St. John Climacus, summarizing the early Holy Fathers’ experience, calls upon all Christians “to follow the royal path”. It is also called “the middle path”, and, according to The Ladder of the Divine Ascent, it “befits many” (that is, it is suitable for every man). It is a matter of “patience while living in community”, which is relevant not only for monks and nuns, but also for Christians living in the world. The Ladder of the Divine Ascent is a spiritual treatise, written chiefly for coenobitic monasteries, so it focuses on the virtue of obedience, its fruit and wonderful examples (see The Ladder, Step Four). Obedience is absolutely essential for everybody’s salvation. Unlike virginity, unceasing prayer, or non-acquisitiveness, obedience is a “universal” virtue that is available to anyone. In this sense, we—lay-people—can find many interesting and useful things here.
A coenobitic monastic community resembles a large family in many ways. It has various components of family life. For example, the abbot is a father, the brethren are brothers; they have a common large farm, share their meals, pray together and care for sick and aged monks. And, most importantly, monastery monks interact daily, so there are all sorts of unavoidable everyday quarrels and conflicts during which every monk shows his “inward nature”. There are lots of opportunities for them to display humility, to help and serve their brethren, to reconcile with them, to love them and, lastly, to see and analyze their own weaknesses. In a word, it is a perfect school for real monks. There is no room for egotists and lazy people at monasteries. As for lay-people, they should learn the virtue of obedience from monks, preferably from very experienced monks who have lived in a monastic community for decades. St. John Climacus is a model teacher for us.
This holy father used to say that the “golden mean”—the royal path of salvation—can be found by every Christian “through personal effort, the help of a spiritual father, and his own analysis.” It is obvious that participation by the Christian himself is necessary; namely his own will and right actions. There are still very many people in our Church who are unwilling to think, analyze and make responsible decisions independently. Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) often said to his spiritual children, “In our days, we shouldn’t live carelessly.” Many modern Christians want to get ready answers and act “in accordance with instructions”, as it were. They tend to forget that the Church is not military barracks, a priest is not a company commander, and the Gospel is not the army regulations. In Christianity our freedom is respected and any creative work, aimed at the development of our best abilities, is encouraged. For instance, reading good classical literature (not only our native country’s literature, but also world classical literature) will surely enrich our inner world and give us new themes for reflection. And it is one’s “personal effort” in search of the purpose of life and “the royal path of salvation”. A Christian is an individual who is not afraid of taking responsibilities—first for his own actions, and then for the actions of others. For example, as a priest on several occasions I have had to become a Godfather to children whose parents I was seeing for the first time in my life.
Today, life in a big city is such that many people are so isolated and disconnected from each other that they often cannot choose Godparents for their kids. For such people a priest is the last refuge, and we, pastors, sometimes have to meet the requests like this, setting all our hopes upon the Almighty. If in secular spheres diligence and responsibility are always present in the lives of teachers, doctors, builders, pilots, rescuers, etc., then they are even more vital in spiritual life. Like a lazy man, a coward is incapable of becoming a hockey player, let alone a Christian.
A measure of adventure and risk is always present in our spiritual life. Thus a Christian should keep searching for right steps and choices in order to follow the “royal path” of his life all the time. In all his deeds he has to be guided by the “mainline”—the model of behavior given in the Gospels. And for this he needs to strain his “grey matter”, engage his heart and listen to his conscience.
However, it will be wrong to trust your knowledge, intuition and experience fully. As Abba Dorotheos wrote, “Salvation is in much counsel.” Those who have refused to seek counsel and listen to it have fallen into temptation and self-delusion. According to Igumen Nikon (Vorobiev, 1894-1963), “Nowadays you cannot give yourself up totally to somebody’s spiritual guidance. Today it is virtually impossible to find an experienced mentor who is free from delusion.” What should we do then? We need “to look for like-minded people and seek their advice.” That is a brilliant rule—to follow a spiritually experienced person’s advice, comparing it with the Holy Scriptures and common sense all the time. “Advice is advice, but he who asks is to make a final decision” – this rule was repeated by many spiritual fathers. It is much easier to find this “royal path of salvation” and walk it with the support of a mentor who has already walked the best part of this path with the help of God. His experience is the most precious thing that his disciple needs to learn from in order to achieve the greatest purpose in his life. St. Paisios the Athonite recommended everybody to choose a confessor who has love and sincere faith in his heart. He used to say, “Unless we have good spiritual mentors our churches will stand empty, but our hospitals, mental asylums and prisons will be full…”
And we should add another observation on this theme: One has to avoid excess and all sorts of extremes. “The royal path” can be found where there is moderation. And moderation does not mean inertness and stagnation at all. Let us imagine a person who is climbing a mountain as he should; his breathing is steady, his steps are firm, his whole body is fit and prepared.
There is a term in sports called “steady state of equilibrium”. It is mainly used with reference to sports that require endurance, such as marathon racing, cycle racing or cross-country skiing. He who sets his marathon pace properly and estimates his strength is able to finish first. Unlike flexibility and even physical strength, a high level of endurance can remain till one’s old age. The famous solo traveler Priest Theodore (Fedor) Konyukhov crossed the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat at the age of sixty-two, showing a rare example of endurance. And similar laws can be applied to spiritual life. Christians can be compared with people who climb high mountains, cover great distances in rowboats, or walk long roads for hours with heavy rucksacks in their hands.
Our path towards salvation is a difficult one. While walking, we ought to maintain the “steady state of equilibrium” and develop our “spiritual endurance”. In other words, Christian labors must correlate with our strength. The only correct Christian labors are those that keep an ascetic “spiritually fit”, bring him joy and satisfaction, and help him overcome idleness and inactivity, which are a source of despondency.
We have an important task before us: to avoid extremes—that is, excessive labors and destructive idleness alike. “Spiritual endurance”, or the virtue of patience, is of vital importance to every Christian. It is not without reason that the Holy Fathers called this virtue “the home of soul”, and, according to the Gospel, …He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved (Mt. 24:13).
All of this reveals the signs of “the royal path” of salvation, mentioned in The Ladder of the Divine Ascent. I will repeat these words, “Everyone should analyze and identify which path suits his character traits.”
Spiritual life is a dynamic process; it is “the science of sciences, and the art of arts”. No “handbooks” or clichés work here. Even a spiritual father’s opinion is just a good and wise piece of advice here, while you are free to follow or not to follow it. You can walk towards Christ only as your choice, out of your free will. God wants human beings to display their faith, obedience and love only of their own accord—and these are the key attributes of “the royal path of salvation”.
Archpriest Andrei Ovchinnikov
Translation by Dmitry Lapa