“For man, the earthly life, life in the body, serves only as a preparation for eternal life, which will begin after the death of the body. Therefore we must avail ourselves without delay of the present life as a preparation for the other life; and as we chiefly work during the weekdays for the earthly life, we must work on Sundays and other holidays wholly for the Lord God, devoting them to attendance at Divine service, to reading the Word of God, to pious meditation, to edifying conversation, good works, and especially to works of mercy.”
St. John of Kronstadt
St. John of Kronstadt is sometimes called “the priest’s priest.” It is because of his total dedication to the priesthood and his boundless love for his flock as a fearless shepherd that he is afforded this honor. For me there is one characteristic of his life that absolutely impresses, inspires and intimidates, as I suspect it does any priest who takes his vocation even halfway seriously. It is said that Fr. John never took any “personal time.” He was a true pastor who utilized every moment of his day (generally having slept very little) for prayer, liturgy, and serving the needs of his congregation and town. He was a man who truly lived the proverb profoundly authored by the philosopher Khalil Gibran, “Love is the only treasure that increases the more you give it away.” I say these things by way of introduction because even though the quote presented here for meditation will undoubtedly be received well by the reader, I am also certain that there will be those who respond, many without even realizing it, with the thought, “How quaint. Fr. John certainly is inspired. But he was writing for another time and another place. These things really don’t apply to me. He would never understand the demands of the modern world.”
You may think me cynical. And yet I have heard such things spoken, both directly and indirectly, more than once, as a worker in the Church both before and after being ordained a priest. And I wonder what people really believe about what it means to be a Christian? St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “We have not only to be called Christians, but to be Christians.” St. John of Kronstadt answers the question of what it means to “be a Christian” – an Orthodox Christian.
It is not my intention to further define the characteristics of a faithful Orthodox Christian. In some ways St. John has given instruction here with enough “necessaries” for a lifetime. What I would like to say, however, is that St. John’s words are not simply quaint musings of an out-of-touch saint. I am saying, and I believe many will heartily agree, that these words may be more important today than ever before.
What has become of man’s awareness of the purpose of his earthly life? How can one answer this question when layer upon layer of worldly care has been heaped upon men immersed in the pursuit of one gratification after another? In a recent sermon I recounted the following liturgical description of the Venerable Kyriakos of Palestine: “Thou hast clothed thyself in the radiant garment of dispassion, uncovering all the malice of him who stripped our first parents naked in days of old.” St. Kyriakos recognized the layers of materialism that hindered men from knowing God and their true selves, and he sought every means to detach himself from all passionate attachments which the Devil uses to strip men of their God-given glory. So I ask the question again: What has become of man’s awareness of the purpose of his earthly life? It does not require great insight to find the right answer. Men have not just lost but rather abandoned this awareness, preferring those very things which men like St. Kyriakos cast off for the sake of their eternal souls.
St. John exhorts us: “Avail yourself without delay” in preparation for eternity. He also says that we do indeed have weekdays to work responsibly for the sake of our “earthly lives.” But what about Sunday morning? What about Saturday evening Great Vespers or making an earlier start to Sunday morning by attending Matins? What about Great Feasts and weekday evenings when the Church gathers to pray? What about reading the Bible? What about taking time for other devotional reading? What about the disciplines of prayer and fasting and spending quiet time in “pious meditation?” What about having conversation about theology, spiritual knowledge and experience, and the lives and writings of the Saints? And of no less importance, what about taking time to serve those in need through good works and acts of mercy? Is it any wonder that St. John never took any personal time and barely slept?
Beloved, I am not suggesting that any one of us believe we can become St. John of Kronstadt over night. Even St. John did not become St. John over night! Yet “without delay” here presented to us is essential truth gleaned from the life and thoughts of a great saint. It seems there are two “chiefs” in our lives: first to care for the needs of our eternal souls and second to care for needs of our earthly lives. I would hope that we are all in agreement that the first is more important than the second; and I also hope that I will never hear anyone say, “How quaint, Fr. Patrick; but ‘I have bought a field and I must go out and see it’ or, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen and I must examine them’ or, ‘I have married a wife therefore I cannot…’” (Luke 14:15-24). This may indeed be one of the greatest challenges against which we contend today and I pray God help us properly establish our priorities; and it is with boundless love and fearlessness as your father and shepherd in Christ that I say: Now is the time for us to do so!