Understand the Signs of the Times (part 1)

Understand the Signs of the Times (part 1)

Below the reader will find a most spiritually profitable talk given by Archbishop Averky of blessed memory on the teachings of St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov). I have provided the text “as is” below, it is taken from a collection of Archbp. Averky’s works. The original title is, “‘Salt is beguiling’ – a sign of the approaching end: To the centenary of the blessed repose of Bishop Ignatius (Bryanchaninov).” I will be posting the talk in two parts on this blog. I will simply note that in the text below the words “apostasy/retreat” are used as synonyms and are, it seems, used in an interchangeable manner.

Begin talk by Archbp. Averky-

“Our time is like the last. The salt is overwhelming. In the highest pastors of the Church there remains a weak, dark, confused, misunderstanding by the letter, killing the spiritual life in Christian society, destroying Christianity, which is a work, not a letter. It is hard to see to whom the sheep of Christ have been entrusted, or fallen into the hands of, to whom their leadership and salvation has been given! The wolves, clothed in sheep’s skin, are and are known by their works and fruits. But this is an assent of God. Let those who exist in Judea flee to the mountains!” – In these words our great Russian luminary, ascetic and spiritual writer, St. Ignatius (Bryanchaninov), whose centennial since his righteous death we commemorate prayerfully in this year of 1967 († April 30, 1867), characterized contemporary church life more than a hundred years ago.

Is it not with far greater right that we can repeat these formidable, cautionary words of his in our day? For just in this respect – in regard to the complete spiritual and moral decay, which seems to have already reached its extreme limits, life in these last hundred years, especially since the catastrophic collapse of our Motherland-Russia, has indeed gone far ahead.

Sad “progress,” clearly indicating, in the Godly words of St. Ignatius, that the end is approaching!..How much further can we go, if those entrusted to guide human souls to salvation lead them not to salvation, but to eternal destruction?!

It is important for us that St. Ignatius, who from his early youth sincerely strove with all his soul for an authentic spiritual and moral life and who himself was a high example of such a life, writes this not without reason, but having experienced all this himself, as we know from his wonderful biography. And the conclusions of the disappointments and distresses he personally experienced, on this ground, he set forth in writing in many places of his “Ascetic Experiences,” “Ascetic Sermon,” “Letters to the laity,” “An Offering to Modern Monasticism, “Father” and his other extant writings are an invaluable library for anyone interested in questions of spiritual and moral life and, in particular, for those who wish not only to philosophize (which is often quite fruitless and unhelpful! ), but to live the spiritual life as St. Ignatius himself truly lived it. The writings of St. Ignatius are especially valuable to us because they are all written from his own spiritual experience.

Having painted a positive picture of spiritual and moral Christian life in a number of his deeply edifying creations, as it was reflected in the lives of God’s saints, throughout Christian history, and especially in the teachings of the saintly ascetics of faith and piety of the first centuries of Christianity, St. Ignatius moves on to the end times, with signs of these latter times already indicated in his contemporary era (a hundred years and more ago). What is valuable for us is that St. Ignatius, as he himself emphasizes, seeks answers and guidance for everything from the ancient ascetics and says little “from himself” and in his own words, setting forth in his reasoning their thoughts and sometimes quoting word for word their sayings.

This is how, for example, he speaks of the modern era in the “conclusion” of his “Fatherland”: “From the spectacle presented by antiquity, let us turn to the spectacle presented by modernity. What must we say of ourselves? How should we live, how should we act? We find the answer to these questions in the ancient monks: they foreshadowed our situation; they also foreshadowed the way of action in this situation. “In the last time,” said one of them: “those who will truly work for God will prudently conceal themselves from men, and will not perform signs and wonders in their midst, as at the present time. They will walk in the way of doing, dissolved in humility, and in the kingdom of heaven they will be greater than the fathers who were glorified by signs” (St. Niphont’s 4th response). What thorough instruction, what consolation for us in these prophetic words of the signified and spiritual father!”

This indication is extremely important! From this the conclusion is clear: where there is much noise, self-promotion, the search for popularity, that is, where there is clearly no humility, but an apparent desire for glory, for the exaltation of oneself in the eyes of others by real or only by puffed up, imaginary, imaginary works and merits, there is no true pleasing to God.

What is there?

There is “hypocrisy alone,” St. Ignatius quotes St. Tikhon of Zadonsk.

“Be afraid of this hypocrisy,” St. Ignatius further instructs, “be afraid of hypocrisy, first, in yourself, then – in others: be afraid precisely because it is in the character of the time and is capable of infecting anyone at the slightest deviation into frivolous behavior… Pursue hypocrisy in yourself, driving it out of yourself, away from the masses infected by it, acting both intentionally and unconsciously in the direction of it, covering up serving the world by serving God, seeking temporal goods by seeking eternal goods, covering up a vicious life and a soul totally committed to passions in the guise of holiness. Here is one extremely characteristic trait, especially peculiar to our time, which as an experienced expert in spiritual life, St. Ignatius reveals, warning us against it.

The second feature, to which St. Ignatius repeatedly points in his writings, is the drying up of the gracious leaders of true spiritual and moral life, and in connection with this, which is especially important for everyone sincerely seeking salvation in our time to know and remember, is the multiplication of false teachers, deceived by demonic delusion and drawing the whole world into this deception. We need extreme caution, as St. Ignatius warns us many times in his writings, “not to mistake a wolf for a shepherd” and not to trust lightly to someone who can ruin your soul by leading it on a false path. According to St. Ignatius, our time is a time of extreme depletion of spiritual mentors, and therefore it is no longer possible to find a true “elder” as were the elders-mentors of the first centuries of Christianity, and it is much safer to be guided by Holy Scripture and the writings of the Father. Saint Ignatius himself recalls, however, how much he suffered from an almost constant meeting with spiritual “leaders, who were sick with blindness and self-belief, and how many bitter and grave shocks” he experienced as a result.

The third characteristic feature of our time is the extraordinary multiplication of temptations of every kind, of all kinds, which will all distract man from serving God sincerely and without hypocrisy.

“Woe to the world because of the temptations: for there is need to come temptations” (Matthew 18:7), the Lord proclaimed. And the coming of temptations is God’s presupposition, and the moral distress of temptations is God’s presupposition. By the end of the world the temptations must multiply and multiply so much, that because “lawlessness will abound” (Matt. 24:12) and “when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on earth? (Lk.18:8) – “the Land of Israel” – the Church will be “brought down by the sword” – by the murderous violence of temptation – “and quite empty” (Ezek.38:18).

It will be very difficult to live according to God. It is made so because it is impossible for one who lives in the midst and in the face of temptation not to be affected by temptation. As ice loses its hardness when exposed to heat and turns into the softest water, so the heart, which is full of good will, when it is exposed to the influence of temptations, especially constant ones, relaxes and changes.

“Oh, wretched time! Oh, a calamitous state! – St. Ignatius exclaims, contemplating this pernicious spectacle of temptations, – oh, a moral calamity, unnoticeable to sensual people, incomparably greater than all material, loud calamities! Oh, a calamity that begins in time and does not end in time, but passes into eternity! Oh, the calamity of calamities, understood only by true Christians and true monks, unknown to those whom it encompasses and destroys!”

The golden words of St. Ignatius! We are already facing all these countless and varied temptations, which make it so difficult for modern people to live according to God, and how many in our time are clearly aware of the extreme perniciousness of these temptations? Shocking events are taking place in the world before our eyes, such as the bloody catastrophe that befell our motherland Russia, the creation of godless godless states, the open struggle with God and the Church, the obvious service of Satan, but many people, like blind men, seem not to see any of this and are even angry when it is pointed out to them: “What are you saying? There’s nothing special here! It’s always been like that!” – and so forth. Just like this spiritual blindness of almost the majority of modern people, even those who call themselves Christians (it’s scary to say: there are quite a few Christian clergymen among them! According to St. Ignatius, this is a clear sign of the departure that has already begun and is rapidly progressing in our days, about which St. Paul foretold in his Second Epistle to the Solonians (2Sol.2:3). :3).

“The living according to God,” says St. Ignatius, “is made very difficult by the vastness, the universality of the Apostasy. The apostates, who multiply, being called and presenting themselves outwardly as “Christians” (!!!), will prosecute true Christians; the multiplied apostates will surround true Christians with countless intrigues, will put up countless obstacles to their good intent to save and serve God, as St. Tikhon Zadonsky notes. They will act against God’s servants with the violence of power, and slander, and devious intrigues, and various deceptions, and severe persecutions… In these latter days a true monk (of course, this applies not only to monks, but to all true Christians!) will scarcely find any remote and unknown shelter, in order to serve God with some freedom, and not to be drawn by the violence of apostasy and apostates into the service of Satan.

Who, seeing all that is now going on in the world – even to the point of openly serving Satan – can say that this time has not yet come? And it certainly has come, if St. Ignatius more than 100 years ago already wrote about its coming in his time, indicating clear signs of it.

Here, for example, is how strongly and vividly he writes about it: “The times, the further on, the harder. Christianity, as a spirit, unnoticeable to the fussy and world-serving crowd, very noticeable to those who pay attention to themselves, is removed from the midst of humanity, leaving it (the world) to its fall.

Here in these words it is very important to notice that it is as if the Departure is not seen, not noticed by those people, who belong to the “world-serving crowd, who are so vain, having given themselves to serve this world, which lies under evil, according to the word of the Apostle (1 John 5:19), that they have lost the spiritual vision, and therefore everything that happens in the world now seems to them absolutely normal, something to be reconciled with. And they are terribly angry with those who try to open their eyes, for it prevents them from living quietly, in their pleasure.

And here is what St. Ignatius says next: “The prophecy of Scripture is fulfilled about the apostasy of the peoples who have passed from paganism to Christianity. The apostasy is foretold with all the clarity of St. Scripture and serves as evidence of how true and true everything said in Scripture.

This is why a true, true believing Christian cannot have any “panic” when contemplating this gloomy picture of apostasy, which some people fear quite naively and unreasonably, preferring therefore to “ignore” apostasy and keep silent about it. A true Christian knows from the words of Christ the Savior Himself that all this “must be” (Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9), and he should not close his eyes to it, but be absolutely conscious of what is going on, correctly estimate and weigh all the events in which a digression takes place, in order to know how to act, in order not to be drawn into the current of retreat, which can happen unnoticed by him if he neglects and does not pay enough attention.

For our guidance, St. Ignatius says: “Retreat [Apostasy] is permitted by God: do not try to stop it with your weak hand…”.

What then? Does this mean that we have to be reconciled to the Apostasy and “join in” with it?

Far from it, of course not! This is what it means: “Retreat, guard against it yourself: and that is enough for you. Get acquainted with the spirit of the time, study it, so as to avoid its influence as far as possible.

How important it is in our time to remember, to carry in our minds and hearts this most precious instruction of our great Russian luminary!

This is why it is a crime to remain silent about the Retreat, to lull ourselves and others into thinking that everything is quite safe, that there is nothing to worry about. Although we are powerless to “stop the Retreat with our weak hand,” the duty of Christian love commands us not only to “remove ourselves” and “guard against it,” but also to protect and warn our neighbors against it, if they themselves do not see it or do not notice it. Here we must always remember the wonderful saying of one of the greatest pillars of our Church, St. Gregory the Theologian, that “God is betrayed by silence. One cannot remain silent about what is a matter of paramount importance, as the work of saving the souls of men!

Let us turn to the further thoughts of St. Ignatius, which open our eyes to what is now happening in the world: “Retreat has begun to take place quickly, freely and openly from a certain time. The consequences must be most grievous. God’s will be done!”

Do we not see this? For as recently as comparatively recently it seemed utterly impossible to see the utter shamelessness in the religious and moral life of men which is now being done before our eyes, even to the point of completely denying Christ and rejecting all religious and moral foundations and openly serving Satan. And not only the secret, hidden, but also the overt, open persecution, up to and including the shedding of blood, against those who profess the true faith of Christ has become a formidable fact in our day. And it is vain to draw any parallel between this modern persecution of the faith of Christ in all its forms and that which existed at the dawn of Christianity. Then the Christians were persecuted by pagans who did not know the true God, who did not know Christ, and now those who know Christ and the high doctrine He preached, who are often conscious apostates from the faith of Christ, who have sold their souls to Satan for worldly goods, are persecuted furiously and fiercely, maliciously.

