The Spiritual Gifts of Youth

A talk delivered by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky on Sept. 5, 1899, to students entering the Kazan Theological Academy.

"A certain householder planted a vineyard and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country..." (Matt. 21:33)

Your first thought upon beginning the advanced course of theological study should concern not your own well-being but the welfare of that vineyard which is entrusted by the husbandman to the servants of the Word. We have been hired to do His work. When the time of the fruit draws near, He will ask us for it; if we are found to be careless workers we shall be miserably destroyed and He will let out His vineyard unto other husbandmen. This must be our first consideration, brethren, upon entering the walls of this academy; your life no longer belongs to you; from henceforth you must labor and live for the mighty work of God,

Now is this the kind of exhortation anticipated by young people who have at last attained the coveted title of "student" [1] after ten years of obedience and a supervised life of younger years spent under the watchful eye of parents and teachers? Your picture of student life, of the academy, of the city of Kazan, is colored perhaps with visions of freedom, of having fun, of pursuing a bold and critical examination of ancient traditions. And very likely some of you young people are now thinking to yourselves: "You greet us with words about ascetic struggle, about our spiritual calling. What are we to understand by these words if not restraints, solitude, sitting over boring old books, even fasting and prostrations? We've seen enough of all that in seminary and at school. Let us have at least these next four years to give ourselves over to the prerogatives of youth. Perhaps in our own good time we shall come to the altar with drawn and somber faces and dedicate the remainder of outlives to ascetic labors. But for now, do not deprive us of our youth; let us be young, let us have our worldly ways and enjoy this period between our strict seminary years and the difficult life which lies ahead of us. Don't cloud our entrance into the academy with reminders of our responsibilities, of our fealty to the Church and to the spiritual needs of the people. Of course, these reminders are just and the demands are lawful. But are those very different inclinations of a young heart--which so quickly fill it when it breaks away from its long confinement and enters the relative freedom of student life--so unnatural and unlawful?"

And so. my dear young friend, are you afraid of ascetic struggle, afraid of deprivations and restraints? But I have not yet spoken to you of such things; and if I should begin to speak of them. I would not refer to them as the goal of life, but only as a means of attaining that which is holy, exalted and eternally satisfying. Look at those called by God and by nature to give physical birth, and you will be ashamed of your faintheartedness by comparison. Think of a young woman, liberated from the obediences of maidenhood and the scrutiny of her parents, who becomes the wife of a wealthy baron. There opens before her the prospect of a brilliant social life and freedom, but she prepares herself to be a mother. And if she is a worthy member of the family of man, her thoughts and feelings are fixed upon her children. She is indifferent to worldly enticements and does not grieve that in place of banquets, balls, and crowds of admirers she has to become a nursemaid, to wash diapers and to constantly be anxious for the welfare of her child--who may be sickly or abnormal. All these deprivations are compensated by a joyful awareness that she is giving her life to a beloved being, that she is living not for herself but for another.[2]

And to you, beloved students of the highest knowledge of the divine and saving Truth, to you is now entrusted not the life of a single child, but the spiritual nourishment, the spiritual preservation, the spiritual life of a society, of a people, and of nations. In the face of such a lofty and absorbing task, is there any place for self-love, self-pity, laziness, sensual indulgence? Of course, it is not these base feelings which filled you with misgivings upon hearing my words. You r sense of regret concerned much higher, more refined gifts of youth: an enthusiasm for ideas, the happiness of friendships, a ready acquaintance with the life of society... I do not argue that these are wonderful gifts. And you should know that the way of Christ does not exclude anything which is genuinely beautiful and exalted, and does not prohibit it to His followers. "All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me" (John 6:37), said the Lord, and only that which is foul and base is foreign to His disciples. Therefore, do not imagine that we want to deprive you of the best gifts of your youth; on the contrary, we are offering you the possibility of using these gifts to far greater advantage than happens otherwise, so that you can bring a more abundant harvest to the Owner of the vineyard.

