Culivate Silence, Find Love

Sunday, July 26 (OS July 13), 2020: 7th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Councils; Synaxis of the Holy Archangel Gabriel; St. Stephen of St. Sabbas’ Monastery (794); St. Julian, bishop of Cenomanis (1st c.); Martyr Serapion, under Severus (193); Martyr Marcian of Iconium (258).

Epistle: Romans 15:1-7/Hebrews 13:7-16
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35/John 17:1-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul tells us that we “who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification.”

The standard here is demanding.

I’m not simply to tolerate those with whom I disagree but, as he says in other places (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2) bear within them “in love.” His use of the word “scruples” reminds me that I am to work for the salvation (“his good” and “edification”) of those who I will likely find annoying consumed as they are by irrational concerns and fears.

All this I am to do for you because God in Jesus Christ has done this for me.

Today the Church commemorates the fathers of the first six ecumenical councils. Taken together, these concerned articulating and defending the mysteries of both the Incarnation and the Holy Trinty.

And this was done not out of an abstract concern for the truth but to proclaim the Good News that not only did God takes on our life in Jesus Christ. He also in Jesus Christ lifts us up and make us “partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

It isn’t, in other words, that God shares our life as one of us. It is also that by grace we have come to share in His life. Jesus has drawn us into the life He shares with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We see this not only in the faith the council proclaims but how they do this.

Unlike what we see around us, the Church gathered together both sides of the disagreements that threatened to tear the Church apart. Arius sits down with Athanasius not only to discuss and debate but to stand together in prayer and seek the Face of God.

To bear with one another means to exhaust every possibility of reconciliation. Again we see this in the Councils. The great tragedy of the councils is that the heretics’ last act as members of the Church is to remove themselves from communion with the Body of Christ. They excommunicate themselves.

We see something similar to this in this morning’s first Gospel.

Seeing the power Jesus has over demons, the Pharisees refuse to believe or even consider, that what He does, He does by the power of God. Instead, they condemn themselves by condemning Jesus and say “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

To avoid the fate of the Pharisees and the heretics of the first centuries we must, as St Paul tells us, glorify God. The other feast we celebrate today, the Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel, gives us a hint as to how we do this,

Like all the angels, the Archangel Gabriel continually praises God. Gabriel does this not to flatter God or to win some advantage from Him over the other angels. This is something that happens in the world where praise is calculating and in the service of acquiring authority over others (see Matthew 20:24-26).

For the angels, to praise God means to contemplate continually not just the beauty or power of God but God Himself. This what St Gregory Palamas means when he tells us what we experience are not qualities or characteristics of God but God Himself.

Like the angels, we are called not to contemplate abstracts about God but to encounter God Himself. It is in only this encounter that I can come to bear with others in their weakness; I can only do for you, what Jesus has done for me by becoming myself another Christ (alter Christus).

This requires that I be transformed, transfigured, and made new by grace.

Building on the grace of the sacraments, that is to say, God’s actions in my life, I must first cultivate silence. Not only physical, external silence but inner silence. I also need to still my incessant, inner monologue that deafens me to the voice of God in the depth of my heart.

It is only in this way that I can know what it means, concretely and in the moment, to bear with my neighbor in his weakness.

It is only in this way that I can know what it means, concretely and in the moment, that I can know what it means to love my enemy and change him into my neighbor.

It is only in this way that I can know what it means, concretely and in the moment, that I can experience the joy that Jesus promises us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are surrounded by many who are fearful and even angry. The temptation we face is to turn our backs on them, to withdraw from society, to close our hearts to others in their weakness.

But this isn’t the life to which Jesus has called us. We are to bear with others in their weakness as Jesus bears with us in our own.

And we do this because Jesus has called us to work for not only our salvation but the salvation of others whether they are friends or enemies; neighbors or antagonists.

None of this, however, can be done unless we draw near to Christ in prayer and inner silence.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Without Silence, All Things Are Corrupted

Sunday, July 19 (OS July 6): 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Sisoes the Great of Egypt (429); Martyrs Marinus and Martha, their children Audifax and Abbacum (Habakkuk), and those with them at Rome: Cyrinus, Valentine the Presbyter, and Asterius (269); Ven. Sisoes of the Kyiv Caves (13th c.); Uncovering of the relics of Holy Princess Juliana Vilshanska (1540).

