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

Spiritual Gifts and Christian Unity

Sunday, August 11 (OS July 29), 2019: 8th Sunday after Pentecost; Martyr Callinicus of Gangra in Asia Minor (250); Virgin-martyr Seraphima (Serapia) of Antioch (2nd c.); Martyr Theodota and her three sons, in Bithynia (304); Martyr Michael (9th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 11:31-12:6
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul’s words in today’s epistle always stop me cold. “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”

Think about that for a moment. The Apostle to the Gentile says he thanks God that his preaching of the Gospel didn’t lead to more people from death to life. He thanks God that by his hands, not more unbelievers were joined to the Body of Christ. He thanks God that those outside the Kingdom did not enter into the KIngdom through his ministry.

None of this is to suggest that Paul didn’t want these things to happen; he did. But looking at the situation on Corinth he realizes that something is terribly wrong there.

It isn’t just that the Church at Corinth has fallen back into the same divisions that afflict the world; they have embraced them. Worse, where worldly dissension is rooted in differences in ethnicity, language, religion, social class, or sex, the Corinthians’ separation from each other is justified by an appeal to apostolic authority.

So badly divided are the Corinthians that the things of God are now the cause of schism.

To be sure, all this is not the fault of the apostolic witness or the sacraments. It is rather the fault of hearts grown cold where once they were on fire for Christ and the Gospel.

And, lest we think ourselves better, the divisions of Corinth are still with us today. It isn’t just that we see Christians divided into Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Christians. Bad as this worse still are the divisions we see among Orthodox Christians not just worldwide but in America.

And not just in American but even here in Madison, the temptation to sectarian divisions even if not formally proclaimed is here to be seen.

While we must not minimize the importance of “the faith delivered once and for all to the saints,” too often creedal fidelity is a mere pretext, a self-serving justification for Christians to remain divided from each other.

At its base, what we have forgotten is that not only does baptism unite us to Christ but, in Christ, to each other.

And this unity is not an abstraction; our unity is not merely formal or theoretical. In our baptism, we have each of us received spiritual gifts (charismata). These gifts are concrete–God calling “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers”–and the means by which the Christian is lived out corporately and personally..

The gifts God gives, He gives “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13, NKJV).

All of these gifts, God gives us not simply to proclaim the Gospel and to build the Church but as the concrete means by which we are united to Him and, in Him, to each other.

We are divided into Orthodox and Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical because we have lost sight of the meaning of the gifts we have received in baptism. Having lost the living sense of our gifts–and in most cases, even that there are gifts given–our lives in Christ have become consumed by abstract concerns about doctrine or morality, about liturgy or church growth, personal virtue or social witness.

But the gifts you received in baptism are the ways in which God has joined you to Himself. The gifts you have been given layout for you the path God has called you to walk as His disciple and witness.

Maybe He has called you to be an evangelist. Maybe He has called you to be an icon of hospitality for strangers or of mercy for the wounded. He may have set you aside to interceded in prayer or to oversee the material left of the Church in philanthropy or administration.

Whatever the gifts you have been given, their practice is how God has called you to serve Him in this life as His disciple and witness.

And, to return to the problem of the divisions among Christians, this can only be overcome through a life of generous fidelity to our personal vocations.

Until I am personal faithful, I will not understand that far from being a zero-sum game your vocation doesn’t that harm me but adds to me. To see this we need only call to mind the multiplication of bread and fish in today’s Gospel.

This is what grace does, it creates abundance where once there was poverty.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we suffer division not primarily because of theological differences–though these exist and matter–but because we have lost the living sense of what it means to be united to Christ–and so each other–through the unique gifts God gives to each of us in holy baptism.

We find our unity not primarily in what is external but in the grace of God in our hearts and in the myriad gifts, He has given to each of us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grace is not an Abstraction

Sunday, July 8 (O.S., June 25), 2018: 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Virgin-martyr Febronia of Nisibis (304).

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

God’s grace in our lives is not abstract. This is what St Paul tells us today and we neglect his teaching to our determinant.

The gifts given to each of us at baptism aren’t simply practical ways to preach the Gospel and bring others to Christ. To be sure, they are these but they are more than this.

Our gifts are the concrete manifestation of God’s grace, of His love and divine life in our lives. This means that our gifts are how we are connected to God and so, as St Paul makes clear, to each other.

When we are ignorant of our gifts or neglect their exercise, conflict and discord arise. This is true in the family, the parish and even the Church. Again, the spiritual gifts that St Paul speaks about are nothing less than the manifestation of divine life in our lives and the concrete bonds of charity that unite us one to another in Christ.

Apart from God’s gifts, I’m not morally or spiritually different than the paralytic was bodily. Like the paralytic’s desire to walk, apart from the gifts received at baptism a life of Christian faith, hope and love remain just beyond my grasp. Faith is mere conformity, hope just optimism and love? Love becomes mere sentimentality.

This situation is made all the worse when, on the social level, we actively stifle the discovery and expression of the gifts received.

One way we do this is that we deny the possibility that God pours out His grace in the form of concrete gifts. Do this and it is only a short hop to denying that each Christian has a personal and unique vocation.

Our vocation is not a predetermined “slot” or “job” or even “office” in the Church. Rather it emerges slowly as we exercise the gifts given in baptism. There are few things more deadly to appreciating the baptismal vocation of each and every baptised Christian than the simplistic confusion of a person’s calling with discrete tasks.

Much of the confusion we see in the Church, to say nothing of our inability to retain young people, is the result of neglecting the intimate connection between baptism, the spiritual gifts, and personal vocation. When these connections are not made, or worse denied, being Christian becomes nothing more than being “a good person.” Or worse, “being nice”!

This moralizing view of the Christian life attracts no one. It is especially uninspiring to the young. If this is all it means to be Christian, why be Christian at all? After all, society is filled with morally good people who are often more “Christian” than Christians.

Ignoring or denying the personal vocation of each Christian has another negative consequence. It is the beginning of a demographic death spiral. It contributes to a situation in which the most thoughtful and idealistic believers–often the young and converts–walk away.

They walk away not from Christ and His Church but from the frankly superficial idol that we offer them instead. Bad as this is for the individual, it is worse for the Church.

As those who are seeking something deeper leave, the spiritual vitality of the parish, the diocese and eventually the Church suffers. We become complacent. At first, we are satisfied with a pat answer. We don’t concern ourselves with a vibrant life of faith, hope and love. In time though we lose our taste for a Christian way of life that is deeper, wider, more comprehensive and that can transform not only our lives but the lives of those around us.

Over time, we lose as well the sense of sin and so the magnificent liberating effect of the forgiveness Jesus extended to the paralytic and wishes to give to us as well. The Christian life becomes flat, uninspiring and, frankly, dull and unattractive. What beauty do we have to offer, after all, but the beauty of a repentant soul made whole by forgiveness?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! This doesn’t have to our lot! On that first Pentecost, the Resurrection of Christ was preached by those who only recently cowered in fear. Those who, only days before, abandoned and denied Jesus, became His apostles and evangelists.

Those who the world persecuted and despised would shortly turn the “whole world upside down” (Acts 17:6). How did this happen?

The world was turned upside down because the disciples took seriously what St Paul tells us today. The disciples knew that they were richly blessed by God with gifts given to them for their salvation, the salvation of the world and the Glory of God!

Secure in this knowledge they transformed the world through the preaching of the Gospel, making of disciples of the nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory