On Living The Christian Life: Teachings From St Innocent Of Alaska
By Else Tennessen
Recently, I was blessed to read the essay, “Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven,” by St Innocent of Alaska. For anyone who would like an explanation of our salvation and of how to take advantage of it in this life so as to arrive into the life to come, I recommend this easy to read, very loving message from the Saint.
The essay begins with an explanation of how Man’s emptiness can only be filled by Jesus Christ Himself. St Innocent explains that even Solomon in all his wisdom and glory (given by God) had an unsatisfied heart—“the desires of his heart wearied and tormented him”—thus we have the book of Ecclesiastes, where Solomon writes, “everything is vanity,” because nothing outside of God satisfies. We all know what it feels like to get something we really want—and still feel empty. Well, that space is where God should be; we were meant for God’s kingdom.
With the coming of Jesus, St Innocent explains, “[it] is now made possible for all who so desire to return to God and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” So in the four parts of the essay, he explains
1. On the benefits granted us by Jesus Christ through His death.
2. How Jesus Christ lived on earth and how He suffered for us.
3. The Pathway by which we must enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
4. How Jesus Christ helps us to follow this path and how we can receive His Help.
In loving and simple words, the Saint explains our Lord, His Life and His sufferings in such a way that your heart will burn to see Him. St Innocent makes Him Personal and Real and from his writing you can tell that the Saint was very close to our Beloved Lord. Indeed, he tells us that what Jesus wants from us is oh, so simple: “Now Jesus Christ, your Benefactor, wants from you just one thing: that you follow Him into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He goes on to explain that all we need to do, to start following, is to want it.
How many times do we hear others (non believers) say, “I just can’t believe in God”? Well, from St Innocent’s teaching we can understand that it’s not that they can’t believe—they don’t want to! May God keep us from our own desire waning. We must strive to kindle our desire for God in every moment.
St Innocent goes on to explain Christ’s sufferings for us. They were not just physical. They were spiritual and emotional, as well: “…the sorrow He felt came not only from the people’s failure to hear Him, or even from their insults—but from the fact that even while they were perishing, they had no desire to turn from their perdition. Jesus Christ suffered, so to speak, both visibly and invisibly…” This broke my heart and made me feel that yes, I must want Jesus more and more each day while it is in my power to do so.
Christ’s love for us is stressed over and over. This is not just a person loving us, but God. “In order to understand as fully as possible just how great His love for us is and great His sacrifice was—[we must] remind ourselves WHO Jesus Christ IS…Almighty Creator of the universe, the great King of angels and the human race…this is the One who accepted all these things on behalf of the human race.”
Our God is awe-some—He should continue to instill awe in us. Before I became Orthodox, one of my pastors always called the Lord, “King Jesus.” While some might have felt uncomfortable, I always thought this was so apt—indeed, He IS our King and we belong to a fantastic Heavenly Nation.
St Innocent then tells us about the Path to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus Himself is the Path, and we must have the desire to go, but we must also know “where to go and what will be required for the Journey.” While we are commanded to “take up our cross and follow Christ”, in plain terms, Innocent tells us that to do this we must 1. study, 2. believe unconditionally, and 3. “strive to possess and stir up within yourself the desire to do what the Holy Scriptures teach.”
The Saint explains that while “we must forget ourselves,” we must also examine and know our soul’s true condition, because this will lead us to salvation. With it will come suffering: “the more the Lord reveals to you the condition of your soul, the more your inner sufferings will increase. This is the meaning of the interior cross!” I found his explanations of suffering to be quite helpful. We live in a culture that just wants comfort and ease. It’s easy to feel that way, ourselves. But St Innocent makes it plain that this mindset will not get us Where We Want To Go: Heaven. He also reassures us that only Jesus can bring real comfort in our sufferings, and He is always available. We are to fill up the hole where comfort goes with Jesus and not with material things, food, sex, or anything else the world offers.
In the last part of the essay, St Innocent lays out how Jesus helps us follow the path to Heaven—by help of the Holy Spirit, Christ in us. The Holy Spirit helps us in these ways:
• He grants faith and light.
• He brings us True Love, “a root from which all good deeds will grow within a person.”
• He grants us the power “to resist the delusions which this world presents” to us.
• He grants wisdom and insight into Christ’s teachings.
• He grants joy, gladness of heart, and unspeakable peace.
• He grants humility: “the Holy Spirit shows everything as it truly is”—including ourselves.
And finally, the Holy Spirit teaches True Prayer. St Innocent spends quite a bit of time on the importance of prayer. He acknowledges that prayer is very difficult—it is hard work—and even if we feel discouraged in prayer, distracted, and get no pleasure out of it, don’t give up! The attitude of our hearts is also very important in prayer: “When you ask God for mercy you must yourself, at that very moment be merciful to others—then God will listen to you.”
The last parts of the essay touch on fasting and alms: “If you wish for your prayer to fly to God, give it two wings: fasting and alms.” The Saint explains that it is not enough to fast bodily; we must fast spiritually as well, moderating our desires and rooting out our passions. We must, in a phrase, “behave ourselves.” It is important to read the Scriptures. It is necessary to receive the Eucharist: “the Body and Blood of Christ are true medicine to heal all [our] ailments and diseases—and who among us is completely healthy?”
Living the Christian life is not easy work, but St Innocent, in his closing words, encourages us:
“And so, my brothers, I can tell you no more than this about the pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven. I will add only that those who zealously follow it will, for every effort, every sadness, every victory over themselves, every act of abstinence, every deed—indeed, every good intention and desire—receive in reward seventy times seven, even in this world, while what awaits them THERE cannot even be imagined.” AMEN.
You can read St Innocent’s complete essay in the book, Alaskan Missionary Spirituality by Michael J. Oleska, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, ISBN 9780881413403. It is available from Amazon and from the St Vladimir Seminary bookstore. Don’t miss this essay. It will encourage, teach and uplift you. May your reading be blessed!