Anxiety and Burning Out in the Christian Struggle

Elder Paisios
Elder Paisios

When asked about lay people coming home from a hard day of work and feeling too tired to complete a service commonly done after the evening meal, St. Paisios replied:

When they come home at night from work and feel tired, they should never pressure themselves and become anxious.  Instead, they should always say to themselves with philotimo [1], “If you cannot read the entire Apodeipno [2], read just half or one third of it.”  And then they should try not to get too tired during the day.  They should strive spiritually as much as they can, and do so with philotimo, entrusting everything to God, and God will act.  The mind should always be close to God; this is the best form of study.

   – Geronda, what does God think of intense ascetic discipline? [3]

If it is done from philotimo, people feel great joy; God also rejoices in the philotimo of His children.  A heart that is bursting with love drips honey.  But if it is full of egoism, it is tormented…

The efforts of those who fast, do vigils and so on, but are full of egoism, lead nowhere.  They receive no spiritual benefit whatsoever, because instead of throwing punches at the demons, they are beating the air.  Instead of chasing away temptations, they receive more.  They meet with great difficulties in their struggle and feel overwhelmed by anxiety.  By contrast, those who trust God and strive much with humility and hope are filled with joy.  Their hearts rejoice and their souls soar.

We must be careful with our spiritual lives.  When spiritual people are affected by vainglory, they feel very little satisfaction and are left with a sense of emptiness in their souls.  Their hearts feel empty and do not flutter and leap; and as their vanity increases, the emptiness inside makes them suffer even more.  Where there is anxiety and despair, the demons are at work in one’s spiritual life.  You should not feel anxiety about anything.  Anxiety is the work of the devil.  Wherever you see anxiety, be certain that the devil is involved.  The devil is not a contrarian.  If there is already a certain tendency in us, he will push us in that direction in order to cause us trouble and deceive us.

For example, he makes a sensitive person hypersensitive.  When you feel like making prostrations, the devil pushes you to make more than you can endure.  If you are not very strong, you feel nervous and guilty because you cannot do enough.  You feel anxious and desperation sets in, mild at first and then worse…

I remember when I was a novice [4], before I would go to bed, the tempter, the devil would say to me, “Are you falling asleep?  Get up!  So many people are suffering and so many are in need…”  I used to get up and do as many prostrations as I could.  Again I would try to sleep, and again the devil would start: “Others are suffering and you are sleeping?  Get up!”  I would again get up.  I reached the point where I thought to myself, “If only I could lose my legs!  I would have a good excuse not to do prostrations.”  Once, I barely made it through Great Lent because I tried to push myself more than I could take.

When we feel anxiety in our spiritual struggle, we must know that we are not moving within the realm of God.  God is not a stifling tyrant.  We should all strive with philotimo and according to our strength.  It is by cultivating philotimo that we grow in our love of God.  When our efforts are driven by philotimo, our prostrations and fasting will be pure outbursts of love, and our path one of spiritual valor.

In other words, we should not be pedantic (rigidly stressing minor things) in our struggle and suffocate from anxiety, struggling with various thoughts.  We should simplify our efforts and put all our hope in Christ rather than in ourselves.  Christ is full of love, kindness, and consolation.  He will never stifle us.  He gives us abundant oxygen and divine comfort.  There is a clear difference between the kind of spiritual work that is prudent and deep, and the kind that is characterized by an unhealthy fastidiousness and over-scrupulousness.  Being full of internal anxiety, this second kind of spiritual work suffocates and represses us.  Its external and indiscriminate pressure is like a migraine beating inside our heads.

End Notes:

[1] Philotimo – according to Elder Paisios, is the spontaneous, self-sacrificing love shown by humble people, from whom every trace of self has been filtered out, full of gratitude towards God and their fellow men.  Philotimo comes from a deep, abiding connection with God, so that one is constantly moved to do and seek that which is good, right, and honorable.  Out of spiritual sensitivity, such people try to repay the slightest good that others do for them.

[2] Apodeipno – an evening service that was done after the evening meal.

[3] For those not acquainted with “intense ascetic discipline” in Orthodoxy, it may seem foreign or unnecessary.  When done in a healthy manner, it stems from a heart filled with love for God.  The human being, in his most natural form, has a hierarchy in which the body is submissive to the soul which is submissive to the spirit.  Nowadays, it is usually the body’s desire for pleasure and the souls desire for a satisfied ego that drives our actions.  Asceticism is difficult because it is spiritual discipline that overthrows the corrupt hierarchy that has formed within us.  The body and our fallen will protest as we crucify them with Christ.  The Elder’s point though is that this should not be taken beyond the capacity of each person.

[4] A novice is a person who is living at a monastery and actively participating in its life, but has not yet taken monastic vows.  Most candidates will become a novice for about three years.  Monastic vows are permanent, so the novitiate level allows one to taste monasticism without a pledge of life-long commitment.

Except my intro and Notes 3&4, text is from With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man published by the Holy Monastery of Evangelist John the Theologian, Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece.  2011.  Bold text is my own emphasis.

3 thoughts on “Anxiety and Burning Out in the Christian Struggle

  1. This is such an excellent, and much-needed reminder for me! St. Paisios, please pray for us!

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