I have been greatly inspired by the words of Elder Arsenie Papacioc of Romania available in English in the book Eternity In The Moment, published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. Elder Arsenie’s credentials as a holy man seem unassailable, yet he doesn’t always say or do what you might expect a holy man to do. For example, he spent years as a confessor in Communist prisons and also years living in the wilderness as an “accidental” hermit—he would say of himself that he was only accidentally a hermit because the communist authorities forced him into hiding in the wilderness with elder Cleopa. Once a dead child was brought back to life through the Holy Relics of St. Paraskeva and through his prayers. Certainly his words are backed by deeds. Yet Fr. Arsenie would say things like “personally, I am not for fixed prayer rules.”
Since prayer rules are an established part of Orthodox Christian prayer life, what could he possibly mean by saying his is not for them? He said, “We don’t need a fixed prayer rule immediately [immediately = most importantly, I think]. We need our heart to be continually present…[in] this permanent state of love, [in] a relationship with God—this is the essence of prayer.” He continues to say, “…every moment is a taste of eternity and every sigh can be a prayer.” For Fr. Arsenie, prayer is one’s attention turned toward God at every moment. Prayer is every moment experienced in reference to God in the depth of one’s heart so that even a sigh is a prayer in that it proceeds from the heart and is directed toward God.
Now this does not mean that Fr. Arsenie thought prayer rules were useless. No, not at all. A prayer rule can help one develop discipline. Furthermore, Fr. Arsenie participated in the full cycle of services when he lived in cenobitic monasteries and by the end of his life had worn out his knees by prayer and prostrations in his cell. However, “a multitude of prayers or prostrations is not the most important thing,” he would write to a nun. The most important thing is always one’s permanent state of awareness of the presence of God. For him, a heart immediately present with God in any activity was prerequisite. This attention from the heart in the moment is what matters.
Fr. Arsenie did not have a formal theological education, so most of his wisdom came from contemplation on the natural world. For example once an archeological dig near his monastery uncovered a skeleton. Fr. Arsenie requested that it be left uncovered so that it (the skeleton) could teach everyone coming to visit the monastery. It seems that for Fr. Arsenie, seeing a skeleton and meditating on death teaches more than books of theology. He taught those who saw the skeleton on their way to the monastery, “Death is a reality….death does not come for a cup of coffee with you; it comes to take you.” In another context he said, “When death approaches, you become the greatest theologian.” Probably from his years in communist prison and his time in the wilderness, Fr. Arsenie knew from personal experience how nearness to death opened one’s mind to the understanding of theological mysteries.
Unfortunately, for most of us, our encounter with nearness to death takes place too late in our life to make much of a change. Fr. Arsenie said, “Then you realize you’ve lost an entire life, becoming conscious that the time God gives us to live is His greatest gift to us.” Like little children, we have nothing to offer God our Heavenly Father but what He has already given us. However, by the time we are near death, we realized that we have already squandered so much of it. It reminds me of Jeremiah’s lament toward the end of his life, after the destruction of Jerusalem, “It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3: 27 [24 LXX]).
Still, sorrowful repentance at the end of one’s life is very valuable. Wasting one’s life is not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is to waste one’s life and not acknowledge it, not be sorrowful, not to repent. Despite a wasted life, the Good Thief received Paradise in acknowledging that he was guilty and Christ was innocent. The worst thing that can happen is to refuse to see what you spent a lifetime ignoring. The worst thing that can happen is to end one’s life justifying oneself and blaming others.
As I am getting older, and perhaps suffering from a bit of long COVID, I have become more and more aware of what I can’t do. I used to be able to go and go and go. Now I go and stop and rest. Often all I have now is the heartfelt sigh Fr. Arsenie speaks of. As we all prepare for death, it’s good to remember that we only have our life to offer to God—and even that was a gift. If we do not offer back to God what He has already given us, what will we say to Him on that Day when death visits us, and not for coffee?