchet’s book also includes a short biography and an explanation of the elder’s principal teachings, a fine distillation of Orthodox spirituality.
Among Elder Sergei’s themes are repentance, prayer, living the commandments, and fighting the passions. He also speaks about psychology and mental illness, particular interests of Larchet’s, and so has good advice about the dangers that confront us today.
Larchet’s short biography is far more fascinating than this brief sketch and gives us insight into the life of a model priest, confessor, spiritual father, and worthy successor of the apostles and the Church Fathers.
As the son of a Russian army officer and grandson of the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands, Kyril Shevich’s early years were far more comfortable than that of the average Russian. Even so, his life was hardly free from difficulty.
During the Russian Revolution, his family was forced into exile and eventually settled in Paris, where as an adult Shevich came to know a number of the important thinkers of his time, including the theologian Vladimir Lossky and philosopher Jacques Maritain.
As he grew in the faith he corresponded with the later Saint Silouan the Athonite, who gave him his blessing to become a monk. A letter from Silouan to Shevich is included in the book Saint Silouan, the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, who also became a friend of Elder Sergei’s.
Larchet calls Silouan’s advice to Shevich prophetic, noting that Silouan commanded the aspiring monk to: “Go and tell the people as much as possible, ‘Repent!’”
Evidence of how the Elder Sergei fulfilled Silouan’s prophetic advice is found in his sayings: “Repentance is the key to the spiritual life….We must repent not only for our own sins, but also for sin in its entirety, for the state that has encompassed the whole world since the Fall.” (286, 287)
Along with hundreds of other Russian emigres, Shevich was arrested and imprisoned in a concentration camp in France. Scripture and prayer helped him survive the camps: “This bitter ordeal of the camps caused him to feel in a deep way the existential limitations and the ultimate tragedy of earthly life….Kyrill spent the whole of his internment at Vernet in reading and meditation on the Bible in its entirety, and in deepening his practice of the Jesus Prayer….”
After his release from the camps, he finally became a monk as he had desired, and in 1945 was ordained a priest. Over time, he became spiritual father of the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, iconographer monk Father Gregory Krug, Lossky, and Larchet himself.
While his personal story is inspiring, his sayings to his spiritual children make this book essential reading for anyone seeking advice for spiritual battle.
It seems appropriate that the first saying included in the book is a concise definition of prayer: “Prayer is our very breath.” (1)
Elder Sergei continues with this the theme, saying: “Every action, every job should be accomplished in a spirit of prayer.” (3)
Prayer is our breath and should be central to our lives, he reminds us, because of our true purpose in life: “The purpose of life must be to live in communion with God.”( 9)
Saying or believing you have faith is not enough. Prayer is essential: “Faith is a state of being, not an idea about God. Our soul must be cemented to our faith, and only prayer can do this for us.” (251)
Prayer must become a habit: “Prayer must absolutely be regular. Just as water falls on a rock and bit by bit cuts into the rock, prayer will penetrate into your soul.” (249)
Prayer, in fact, is life: “Prayer is the life of the soul, just as air is for the body.” (291)
Prayer also is more important than thinking: “A good rule for living: Pray more, think less.” (299)
For those who struggle to go to work each day, and who grow tired of their employers telling them they must love their job and their company, Elder Sergei has this advice:
“It is normal not to be excited about your job….we are not here on this earth to be excited….We should experience pleasure only while going about spiritual tasks. Our job should be more a test or ascesis for us, not the main focus of our lives. Work should be something that teaches us patience. It is not a sin to dislike your job, as long as this dislike does not become an obsession or something that affects you inwardly….always be a diligent worker and try to do everything well, so that no one at your job will suffer because of your lack of interest….always show kindness to everyone you work with. Going about your job this way is also a path to humility….” (281)
He reminds us, too, that while our battle is with the world, we must be careful about how we fight the world: “Fight the world not with the ways of the world, but with the ways of God.” (83)
To know how to fight the world, turn to Scripture: “The foundation of everything is the teaching of the Gospel. The Gospel is the basic program for our spiritual life.” (284)
As we climb each spiritual mountain, we cannot be distracted by the past: “Live one day at a time. Forget about what happened yesterday or in the past. Live each day as though it were your last.” (196)
And while we must look to see where we are going, we must be attentive to what we are doing as we take each step on our journey:
“It is necessary to prepare for the future. However, we prepare for the future by preparing for the present and living in the present moment. It is the present moment that defines the future. It is what we do today that defines and prepares us for what we will have tomorrow….” (242)
Elder Sergei of Vanves defeated the old man within him on his climb up the spiritual mountains of his life. His sayings teach us how to do the same. They are trail markers that point the way to life in Christ.