St. Innocent of Alaska
The first duty of a Christian, of a disciple and follower of Jesus Christ, is to deny oneself. To deny oneself means: to give up one’s bad habits, to root out of the heart all that ties us to the world…to be dead to sin and the world, but alive to God.
A Christian’s second duty is to take up one’s cross. The word “cross” means sufferings, sorrows and adversities. To “take up one’s cross” means to accept without complaint everything unpleasant, painful, sad, difficult and oppressive that may happen to us in life. In other words, to bear all laughter, scorn, weariness, sorrow and annoyance from others; to bear all poverty, misfortune, illness, without regarding yourself as offended. And if, when you are bearing your cross according to the will of God, a proud thought suggests to you that you are not weak like others, but that you are firm, pious and better, root out such thoughts as far as you can for they ruin all your virtues.
Now there are “external” crosses and “interior” crosses. All the above mentioned “crosses” are external and the Lord will not let the man perish who struggles to bear them wisely. The Holy Spirit will strengthen and guide him and lead him further. But in order to become holy and be like Jesus Christ, merely external crosses are not enough. Outward crosses without interior ones are of no more use than exterior prayer without interior prayer. Outward crosses are borne not only by Christians, but by everyone! There is not a man on earth who hasn’t suffered is some way or another. But whoever wants to follow Jesus must bear interior crosses as well.
Interior crosses can be found at all times, and more easily than exterior ones. Direct your attention to yourself with a sense of penitence, and a thousand interior crosses will spring up! For instance, consider: How did you come to be in this world? Do you live as you ought to? Ask yourself these questions sincerely and you will see that you are the creation and work of God and that you exist solely in order to glorify Him with all your acts, your life, your whole being. But not only do you not glorify Him, but you anger and dishonor Him by your sinful life! Then consider: What awaits you on the other side of your grave? On which side will you stand at the time of Christ’s judgement, on the left or the right? Have you even thought of the eternal separation from God that is Hell? Have you scarcely given one thought to Paradise which the Lord has prepared for you? Have you ever thought that you are depriving yourself of its eternal blessings through carelessness and stupidity? If you begin to reflect in this way, you will undoubtedly begin to be alarmed and disquieted. Don’t try to drive away such thoughts through empty worldly diversions and entertainments for the are profitable for you. In fact, you will find still more crosses!
We can never see the state of our souls in all its nakedness without the special help and grace of God because the interior of our souls is always hidden from us by our own self-love, passions, worldly cares, delusions. What little we see is only superficial and no more that what reason and conscience can show us. The enemy, Satan, tries to keep us blind to ourselves so that we will be prevented from running to God and seeking salvation. But if he cannot discourage us from seeking God, the devil tries another trick. He tries to show us our soul in all its weakness and sin in order to tempt us to despair, for he knows that few of us would stand firm if we saw the really extremely dangerous condition of our souls.
Now when the Lord leads us to knowledge of ourselves, we will certainly be filled with fear and sorrow because we have for so long stubbornly closed our ears to His gentle voice calling us to the Kingdom of God. But the Lord will not tempt us with despair, for any sin can be erased through repentance. But as the Lord reveals to us the state of our souls, what interior crosses we must bear! Just as not all people have the same virtues and the same sins, so interior crosses are not the same for all. For some they are more oppressive, and for others less: for some they come in one way, and for others quite differently. Everything depends on the person’s state of soul, just as the length and method of curing a physical illness depends on the patient’s condition. It is not a doctor’s fault if he must sometimes use very powerful medicine for a prolonged period to cure an illness which the patient himself may have irritated and increased! Whoever wants to be well will consent to bear everything!
