“Keep your mind in Hell, and do not despair”.
It is a strange proposition to consider, especially as it come from one of the most renowned Saints in the last century, St. Silouan of Mount Athos. Yet with a closer look, its relevance and clarity rings out; especially in light of the insanity that has rocked the world in the last week or so.
The context for this quote came about fifteen years after St. Silouan had a vision of Christ that changed his life. During all those years he had struggled in prayer against distracting thoughts. Tired and exhausted from his labours, he wanted one day to bow before an Icon of the Lord, yet a terrible demon stood in his way. He heard a voice (although he was alone): “The proud always suffer from demons” Therefore St. Silouan asked how he could defeat pride. The Lord’s response was: “Keep your mind in Hell, and do not despair”. This moment changed his life even more than that first miraculous vision of Christ.
We have to keep in mind that Hell isn’t simply a place of punishment and torment for “bad and evil” people; it is rather the consequence which come to those who would rather have the universe (and people) serve them, those whose struggle for autonomy vomits a hated towards God and neighbour alike. It is consequence which come to those who choose darkness over light, lies over truth and ultimately death and decay over life.
This is something to consider as we recoil from the profound tragedies in Las Vegas, and Edmonton last week: that for all the security and prosperity given to us through our Western culture, we are still vulnerable.For those who are rebelling against God, and focusing on themselves, no matter what we do, where we go, or who we have around us.
This should come as no surprise for us if we have a half a heart to see the darkness and real evil that rained down death upon concert-goers in Las Vegas, or the darkness and real evil that drove into crowded sidewalks in Edmonton; for “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). It truly can seem that humanity is in a kind of Hell.
It is in this context that St. Siloan’s vision can bring clarity and hope, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving (Canadian style).
To despair is to reject the goodwill of God, and to hold onto the faults and circumstances of one’s life, bearing in solitude its burdens of anxiety, fear, anger, and enmity, (however petty or profound they might be). It sees nothing more than what is in front of it; it has no relationship or community, and can not look back.
Its opposite is thanksgiving, the movement to look through those faults and circumstances that impede us, to something better, and to grab hold of those bonds that unite us. It is to look back with the perspective of having been loved and having offered love; or to put it in a Christian context, to have been loved by God, and to offer our love to Him.
As Christians, we have to understand that the perfect expression of thanksgiving is embodied or accurately made divine in the life of Jesus Christ, through His life-giving passion and death (1 Cor. 11:26) .
We see this so beautifully put in the Divine Liturgy at its offering (Anaphora): “in the night in which He was given up – or rather, gave Himself up for the life of the world – took bread in His holy, pure and blameless hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed, and hallowed it, and broken it, He gave it to his disciples and apostles saying: “take eat, this is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins”; and likewise after supper He took the cup saying: “drink of it all of you, this is My Blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins!”.
The very thanksgiving (literally Eucharist) the Lord offered was not merely some reflection on good things of life. What was offered by Christ at that blessed table was thanksgiving, despite the Cross that stood in front of Him: “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). What was offered by Christ, despite His being forsaken all was a thanksgiving to the Father who has glorified Him and will glorify Him (Jn. 12:28); “for God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it“. (Acts 2:24). What was offered by Christ, despite the fall of humanity, was thanksgiving for the whole of His creation: “for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever should believe in Him should have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
It is in this that countless generations have been able to be truly thankful, regardless if it were at home with one’s family or in a concentration camp in Siberia. Despite being in a Hell of one form or another, those prisoners (and those who picked up their Crosses and followed Christ) could see beyond the grief and challenges set before them, clearly seeing the love of God who endured the Cross for them. They knew that nothing (not even death) could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rm. 8:39), and that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (Jm. 1:17).
“Keep your mind in Hell, and do not despair” for Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and “wiping away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4). This is truly something to be thankful for.