“There seems to be a new normal where sin has become almost inevitable for most of us … For some reason — which in part due to us, in part due to the wisdom of God — the new normal for our generation seems to be that we keep on falling, we keep on sinning, and we keep on repenting to the best of our ability.”
So begins the video I share with you below, sent to me today by a friend. Yes, it’s by an Orthodox priest, but don’t let that bother you. Not a thing he says herein should offend a Catholic sensibility. In fact, my friend, who is Catholic, has been telling me lately that we could learn some things from the Orthodox – monks in particular – about divine mystery, and the life of prayer. I think after watching this you may agree.
Admittedly, when I first opened the link, I saw the video length of nearly 26 minutes, and immediately felt disinclined to view it. I’m usually busily going through emails and social media responses during the day, reviewing submissions or looking for things to write about, and watching a video for half an hour means stopping all of that to just sit still and listen. I cannot multitask, or I’ll wind up doing a bad job of both listening and reading.
But for some reason I watched it anyway. Maybe it was the serenity of his setting. Maybe it was his kind, earnest, unassuming face. Maybe it was because I just want very much to find answers for these deeper questions. Whatever it was, I’m glad I did, because there’s a real wisdom in it.
Fr. Seraphim begins by telling a story he says is taken from the desert fathers, about a vision one of the fathers had concerning three monastic brothers who were standing on the shore of a sea. On the other side of that sea, “they perceived an angel calling them to fly over the sea in order to make it to the kingdom of God.”
“And one by one the first two managed to take flight over the sea with these fiery wings and they just flew over from one side of the sea to the other with those fiery wings until they made it to heaven.”
But the third brother found that he had wings of clay, not fire. He desired to do what the angel commanded and to be with God, but he could not fly much at all, and when he tried, even if he had a little success, he would fall into the water and begin to sink to the bottom, very nearly drowning. And then, he would fight, break free, and struggle back to the surface, fly a little further, only to fall in again. Over and over he battled his inability to fly, falling in, climbing out, progressing, until, at long last, he finally made it to the other side.
“And this father of the desert asked God, ‘What is the meaning of this vision?’ And God told him that the first two brothers were the monastics, the monks who lived in the first generations, whereas the last brother was one of the monks who would live at the end of time. Who would no longer have the wings of fire of the first generation but would struggle to do the most simple things. And yet, through their patience and their determination and through the love and trust they put in God, they will make it to the kingdom. They will be saved, just as the previous two were saved as well.”
Fr. Seraphim says that he believes this story has something to say to our world. And even to those living the monastic life, who, he says, do not just come out of an divine egg, but from the world.
“What happens in the world,” he says, “affects us. It shapes us and who we are as monastics. It’s very much informed by who and how the world is.”
“We are all defined by relationships in this world more than anything we read or anything else, it is the relationships we experience that define us.”
Fr. Seraphim says that there are two defining relationships we have: First, with the world around us. Second, the relationship we manage to develop with God.
The relationship we have with the world, he says, is “very much forming, or deforming, depending on where the world is. Because we are like little drops of water in the sea. It matters very little really how a drop of water wants to be; if I want to be clean, or sweet, a good drinkable drop of water. But I belong to this sea. That might be very difficult for me, because the sea by nature, by its own nature, is salty water.”
So, he says, to a great degree, the way the world is defines the way we are, often regardless of our intentions.
“Spiritually speaking, who we are as a product of the world around us, who we are today, is much lower than who they were a thousand years or sixteen centuries ago. So, because of this relationship with the world, we are much lower, much further away from God.”
The relationship with God himself is affected by this chasm between ourselves and God. Our end result is different than it would have been in these ages of great saints. We feel daunted, even as though it’s impossible, to do what the saints have done “seemingly so easily”.
In an attempt to describe our current distance from God, Father says that he has an image in his mind of “a drowning man, submerged under the water, and that outstretched arm as he’s sinking down, going further and further and further into the depth. And this is how I see myself, and this is how I see a lot of you from confession, and from the things we end up talking about.”
“The positive thing, our hope, our source of eternal hope, is that in this complex set of relationships between ourselves and the world and God, everything changes, everything is changeable. We change. The world changes. But there is one static point. There is one unchangeable, unshakable reality. And that is God and His love for us. The world changes. The world can go up and down spiritually, and because of that relationship with the world we can go up and down from one generation to another. But! The world may change, we may change, but God’s love for us does not change. And His determination to save us. And His mad, mad desire to save us never changes and stays the same because God does not change.”
Father says that what this means is that even though our generation has such a seemingly insurmountable chasm between us and God, God’s unchanging love and desire for us makes Him willing to bridge the gap to save us.
“This is very important, so we do not grow despondent. So that we do not grow hopeless in our hearts. God has become incarnate and has died for us. He will stop at nothing to save us as long as we want that salvation. As long as we freely want Him and accept Him in us.”
There’s a lot more here to unpack, about how this realization about the disadvantages we face doesn’t give us a free pass to sin, for example, or the importance of love in changing us as we turn away from sin.
Admittedly, the 26 minutes didn’t feel burdensome at all:
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.