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

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

Hidden in Christ

Sunday, February 23 (OS February 10), 2020: Meat-fare Sunday, Commemoration of the Awesome Judgement; Hieromartyr Charalampos, Bishop of Magnesia and Martyrs Porphyrius and Baptus, (202); St. Anna, wife of Yaroslav I (1050); Ven. Prochorus of the Near Kyivan Caves (1107); Martyrs Ennatha, Valentina and Paula of Palestine (308); St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict (543).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Glory to Jesus Christ!

This past week the daily Epistle and Gospel readings have focused on two themes.

The epistles have emphasized the primacy of charity–of love–in the Christian life. As for the Gospel readings, these have recounted the events of Holy Week. Taken together, the epistles remind us of Jesus Christ’s great love for each of us. They remind us as well that it is the same sacrificial love to which we are called.

Let me make this stronger.

Love that is not sacrificial is not really love. However if we stop here we risk misunderstanding the life to which we are called. To know what it means to love sacrificially we need to turn to today’s readings.

St Paul reminds those troublesome Corinthians, that while fasting and the ascetical life are important, they are not the point of the Christian. The goal, as we’ve heard all week in the readings, is to love others. And, by love, Paul means to do that which is best for our neighbor.

Often in my own spiritual life I get undone because I assume–wrongly as Jesus tells me in the parable–that to love others means I must do great things. After all, if my love for you must be sacrificial, don’t I need to do something big? This isn’t what Jesus asks of us today.

Rather our Lord asks us to do small acts of kindness that St John Chrysostom says are within the reach of all of us. Indeed, one needn’t even be Christian to know that you ought to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirst, clothe the naked or visit those who are sick or imprisoned. All of these are the actions of any morally decent human being.

So where is sacrifice? It is this: rather than doing great things to win the praise of others, or even to bolster our own sense of self-worth, we are called to live a life “hidden in Christ” as St Paul tells the Colossians (3:3). The humility of our love should be such that it is easily overlooked not only by the world but, as the response of both the sheep and goats suggest, by us as well.

Put slightly differently, we are called to engage in quiet acts of simple charity for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. This means that need to be indifferent, detached, from not only your opinion of my actions but of my own as well.

And doing the morally good thing because it is good changes me. Too frequently get things backwards. I don’t do good things because I am a good person. I become a good person by doing good. It is the habit of small acts of charity that purifies my heart. If I wait for my heart to be pure, my intentions to be right, then I’ll never act.

The sheep in the parable simply loved others without any thought of reward. The goats, however, did good but did so to earn a reward; their good deeds, their charity, was transaction. They did something to get something.

Sheep love others, goats love only themselves.

While the good we do is easily overlooked, we shouldn’t underestimate its effects in the aggregate. It was through small, easily overlooked acts of charity, that the early Church overcame the Roman Empire. The Church conquered the Empire not by force of arms by making it the Church.

Everything the Church has accomplished, it has accomplished by the habit of daily acts of personal charity. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, all of these persecuted Christ and the Gospel. And all of these fell not through military might but by Christians who lived faithful lives hidden in Christ. It is the Cross, not the sword, which overcomes the world.

The Church has triumphed in this life when Christians have embraced a life hidden in Christ. We will triumph as a parish, to say nothing of finding our own, personal salvation, by likewise living a life hidden in Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To do this we need only take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Jesus Christ. Look to Jesus and allow Him to direct you in the ways you should go.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God Searches for You!

Sunday February 16 (O.S., 3), 2020: Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Afterfeast of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy and Righteous Symeon the God-receiver and Anna the Prophetess. Prophet Azarias (X B.C.). Martyrs Papius, Diodorus, Claudianus (250). Martyrs Adrian and Eubulus (308-309). Martyr Blaise of Caesaria (III).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Glory to Jesus Christ!

One of the things that never ceases to surprise me is not simply the number of people who don’t know that they are loved by God but those who will argue that God can’t possibly love them.

For some, God’s love is something to be earned. Seeing themselves as failures, they think God’s love is reserved for successful people. God loves, their thinking goes, the sleek and the strong, the competent and well liked. Being none of these (at least in their own minds), they conclude that God doesn’t, and can’t, love them.

Others see themselves as unlovable because of their moral failures or even minor shortcomings. It is their sin that closes the door to God’s love for them. And that door, now closed, can never be reopened.

To those who have never experienced God’s love for them, life is lonely and plagued with anxiety and the fear that, eventually, others will come to see them as they see themselves. As fundamentally unloved and, what is worse, unlovable.

In response to this we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The context of the parable is important. Immediately before He tells the story of this rather sad and broken family, the Pharisees and scribes had been criticizing Jesus for “receiv[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them.” It is in response to these complaints that Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son (see, Luke 15:2, 3).

Rabbi Abraham Herschel in God in Search of Man says that we perish not “for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”

The source of wonder is this. God loves us, each and ever single one of us.

And, following from this, it isn’t me who goes looking for God but God Who in Jesus Christ comes looking for me. And not just me. God comes looking for you and everyone.

This is what the son discovers “when he came to himself” and returned to his father.

When he does, the son is surprised to find that his father is there waiting for him. The father has left his house and gone in search of his son. The father went in search of his son, before the son goes in search of his father.

And not only does father just go in search of his son. He goes eager to find him and ready to restore him. The father wants nothing more than to return the son to his place in the household.

In this the father reflects what God has done for each of us in Jesus Christ.

In Christ and through the sacraments, God goes out to meet us. Unlike the father in the parable, however, God doesn’t simply restore us to our former place. Instead He calls us, He calls each of us, His children in this life and promises us a greater intimacy and dignity in the life to come.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Let me pause here for a moment and return to the first verses of the parable.

At least in the beginning, the family that Jesus holds up as a type of the Kingdom of God is anything but admirable.

The youngest son is so greedy, he wishes his father dead. Failing that, he lays claim on his inheritance as if his father were already dead.

And what can we say about the father? At best, he is overly indulgent. It would, however, be more accurate to call him weak. He knows his son and so knows that in giving in to the boy’s demands he is colluding with his riotous living.

Then there is the eldest son. What can we say about him except he is so committed to duty, so willing to be obedient, that he has no charity for his younger brother or ability to share in his father’s joy.

What changes the family is this: the father’s willingness to go in search of his son.

As with parable, so to with us and with the Church. What transforms us is not primarily our repentance but God the Father going in search of us. We are changed because, wonder of wonders, God desires to draw us to Himself even while we, even while I, flee from Him.

No matter how I seek to justify it, no matter how resigned I am to it, when I deny that God loves me, I’m fleeing from God. Like Adam after the Fall, I hide from God.

But try as I might, I can’t hide from God! And neither can you!

God always comes for you!

God is always eager to love you!

God is always drawing you closer to Himself!

It is this–God searching for us–that transforms us personally and as a community.

It is this–God searching for us–that makes it possible for us to be who He has created us to be rather than who the world, our own sin or neurosis, tells us we are.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God comes in search of you! Go and meet the God Who out of His great love, comes to find you!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory