by Saint Theophan the Recluse
The following letter of Theophan the Recluse is from the book What Is the Spiritual Life, and How to Dispose oneself to it. Here Bishop Theophan addresses a young girl who is looking for meaning in her life, and the thoughts he sets down are particularly applicable and important for the young people of today.
What, has happened to you? And what kind of questions are these: “I don’t know what to do with my life. Must one do something? Must one set oneself some kind of goal?” As I read, I am at a loss to discover where such strange thoughts have come from. Hadn’t you already decided all these things when you expressed the desire to attain that high dignity which God has appointed for man? And what have you and I been discussing if not that? How, then, have all these problems arisen? I can guess that there are modernists among your acquaintances, or that on occasion you have fallen in with a group where there were such people propagating their “wise words.” They usually rave in such a way. They have on their tongues unceasingly the words, “the welfare of mankind,” “the welfare of the people.” And now you, in all likelihood, having heard plenty of such elevated ideas, have succumbed to them, and turning to look at your own present life, have discovered with regret that you are vegetating among your family and relatives without use of purpose. Alas! How is it that no one has yet opened your eyes?!
lf my guess is correct; then you ought to be ashamed. why on earth didn’t you tell me about this, since you gave your word to write candidly about everything? But whether all this is so or not, l can’t leave your problems unsolved. Our entire correspondence will serve as a full solution of them, but now I will express only a brief and general thought that you might see that the life’ which’ you lead and have led up to now is real life, and there is nothing to be changed in it.
Certainly one must know the goal of life. But is this difficult? And hasn’t it already been determined? The general situation is this: since there is life after death, then the goal of all our present earthly life must be, without exception, not here, but there. Everyone knows that this is the case, and there is nothing more to discuss, although in practice few people actually remember it. But set yourself a rule of life – with all your strength to pursue this goal – and you yourself will see what light will pour forth from this on your contemporary life on earth and on everything you do. First will be revealed the conviction that everything here is merely a means to the other life. There is a law regarding the means: make use of them and in such a way that they- lead toward the goal and do not deviate from’ it or hinder, it. This, then, is the answer to the problem of not knowing what to do with your life. Set your sight on heaven and order every step of your life so that it will be a step in that direction. It seems to me that it is all so simple, and yet so all-embracing.
You ask, “Must one do something?” Of course one must! And do whatever comes along-in your circle of friends and in your surroundings-and believe that this is and will be your real work. More will not be demanded of you. It is a great misconception to think, whether for the sake of heaven or, as the modernists put it, to “make one’s mark on humanity,” that one must undertake great, reverberating tasks. Not at all. It is necessary only to do everything according to the commandments of God. Just what exactly? Nothing in particular – only those things which present themselves to everyone in the circumstances of life, those things which are required by the everyday happenings we all encounter. Let’s take an example: a beggar comes up to you; it is God Who has brought him. God has brought you the beggar, of course, desiring you to act toward this beggar in a manner pleasing to Him, and He watches to see what you will actually do. It will please Him if you help. Will you? If you do what is pleasing to God, you will be taking a step toward the ultimate goal, the inheritance of heaven. Generalize this occurrence, and you will find that in every situation and at every encounter one must do what God wants him to do. And we know truly what He wants from the commandments He has given us. If someone seeks help, then help him. If someone has offended you, forgive him. If you yourself have offended someone, then hasten to ask forgiveness and to make peace. If someone has praised you, do not be proud. If someone has scolded you, do not get angry. If the time has come to pray, then pray. To work, then work, – etc. etc.
If, having considered all this, you commence to act in all situations so that your actions, performed unswervingly according to the commandments, are pleasing to God, then all the problems regarding you life will be solved completely and satisfactorily. The goal is the blessed life beyond the grave; the means are actions according to the commandments – actions demanded by everything that happens in life. It seems to me that this is all clear and simple, and there is no reason for you to torment yourself with difficult problems. You must get out of your head all plans for the immensely useful, all-embracing humanitarian activity that the modernists rave about, and your life, having been set in a peaceful frame and leading without commotions toward the primary goal, will then have a focus. Remember that the Lord does not forget even a glass of cold water given to him who thirsts.
You will say, “But all the same, one must still choose and determine a way of life!” But how can you and I determine it? When we start to consider it, we grow confused. It is better and more reliable to accept with obedience, thankfulness, and love that direction which God reveals in the course of one’s life. Let’s take a situation that concerns you. You are now under your parents’ roof, safe, and comfortable. So live, not letting your thoughts fly off into the distance, but conscientiously doing everything you ought to do. “But all the same, “ you say, “consider, one can’t remain that way forever – eventually one’s own individual life must begin. How ill this come about? And how is one to avoid thinking about it?” Well, here is the best thought along these lines. Place yourself in God’s hands and pray that He will guide you as He finds best, so that your lot in life does not hinder, but rather helps you to attain the blessed life beyond the grave, without your dreaming of a brilliant destiny. Having thus attuned yourself, wait patiently, and eventually God will give you instructions. And He will instruct you through the conjunction of circumstances and through the will of your parents. Being firm in these thoughts and resting in God, live without constructing empty plans and do those things which your relationship to your parents, to your brothers and sister, to other relatives, and to all people requires you to do. But in no way think this life empty. Whatever you do according to this rule will be a real deed, and if you act with the realization that this is the way it should be done according to the commandments, and that God wants it this way, than it is an action pleasing to God. In like manner treat every trifle.
It seems that now I have explained everything. I will add only the wish that you dig well into the depths of what I have written, learn it by heart, and adapt yourself to it. I can prophesy that you will obtain complete peace and will no longer be confused by the thoughts: “My life is not good for anything – I am doing nothing useful,” etc. Only you will still have to exercise restraint on your heart, or it will talk much nonsense. It’s true that to have no heart at all is bad, for where there is no heart, what kind of life is there? But all the same one should not give it its own way. It is blind and without strict guidance will immediately lose its footing.
May the Lord bless you!
(From “Orthodox Life”)