I once asked a bishop what can I, in the capacity of a spiritual father, offer others. He replied with one word, “Hope.” Over the years and especially more recently I have indeed encountered many who are in need of hope. So I have decided to take some excerpts from the letters of St. John Chrysostom to his friend who left the monastic life. These letters are preserved under the heading: “An Exhortation to Theodore After His Fall.” After uttering a mournful lamentation over the fact that his friend left the monastic life Chrysostom continues as follows:
Now perhaps, I shall seem to say something incredible to those who witness your desolation and overthrow, that is, the reestablishment of your former luster. It is for this cause I wail and mourn, and shall not cease doing so. Although this seems to be impossible to men, yet to God all things are possible. For God is He “who raiseth the poor from the earth, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set him with the princes, even with the princes of his people.” It is He “who makes the barren woman to dwell at home, a mother rejoicing over her children” (Psa. 112:7-9). So do not despair of the most perfect change. For if the devil had such great power as to cast you down from your previous pinnacle and height of virtue into the extremity of evil doing, much more will God be able to draw you up again to your former confidence; and not only to make you what you were before, but even much happier. Only be not downcast, nor fling away good hopes, nor fall into the condition of the ungodly. For it is not the multitude of sins which is accustomed to plunge men into despair, but impiety of soul. Therefore Solomon did not make the unqualified statement “every one who has entered into the den of the wicked, despiseth;” but only “he who is ungodly” (Prov. 18:3). For it is only such persons who are affected with despair when they have entered the den of the wicked. And it is this which does not allow them to look up, and ascend once again to the position from which they fell. For this accursed thought pressing down like some yoke upon the neck of the soul, and so forcing it to stoop, hinders it from looking up to the Master. Now it is the part of a brave and excellent man to break this yoke in pieces, to shake off the tormentor fastened upon him; and to utter the words of the prophet, “As the eyes of a maiden look unto the hands of her mistress, even so our eyes look unto the Lord our God until He have mercy upon us. Have pity upon us, O Lord, have pity upon us, for we have been utterly filled with contempt” (Psa. 122:2-3). Truly divine are these precepts, and decrees of the highest form of spiritual wisdom. We have been filled, it is said, with contempt, and have undergone countless distresses; nevertheless we shall not desist from looking up to God, neither shall we cease praying to him until He has received our petition. For this is the mark of a noble soul, not to be cast down, nor be dismayed at the multitude of the calamities which oppress it, nor to withdraw, after praying many times without success, but to persevere, until He have mercy upon us, even as the blessed David said.
The reason why the devil plunges us into thoughts of despair is that he may cut off the hope which is towards God, the safe anchor, the foundation of our life, the guide of the way which leads to heaven, the salvation of perishing souls. “For by hope” it is said, “we are saved” (Rom. 8:24). For it certainly is this which, like some strong cord suspended from the heavens, supports our souls, gradually drawing towards that world on high those who cling firmly to it, and lifting them above the tempest of the evils of this life. If anyone then becomes enervated, and lets go this sacred anchor, immediately he falls down, and is suffocated, having entered into the abyss of wickedness. And the Evil One knowing this, when he perceives that we are oppressed by the consciousness of evil deeds, steps in and lays upon us an additional burden, heavier than lead. This is the anxiety arising from despair, and if we accept it, it follows of necessity that we are at once dragged down by this weight, and having been parted from that cord of hope, descend into the depth of misery. It is here, where you are now, having forsaken the commandments of the meek and lowly Master and executing all the injunctions of the cruel tyrant, and implacable enemy of our salvation. You have broken in pieces the easy yoke, and cast away the light burden, and having put on the iron collar instead of these things, have hung a ponderous millstone upon your neck.
Yet many both now and in the days of our forefathers, having been perverted from the right position, and fallen headlong out of the straight path, have been so completely restored as to eclipse their former deeds by the latter. They have received the prize of our high calling (Phil. 3:14), and been wreathed with a garland of victory, and proclaimed among the conquerors, and numbered in the company of the saints. For as long as any one stands in the furnace of pleasures, even if he has countless examples of this kind before him, the thing seems to him to be impossible. But once he gets a short start of departing from there, by continually advancing he leaves the fiercer part of the fire behind him. He will see the parts which are before his footsteps in front of him, as being full of dew and much refreshment. So let us not despair or grow weary of the return, for he who is so affected, even if he has acquired boundless power and zeal, has acquired it to no purpose. For when he has once shut the door of repentance against himself, and has blocked the entrance into the race-course, how will he be able while he abides outside to accomplish any good thing, either small or great? On this account the Evil One uses all kinds of devices in order to plant in us this thought of despair; for if he succeeds he will no longer have to sweat and toil in contending with us. What need is there for him to do so, if we are prostrate and fallen, and unwilling to resist him? For he who has been able to slip out of this chain, will recover his own strength and will not cease struggling against the devil to his last gasp, and even if he had countless other falls, he will get up again, and will smite his enemy. However, he who is in bondage to the thoughts of despair, and has divested his own strength, how will he be able to prevail, and to resist, having on the contrary taken to flight? (to be continued…)