An image was engraved in my mind when I first read it in the Patericon. A young monk named abba Zacharias, the son of abba Caraion, obtained the grace of the Holy Spirit by his self-denial and humility. One time, abba Moses the Egyptian saw him. Abba Moses had been a robber, but he attained to great humility and thus stood out among the Desert Fathers. Yet he asked abba Zacharias to give him a word. Upon hearing this, “the latter threw himself on the ground at the elder’s feet and said, ‘Are you asking me, Father?’ The elder said to him, ‘Believe me, Zacharias, my son, I have seen the Holy Spirit descending upon you and since then I am constrained to ask you.’ Then Zacharias drew his cap off his head, put it under his feet, and trampled on it, saying, ‘The man who does not let himself be treated thus, cannot become a monk.’” Behold, a word from the Holy Spirit!
Why did I share this? It’s a telling image. Each of us can meditate upon it. It’s extraordinary. Monasticism is not possible without such an attitude. Father Zacharias Zacharou of Essex presents it from a slightly different angle: “A monk cannot preserve the grace of monasticism unless he makes himself like the cap trampled underfoot.”
Each of us receives a grace, whether at our baptism, marriage, tonsure, or at the Liturgy. And it feels so good, so natural. But we don’t realize that it’s the grace of God and to maintain it, we need to humble ourselves as abba Zacharias from the Patericon showed us. Well, we might say that the image with the cap is for monasticism, but we can find parallels for marriage and for any other grace we might have received. In any case, only with humility can we preserve the grace from the beginning.
In essence, both monasticism and marriage target the same problem. This is why the Church recommends either one path or the other, because both are designed to kill the egotism within us. Man cannot kill his egotism except in the presence of another person, someone totally different from us. Otherwise, it’s me-me-me everywhere. Only in the presence of another, whom I cannot control, can I die to my ego and renounce myself for the sake of love, for the sake of God. Otherwise, everything becomes an egotistical lie. Thus, the struggle is essentially the same.
The egotism within us invents every possible excuse to escape death at all costs. In families, for example, although it seems like he is to blame because he doesn’t do this or that, or it seems like she is to blame because she never stops talking or she doesn’t understand him, deeper down the root cause is simply each spouse’s egotism, which remains hidden. In the presence of another, I see my problems. But I begin fighting with the other instead of perceiving the problem inside me.
What might be the key? Addressing us monks, Saint Barsanuphius of Optina says: “Preserve grace. Without grace, the monastic life is unbearable.” This is the key, to preserve grace!
When God granted me grace at the beginning, He knew for what reason. For example, in marriage, He knew both spouses: both how good and how bad, both how ugly and how beautiful they each are. You didn’t know whom you were marrying, but God knew and gave you grace sufficient to love one another above all else. That grace is the key. It’s mine, but I abandoned it, I lost it on the way and I need to rediscover and preserve it. If I have grace, if I preserve the grace of monasticism, then even if temptations never end, the temptations play the role of keeping my heart broken and humble, and I don’t have any problems. The tragedy is this: not him, not her, but my heart of stone, which doesn’t know how to attract God’s grace.
Therefore, the solution that we seek for our problems, in the monastery or in our families, is God’s grace. And not another, but my grace, which He gave me at the beginning and which is maintained with much humility, exertion, and self-debasement. As Saint Sophrony said, we need to become our own greatest persecutors. And that’s how it is with Good, too: you can’t stand in His presence without your heart tensing up. Otherwise, you can’t preserve that grace. If you have love of enemies, then you can preserve it, but otherwise you can’t, it’s difficult. Each of us has grace, according to our life, and our responsibility is to renew and preserve it. But it comes with a price. May we not delude ourselves: we need a humble humility, to use the words of Father Arsenie Papacioc. Not just: “I tried and it didn’t work.” That’s not an acceptable answer, you should try until your heart is crushed, because it’s that sort of heart that attracts grace, and with God’s grace everything can be solved.
Father Zacharias Zacharou also said this: “The heart has unfathomable energies, but they are accessible only to a humble heart.” The same idea: our heart can forgive, it can love, it can pass over everything, but only if I humble myself. Each of us needs to discover this downward path that humbles our heart, because then our heart is full of grace and everything is illumined. We need to do this because otherwise, we hurt ourselves and those around us. In families, the wife suffers more because she sacrifices herself more, because she gave birth and can no longer not love and not devote herself completely for the children and for the family. But as Saint Sophrony Sakharov told a woman who was complaining a lot about her husband: “How much are you to blame and how much is he?” And she responded: “It’s about 5% me and 95% him.” And the saint replied: “Erase your 5% and his 95% will be erased too.” These problems are not solved according to human logic. Even if one person seems to be more at fault, God doesn’t calculate this mathematically. Rather, the fact that there is evil in me makes it so there is evil in the other, too. The problem is solved by eliminating the greater evil, which is the evil within me: my heart of stone that doesn’t know how to attract grace. This is the tragedy.
Without grace, everything is difficult, but when grace comes, then before you know it, everything is resolved. So, preserve grace, for otherwise life is unbearable.