It is horrifying to read further prophecies of St. Ignatius, which are being realized before our eyes in our time: “May the merciful Lord cover a remnant of those who believe in Him. But this remnant is meager: it is becoming scarcer and scarcer… The cause of orthodox faith can be recognized as approaching a decisive denouement… One special grace of God can stop the moral epidemic, stop it for a while, because it is necessary to fulfill the prophecy of Scripture. Judging by the spirit of the times and the fermentation of minds, we must assume that the building of the Church, which has been shaking for a long time, will shake terribly and quickly. There is no one to stop and oppose it. The measures of support taken are borrowed from the elements of a world hostile to the Church, and will hasten her fall rather than halt it.

It is as if these words were written from nature in our day! For we are just now witnessing this fearful and rapid vacillation of the Church. And indeed, the measures taken are borrowed not at all from whence they should be taken – not from the spiritual realm, but from the same elements of a world hostile to the Church – from the realm of human passions, thinking not of what is divine, but of what is human. And of course such measures will not only not stop the fall of the Church, but rather will hasten it.

“Listen to what you say,” some will say, “what fall of the Church can we speak of when we have such a decisive promise of Christ as: “…I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18)?”

Quite right, and Christ’s words are certainly immutable. But what is somehow forgotten is that these words of Christ do not specify the limits of the church, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. It does not say, which Church it will be: the Constantinople Church, the Russian Church, the Serbian Church, the Bulgarian Church, our Russian Church Abroad, or any other: it says simply – “the Church,” that is, that until the end of the age and the Second Coming of Christ the true Church will not disappear from the face of the earth, but will exist.

But the Church will remain a Church with all the high promises and gracious powers and rights that belong to it, even if at least one bishop and the smallest number of believers remain in it. All the rest will be shaken and fallen, overcome by the gates of hell, even if they continue to call themselves the church. This is what St. Ignatius is talking about here, and this is what must be kept in mind for a correct assessment of the events taking place in our time!

“There is no one to expect the restoration of Christianity,” Saint Ignatius goes on to say, “the vessels of the Holy Spirit have finally dried up everywhere, even in monasteries, these treasuries of piety and grace, and the Body of the Spirit of God can only be sustained and restored by His instruments. God’s merciful forbearance prolongs and delays the decisive denouement for the small remnant of the saved, while those who rot or decay reach the fullness of decay. Those who are saved must understand this and make use of the time given for salvation, “as time is shortened,” and the transition to eternity is not far off for any of us.

To the position of the Church we must be at peace, though together we must understand it. It is an assumption from on high.

The elder Isaiah told me, “Understand the time. Do not expect to be well-fixed in the general composition of the Church, but be content with the fact that it is given in particular to people who wish to be saved.

The admonition is direct, as if directed directly to us, so that we do not become discouraged, do not lose heart definitively, seeing what is being done. The hardest thing, of course, as St. Ignatius notes more than once, is to endure spiritual loneliness at such a time.

“Save yourself! Blessed if you find at least one faithful collaborator in the cause of salvation: this is a great and rare gift of God in our time. Beware of wishing to save your neighbor, lest he draw you into a perishing abyss. The latter happens hourly.

Now, what a difficult time for salvation this will be, and it is already here!

“He who saves, let him save his own soul,” says the remnant of Christians, says the Spirit of God,” St. Ignatius emphasizes this difficulty, wishing to instill in us a special vigilance, a special attention to himself.

The retreat, in the intensified, more and more developing age of which we have already entered, according to many signs, as St. Ignatius testifies to it, must precede the appearance in the world of the Antichrist, the enemy of Christ: it must prepare the coming and enthronement of the Antichrist and “crown” him, after which will come the terrible period of the last decisive struggle of the devil with God and with His Christ.

About this, based on the predictions of many of the Fathers of the Church, says St. Ignatius in his wonderful book “On miracles and signs” (also in volume 4).

[To be continued]

About the author

Husband, father, and Priest.

Schooling: Kharkov State University (Ukraine); Brownsville School of Ministry; St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary (M.Div.).

Author and illustrator of St. Patrick, Enlightener of the Irish Lands (Conciliar Press, out of print) and illustrator of The Life of St. Brigid (authored by Jane G. Meyer).

Proprietor and writer at the Inkless Pen Blog, at which, based on the foundation of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, a wide variety of topics are addressed. Fr. Zechariah has translated some works by St. Dimitry of Rostov and New Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvesdensky), these translations are also available on his blog.

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