Trials and afflictions

In the eighteenth century, Saint Kosmas Aitolos exclaimed: “As work according to God is called virtue, so unexpected affliction is called a test.”  The Great and Holy Week of the Church beckons us to confront our trials and afflictions by “look[ing] at the Crucified One” in the words of the elder Epiphanios of the Holy Hermitage of the Graceful Mother of God in Trizina.

It was for this reason that Saint Tikon of Zadonsk concluded:

A real and powerful encouragement in the struggle against sin, and in the holy and Christian life, is the contemplation of the sufferings of Christ. Of this the Apostle says, and if ye call on the Father, Who without respect of persons judges according to every man’s works, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: forasmuch as ye know that ye were redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious Blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Peter 1:17-19). 

“Look, O Christian, at that by which you were delivered from sin, the devil, hell, and eternal death. Not by any perishable substance, but by what? By the most precious and priceless Blood of Christ, the son of God.  Then, of your own will, do you will not wish sin and to offend Christ your great Benefactor with sin, and so cast yourself again into that very misfortune from which Christ delivered you by His most bitter suffering? This is as though someone who loved and pitied you delivered you from fire or drowning, or captivity or death, or prison, or some other such misfortune, and of your own will you gave yourself up again to that same misfortune.

There should be little question then as to our ability to overcome the temptations of sin.  If the Lord has in fact delivered humanity from the bondage of the enemy through His death and Resurrection, all we must do then is cooperate with Him, by His Grace, enduring each and every trial and affliction that befalls us.  Saint John of Kronstadt admonishes us to:

…not fear the conflict, …not [to] flee it.  Where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where faith and love are not tempted, it is not possible to be sure whether they are really present.  They are proved and revealed in adversity, that is, in difficult and grievous circumstances, both outward and inward – during sickness, sorrow, or privations. 

If you do not yourself know and suffer the wiles of the evil spirit, you will not know, and will not value as you ought, the benefits bestowed upon you by the Holy Spirit of God.  Not knowing the spirit that destroys, you will not know the Spirit that gives life.  Only by means of direct contrasts of good and evil, of life and death, can we clearly know and recognize the one and the other.  If you are not subjected to distresses, to the danger of bodily or spiritual death, you will not truly know the Lord, the giver of life, who delivers us from these distresses and from eternal death. 

This is why, as St. John Chrysostom explained, “Affliction was allowed to make those afflicted more careful and more pious.” Fr. Epiphanios therefore concludes, “Events which now seem like misfortunes later on prove to be God’s blessings.”  “[For] if afflictions did not exist, we would not seek Paradise.”

Saint John of Kronstadt considers “Afflictions [to be] a great teacher; they show us our weaknesses, vices, and need of repentance; they cleanse the soul, and sober it, as from drunkenness; they bring down grace, they soften the hard heart, they inspire us with a loathing for sin, and strengthen us in faith, hope and love.”  Possessing God’s Grace and with a spirit of repentance, we are to choose to remain faithful in moments of trial.  “Every affliction,” says St. Kosmas, “tests our will, showing whether it is inclined to good or evil. This is why an unforeseen affliction is called a test, because it enables a man to test his hidden desires.” 

Which of us is to be spared of afflictions and trials?  Too often, we may fall into the trap of thinking that if we are righteous or at least on the path of righteousness, we will be spared of afflictions.  This is not necessarily the case. St. Kosmas reminds us of the trials of Abraham: 

God ‘tested Abraham’ (Gn 22:1-14), that is, God afflicted him for his own benefit, not in order to learn what kind of man Abraham was- for He knew him, since He knows all things before they come into existence- but in order to provide him with opportunities for showing perfect faith.

If we simply survey our Tradition, reflecting upon the trials and afflictions of Abraham, Moses, Joseph, the prophets, Job, the apostles, the martyrs, we will find ourselves in agreement with Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain who writes:  “Trials are salutary for us and are rightly called a saving cross, which He often imposes on His best beloved and on those who strive to please Him, and the bearing of which is especially welcome to Him.” 

I close with a thought from the Elder Paisios:

Life, of course, is no summer camp; it has joys but also sorrows.  The Resurrection is always preceded by the Crucifixion.  The blows of life’s trials are essential for the salvation of the soul, for the soul is refined through them.  Just as with clothes; the more we rub them in the wash, the cleaner they become.  Even with the octopus, the more it is beaten, the more it is cleaned and tenderized.  And the fish, too, appears so graceful, when alive and swimming in the sea, or even when displayed in the market with the scales and entrails intact.  But it becomes useful only once it is cleaned and made to look less appetizing on the outside before it is broiled.  It is much the same with people; when a person sheds all things secular – his scales, if you will – it may seem that he is losing life, his worldly liveliness, but in fact, he is merely removing all useless matter in order to be “broiled.” Only then is he made useful. 

Only then can he be Holy.  Amen.