We often use or hear the word “trial” or “temptation”, which appears, for example in the Lords Prayer, and in many spiritual writings of the Church. What do we mean by this word? The trial is anything that leads us to a difficult place or to a crisis; it is anything that places pressure or stress on us, brings us to a dead-end, to a place in which we seem to have only bad choices, or perhaps no choices at all. It could be anything: from illness, the loss of a job, a personal failure, a personal weakness, or a hurtful remark that someone made it to us. It could be anything that strikes at the soul, injures the soul, bruises the heart, crushes the spirit…. In that place of darkness, at the very gates of death, in the depths of hell, in that place of defeat, of failure, only one thing remains: faith in God. Faith that no matter what happens, God has the last word in our life: not other people, but God alone… When we have this faith in mind, God gives us even greater faith. This is when we move from that ” first faith”, … which is that simple sort of “I believe in God … I suppose,” to a kind of faith that is something deeper, a living relationship of trust in God, a living experience of God, an extension of fact or reality of one’s life– indeed, the very entry of God into our consciousness in a real, concrete, and irrevocable way.
This is the kind of faith that St. Maximos the Confessor had, and all the saints had. As it says in a letter to the Hebrews: By faith (the saints) conquered kingdoms, (not the first level of faith, but the second.) By faith they performed acts of righteousness. By faith they have obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection, and others were tortured refusing to accept release. (Heb. 11:33-35)
All of us will pass through trials, Christians and non-Christians alike, but for Christians there is a difference. The non-believer, the person who has no faith, is tried and is tested it is nothing permanent to hold onto, nothing solid or lasting to lean on. He has no place, no foothold, and so he becomes angry, blames God, or falls into despair like the bad seeds. Not so for the man or woman of faith.
Regarding the difficulties we face, St Paisius of Mt. Athos used to say that one day we will thank God for all of them, for in reality they were blessings that brought us closer to God, if we see them with spiritual eyes. If we had spiritual eyes, he says, we would ask for our whole life to be a trial, because of all the benefits and all the grace that comes to us when we are tested. He says the trials benefit us much more than any prayers we could say, any church services we couldn’t attend, or any good deeds we could do. And he famously said that the few years in which he struggled with cancer we’re worth more to him than his whole lifetime of asceticism…
What is the reason for all these things? Why is the history of the Church filled with stories like this? Why should things like this be necessary? God allows difficulties and trials to visit us. Why? So that the life of Christ may be made manifest in us, so that the life of Christ may continue to live and exist on the earth. In our life we all have difficulties, some more, some less. And if we don’t have them today, we’ll have them tomorrow. But we have to know how to face and respond to them: with prayer, with patience, and with gratitude. This is the only way, and any other response is a failure on our part, or rejection of the opportunity for sanctification that God has given us.
There are men and women who have lived on this earth, some of them many centuries ago, whose vital presence seems to have no limit or end. They exist outside the boundaries of the brief historical parenthesis that was their life. Their lives were not like the fleeting light of a falling star, but they remain, they endure and become signs: shining beacons that stand out from the ephemeral relativity of time. When they complete the cycle of their life and leave this physical world, they’re not lost or forgotten. The reality of their presence continues to shine within whatever was true and spirit– filled in their life and work. St. Maximus the Confessor was and is one of these presences, as were all the saints, who, just as Christ promised, are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14), never to be overcome or extinguished by the darkness (cf. John 1:5).
Taken from the Orthodox Word, Vol. 55, Nos. 1-2 (312-313), January-April 2017, St. Maximos the Confessor, Guide to Orthodoxy: Reflections on the Life of St. Maximos the Confessor, Translated by Archimandrite Maximos Contas.
For more insights into the kind of faith, do a search on my blog for the full text of Homily 52 by St. Issac the Syrian.
In Christ with faith and love,