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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

Understanding that 'death to the world' does not equate hatred toward thy neighbor or God's creation

By J. Basil Dannebohm

"Cheerfulness is not a sin. Joy drives away fatigue, and fatigue brings despondency,

and there is nothing worse than despondency."

-- St. Seraphim of Sarov

Jeremy Basil Dannebohm
J. Basil Dannebohm

Recently, a quote was posted on social media by a group called 'Death to the World.' If memory serves, its foundations are rooted in St. Herman's Monastery in Platina, California for the purpose of evangelization to "punks."

I, for one, have always been especially fond of bringing the splendor of Truth to people where they are at with hope that through spiritual growth, they will arrive where they need to be -- that is to say abiding within the fullness of Truth.

The recent quote, credited to the late Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn read:

"If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life."

Without a doubt, Solzhenitsyn experienced first hand what is wrong with the world and looked into the eyes of evil. While I agree with him that "unrestrained enjoyment" is certainly wrong, we must be cautious not to dismiss the notion of happiness altogether. Doing so would be dangerous for our souls and equate to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Hence, context is key when reflecting on Solzhenitsyn's words.

I mention this because there are those among us who mistake happiness as being irreverent, or somehow immoral. Such individuals attest that we should present ourselves as 'wretched' or 'miserable' Christians and sign our names with the title, 'the sinful.' I must confess that when I see people like this, I think of the words in St. Matthew's Gospel: "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting." (Matthew 6:16)

I'm sure you've met such people who equate sternness with humility and piety. I've known a few who were so cold and stern that they managed to chase inquirers away from the Church.

A stern 'Christian' would probably misconstrue Solzhenitsyn's assessment of happiness, focusing exclusively on the former of his words while overlooking the latter. In this, a Christian can easily misunderstand the context of the statement or worse yet, manipulate the words to suit an agenda.

While such a person may sneer at you in Church, St. Seraphim of Sarov once said, "Joy is not a sin. Believe me. Not even while in Church. Because it pleases the Lord that every person has joy in his heart."

Look, I'm the first one to acknowledge that the world is filled with evil things and evil people. Goodness knows that I've seen experienced my fair share of people who refer to themselves 'devout Christians,' when in actuality their motto should be, 'devour Christians.' However, reducing happiness to a purely humanistic notion seems rudimentary. Therefore, it must be clear that the inauthentic forms, or as Solzhenitsyn says, "unrestrained" forms of happiness are love of money or materials, for example. "Unrestrained happiness" does not include authentic Christian joy.

Yes, it's okay to be happy and cheerful, in fact you should -- even during the Divine Services -- because within authentic happiness there is likewise, love. St. Isaac of Syria tells us that, "Love does not know how to be angry, or provoked, or passionately reproach anyone. The proof of love and knowledge is profound humility, which is born of a good conscience in Jesus Christ our Lord."

So you see, sterness and rigidity do not equal humility --- not by a long shot. Trust me.

We are born to be happy purely because we know this earthly existence, though created by God, is our temporary dwelling place. We are born to be happy because our hearts are restless with excitement for the age which is to come. When we participate in the Divine Services, we are experiencing a miniscule share of the happiness that is to come, therefore we are rightly filled with joy. While our earthly home was stained by the fall of man, beauty still remains. Evil, not piety, seeks to foster a spirit of unhappiness in spite of beauty. If the Lord is pleased "that every person has joy in his heart" how can man not be born to be happy?

Yes, this is why context is crucial.

"Death to the world," therefore, does not mean living in constant anger at the world around us. It's easy to tune out the noise that doesn't come from God. It can be mastered in three easy steps: log off, turn down, and walk away.

Likewise, "death to the world" does not mean spite for God's creation, for as we read in scripture, "The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord." (Psalm 33:5)

Perhaps of most importance, "death to the world" certainly does not mean sternness toward thy neighbor. In case you missed the memo:

"Love one another" (John 13:34)

"Love one another" (John 13:35)

"Love one another" (John 15:12)

"Love one another" (John 15:17)

"Love one another" (Rom 12:10)

"Love one another" (1 Thess 3:12)

"Love one another" (1 Peter 1:22)

"Love one another" (1 John 3:11)

"Love one another" (1 John 3:23)

"Love one another" (1 John 4:7)

"Love one another" (1 John 4:11)

"Love one another" (1 John 4:12)

"Love one another" (2 John 5)

Rather, death to the world -- as the movement will attest, means death to the "unrestrained happiness" of earthly pleasures, some of which can indeed be enjoyed in healthy and pious moderation. Anybody who pretends they don't enjoy some of life's pleasures is a liar and a Pharisee, it's as simple as that.

There are movements that seek to bastardize, rather than evangelize the words of the Righteous Seraphim Rose and others. These movements likewise hone in purely on 'death to the world' as a grim and disdainful mantra while foregoing the very real, very authentic love and joy that exists as a natural component of our Christian identity. Such movements seek to paint the Holy Mountain of Athos as a place of misery. And though many followers of these movements have made pilgrimages to Platina, still, they are blinded to the authentic character and spirituality of the man they misquote and leverage as some sort of mascot for extremism.

Such movements have a tendency to draw in neophytes to the faith. I remember back in 2002, I was a bright-eyed naive neophyte who placed a lot of emphasis on externalism. I was all about wearing a 100 knot prayer rope around my wrist and a cross that riveled that of an archpriest. Like many neophytes, I lashed out at all that was wrong with the world and made it my primary focus. That despise for evil, quickly manifested into a form of evil itself. I was one of those people who thought that most of my Orthodox brothers and sisters took the faith for granted and simply went through the motions.

I couldn't have been more mistaken.

Over time, I came to understand that the people I had once condemned as going through the motions had in fact mastered the art of living in the world but not of it. Their focus was not on all that was wrong with the world, but rather, that which was beautiful. This, I would come to learn, was authentic Orthodoxy and hence, authentic joy, true 'death to the world.' Indeed, as Bishop Gerasim of Fort Worth (who was a protege of Seraphim Rose and founding member of Death to the World) noted:

"The message of the Kingdom has nothing to do with ideology. [The culture wars] distract and consume the neophyte who is only beginning to learn how to walk the royal path. And what happens is, this young soul abandons the prayerbook for a laptop. He pursues blogging in place of prayer, thereby placing himself in great peril. And there is no substitute for what Father Seraphim called, 'quiet and humble labors.'"

Yes, what I mistook for complacency was in fact, "quiet and humble labors."

Recently, a priest friend of mine posted a rather fitting meme. The text read: "Welcome! You joined Orthodoxy because of all of the problems in the world. Glory to God. You'll soon find out the problem is you."

That sums it up marvelously. Digest that particular quote for a while and you will truly master the art of 'death to the world.'

... "Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love."

Recommended Reading:

For the Life of the World by Father Alexander Schmemann


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