What is youth in its relation to spiritual life? Through observation we have come to recognize three periods in a man's life when the Lord shows particular attention to the soul, showering it with gifts and effecting its renewal. This happens first of all in the childhood years which our Saviour glorified in saying "Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." At this age a human being first comes to an awareness of those lofty qualities in his nature which distinguish him from the world of dumb animals; feelings of love, compassion and truthfulness are aroused within that God created purity and beauty of soul with which a man comes into the world. A second and more refined renewal of spiritual life occurs in the years of youth, when a person's soul, freed from the guidance first of parents and then of teachers, steps into life as a more or less independent being: it steps into life a second time as it were. In this period of youth the exalted soul is keenly aware of the God-created beauty of nature; it envisions the possibility of a holy, ideal life on earth; it is drawn irresistibly to acts of love and self-sacrifice... There is a third renewal of the spirit and mind which comes to those who for a time abandoned their high calling but who never entirely lost the image of God. This renewal occurs when sickness or misfortune rouses the awareness of their approaching death and forces them to shake from their soul the deceit of sensuality and pride, those delusions which they exchanged for the holy add pure poetry of youth. This is that rebirth of wisdom and repentance experienced by some of the best representatives of our secular society who went astray in their youth but who regained this path of truth in their latter years. May the Lord not deprive you, my dear listeners, of experiencing at least this penitential rebirth, although it lacks the strength and integrity which enrich those followers of Christ who submitted themselves to His yoke while still in their youth, One of the ancient prophets has well said:

It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. (Lam. 3:27)

Yes, these are blessed, for they enriched their spirit and their activity with those irreplaceable and never to be recaptured gifts with which God adorns the period of youth and through which every youth can--if he so desires--conquer those temptations of sensuality and self-love so commonly encountered at this stage of life, Therefore, let us now define more precisely the nature of these gifts and how they must be utilized in serving God and in refining one's own spirit.

The Youthful Ideal

A young person's soul possesses an abundance of empathy, a need to love. Left to the natural course of a spoiled life, this love usually turns either into sexual passion or into an aimless, romantic fantasy which later resolves into bitter disillusionment. But if a soul filled with an abundance of empathy is seized by zeal for God's truth, God's righteousness, then it will turn with love toward others similarly chosen by God's Providence, and here, within this warm fellowship, in the lively exchange of ideas and inner reflection, he will gain an immeasurably richer source of joy and fullness of life than that soul which is given over to carnal love. These comradely discussions concerning the common aims of life, these mutually invigorating conversations on matters of philosophy and ethics, bring one to forget about food and rest; they expand the heart and fill the soul to such an extent that in the student's own awareness they give his perfectly ordinary (an outside observer would say even boring) surroundings an aura of rare beauty and poetry .... Of course, seekers of sensual and material pleasures cannot understand this, but life itself offers this lesson. Ask older people: what memories make them feel young at heart, inspire them to undertake some podvig or help them to oppose temptation? The answer lies in memories of friendships forged in student life, of inspired plans for working to improve society, of heartfelt discussions--naive perhaps but truly holy--in twilight hours or at night in the corridors of the academy or along the pathways of the academy grounds. And if such people also have memories of romantic conquests and love affairs which make such prey of reckless youth, as a person grows older such memories become burdensome and shameful, a fact well expressed by our national poet:

The fading diversions of youthful folly Like a dim and drunken stupor rest heavily upon me; The regret in my heart over days gone by, Like wine, grows stronger with time.

The same thinker would consider him self happy indeed if in place of these burdensome memories he had endowed his soul with memories of pure and wholesome friendships of youth. What a great advantage it would be to the work of God and the building of Christ's Church if from their youth its builders had delighted themselves in true friends, united in mind and heart in the study and mutual elucidation of God's truth, in a sharing dedication of their lives to the service of Christ.

