¹58 (221) September, 2007


A Talk by Bishop Photii of Traditza,
First Hierarch of the Old Calendar Orthodox Church of Bulgaria
May 14, 2005 (Old Style)

This evening, with the help of our Lord, it is my intention to speak with you about self-justification—something that we all know from our personal experience, something from which all of us suffer, and something which is one of the more serious hindrances and obstacles on the path to salvation. And this last utterance of mine about self-justification is not at all hyperbolic.

Listen, please, to the following short excerpt from the instructions of Saint Seraphim of Sofia. The Saint asked of his spiritual children the question: “Why is self-justification so destructive?” In response to the reply that self-justification shows a lack of humility, the Archbishop said: “Rather, it is because there cannot be real repentance in the presence of self-justification; and without repentance, there can be no salvation.” I implore you to note this: “In the presence of self–justification there can be no real repentance”; or, in other words, repentance—true repentance—is incompatible with self-justification.

Self-justification is a passion that manifests itself in different ways. This we know. At times, it gushes forth like a fountain. A man utters a plethora of words, absolutely senseless and pernicious from a spiritual point of view, by which he wishes to defend himself against a certain attack or accusation. All of us know how a monastic should behave in such instances, when he is being accused or reproached, or when some misunderstanding occurs in his everyday relationships, and so on. If you are accused of something that you have not done, you should say: “Forgive me, but I have not done this!” If your accuser persists in accusing you of the same thing, you should remain silent or simply say: “Forgive me!” Well, that is the spiritual essence of the matter, and the way to it is indubitably difficult. It is difficult because the “self” is firmly rooted in our sinful, fallen nature, and it reacts spontaneously, from within, through self-justification, whenever someone stings it.1

A person pursues justification partly for himself; i.e., to deceive his own conscience. One also strives to justify himself so as not to sully his prestige in the eyes of the others. (This is silly, but such things are customarily so.) And he can do this even without thinking about it. He may not even reflect, not intentionally reasoning thusly at all. Yet, this impulse rises out of his heart, like pus from a wound. One may stand in front of an Icon, being overtaken by feelings of repentance, which is good. But here our problems begin. If, after a certain period of time, we begin to justify ourselves, this means that our repentance—even though we may have initially repented sincerely—is not authentic, not from the very bottom of our heart; for self-justification is still alive in our heart.

In another place, Saint Seraphim tells us: “It is easy to humble yourself before God, while to humble yourself before people is more difficult.” Indeed, it is precisely the ability or inability to humble ourselves before our neighbors that shows whether or not there is real repentance within us: whether or not we are walking along the right path of spiritual life. You must work on this. You have plenty of opportunities everyday. Be vigilant about how you behave, about how you react when you are being reproved, when someone does something in a way that displeases you, and especially when someone unintentionally (or wittingly) pricks your self-esteem deeply.

You all know the instruction of Bishop Varnava (Beliaev): “I require nothing from you, neither abstinence from food, nor sleeping on bare boards, nor long prayers, but only that you constantly reproach yourself for everything and in every instance. This is my advice to you and my very heartfelt wish.... It is necessary that you consider yourselves guilty at all times and in all matters, even if you may be accused unjustly. You have to know that God has sent this on account of some sin, which was perhaps committed many years ago. You must always reproach yourselves, humbling yourselves to such an extent that, whatever insult you may encounter, you are able to say, ‘Forgive me!’ This is the shortest way to receive grace, whereas the other ways are very long. On this path, no guidance is needed, whereas on the others it is necessary.” Well, we know this and we have read it. Yet, what do we do? Do we in fact feel truly guilty, whenever we are accused? Do we feel spiritually guilty in essence, or are we not just saying: “Yes, yes, I am guilty. But look, in this situation, he or she was wrong,” “And what about this?”—and so on. One starts to think, somehow, uni-dimensionally, completely earthbound, as a first reaction, even persuading himself of his rightness. But all of these things, being self–justificatory, impede and choke the soul.

It is thus truly evident that self-justification and humility are incompatible. Humility is bound to repentance. So, what real repentance can we offer without humility? They are inseparable. I beg you not to deceive yourselves with the following thought: “Well, here our life is so harried. We have so much work that I do not have time to examine my soul. How is it possible to be spiritually vigilant?” According to a certain woman ascetic, one cannot always find peace for his soul in external silence and tranquility. On the contrary, often, if not always, at times of external tranquility, a storm of passions is gathering in the soul. When you are in seclusion—i.e., should someone tell you, “All right, you are free from all your duties, retire in that cell over there and pray”—, for the first hours or the first few days, you will be the happiest of all men on the earth. But if this seclusion continues for many days, or for a week or for a longer time, see then what happens. The passions begin to gush out from the very depth of our hearts, even though we may not have even suspected that these existed; whereas when one humbles himself, wishing to do different obediences, trying to serve and humble himself before his neighbor from the bottom of his heart, God helps us—God cleanses us. God’s grace cleanses. When you are alone for a long time and come to see fully the dreadfulness which is inside of you, then despondency and despair will immediately knock on the door of your heart and your mind. For this reason, let us not accuse the circumstances; such an accusation indirectly falls upon God Himself. Look at the times we are living in; they are really very difficult. Well then, since God’s will for us is to live in this time, consequently there is a way of salvation. The matter is to walk it through. That is it: to walk it through.

And one more thing: We need patience. This word is often mentioned, and in most cases as the consolation (not exactly the consolation, but rather, more precisely, the instruction): “Have patience!” But what is patience? That is the question. Real (spiritual) patience gives the soul persistence in the striving after prayer, persistence in the decisive struggle with one’s passions, and persistence in the striving to acquire the virtues of the Gospels. And this is a very, very important quality. We are lacking in persistence, becoming like a reed shaken in the wind, of which God speaks in the Gospel. Persistence in spiritual life is of extreme importance, yet we hardly pay attention to it. Never mind that we are like a reed that sways hither and thither; never mind that we fall: we must be persistent. Persistence means to get up, again and again, after you have fallen along the path to the Lord, with your cross on your shoulder. You may have seen an ant carrying a bit of straw, trying to climb a hill, yet being unable to do so. It may go up and down a hundred times—up and down. Yet, each time that it slips back, it strives to go up again. But we only try a few times, when we fail, and then give up. And then we make a tragedy out of it—or a catastrophe.

Now, if one really tries to be patient and acquires persistence, with God’s help, the very next important step, which is mentioned by the Holy Fathers, is courage. Courage is the decisiveness to lead a spiritual life and to wage a spiritual battle, a struggle which is of a different kind. Courage means decisiveness at any cost. It means to follow Christ and to battle against all things that impede our path. It means to fight against all obstacles that our passions and the Devil place between us and the Lord. And then patience becomes not a passive feeling (when one hears the word “patience,” he imagines the words, “Sit there now and be patient!”), but an active sensitivity. This occurs when there is persistence, when there is courage. One walks towards the things we are now talking about, step by step. You have food in your bags for the journey; you have a walking stick as well: these are all of the instructions that Matushka Seraphima [the late Princess Olga Lieven, who left the world, entered the monastic life, and became Abbess of the Protection Convent in Sofia, Bulgaria — Editor] has left you as an inheritance. This is your food, your sustenance for that journey.

All of you have heard what other people have wanted to hear, but were not able to. You have seen what others would like to have seen, but did not. (I think that I have said this to you before.) So, our responsibility is really enormous. God shall judge us strictly, more strictly than many others. This must not scare us, though; on the contrary, it should revive in our hearts patience, persistence, and courage, qualities that are so much needed for the spiritual life. May the Lord help us to sharpen our persistence and direct our courage to struggle against the “me” of our egos, against “self-centeredness” and its terrible offspring, self-justification. At any rate, let us struggle, at the outset, against our desire to proffer a whole fountain of words, in order to justify ourselves when something happens to annoy us. Then let us strive not to let this feeling sting the heart, since one can keep himself from saying something, while inside the heart things may be entirely different. Somehow, one feels hurt, something inside is pained, and your spirit falls. Why? Because there is a wound. Who is the wounded one? Your pride, your “self-centeredness” —the very things against which we must struggle. Indeed, we must even wish for these wounds, because without them it is impossible for us to be healed. These wounds are like therapy; they are wounds which heal us. God arranges all of this for our own good; yet, instead, we resist Him. But this is the rejection of the right hand of God. Think about it: “No, I do not want it. You are trying to heal me, now, but I do not want it!” Why? “Because this grieves me and makes me feel sad.” Who is being grieved? Your pride, your “self-centeredness.” Self-justification is simply a defense mechanism.

So, let us not be afraid to lose everything, in order to acquire, at the very least, the beginnings of patience and of humility. ...Let us not be afraid to pass, indeed, through the desert of despondency, in which the soul loses all that she has and becomes poor. It becomes poor and feels unable even to move; for when one comes to know his infirmity more deeply, it is through this path that he can reach humility and the renunciation of his own self. It hurts; the path through the desert is difficult; our “self-centeredness” and pride can barely endure the feeling of being absolutely poor, useless, and weak. But if one ventures on, passing through the desert, consolation will follow, along with peace and happiness, as these are gifts of God’s Grace and the fruits of humility. Amen.

1. Fulgentius, the fifth-century ecclesiastical writer, says that the demons fell because of their pride and that they are turned inward, looking at themselves and not towards God. In a similar way, man, being lured by the demons’ suggestions that he can become a human god, is primarily turned in on his own self. This happens to all of us, in spite of the fact that we carry in our hearts the gift of God’s Grace, which we receive through the Holy Mysteries, and particularly in Holy Communion. This is how matters stand, since we lack the true decisiveness to turn away from ourselves and towards God.


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