"What do I need?" A Lenten reflection on passages from the spiritual diary of St John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ
St John of Kronstadt, a saint of the 19th century, made some Lenten reflections on the things that are necessary in this life. He starts, “What do I need? I need nothing upon earth besides the indispensable. What do I need? I need the Lord, I need His grace, His kingdom within me.”
He continues, “On earth, in this place of my journeying, of my temporary instruction, I have nothing of my own; everything is God’s, and everything is transitory, is destined for my temporary use; my abundance is – the inheritance of my poorer brethren. What do I need? I need true, Christian, living, active love. I need a loving heart, compassionate towards my neighbours; I need joy at their welfare and abundance, sorrow for their sorrows and sickness, for their sins, infirmities, disorders, deficiencies, misfortunes, poverty; I need a warm and sincere sympathy for them in all circumstances of their lives, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It is time that we ceased to give place to our self-love, to egoism, to live only for ourselves, to draw everything to ourselves only – riches, pleasures and worldly honours. We ought not to live, but to die; we ought not to rejoice, but to suffer, we who bear within ourselves the poison of self-love – for self-love is a poison continually poured into our heart by the Devil. O, may I exclaim with the Psalmist: “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of Thee. My flesh and my hearth faileth; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Lord, Thou knowest my heart and all its movements, and of the writing of these lines – grant me that which I ask of Thee! With me this is impossible, but “with Thee all things are possible.” Grant me true life, disperse the darkness of the passions, destroy their power by Thy power!”
“What do I need?”
This is a question which is fundamental to know what we really need during Lent and to apply it to our lives all the time.
What do I need? What do I really need? It seems like such a simple question, but if you ask most people in the world, they will not give a satisfactory answer. This is a deep question. When we ask this question, there are two possibilities: 1) What we really need is lacking in our lives, or 2) What we need is what we already depend on daily. In other words, we either have what we need or don’t have what we need. The first passage that comes to mind from the Gospels is the story of Martha and Mary:
Luke 10: 41-42 - And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
St John says, “I need nothing on earth besides the indispensable.” Indispensable means essential, necessary, that which I cannot do without. This implies that there are certain things that we can live without.
What do I need? St John seems to give an obvious answer, but I will show you that it is not as straight forward and simple as you might think. “I need the Lord, I need His Grace, His Kingdom within me.” This, to me at least, is profound. There are three “needs” that St John points out which may seem exactly the same at first but I believe they serve different functions.
“I need the Lord” – Meaning that I need God: the Creator, the Almighty, the Omniscient, the Omnipresent. ‘Lord’ is the name we give God in Scripture instead of saying ‘Yahweh’ (‘I Am’ or ‘I will be Who I will be’), following the tradition of the Jews. Hence, we are calling God by His Holy Name when we call Him ‘Lord’. We are not referring to any ‘god’ – we are referring to the God of Holy Scripture, the Lord. This is important. People have worshipped false gods throughout history and still do today. The god of today is the self - ‘I’. We will discuss selfishness later.
“I need His Grace” – Some people (especially Protestants) believe that God’s Grace is something apart from God, or created by God. We Orthodox believe that Grace is God Himself working through His Energies. Grace is not only God Himself, but God acting on us humans and acting in human history - God being present and active in our daily lives. The Scriptures are all about God acting in history from creation to salvation through Jesus Christ. The Divine Liturgy is the ultimate experience of God’s Grace.
“[I need] His Kingdom within me” – I do not only need God acting upon me but I need Him to be in me, in my heart, for Him to rule and live in me. St John writes (Page 69…) When God is present in all a man’s thoughts, desires, intentions, words, and works, then it means that the kingdom of God has come to him; then he sees God in everything – in the world of thought, in the world of action, and in the material world; then the omnipresence of God is most clearly revealed to him, and a genuine fear of God dwells in his heart: he seeks every moment to please God, and fears every moment lest he may sin against God, present at his right hand. “Thy kingdom come!”
Here St John gives a definition of the ‘fear of God’ i.e. the fear of losing His Grace. He also clearly states that one can experience the kingdom of God here in this life – by God dwelling in man’s heart. When the presence of God is felt intensely, to sin is to betray the love of God.
How does God become present in all a man’s thoughts, desires, intentions, words, and works? St John gives the answer in the above passage which we will cover later.
St John, having defined what he needs, then explains the human condition:
“On earth, in this place of my journeying, of my temporary instruction, I have nothing of my own; everything is God’s and everything is transitory, is destined for my temporary use.”
How profound! We are used to saying, “This or that is mine! It belongs to me”. When you think about it we really don’t own anything, even our bodies… Everything is a gift from God. Practically, when we understand that we don’t own anything we become more careful with what we do, how we use things, what we do with our bodies, how we dress, what we eat, how we talk to others - our whole attitude to life changes. We need to give ourselves to God the way that God continually gives Himself to us.
I don’t need transitory, temporary things. This may be obvious to you, but if we really look closely in our lives, we will see an attachment to material things and misuse of the gifts from God. In this passage, St John writes as if God is speaking:
Am I not everything to you, My worm, adorned with Mine image? To what, then, do you cleave? In what else do you trust? Do not leave Me, the Source of living water (of life); I am the very Life. Our Life – the Lord – is single. If He is in the heart, it is enough. He alone supports our life. Therefore it is said: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
The imagery of the worm is very interesting – Psalm 22/23 v. 6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. Pondering man’s comparison to worms should make us humble, lowly and meek, the way that Christ was on earth.
What else does St John say about the gifts of God?
(Page 87) “Whose are the leaves of the tree? They are God’s. Whose are the good thoughts in you? They are God’s. Whose is the capacity in the trees to grow and form their tissue, and to produce and develop leave and fruit? It is God’s – that is, given by God. Whose is your capacity of thought and word? It is God’s. Do the trees wrongfully use the powers given to them by God? No. Do men wrongfully use the powers and capacities bestowed upon them by God? They do. They misuse them through their intellect, received from God for the purpose of knowing God and His truths; they misuse them through their heart, created of the purpose of loving God and their neighbours, of experiencing the blessedness of communion with God; and they misuse them through free will, given to them for the purpose of endless improvement in virtue.”
The mind was given by God to us to know God. It is useful to study science or history or philosophy, but don’t expect to be satisfied by the ideas, facts, statistics, knowledge in these. The heart was created for love. We will discuss the heart later. Free will was given for us to pursue holiness, humility and all the virtues. Instead, we pursue the opposite: greed, laziness, pride, selfishness, egoism, lust.
St John has this to say as well:
There is, my brethren, a true, real life, and there is a false, imaginary life. To live in order to eat, drink, dress, walk; to enrich ourselves in general, to live for earthly pleasures or cares, as well as to spend time in intriguing and underhand dealings; to think ourselves competent judges of everything and everybody is – the imaginary life; whilst to live in order to please God and serve our neighbours, to pray for the salvation of their souls and to help them in the work of their salvation in every way, is to lead the true life. The first life is continual spiritual death, the second – the uninterrupted life of the spirit.
“Competent judges of everything and everybody” - When we are happy with who we are, we start judging others around us as if we are in charge; we try to correct others, hiding our own weaknesses and hopelessness. St John once again asks, “What do I need?”
“I need true, Christian, living, active love.”
Let’s start with love. Humans were made to love. In Greek there are 4 words that are connected with love:
Eros (ἔρος): This is physical, carnal, passionate, erotic, fleshly, romantic love. It is pure emotion without logic.
Storge (στοργή): This is natural affection to family and relatives. It means ‘affection’ in ancient and modern Greek, like that felt by parents for their children.
Philia (φιλία): This is tender affection and brotherly love. It means affectionate regard or friendship in both ancient and modern Greek. This type of love has ‘give and take’. It includes loyalty to friends, family and community.
Agape (ἀγάπη): This is a state of being, not an emotion. Agape is the course of active good will even to enemies. The word ‘Agape’ only start to be used extensively in the Gospels. “God is Agape”. Read the 3 letters of St John and you’ll get a good idea of what love is. This love is selfless; it gives and expects nothing in return. Whether the love given is returned or not, the person continues to love, even without any self-benefit. This is the love we are talking about.
How does St John describe the type of love we need?
True: honest, sincere or authentic. Christ says, “I am the Truth”. In Greek, Truth (Aletheia) means to uncover, to show the essence of something. In Hebrew the word for truth is connected to the word for rock. Truth is what you can depend on, that which is faithfully there. St Paul writes in Hebrews that Christ is the Rock. So our love must be faithful, dependable, honest and sincere. I need this kind of love.
Christian: The early followers of Christ were called Christians meaning “little Christs” as a way of making fun of them. Little did the persecutors know that they were actually honouring the followers of Christ. So to be Christian means to be Christ-like. Christ-like love involves loving your neighbour, loving God and also loving your enemy. There is nothing more destructive than hate, and nothing the devil hates more than seeing a true Christian who loves his enemy.
Living: “I am the Life”, “I am the Life and the Resurrection” Christ says. Christ overcame death. Christianity is the religion of the living. St John says: (Page 377) God is Life; He gave being and life to everything. He is That Which Is and Almighty, for everything proceeds from Him, and everything is supported by Him; let us therefore know Him Who alone Is. The devil is death, because he voluntarily turned away from God the Life, and as God is That Which Is, is the cause of that which is not, of imagination, enticement, for he cannot truly bring anything into being by the word; thus he is falsehood, as God is truth.
Active: working, not passive, always doing something. There is no such thing as an arm-chair Christian. A Christian works – physically and spiritually. “I need a loving heart, compassion towards my neighbours”
What is the heart? It is the centre of one’s being. “Thus, as the bodily heart is the center of the body’s life, the spiritual heart is the center of our spiritual life. The heart governs the whole body and when Grace conquers the whole heart, then it reigns over all thoughts and parts.” Arch. Spyridon Logothetis, The Heart, p. 29-30.
The heart, says Fr. Zacharias Zacharou, “…is the place where God’s communion with man is cultivated, the Spirit of God is revealed, operates and prays” The Enlargement of the Heart, p.115. We may also ask ourselves, where is the heart? Fr. Zacharias answers “The heart is within our chest. When we speak of the heart, we speak of our spiritual heart which coincides with the fleshly one; but when man receives illumination and sanctification, then his whole being becomes a heart. “The Hidden Man of The Heart” p.12.
Page 36: “The purer the heart is, the larger it is, and the more it is able to find room within it for a greater number of beloved ones; whilst the more sinful it is, the more contracted it becomes, and the less number of beloved can it find room for, because it is limited by self-love, and that love is a false one; we love our selves in objects unworthy of the immortal soul – in silver and gold, in adultery, in drunkenness, and such like.”
Self-love is a poison continually poured into our heart by the Devil.
When our heart is pure, it becomes bigger – there is more room for others. Self-love is a distortion of true love. Self-love preoccupies itself with temporary and damaging things. The greatest expression of self-love is faithlessness in God – when you do not depend on God but rather yourself. You are the centre of the universe. I cannot but mention the ‘New Atheists’ who are so self-absorbed that they cannot see that life is more than scientific facts and theories. Evolution and the Big Bang are nice ideas, but they tell us nothing about the meaning of existence. That’s what the Scriptures and the Church are for – to teach us the meaning of our existence. This is important: When we become aware of our spiritual and not purely physical existence we are able to grasp the meaning of our life more and more and we realise that this belief transforms and completes all which has filled our life until that moment.
I have often wondered about the make-up of the human body and how it was created by God Who “created everything in Wisdom” (Psalm 103:24). Think about the eyes – they are not looking at the self, but to the face of another person who is the Image of God. We do not walk around on all fours, staring into the ground or at our stomachs like animals do – we stand upright and we have the ability to physically and metaphorically ‘look up’. The beating of our heart should be a constant reminder for prayer, a metronome for inner prayer and communication with God.
St Basil says this in his homily on “Be Attentive to Yourself…” (Deuteronomy 15:9):
He has made the human being alone of the animals upright, that from your very form you may see that your life is akin to that on high; for all the quadrupeds are bent down toward their stomachs, while the human being is prepared to look up toward heaven, so as not to be devoted to the stomach or to the passions below the stomach but to direct his whole desire toward the journey on high. Then God placed the head at the top, locating in it the most valuable of the senses. There sight, and hearing, and taste, and smell have been established, all near each other. And although confined in a small space, none of them impedes the activity of its neighbour. The eyes have laid hold of the highest lookout point so that nothing blocks their view of the body’s parts, but placed under the small projection of the eyebrows, they reach out from the prominence above in a direct line. Again, the hearing is not directed straight, but by a spiral-shaped pathway it takes hold of the noises in the air. This indeed exhibits the highest wisdom, enabling sound to pass though unhindered, or rather be led in, bending around the twists, while nothing from outside that accidentally falls in can be a hindrance to the auditory perception. Examine closely the nature of the tongue, how it is tender and nimble and is sufficient by its varied movement for every need of speech. Teeth, also organs of speech, provide strong resistance to the tongue and at the same time also take care of food, some cutting it and others grinding it. And so when you have traversed all things with suitable reflection on each, and have observed carefully how air is drawn in through breath, how warmth is kept around the heart, and the organs of digestion, and the channels of blood, from all these you will perceive the unsearchable wisdom of the Creator [Rom 11.33]. So you will also say to him with the prophet, “Your knowledge from myself has become wonderful” [Ps 138.6].
St John writes on the heart: (Page 19) “Sometimes in his heart a man draws near to God, sometimes he goes far from God, and therefore he experiences either peace and joy, or fear, disturbance, and oppression. The one is life, the other spiritual death. We draw near to God mostly in time of affliction, from which no one can save us but God, to Whom we then turn our whole heart, and thus approach Him sincerely; whilst we go far from God in times of ease and abundance of earthly blessings, which make the old carnal man proud of himself, and – especially when he thirsts for riches, glory and distinction, and has attained all these – he loses faith from his heart and forgets God, his Judge and Recompenser, forgets the immortality of his soul, and his duty to love God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself.”
Forgetting God – When God ‘forgets’ us in Scripture it means that we are dead. If we forget God, there are consequences. Remembrance is an important act of love. We remember the saints and the Theotokos during the Divine Liturgy. What do the Scriptures say about forgetting/remembrance?
Psalm 136/7: 5. If I forget you, O Jerusalem (God), Let my right hand forget its skill! (the right hand is a symbol of power and authority) 6. If I do not remember you, Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth (let me not be able to speak, to communicate) - If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy (If God is not Who makes me happy, if God is not the highest priority of my life).
We chant at funerals/memorial services “Eternal be his/her/their memory”. If remembering is an act of love and only God is eternal, we are basically asking God to love the person who has passed away. You may say that this is obvious – but what we really are saying to God is to be Who You are, do what You want to do, not what I want to do or what I think God should do.
St John prescribes a prayer for this state:
Page 5: “When your heart inclines to evil, and the evil one begins to undermine your heart, so that it is completely removed from the rock of faith, then say to yourself inwardly: “I know of my spiritual poverty, my own nothingness without faith. I am so weak, that it is only by Christ’s name that I live and obtain peace, that I rejoice and my heart expands, whilst without Him I am spiritually dead, I am troubled, and my heart is oppressed; without the Lord’s Cross I should have been long since the victim of the most cruel distress and despair. Only Christ keeps me alive: and the Cross is my peace and my consolation.”
We must recognize that we are weak, that we are completely dependent on God. Only Christ can give us peace and rest. The Scriptures say that “God rests in His saints”.
St John ends with quoting a verse from Psalm 73. This is one of my favourite Psalms as I find it very relateable. It speaks about how people who are far from God prosper and questions if doing what God wants is at all beneficial or worthwhile. The answer is clear. Once you meet God and He dwells in your heart, you cannot live otherwise.
1 Truly God is good to Israel, To such as are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the boastful, When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For there are no pangs in their death, But their strength is firm.
5 They are not in trouble as other men, Nor are they plagued like other men.
6 Therefore pride serves as their necklace; Violence covers them like a garment.
7 Their eyes bulge with abundance; They have more than heart could wish.
8 They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression; They speak loftily.
9 They set their mouth against the heavens, And their tongue walks through the earth.
10 Therefore his people return here, And waters of a full cup are drained by them.
11 And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the ungodly, Who are always at ease; They increase in riches.
13 Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, And washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all day long I have been plagued, And chastened every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
16 When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me--
17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end.
18 Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction.
19 Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors.
20 As a dream when one awakes, So, Lord, when You awake, You shall despise their image.
21 Thus my heart was grieved, And I was vexed in my mind.
22 I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand.
24 You will guide me with Your counsel, And afterward receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish; You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.
28 But it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, That I may declare all Your works.