And here youth has all the more to gain. If in the earthly realm it is able to take such pleasure in groundless and unrealizable fantasies, then in the realm of spiritual life-where sincere desire has a corresponding reality--where, as Christ said, there is not that grievous distinction between the poetic ideal and prosaic reality, where among two or three gathered together in the name of the Lord, Christ Himself is present--this youth is truly one continuous celebration, a stranger to vanity and free from those tormenting pangs of conscience and from that hopeless despondency and premature aging which is the fate of all seekers of sensual pleasures.

A Love of Knowledge

Enough has been said for now about this first characteristic of youth. Another gift, no less seductive for that youth who chooses the wrong path in life but likewise no less beneficial for the lover of truth--is defined by a vibrant love of knowledge and a pressing search for an integral and coherent world view, a search which is so much a part of the adolescent years. May God preserve us from leaving you in this state of curiosity. True, for many it resolves itself in a temporary cooling of faith, and in those educated in secular schools--even in a loss of faith. But this is not because our divine truth fears the light, fears examination and the test of reason. No, it happens in those sad, though unfortunately not rare cases when, through the corrupting influence of self-love and self-will, a soul has been predisposed towards seeking out means of easing the conscience and freeing itself from all moral obligations. But if this same youthful curiosity and thirst for knowledge is pure and sincere, if it does not close its ears to the inner voice of conscience and the promptings of his moral awareness, then that youthful boldness and independence of thought become not a hindrance for our young philosopher-theologian but, on the contrary, a decided advantage often lacking in an older scholar who has not taken care to preserve his mind pure and free of prejudice.

One often finds among older people a tendency to be one-sided, to be conditioned by former errors which they don't wish to admit, or by personal animosity or friendship with advocates of some particular point of view, or simply by mental laziness .... A young person's thinking which is in the process of unfolding is free from this. If it remains cautious and preserved from high-mindedness it can always discover new, unnoticed aspects of a subject, and discover those mistakes which have become so conventional as to be accepted.

But perhaps some of you might think: what you are saying justifiably applies to every other branch of learning, but not to theology. What sort of work is there for independent thinking in this area where everything is already laid out, where one is left simply to memorize that which is handed down in generally accepted forms?

Unfortunately, this kind of talk is often heard in our academies, But I assure you that, quite the contrary, no branch of knowledge is in greater need of independent, creative minds than theology .... Knowledgeable people are conscious of the persistent demand on the part of unbelievers and sectarians for theology to define the ethical value of our dogmatic beliefs and our canonical and ritual ordinances, for theology to give evidence of the link between the Creed and Christ's Sermon on the Mount, for it to demonstrate not only the lawfulness and truthfulness but the holiness of all we believe and of the order governing our spiritual lives,

This is a lofty and inspiring task; it is also extremely difficult and has scarcely been broached by academic inquiry. So do not imagine that your intellectual energy, your desire for independent study, your hope to articulate something new--will not find worthy application in the field of theology...

And do you know what significance theological truth has for life today? It is immeasurably greater than in former times, at least with respect to church life in this country. Thirty years ago or more the theologian worked for a small circle of colleagues; for the majority of people, even among the educated ranks of society, his works were a luxury--not without benefit, of course, but something which was not deemed crucial to spiritual life. This is because the moral consciousness of society and obedience to the Church at that time were guarded primarily by the active asceticism of its spiritual leaders-those Christian heroes whose lives were an incarnation and expression Of the beauty and truth of God's revelation, who could say together with the divine Paul: "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ" (I Cor. 11:1)...

Our times Suffer from a deficiency of such spiritual luminaries, and today the attracting power of Christianity--at least in Russian and European society--is concentrated in Christian teaching--its truth, wisdom, holiness and beauty. For this reason the work of a Christian pastor in relation to those of little faith or a weakly believing or unbelieving society is the work of a theologian educator. And that theologian who is able to explain the moral dimensions of Christian beliefs and precepts, and to demonstrate the vanity and deception of the moral foundations of opposing system s of thought, is more highly esteemed and more beloved in the eyes of society than anyone who has attained success in the secular sphere.