Epistle: Romans 12:6-14
Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The mid-century Southern author Flanner O’Connor wrote to a friend that, “In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off

from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

But it isn’t just tenderness or charity that is corrupted when it is cut off from faith in Jesus Christ.

The pursuit of justice without faith is what causes a police officer to brutalize citizens they are sworn to protect. At the same time, just without faith, causes protesters to become rioters who harm the very community they would defend.

Likewise divorced from faith, concern for public health quickly becomes antagonistic to civil and economic liberty. At the same time, apart from faith, the defense of liberty is deformed and becomes indifferent and even hostile to the common good and the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Apart from faith in Jesus Christ my vision of the world of persons, events, and things is cramped and deformed.

Turning for a moment to the Gospel, we realize that virtue detached from faith is not simply a contemporary problem. It is part of our fallen condition. Apart from faith in Jesus Christ my vision of the world of persons, events, and things is cramped and deformed.

This is the case for with the scribes who object when Jesus tells the paralyzed man his sins are forgiven. They go so far as to accuse Jesus of blasphemy. But what is more central to the revelation of God than His mercy, His readiness to forgive? As God says through the Prophet Isaiah (43:25): “I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake. And I will not remember your sins.”

We should pause here and ask ourselves what do we mean by faith?

In the tradition of the Church, faith is more than a personal or ecclesiastical relationship with Jesus Christ. Likewise, faith is more than simply an affirmation of the teaching of the Church and adherence to the Church’s moral, sacramental, and ascetical practice. While it includes all of this, faith is more than either any one of these or even all of them taken as a whole.

To have faith in Jesus Christ, to have the kind of faith that preserves tenderness, charity, justice and the other virtues from the corrupting effect of sin, is to lay aside the cramped deformed and deforming vision of sin and see persons, events, and things as God sees them.

It is this, expansive, catholic vision of reality that inspires us not only to be charitable but to work for justice and the common good. St Paul in his epistle that each of us has received “gifts … according to the grace that is given to us” and we are to “us use them” according to “the needs of the saints” and for the building up of the Body of Christ which is the Church (see Ephesians 4:12).

Put slightly differently, the grace given us in baptism is not an abstract power. It takes the form of concrete gifts (charismata). It is these gifts that tell us the work to which we have been personally and uniquely called. The spiritual gifts we have received are the means by which we draw others to Christ.

It is through introducing them to Christ that we help keep our neighbor’s concerns for charity, for justice or for the common from being corrupted by sin. In addition to this, it is through their faith in Jesus Christ that these and the other good things in their lives are elevated and made perfect in Jesus Christ (see Matthew 5:48).

So how do we have this faith that preserves and perfects? How do we come to see things not in the divine light? How do we come to see this light itself?

When as Orthodox Christians we talk about spiritual gifts or grace or even the divine light, we aren’t talking about theological abstractions or mere psychological experiences. If we were then we would be no different from those whose tenderness is divorced from Christ and the Gospel.

What we mean by grace, by spiritual gifts, by the divine light is the unmediated, revelation of God Himself in the human heart and the life of the Church.

We come to know Jesus Christ and experience His presence in our lives first of all through the sacraments. Above all baptism, chrismation, the Eucharist and confession. To this we must add the reading of Scripture, the Church’s worship and moral, ascetical and dogmatic teaching and practice.

But this is just the beginning.

To all this, I must add my own, personal life of prayer. Again, we need to pause for a moment and be clear about what this means.

For many Orthodox Christians, the life of personal prayer is often reduced to keep a rule of prayer. We stand, make the sign of the Cross, and read prayers from a book. And usually, we read these prayers as quickly as possible.

While prayers from books have their place, what we are striving for is a sense of inner quiet (hesychia).

I can only come to see creation in the divine light if I first quiet myself. As important as the other elements of the Christian faith are, they are perfected in silence. First outer silence and then slowly over time inner silence.

Looking around not only in Madison but also Wisconsin, not just in the United States but the whole world, it is hard for me to escape the conclusion that God has imposed a certain kind of external silence on humanity. He has done this through Covid-19.

And this is why I believe we see the surge of dissension and violence around us. The Enemy of souls hates even external silence. Why? Because it is in silence that we met God and are liberated from his grasp.

