By Protopriest George Breev
“When a life of prosperity or affluence opens up for us, we must remember God, thank Him….”- Protopriest George Breev
(We are speaking to mitered Protopriest George Breev about the characteristic features of our times and the problems facing contemporary Christians. Protopriest George Breev is one of the longest-serving of Moscow’s priests, head of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Moscow’s Krilatskoe District, head also of the Church of the “Life-giving Spring” [an icon of the Mother of God] in Moscow’s Tsaritsino region; and a confessing priest for the other priests of the city of Moscow.)
— In the beginning of the 1990’s, when the Church had just “opened” for a huge number of people [after 70 years of Communism], the main sentiments were enthusiasm, high spirits, and a feeling of sacrifice. How do you see the average Christian today? To put it another way, what is the difference between a religious person then—20 years ago—and now?
—At present, the spiritual fire of the people is not nearly as bright and intense as it was in the beginning of the 1990’s. This is because many people, having already entered the Church, have understood that the path which has opened up for them is not so simple and easy. To walk that path, one must cultivate oneself spiritually; but this is a constant task: morning and evening prayers, prayers throughout the day, confession, participation in the services, seeing one’s mistakes and struggling to correct them. And people who have genuinely entered Church life, find that, besides the inner spiritual struggles, they also have the ordinary problems of everyday life: creating a family, giving birth to children and raising them, receiving an education, earning a living and all the problems that entails….Raising children has become more difficult; there were never such things in school before as there are today. My daughter is a teacher, and she says that children have absolutely no desire to learn. Asking them to do anything is impossible, because that might be seen as pressuring them, and then there could be dealings with self-styled “rights activists”. Also, a huge problem now amongst adolescents is computer-addiction. A child from 10-15 of age “climbs into” the computer, and flatly does not want to learn anymore. In the “virtual world” these children live in, people do not acquire knowledge, skills or a profession; but without knowledge and skills, what will these children be able to do as adults? Things work out well for those receive a real education and actively enter into real life; but those who did not receive a proper education—what kind of work will they be able to do? I always tell the youth to study diligently! First receive an education, then start a family; enter into life with faith in God’s providence, always call upon Him; and God will help you find your place in life.
Secondly, children become young men and women; and the question of marriage comes up. The problem is this: where can I find a reliable person, who will be there “til death do us part”? Relations used to be very strict: you chose a partner, got married, lived the rest of your lives together, and no matter what happened, carried your cross. Now, statistics show that 70% of marriages, even Church marriages, fall apart.
And there’s another predicament: Before, in the 1970’s and 80’s, a retired person could quietly go to church, and live normally on his pension of 60 rubles. If someone asked for help, dozens of people would gladly do so. Now, the same grandmother sees that life is difficult for her children and grandchildren and decides to go back to work in order to help. She can no longer allot as much time to the church as she used to. Thus it has become difficult to hire good guards and people to clean the churches.
Today, there is the tendency for people who come here from other parts of Russia and from other countries to take any available job no matter how difficult or unpleasant, as opposed to our local people, who won’t do just any work. I don’t know what this is caused by: maybe the psychology of the people, or inner despair. People have little faith. Strong faith gives a person strength, gives him courage: “I must stay true to my moral standards, my beliefs and ideals; I must be an ever-present helper for my family, for my wife and children and grandchildren. And God will open opportunities for me.” Unfortunately, now, more often than not, people give up when faced with difficulties; they surrender when surrounded by life’s problems. This usually applies more to adults; youth are more goal-oriented and tenacious, but now they have a different set of ideals: to be rich and powerful.
— Have people changed with the growth of vice and lawlessness in the world?
– Of course, people do not stay the same: society changes, culture changes. The Bible talks about the human heart: “For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21 KJV*). After Adam and Eve had seen and experienced Paradise, they gave birth to Cain, who became the first murderer. How could such a great fall have happened? It happened because man has the gift of freedom to choose, given by God. When Cain had the intention of killing his brother, God came to him right away and warned, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it (Gen. 4:7 NIV**). God constantly says this to every person, but the passions that storm over a person’s heart are the same now as they have been since the beginning of time. [*KJV: King James Version. **NIV: New International Version.]
— There are many temptations in modern society; it sometimes seems that modern society is made entirely of temptation. What is the most dangerous temptation?
— There is an English saying, “If God wants to punish a person, He deprives him of his reason.” To extinguish the light of reason in yourself, to lose your soundness of mind, through which we understand what’s what, is the scariest punishment. “If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mathew 6:23 KJV). If a person has become darkened in mind, if he has by his actions belittled and lessened the action of the light in his heart, then he will walk in darkness, and see the world and things in it in a warped way: he will not see good as good; he will reject it: “Why the Church, why priests? All of that is unnecessary, it’s not what we need!” Later, a time will come when he will understand and say “I was such an idiot, what was I doing?” but by that time, it might be too late. The worst punishment is to dry up or stop up the springs of life within you, to choke the blossoming forth of the spiritual wealth of your soul. “For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21 KJV) — It is within us, but it is not ours. For it to blossom forth, labor is needed; and in order to labor, one must acquire faith and a mind and heart constantly oriented toward, pressing forward, into the kingdom of God. Then this kingdom becomes a part of me; it lives and acts within me. If interest in striving for the spiritual is lost, then the soul will turn to material things, and say that material things are the most important, which means “Eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19 KJV): seek pleasure; in pleasure is the meaning of life. In other words, the meaning of life is in the passions! Just like the pagans said in their foolishness, “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32 KJV).
—Of course it’s more difficult for a worldly person, who does not think about life and its purpose, who has not yet found his path due to the temptations I just mentioned. He may start going to gambling machines, and get addicted; he can’t stop: he wins one time…and loses ten times—but still believes he can win! Sometimes there is a line of five or six people next to these machines. All of them are adults, intelligent people who waste 100 rubles at a throw, hoping for millions!
“My girlfriend’s dad bought her a car! Why aren’t you buying me a car, too?” Or another kind of temptation: “I want to live freely! Two of my girlfriends live freely, and they have everything they want; I want to live the same way!” This kind of mindset, that without work—or even more so, through sin—you can make millions and “live in clover”, is completely false; it’s a false understanding of life. The goal is not for an easy, idle life, but to guard yourself from sin, and to discover and develop your God-given spiritual gifts and talents.
Life in Russia now is filled with sharp contrasts. In Soviet times, things were equal: everyone had the same pay, everybody was equal and treated each other equally; everyone was in the proletariat. Today, the opposite is true; today, the contrasts are immense. Of course, in some ways, this is good. But the difficulties in the modern world are of a completely different nature. A priest once came up to me and said “It is so difficult to feed my family these days, to support them, to raise my children.” I said “But you are not afraid that you will become too rich? We have learned how to live with poverty, but we have not yet learned how to live with wealth—that is what you should be afraid of.”
— Can Christian asceticism coexist with comfort? Can a believer make use of the earthly goods that are possible when there is material prosperity?
—Everything—including the use of material goods—depends on our frame of mind. Certainly, life has become strikingly comfortable. A priest goes to bless a private home, a mansion; and you see that these people live better than the Tsar ever lived. Crystal, gold, marble. You press a button, and the temperature changes; you press another, the doors open. Many people say “What else do we need? This is Paradise; this is where we must enjoy ourselves.” Unfortunately, they forget some very wise words: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 KJV). Another affluent person gets up in the morning, prays, calls out to God “O Lord, You are my life, my soul is in Your hands, and my thoughts are always turned toward You;” he reads the Gospel just as he would drink fresh water or breathe fresh mountain air. When he enters his home, he sees goodwalls and beautiful things: but the fact that he owns them does not give him the same deep contentment he feels when praying and reading the Gospel. On the other hand, if the earthly treasures is what he holds on to, if he becomes a slave to his possessions, then life becomes empty, cold, dead. And for what purpose? You will not be placed in your palatial home, but down into 3 meters* of dirt; and that’s it. [*3 meters: about 10 feet]
Sound judgment should differentiate between what is living and what is dead; between what has relative value and what is priceless. And what is priceless? Our soul is priceless; nothing is worth damning our soul. The Savior said, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mathew 16:26 KJV). This means that one living soul is worth more than all the treasures of the world. The battle going on within and for our body, soul and spirit should be our first consideration. Therefore, if you are materially well-off—first of all, give thanks to God: “You gave me both a reasoning mind and material resources; and thanks to You, I am able to make life comfortable.” Second, do not forget that perhaps in the little one-room apartment next door, there may be need, poverty, or children who are left on their own most of the time, or even abandoned. The Lord reminds us: “You will have everything—‘life abundantly’ (cf. John 10:10)—but do not forget Me in the person of your neighbor or someone who comes your way (cf. Mathew 25: 34-40[i]). When a person acts in this way [feeding the hungry, visiting those sick and in prison…], then he understands the relative, secondary nature of all earthly things. If, however, he becomes obsessed with personal fortune, then he becomes like the foolish rich man in the Gospel parable, and the same kind of end is waiting for him (Luke 12:16-21): “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (Lk 12:20) KJV
When the question of the Apocalypse is raised, I always say, with some humor, “Is this really your cup of tea?” It is necessary to verify everything in life by what little experience you have. When I was 18, around the time I was baptized, the thought that the end of the world was near was rampant among the faithful. Their talk was filled with Biblical symbols and Apocalyptic prophesies; and there would be endless conversations about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. Some priests in Moscow packed their things, stocked up on food, and went into the mountains, into the Caucasus, to await the end of the world. When I saw this, I became discouraged and upset, so I turned to the Gospel. Do you know what shocked me in the Gospel? The words of the Savior: “But of that day and that hour [of the Second Coming] knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. 33Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is” Mark 13:32-33; cf. Mt 24:36; see Mk 13:5-32[ii]).
When you think about Christ’s words, that He, the Son of God, humbles Himself and says that even He does not know when the end of the world will be, who of us can pretend to such knowledge? The Lord was asked the question “When shall be the end of the world?”(cf. Mathew 24:3, Mark 13:4), and he answered, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32 KJV; cf. Mt 24:36). Therefore we must calm down and tell ourselves, “Maybe there will still be life on earth for a long time.”
The feeling of the nearness of the second coming of Christ has always been one of suspenseful anticipation. Priest Sergei Bulgakov said that the ancient Christians lived with the motto “Come, Lord Jesus!” These are words from the Book of Revelation (22:20). And what is this feeling of expectancy tied to? To the fact that life is a great sacrament, that the earthly world was created in time, that time flows and disappears, leaving everyone subject to time save God alone…
Of course, the older you get, the more you feel that we live in a temporary and finite world. Our human nature itself is losing its activeness, liveliness; you feel that old age and weakness are approaching. You feel more clearly the transient and perishable nature of this world, its frailty. You especially feel that the Lord did not give us time as an endless struggle in a pointless existence, but as a test, to prepare, to mature, to form ourselves for the next world. In this is the essence of life; and when we begin to perceive this, then our life acquires wholeness and purpose.
Everything in God’s plan is already delineated, and for us, the Second Coming will be the end of our [earthly] life; we will have arrived: not Christ coming to us, but we going to Him—perhaps this is how it will be.
— What advice would you give the readers of our magazine, which has such a telling title, “Orthodoxy and Contemporary Life” [This interview was first published, in Russian, in the Russian magazine “Orthodoxy and Contemporary Life (Православие и современность)”.]
— The path to salvation, as the Savior said, always has been and always will be a narrow path. Even when a life of prosperity or affluence opens up for us, we must remember God, thank Him, and know surely that everyone and everything is in His hands. One thing, however: never lose heart, never give way to despondency or throw up your hands in despair; but rather—strive! press forward! work with firm resolve, that we might have a life filled with wisdom and sound thinking, hallowed by the highest ideals and aspirations. Even though life may be complicated and hard, it is not difficulties that destroy us, but our vices and sins: disbelief, pride, grumbling against God, complaining about our sorrows and afflictions; it is because of such vices and sins that we fall into despondency and grave passions. The time God gives us in this life is a test; it is the cross we must carry through to the end in order to enter into eternity. With gratitude, we must accept these difficulties, take them on, understand them, not fear them; and never lose faith in God’s help. This inner focus and activity—which with God’s help always lead a person out of any difficulty—we must take care not lose or extinguish. +
Interview conducted by Tatiana Byshovets. Presented here is a shortened version of that interview; the full version can be found in Russian in the magazine “Orthodoxy and Contemporary Life” (“Pravoslavie I Sovremennost” «Православиеисовременность») № 11
Translated into English by Adrian Fekula.[i] [Jesus is speaking of the Last Judgment:] “34Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Mathew 25:34-40 KJV).
29 / 07 / 2009