We have been speaking until now about the natural, the human side of your calling, and about those gifts which your youth can bring to its advantage. But "unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it," and no gift of nature is sufficient to execute successfully the work of God if it is not joined by a cooperating grace. Natural talents can only generate positive impulses and shine forth with some good ideas; but to create with patience and love some work of wholeness, to elaborate some scholarly undertaking or, on a more practical level, to bring a youthful dream into a living reality, or to elevate a tender friendship of one's youth to the level of Christian brotherly love, to the level of a lone-suffering love of a teacher toward his student or of a pastor to his flock--these and similar podvigs of will and thought, podvigs rarely encountered in life, are possible only for those who labor not alone, not on their own strength, but with the help of Divine grace. Only such a worker can say with the Apostle: "I labored more abundantly than them all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (I Cor. 15:10).

Grace is given according as one prays. Can one's youth work in favor of such podvig? Yes, and if you do not wish to trust my words, I would commend to you the words I heard more than once from our late hierarch, Archbishop Vladimir, who loved to ask young people for their prayers. "It is easier," he said, "for a young person to ascend to God in genuine prayer than it is for an older person, for the soul of a youth is less oppressed by the world than that of someone well on in years if in his youth he was not diligent in prayer."

This is perhaps the most valuable advantage of an unspoiled youth. Treasure it. If you wish to experience this period of youth at its best you must defend yourself through prayer from all those negative characteristics which commonly mark this stage of your life: dissoluteness, cynicism, and stubborn self-will which so rapidly destroy what is genuinely youthful in a young person's heart and cause him soon to become a worn-out slave of the mundane world, a stranger to the tender feelings of a young heart and to that eager love of knowledge. Unfortunately, these negative aspects mark a large number --if not a majority--of students in secular institutions. Forty or fifty years ago, when society was governed by a Christian worldview, every student was an idealist, an inspired worker in the enlightenment of society, someone with a broad education. Today, our youth are more apt to give in to the slightest promptings of their sensual desires; and if they are inspired by some endeavor in the field of scholarship or social work, this usually lasts no more than a year or two--if that long. They grow to disdain their religious heritage and, as if in the name of science, even deny the dogmas of the Faith. Hiding behind this denial we find not some theoretical disbelief or prejudice, but simply a moral torpor and a general heedlessness, a fearful turning away from any stirring of the conscience. And thanks to this lack of concentration, this torpor and dissoluteness--which are often fruits of a youth lacking religion and foreign to moral struggle, young people enter life not only morally weak but largely unenlightened, uneducated. Conversely, what an exemplary type of youth is produced by our theological academies, at least from among those of its students who utilize the gifts bestowed upon youth to work on their own moral perfection and to serve God and the Church. To give an example, Archbishop Vladimir followed the above described path from his student years and thereby brought great profit to the service of God and to the younger brethren. Furthermore, he was able to preserve a youthful disposition until deep old age. I'm sure that those of you who knew him will agree with this observation.

And so, my friends, when you hear the holy Word of God or our sinful human tongue remind you again and again that from henceforth you belong not to yourselves but to God and the Church, do not let your hearts be seized by feelings of despondency and sinful self-pity, do not gaze enviously upon those youths who are free from such obligations and who spend their days in vain amusements; that is not youth but spiritual death and premature old age. The Lord has called us "to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you" (I Peter 1:4); He has entrusted us with tilling His vineyard and awaits from us fruit in its season. Amen.

(Translated from the Life and Writings of Blessed Anthony, Metropolitan of Kiev and Galicia in 15 volumes compiled by Archbishop Nikon [Rklitsky]; New York, 1968)

[1] equivalent to our college or university student, as distinct form the term 'pupil' used through the high school years.

[2] What today's 'liberated' women see as the traditional, degraded model, Metropolitan Anthony rightly credits as one of the most noble Christian podvigs, for what is greater than to lay down one's life for another?





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