A man has fallen into a pit, a deep and dark cavern. He has been sitting at the bottom for a while. Far above, a tiny sliver of light casts a faint shade of gray across the cavern, so that he can dimly make out the towering walls. He just sits for a very, very long time, uncertain of what to do.
Eventually he notices that a rope is tied to his waist. He feels his way along it, then gives a gentle tug to find out its origin. The rope tugs back, equally gently. Startled, the man braces himself. The tugging continues and grows in strength. The man grabs tightly onto a rock outcropping, afraid of what lies at the end of the rope. The tugging becomes more frequent, until he is no longer able to keep his grip. He reaches out, trying to grab hold of anything, but the tugging is too strong. The rope is pulling him up, higher in the air. In a panic, he scratches at the walls to stop his ascent. But it’s futile, and he finally relents.
The tugging pulls him toward that sliver of light. Then it dawns on him: He is being rescued! He becomes ecstatic and shouts joyfully. As he approaches the top of the cavern, the walls narrow in, and the man reaches out to push off of them, to propel himself upward in the direction of the tugging. The space continues to narrow and he pushes evermore zealously on the walls, imagining that his pushes are drawing him out faster. Pushing more, while being tugged, he reaches the opening. One final tug pulls him into the blinding sunlight. He can see nothing around him, but in relief he says, “I did it! I pulled myself out of there!!”
* * *
This is a parable of our spiritual life. The man in the cavern is each of us. The cavern is the darkness of our sinful lives (whether from sin we’ve inherited or sin we’ve committed). The rope is our path to salvation. And the One tugging is God.
We spend so much of our spiritual life trying to be the cause of our own salvation. On the one hand, we recognize that God alone gives us eternal life. Yet we see how much work the spiritual life is, and we can’t help but think it’s only through our own spiritual blood, sweat, and tears that we will be saved. However this is like the man when he’s at the top of the cavern, thinking he is pulling himself up: We are pushing off of the walls and imagining that we are causing our upward movement.
So often we look at our spiritual life in the wrong way. We try to offer God our virtues, our talents, our excellence, to say to God: “Here is my best. I give it to you: my fasts and my prayers and my acts of charity.” The whole of our spiritual life becomes an attempt to sway – or appease – God with our actions hoping it’s enough to get us in His good favor so that we can receive eternal life. And when we inevitably fail at this, we fear that God’s love is in jeopardy. We are trying to make ourselves good because we think that that’s what God wants. We forget that the source of all good is God, not us. God doesn’t want our accomplishments. (He’s the cause of them anyway!) He wants us.
Our spiritual “work” is not about making ourselves good. It is about turning away from the bad. This may sound like a semantic game, but it is crucially important. The man in the parable did the most for his rescue by letting go of the rocks he was clinging to, not by later pushing himself upward. The upward movement is enacted by God, not us. We simply need to let that happen.
Of course the letting-it-happen is very difficult. This is the reason why God, through His Holy Church, has given us the myriad spiritual exercises (askesis) for our soul’s benefit. The ascetical life, which is the life of every Orthodox Christian, is intended as a means for us to turn away from evil, not a way by which we make ourselves good. As we slowly turn away from evil, God enters our lives more fully and our soul is filled with His goodness, His love, His virtue – not ours.
The lives of the saints speak to this. We see the amazing spiritual feats they accomplish, yet we hear them say, “I am nothing. God has done this in me. I have accomplished nothing.” They follow the words of our Lord, “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what is our duty to do.'” (Luke 17:10) We think that the saints are speaking out of humility, when in fact they are speaking the fullness of truth. What they have done, through ‡skesis, is loosening their hold on the rocks, so that God can tug them up. They have no illusion that they pulled themselves up. They only see how hard it was to actually let go of their grip on the rocks.
The reason we fall into the trap of imagining that we can make ourselves good is because we don’t really believe that God will do the immense work of pulling us up. We think we have to climb our way up. Then we fall. Then we try again, and we fall. We don’t realize that we are actually quite attached to those rocks at the bottom, and that God wants to tug us up. He wants to do for us what we in no way deserve. He wants to do ALL of the work. Yet we cling on to the things of this world, preferring passing pleasures and desires: holding tightly to the rocks, so that His salvific work is hampered.
The work of our spiritual life is to let go of evil, to let go of sin. This is the heart of repentance: the humble recognition that we are still clinging onto the rocks. We can then say to God, “Ah, here I still am, holding onto this thing here, while You want to pull me up. Forgive me. It’s hard to let go.” Repentance becomes perpetual, and humility grows. Then God becomes unhindered by our self-will and we relinquish our will to Him.
This is the proper way to understand repentance. It’s the natural state of created beings. Look at the new flowers which unfailingly turn toward the sunlight. They are all saying to the sun: You are the source of light. Now imagine a poor, pathetic flower which is turned toward itself, bent downward and therefore unable to feel the sun’s rays on its petals. This is the state of fallen humanity. Repentance is the turning away and letting go of the selfish ego, so that we can turn toward the light.
As we enter the Apostles Fast, let us remember those words of the Chief Apostle Paul: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us.” (Hebrews 12:1) This is our spiritual work: the hard work of letting go. God will do the rest.