The Elder Porphyrios on Paschal Hymns and Victory over Sorrows and Setbacks

In this post, I would like to translate in full a conversation in Greek that a pilgrim had with the Elder Porphyrios. A psychologist of the cognitive ilk will no doubt recognize in the following conversation an example of how meaning assignment can influence mood. The believer, however, will see testimony to the transformative power of Christ’s Resurrection.

PorphyriosThe Elder Porphyrios once asked a pilgrim visiting him:

— Do you know the troparion that begins, “We celebrate the slaying of death …”?

— Yes, elder, I know it.

— Then say it.

“We celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell, the beginning of another way of life that is eternal. And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.”

—Do you understand it?

—Certainly I understand it.

I thought that he was asking me for a translation into modern Greek.

The Elder then waved his hand dismissively saying,

— Little George, you didn’t understand anything at all! You said it quickly like a chanter in a hurry. Listen to what awesome things are said in this hymn: Through Christ and His resurrection, we do not get across a river, a gorge, a canal, a lake, or even the Red Sea. We have moved across an abyss that no human being could cross on his own. Ages came and went with the world waiting for this Pascha, for this passage. Our Christ passed from death to life! That’s why today “we celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell.” Death is no more. We celebrate today “the beginning of another way of life that is eternal,” a life with Him.

Speaking with enthusiasm and conviction, the Elder was clearly moved. The elder paused and continued more energetically:

— Now there is no more chaos, no more death, no more slaying, no more Hell. Now everything is joy, thanks to the resurrection of our Christ. Human nature is resurrected with Him. Now we too can rise again that we might live with Him eternally … What bliss is contained in the Resurrection! “And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause.” Have you seen how young goats now in the spring frolic on the green grass? They drink some of their mother’s milk and then prance about leaping for joy, and so do we celebrating the ineffable joy of the resurrection of our Lord.

He then stopped speaking. Pure joy was now in the air. And the elder continued,

—Can I give you some advice? In every sorrow, with every failure, in anything that causes you pain, collect yourself for half a minute and slowly say this hymn. Then, you will see that the most important thing in your life and in the life of the entire universe has already been accomplished with the resurrection of Christ. It is our salvation. And then, you realize that all our setbacks are so insignificant, that you don’t need to allow them to spoil your mood.

This conversation with the Elder Porphyrios contains precious advice on how we can make the Church’s experience of Christ’s resurrection our own and how doing so can enable us to look at all things through the resurrection of Christ and hence be victorious over the gloom, the sadness, the failure, and the death that seem to surround us. The Church’s hymns have great power, but we must focus on them, internalize them, and let them fill the horizon of our mind like the blazing sun fills morning sky. Saying the words slowly, we try to understand the universe of thought and feeling contained in each phrase, which ultimately means to live each phrase with body and soul, to experience a shift in emotion and a change of heart, so that we find ourselves translated from our little world with its petty problems to the world of Christ’s radiant resurrection where we will be forever with Him.

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mention that “the fathers were well aware that meaning assignment directly influences mood.  St. John Chrysostom observes that irrational fears can spring from incorrect meaning assignment.  For example, someone in the dark night might be afraid of a dangling rope if he mistakes it for a live serpent.  Saint Theodore the Studite characteristically notes, ‘We feel radiant when we think about something good, and then we become dark and gloomy when we entertain somber thoughts. . .The change is volitional and within our own power.’  In summary, the fathers were quite mindful of the overall importance and etiological significance of meaning assignment for successful human functioning and the virtuous life.  They recognized that our perceptions are channeled through our interpretations of our situation, interpretations that are often influenced more by imagination than by objectively measurable external reality.  Interpretations in the form of thoughts and images shape our views of others and ourselves.  Good thoughts bring us joy, increased insight, and wisdom, whereas bad thoughts can throw us into a state of melancholy, confusion, or even folly.  According to the fathers, thoughts not only give rise to emotional reactions, but also coalesce over time into character traits.”

Yes, the Elder Porphyrios was well aware of this patristic teaching. I think it is also worth mentioning that on the Holy Mountain of Athos, the Paschal Canon is sung on fourteen, which means each troparion like the one the Elder Porphyrios referred to is repeated about seven times. There is a purpose to that repetition. These powerful words written by Saint John of Damascus can reorder the soul and give it the strength to face any adversary and certainly any assault by gloomy, dark thoughts.  They enable us to put our thoughts, the things that happen to us, even our entire lives into the proper perspective, being that Christ, our Christ has triumphed over death and changed everything forever. He invites us to enter “another way of life that is eternal.” And one simple way to begin is to just slowly say the following words as though we mean them: “We celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell, the beginning of another way of life that is eternal. And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.” And then to live in accordance with what we have just said.

About Father Alexios