Such interior crosses sometimes seem so heavy that no consolation can be found anywhere. Should you find yourself in such a state, or whatever sufferings of the soul you may feel, do not despair or think that the Lord has abandoned you. No! He will always be with you and strengthen you even when it seems to you that you are on the very brink of perdition. He will never allow you to be tempted more than He sees fit. Don’t be afraid, but with full submission surrender to Him, have patience and pray. For He is always our Father, and a very loving Father. And if He leads a person into sufferings or lays crosses upon him, it is in order to make him realize his own weakness and to teach him never to trust in himself and that no one can do anything good without God. It is only to heal his soul, to make him like Jesus Christ, to purify his heart, so that it will be a fit dwelling for the Holy Spirit.
Blessed, a hundred times blessed, is the person whom the Lord grants to bear interior crosses because they are the true healing of soul, a special favor of God, and they show His care for our salvation. Blessed is that man, for he has attained a state of grace impossible to attain without God’s assistance, and which we, to our harm, do not even consider necessary! If you bear your sufferings with submission and surrender to the will of God, He will not abandon you and will not leave you without consolation. And if the Lord grants you such peace and consolation, allowing to experience the sweetness of His grace, do not think this is given because you have attained sanctity. Such thoughts come from pride and can make their appearance even when a person has the power to work miracles! These consolations are the mercy and grace of God alone, Who grants you to taste what He has prepared for those who love Him, so that you will be strengthened for fresh troubles and sufferings and so that you will seek Him with greater zeal.
The third duty of a disciple of Christ is to follow Him. To follow Jesus means to act and live as He did upon the earth.
Jesus always gave thanks and praise to God, His Father, and prayed to Him. We, too, must praise Him and love Him both openly and privately.
Jesus honored Him immaculate Mother and His foster-father. In the same way we should honor and obey our parents and teachers, not irritating them or grieving them by our behavior.
Jesus loved everyone and was kind to all. So too, we should love our neighbor and endeavor, as far as possible, to be on good terms with all (without compromising our faith) and do good to them by word, deed, or thought.
Jesus willingly surrendered Himself to suffering and death. So too, we should not avoid the sufferings of life, or allow them to drive us to despondency, but we should bear them with humility and surrender to God.
Jesus forgave His enemies all that they did to Him. He did them every kind of good and prayed for their salvation. By bearing wrongs without complaint, without revenge and with love you will act as a true Christian (Mt. 5:44)
Being humble in heart, Jesus never sought or desired praise from others. And we should never pride ourselves on anything at all. For example, if you do good to others, give alms, if you are more pious than others, more intelligent, wealthier, etc., this has absolutely nothing to do with you, but has come as a gift of God – only sins and weaknesses are your own, and all the rest is God’s.
To follow Jesus means to obey the word of Jesus Christ. We must listen to, believe and practice what we hear in the Gospel without pretense and in simplicity of heart. Only if we listen intently to His word and struggle to carry its directives in our lives will we become true disciples of Jesus Christ.
And so this is what it means to deny oneself, to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus Christ. This is the true straight way into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the way by which Jesus Himself went while He lived on earth, and by which we Christians must go. There never was and never will be another way.
Certainly this way is rough, narrow and thorny, and seems especially so at the beginning. But on the other hand, it leads straight to Paradise, to the Heavenly Kingdom, to God Who is the Source of all true life. Sorrowful in this way, yet for every step we take along it thousands of spiritual rewards lie ahead, of which the world knows nothing. The sufferings on this way are not eternal, and one can say that they are even no more than momentary, whereas the rewards for them are unending and eternal, like God Himself. The suffering will become less and lighter from day to day, while grace will increase from hour to hour, throughout infinite eternity.
And so, do not be afraid to follow Jesus Christ. Follow Him, hasten and do not delay! Go while the doors of the heavenly Kingdom remain open to you. And even while you are still a long way off our heavenly Father will come to meet you on the way, will kiss you, will put on you the best garment, and will lead you into His Bridal Chamber where He Himself dwells with all the holy Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, and all the Saints, where you will rejoice with true and eternal joy. Amen!
This article originally appeared at http://www.stsymeon.com/stinnoc.html