I’m always interested in getting recommendations for new books, especially books that give practical ways to grow closer to Christ. After I graduated from James Madison University in 2009, I was in the scary new world of “life after college” and in need of some inspiration. By God’s grace, I found Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios and soon devoured the book.
I used to be one of those people…you know, the ones who care a bit too much about books and who don’t underline or highlight them out of sheer reverence for the printed word. But this book of mine is underlined, highlighted, tagged with sticky notes, and has a worn binding from being read so much.
Elder Porphyrios was recently recognized as Saint Porphyrios in 2013 (just 22 years after his repose), and his feast day was commemorated on December 2. There are so many nuggets of wisdom which have helped me in moments of need, that I can’t help but recommend this book to others and write this post about three of his most memorable lessons.
Life seems to just throw things at us sometimes. Things will be going fine and then out of nowhere disaster comes. Or, perhaps we’re going through what seems to be just one issue after another. With all of these waves of anxiety or hard times, it might feel impossible to rise above water. But what if these troubles could be used to our good instead of to our defeat? Saint Porphyrios says that regardless of our circumstances, God can turn our situation into an opportunity to grow closer in our relationship with Him.
A person can become a saint anywhere. He can become a saint in Omonia Square [in Athens, synonymous with vice and corruption], if he wants. At your work, whatever it may be, you can become saints – through meekness, patience and love. Make a new start every day, with new resolution, with enthusiasm and love, prayer and silence – not with anxiety so that you get a pain in the chest. If it happens, for example, that you are given tasks to do that fall outside the remit of your duties it is not right for you to protest and become irritated and complain. Such vexations do you harm. Look on all things as opportunities to be sanctified. (p. 143-144)
Each day is a new start in our relationship with God. Each day we can choose again to follow Jesus or we can choose to follow after our anxieties and worries.
All the unpleasant things which are within your soul and cause you anxiety can become occasions for the glorification of God and cease to torment you. Have trust in God. Then you will forget your worries and become His instruments. Distress shows that we are not entrusting our life to Christ. (p. 145)
I have to accept my day as being the way it is. Sitting here and fretting about my situation won’t change it. Being frustrated with people around me or trying to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders isn’t going to change them or the world. But I can change my attitude, I can change my response to what worries me. Saint Porphyrios says to “deal with everything with love, kindness, meekness, patience and humility. Be rocks. Let all the waves break over you and turn back leaving you untroubled” (p. 145).
We can be the saints that God is calling us to be, regardless of life’s circumstances, but only if we rely fully on God and turn to Him anew each day.
Just as tempting as it may be to focus on our fears and anxieties, it’s also easy to focus on the sins and passions which seem to wage war against us. The more we slip up, the more we repeatedly struggle with the same things and confess them time and again, the more our eyes focus on our struggle instead of on Christ. We might start to think that if only we fight harder against the passions, we won’t keep doing whatever it is. Saint Porphyrios points us towards a different path.
We need to turn to Christ instead of looking at our sin. "You won't become saints by hounding after evil. Ignore evil. Look towards Christ and He will save you” (p. 135). Saint Porphyrios gives this advice over and over again. “Don’t look at what’s happening to you, look at the light, at Christ, just as the child looks to its mother when something happens to it. See everything without anxiety, without depression, without strain and without stress” (p. 145). When we fight against our passions directly, we forget to “become like children” (Matthew 18:3) who understand that they can’t save themselves.
But how do we turn to Christ? How can we keep our minds on the things of God?
Life in Paradise and don’t let your evil self know and envy it…Do not strike at the evil directly, but, disdaining the passion, turn with love to God. Occupy yourself with singing hymns, the triumphant hymns of the saints and martyrs and the Psalms of David. Study Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. In this way your soul will be softened, sanctified and assimilated to God. (p. 123)
This might be the point when you say, “but that’s easy for a monk to say! I have work, school, a life to live!” But Saint Porphyrios reminds us that “in prayer what is important is not the duration but the intensity. Pray albeit for five minutes, but abandoning yourself to God with love and longing. One person may pray all night long and another person only for five minutes and yet the five-minute prayer may be superior” (p. 128-129).
In our lives, we are going to face temptation, but we are called to turn to Christ and away from our struggles. And then we might begin to see that others are on the same path that we are on.
As we begin to see everything as opportunities to grow closer to Christ, as we recognize every struggle as a moment to receive God’s grace, we ought to recognize that every person around us might also be on this same journey. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of judging those around us who are stumbling and struggling with sins openly, and forget that we are fellow pilgrims in this journey to the Kingdom.
Saint Porphyrios offers us this hope-filled reminder for those who struggle or those who struggle loving those who do:
Souls that have known pain and suffering and that are tormented by their passions win most especially the love and grace of God. It is souls such as these that become saints, and very often we pass judgment on them. Remember what Saint Paul says, 'Where sin abounded, grace flowed even more abundantly' (Romans 5:20). When you remember this, you will feel that these people are more worthy than you and than me. We see them as weak, but when they open themselves to God they become all love and all divine eros. Whereas previously they had acquired different habits, they now give all the power of their soul to Christ and are set on fire by Christ's love. That is how God's miracle works in such souls, which we regard as 'lost'. We shouldn't be discouraged, nor should we rush to conclusions, nor judge on the basis of superficial and external things. (p. 185)
Each person who faces temptations, each person who has fallen into sin, each imperfect image of God is the soft clay which God can use to form according to His likeness. Each difficult person, each openly sinful person, and - thank God - each one of us who remains an imperfect Orthodox Christian, can become the recipient of God’s grace and the source of God’s grace to others.
As a monastic, Saint Porphyrios grants us insight into the spiritual life and reminds us of how to be more watchful of our thoughts and preoccupations. And as a modern person who lived amidst the temptations and noise of Athens, Greece, Saint Porphyrios speaks to us directly as someone who knows what it’s like to live in today’s world.
We can choose to look at all of life’s circumstances as opportunities to be sanctified. We can turn towards Christ instead of trying to face our passions on our own. And lastly, we should take heart and not be discouraged nor become judgmental of others who struggle against passions different from our own.
What struggles have you faced recently and how can these be opportunities to encounter Christ today? Do you find that you try to battle against sin directly, and how could you turn instead to Christ to let Him fight for you?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
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