This is why God has given us silence. And this is why unless we embrace it, the disagreements, the divisions, and yes even the violence, will only increase. This might not happen around us but it certainly will within us; violence finds its home in a noisy heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! St Paul asks “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” We are those called to preach!

We have each of us been given spiritual gifts that make this possible. Having now been given the necessary grace, let us accept it by embracing silence and in silence not only see all things as they illumined by the divine light but see that light itself!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Peter, Paul & Our Tumultuous Times

Sunday, July 12 (OS June 29), 2020: 5th Sunday after Pentecost; Holy, Glorious, and All-Praised Pre-eminent Apostles Peter and Paul.

Epistle: Romans 10:1-10/2 Corinthians 11:21-12:9

Gospel: Matthew 8:28-9:1/Matthew 16:13-19

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Whether Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical, all Christian traditions have offered up martyrs for Christ. Among all those who have died for Christ, there is one tragic class, that I want to focus on to help us understand the significance of today’s celebration of Ss Peter and Paul for our tumultuous times.

Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical Christians, all have in our ranks martyrs who suffered for Christ at the hand of other Christians. All Christian traditions include those who not only died for Christ but were killed in His Name.

There is St Peter the Aleut, to name only one Orthodox martyr here in America. Among the Catholics, there is the example of among others of the era, the 6th century English. Among Protestants and Evangelical, there are all those remembered in Fox’s Book of Martyrs.

Tragic though it is that Christians have killed Christians, in a fallen world it is not a surprise. All murder, indeed all violence, since the time of Cain and Abel is in the end fratricide (see Matthew 5:21-22).

And every death, every act of violence, is the result of one person refusing to see the humanity of another. In place of my neighbor for whom Christ suffered and died, I see the representative of an alien cult. Rather than the person who God loves, I see an abstraction. It is this abstraction, this blindness to the presence of a person created in the image of God, that makes violence and ultimately murder possible, reasonable and even desirable.

And it is this tendency to violence and murder that we see around us today.

I’m told again and again, “But Father! You can say Black Lives Matter! They’re all Marxist!” Or, from another quarter, “But Father! Don’t you see? Trump voters are all racists!”

It’s worth pausing at this point and reminding myself that my heart is divided. I never do things for only one reason, good or bad. Even the good things I do, I do for mixed reasons. This is precisely why Jesus tells us in the Beatitude that it is only “the pure of heart” who “shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). And in a fallen world, none of us are pure of heart.

None of us do the right thing for simply the right reason. Or, to out in another way, we all of us are tempted to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

While I might know this about myself I am certain that this is true for others. This is why it is easy for me to dismiss the justice or truth of a person’s complaint or concern by assuming he or she acts or speaks out of malice.

The irony here is overwhelming. Blindness to my own sin makes it all that much easier to see yours.

Because we are unique, because we are different from each other, we will always disagree. We will always look at the same evidence and draw slight–or even dramatically–different conclusions. In the face of this, I am tempted to dismiss not just your views but to assume you’re acting with evil intent.

So what should we do? To answer this, let’s look at the Apostles Peter and Paul.

These two saints frequently clashed. While their disagreements never, thank God, rose to the level of violence, they were often pointed in their criticism of each other.

Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy and abandoning the Gospel to curry favor with Jewish Christians who saw obedience to the Law of Moses as a pre-condition to faith in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 2:11-13). And if Peter isn’t, quite, as pointed in his criticism of Paul as Paul is of him, he nevertheless warns us that the Apostle to the Gentiles, “our beloved brother,” is often “hard to understand” (see 2 Peter 3:14-16).

And yet when we look at their icons, we realize that for all they clashed the Holy Apostles loved each other. In their icons we see them not only embracing each other in love but that it is their loving embrace that supports the Church.

I mentioned at the beginning that all Christian traditions include martyrs killed in Christ’s name. What I didn’t say then but will now, is that all Christian communities also include among their number, those who in Christ’s name killed their brother or sister in Christ. And, before you ask, yes Orthodox Christians are guilty of this as well.

As Christians, the disagreement, the dissension, and even the violence that we see not only in America but around the world isn’t a surprise. If we who are in Christ have at times succumb to the temptation to allow disagreement to become the occasion for violence why do we think our nation, our state, our city, or for that matter, our friends who don’t know Christ are exempt?

