St. Theophan the Recluse

Cover of The Spiritual Life This is an excerpt from The Spiritual Life (published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood), a series of letters from St. Theophan the Recluse (1894) to a young Russian woman.


Explanation of the free resolve to live according to grace by means of parables and examples.


I am rushing off a few more lines to send to you in addition to what has already been said on the same subject.

At the Divine Judgment, those who have received grace and who have not allowed it to act within themselves will first of all have the gift of grace taken away, and then they will be plunged into hell. This was revealed by the Savior in the parable of the talent (Luke 19:11-27). Each of the servants has been given a talent; grace is given to each person equally. One of the servants acquires ten more talents; a second servant acquires five more. A third servant acquires nothing; he says that he wrapped his talent in a napkin and set it aside. This means that the first servant worked more than the others in order to be imbued with grace; the second worked half as hard by comparison, but the third servant neglected the gift, not bothering in the least to kindle grace within himself. The reward is then given out in accordance with the labors expended on acquiring grace, or with the inner enlightenment of one's self under the action of grace. The last servant did nothing in this regard; from him was taken even that which he had, which was given to him so generously in the beginning.

Do you see how this matter goes, and how it ends? We, the baptized, have all received a talent, which is the grace of the Holy Spirit. This talent, as I have already mentioned, acts within us on its own at first, until we have grown up. As we approach maturity, grace, although it is ready at any time to act within us, does not act. It waits until we freely and willingly incline to it, when we ourselves begin to desire its full action within us and begin to seek it. As soon as we begin seeking grace immediately resumes its work within us, rousing us, directing and strengthening us. Our imbuing with grace comes about in proportion to our seeking and to the labor expended in this search. If we do not seek and do not labor toward the particular goal in this frame of mind, grace will not begin to act within us on its own against our will, as if by force. God gave man freedom, and He does not want to violate this; He does not want to enter into a person against his will and act within him. When a person of his own accord wants to be subject to Divine action, only then does God begin to act within him through grace. If God were to have His own way, everyone would become holy in a single instant. One Divine instant, and everyone would change. But the law is such already that man must himself begin to desire and to seek, and then grace will not desert him, as long as he continues to trust in it.

Recall the Savior's parable about the treasure hidden in the field and the merchant who is seeking goodly pearls (Matthew 13:44-46). A man found a treasure hidden in a field, and he went and dug up the treasure and became rich, although this is not mentioned in the parable. The field is our soul; the treasure which is hidden inside of it, is grace, which is place in it through Holy Baptism. The man's finding of the treasure in the parable signifies the moment when the Christian recognizes that within him is concealed such a treasure, to which nothing can compare --- the grace of the Holy Spirit. He sold everything; this means he gave up everything he had that was dear to him to obtain the treasure; that is, to arouse and bring to the open the grace that is concealed within.

The other merchant dealt in precious stones. He heard there was a pearl to which there was nothing else equal, but the price for which no one in the local area seemed to know (I am adding this). Wishing to acquire the pearl, he sold everything he had and bought it. And of course, he became rich. This pearl of great price is the image of the Divine grace which is concealed within us, and which is unknown to us, until we acknowledge it. He who acknowledges it becomes convinced at the same time that there is nothing more valuable. Thus, with complete selflessness he gives up everything and strives to kindle and ignite that grace within himself.

From these parables you may see what exactly is expected of us. It is expect that we 1) acknowledge the presence of the gift of grace within us; 2) comprehend that the value of the grace for us is so great, that it is more precious than life itself, so that without it life is not even life; 3) desire with all our strength to adapt this grace to ourselves, and adapt ourselves to it, or to put it another way, desire to imbue our entire nature with it, and to become enlightened and sanctified; 4) resolve to achieve this through the matter itself, and then 5) carry this decision into reality, putting everything else aside, or, having removed one's heart from everything, give it over to the full action of Divine grace. When these five acts have taken place within us, then comes the beginning of our internal rebirth, after which, if we continue to act in the same spirit unflaggingly, inner rebirth and illumination will grow quickly or slowly, depending on our labor, but most importantly, depending on our forgetfulness of self.

Remember how I was telling you about that governess who made a drastic change. All this happened for her. Once she had begun, she did not look back, but instead went further and further, higher and higher. And she attained the fiery enkindling of grace. Divine grace makes no distinction as to who a person was before desiring it, but awaits only the desire. It begins its action immediately, as in the case of the Great Martyr St. Katherine who was pure, and in that of St. Mary of Egypt, who was formerly profligate. How many of these are there on this path today in Russia, known and unknown, both men and women, both widows and virgins? What blessed and most blessed souls they are! Blessed Augustine for a long time was kept in the bonds of an unspiritual life, although he knew about the spiritual life and desired it. What was it that helped him to break these bonds? A story he heard about how St. Anthony the Great, an unlearned man of ordinary stock, shown with grace. Upon hearing the story, he cried out, "These simple ones are above us, leaving us behind with all of our learning and our importance among the other people. And from this moment on I mastered myself, and with ardor I set on that very same path along which St. Anthony walked."

How is to be for you and me? Will we make excuses and keep putting things off day after day?! May the Lord bestow His enlightening blessing upon you.