If I who know Christ dismiss my neighbor in his need because his heart–like mine–is impure, then I open the door to the violence that afflicts America, Wisconsin, and Madison.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus tells us the judgment we give, is the judgment we will receive and the measure we use, will “be measured back” to us (see Matthew 7:2).

Let us then give our neighbors the benefit of the doubt. No matter how mixed their motives, let us see the truth of their complaints, the justice of their concerns. We do this for others because Christ has done this for us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

From Obedience Comes Friendship

Sunday, July 5 (OS June 22), 2020: 4th Sunday after Pentecost. Hieromartyr Eusebius, Bp. of Samosata (380). Martyrs Zeno and his servant Zenas of Philadelphia (304). Martyrs Galacteon, Juliana, and Saturninus of Constantinople. {St. Alban, protomartyr of Britain (c. 305)}

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Seen from the outside, the Gospel appears as an unbearable imposition on my freedom. An unending list of do’s and don’ts. To use St Paul’s phrase, humanly speaking, that is in my spiritual or emotional immaturity, the Gospel feels to me likes “slavery.”

And yet with time and experience, I begin to realize that far from limiting my freedom it is the Gospel–and specifically my obedience to the Gospel–that makes my freedom not just possible but a treasure to be jealously guarded.

Humanly speaking, St Paul says, the options before me are stark. I can live as a slave “of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” or as a slave to “righteousness for holiness.” It is the latter, the way of holiness, that is the way of true and lasting freedom. To see this we need only reflect for a moment of what it means to follow the way of uncleanness.

We should first of all admit that there is something undeniably attractive to following this path because it is the way of my own will. Choosing what I want to do based on my desire at the moment seems not just desirable but intoxicating.

But my desires are constantly shifting, pulling me this way and that as different options present themselves to me. And so soon I discover that this is a life of increasing fragmentation.

Think about the sin of vainglory, of pursuing the praise and good opinion of others.

Yes, at first, this might result in my trying to be a better person. Soon though I discover that winning–much less keeping–the good opinion of others is a trap. Even my closest friends will at times disagree with me; even the most generous friend will now and then have no time for me or as much time for me as I want.

As the opinion of others becomes more important to me, I’ll begin to seek out anyone who can affirm me, spend time with me. I do this because I am trying to find the sense of self-worth that can only come from within as the fruit of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

And so the Apostle says the fruit of this way of life is a life of “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” as I surrender control of my life not to others but to my own desire for their approval.

Living like this doesn’t make any of us happy. How can it? What is more insubstantial, what is more flicked than desire?

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This last right, the right to pursue happiness, is not (as we are sometimes told) the right to follow every passing whim. It is rather a life that fosters human flourishing, of becoming evermore the persons God has created us to be.

For Jefferson, for St Paul and the Christian tradition as a whole, happiness is found not in doing what I want but doing as I ought. It is in this sense that we can talk about the United States as a Christian nation. Not Christian as the Church is Christian but rather Christian in the sense that in our founding we drew inspiration from the Christian ideal of living not as we want but as we should.

Hearing this needn’t upset us.

This is neither a diminishment of the Gospel nor an unwarranted glorification of America. Rather it is simply seeing for a nation what Jesus sees in the centurion: An epiphany of the Church’s faith outside the Church.

The centurion’s faith was praiseworthy because it freed him from the vain pursuit of the good opinions of others. Because he was free in this way he was able to love his servant.

It was for his servant’s sake that the centurion was willing and able to humble himself before Jesus. Through faith, through obedience to God, master and servant became much more. They became friends.

We are now as a nation suffering all manner of dissension. We are internally divided and are fast becoming not neighbors or even fellow citizens, but enemies. We are suffering this because–on both the Left and the Right–we have abandoned “the pursuit of happiness,” in favor of the pursuit of fickle desire and, above all, power over others as a way to bolster our own frail sense of self-worth.

In a fallen world, we are not friends unless we choose to be so. This choice is not a matter of simply agreeing with each other. Much less is it the fruit of superficial attraction.

It is faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the will of God that makes yesterday’s enemies into today’s friends. And this happens not because you have changed but I have.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! “From this day forth from this very hour and this very minute,” as St Herman of Alaska said, “let us love love God above all and seek to accomplish His Holy Will.” Let us from this moment commit ourselves more fully to Christ and so make friends of our enemies and show the world how the divisions that afflict us can be healed.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory