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A new heart of mercy and love

Readings for the day: 1 Cor. 8:8–9:2; Matt. 25:31–46.

 

Santa Maria Assunta Torcello Angel Detail

Last Judgment (detail), 12th-13thc, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.

 

Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

 

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

 

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my “god.”

 

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.

 

The freedom that Paul had in mind was even more radical: he was talking about the freedom of eating food offered to idols in pagan temples. Eating food that has been offered to idols… ! This is the paradigmatic expression of religious devotion; it is what we do, when we gather together as the body of Christ, to partake in his body. So when Paul says that we are free to eat such food, it is strong language indeed. We can only do this, as he points out, knowing that the idols don’t really exist, so that there is therefore nothing to prevent Christians from eating such food.

 

But he warns us, if our eating such food causes our brothers a scandal, and perhaps leads them astray—so that they also eat such food, while still thinking that idols are somehow real—then we are guilty of misusing our freedom to the destruction of others. We are responsible for having injured the one for whom Christ died.

 

As we move ever closer towards Great Lent, then, we are reminded that we are totally free, with the proviso that what we do must be for the building up, rather than the destruction, of the body of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

Having been confirmed in our freedom (and been warned what a dangerous liberty it is), and having heard, over the last two Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son) of God’s patience and inexhaustible compassion—that he is ready to receive every sinner who returns to him—we are now reminded in today’s Gospel of the other side of this awesome truth: that the God who receives sinners does so as their judge. As we heard, when Christ comes again in his glory, sitting upon his throne, he comes as our judge.

 

 

We enter Great Lent, therefore, as a period of preparation for the return of our Savior, waiting for him, as we also do on the first days of Holy Week, waiting for the one who will return unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, to take us as he finds us.

 

In both cases we are presented with the humiliated Christ, the man of sorrows—the Bridegroom. In the words of today’s Gospel, Christ identifies himself precisely with the lowly, the outcast and the unwelcome: the hungry, the sick, the destitute, the stranger, the one in prison. These are his brethren, and what we do to the least of these, we do to Christ himself.

 

In all of this, Christ is not a judge in the sense of someone who takes records, evaluates the evidence, and then pronounces a sentence. Definitely not! God bestows his bounty upon the sinners and the righteous alike. Rather it all depends upon our state, how he finds us. How we respond to him then will depend upon the habits that we’re developing even now. It is this that will determine whether we become a vessel of his glorification or of his judgment.

 

The judgment that we bring upon ourselves is one that we are working out even now—in all our dealings with others, here and now, every day and every moment. Notice that nothing particularly great is expected of us (and nothing is said about fasting): we are presented with the poor asking for food, some bread—not a banquet; others asking for a roof, a piece of clothing, some cold water, a visit—nothing much, and certainly nothing which is not in our power to do.

 

In all of this, if we harden our hearts towards others, if we fail to respond to the opportunities which present themselves, then we are already passing judgment on ourselves. If we cannot receive him in his brethren, then we will no longer know how to receive Christ. When Christ returns in glory, we will be told to depart into the eternal fire—fire which is not prepared for us, but for the devil himself.

 

If we cannot respond to our neighbor in need, then the very glory and splendor of Christ when he returns will also be too much for us: for it is the same Christ in each case, even if we do not recognize him.

 

But such lack of compassion is not our proper inheritance; this is not how we were created to be.

 

It is striking that those who did open their hearts and their goods and time to others were also surprised at Christ’s words: “When did we do this to you?” They were not serving the poor out of a sense of duty, or hoping for a reward, but simply acting out of love, and in so doing acquiring a new heart of mercy and love, a heart which opens them up to receive the glory and splendor of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

 

This is the inheritance which has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Seeing God in one’s neighbor and responding in a Christ-like fashion—this is what it is to be in the image of God, living in the kingdom or paradise of God.

 

Let us pray that we may prepare ourselves for the approaching Lenten season, and also, more generally, that we be able to see every moment of our life as being under the judgment of the returning Christ, for we assuredly are.


 

cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year. Emphases added.

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Return to the Father

Written by Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring is a book of spiritual readings for the season of Great Lent.

People feel unhappy and they don’t know why. They feel that something is wrong, but they can’t put their finger on what. They feel uneasy in the world, confused and frustrated, alienated and estranged, and they can’t explain it. They have everything and yet they want more. And when they get it, they are still left empty and dissatisfied. They want happiness and peace, and nothing seems to bring it. They want fulfillment, and it never seems to come. Everything is fine, and yet everything is wrong. In America this is almost a national disease. It is covered over by frantic activity and endless running around. It is buried in activities and events. It is drowned out by television programs and games. But when the movement stops and the dial is turned off and everything is quiet …then the dread sets in, and the meaninglessness of it all, and the boredom, and the fear. Why is this so? Because, the Church tells us, we are really not at home. We are in exile. We are alienated and estranged from our true country. We are not with God our Father in the land of the living. We are spiritually sick. And some of us are already dead.

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Sunday of the Prodigal Son (detail). BLAGO Archives.

Our hearts are made for God, St. Augustine has said, and we will be forever restless until we rest in Him. Our lives are made for God, and we will be unfulfilled and dissatisfied and frustrated until we go to Him. All of God’s creatures, as Francis Thompson said in his poem The Hound of Heaven, are His “loyal betrayers.” They do not satisfy His children and cannot bring them peace. He alone can do that, because He alone is our home. And we are His.

The lenten season is the time for our conscious return to our true home. It is the time set aside for us to come to ourselves and to get up and go to the divine reality to which we truly belong.

97808814101431Excerpt from The Lenten Spring by Fr. Thomas Hopko, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983, p. 21-22. Emphases added.

 

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A sacrament of divine presence

mamas

Martyr Mamas (Dokheiariou Monastery, Mt. Athos, Greece)

It is not always easy—to say the least—to relate the world of the saints to our own everyday life, where harmony is rarely the dominant characteristic of our environment or our relations with other creatures. A hermit in the desert might co-exist with local fauna; but the population of a city is bound to displace many, many other creatures. And then there are the creatures whose interests seem to be in direct conflict with our own: does “loving everything with the same love” really extend to the mosquito or the deer tick?

To this last question, the holy ascetic might well answer “Yes.” But what does that mean in practice? It defines such a person’s own relationship with unattractive and dangerous creatures; but there is always a difference between what one may accept for oneself and what one expects others to bear. The saints show us clearly that genuine God spills over into loving compassion for all his creatures, just as it is inseparable from love for our brother and sister. In the world of the fall, an all-embracing love does not exclude the possibility that animals may need to be deliberately killed if they threaten human life, like Abba Helle’s crocodile. Yet the saints teach us that the life of even an insect should not be taken thoughtlessly, and that our power over other creatures gives us a responsibility for their welfare. The stories of how holy people have lived inspire us to look hard at the possibilities for coexistence before taking more drastic action; and if we want to avoid outright conflict with other creatures today, ecological understanding is one of our most valuable tools. To return, for instance, to the aforementioned deer tick: we discover too late how the explosion in tick populations is linked with the extinction of the passenger pigeon, whose flocks would strip the oaks of acorns. With the birds gone, a wealth of acorns fed a growing population of mice, hosts for the ticks. There was a world in which we could coexist more easily with the tick, and we destroyed that world—not in the days of Adam, but in the twentieth century.

When we think about the displacement of other creatures and habitat destruction as a result of human activities, or the uses to which we put domestic and experimental animals, the approach will be similar. If we can discern a principle, it would be that human needs prevail—but not human whims or human greed. If I am harming other creatures by serving interests of my own, I must consider honestly whether my “need” is real or frivolous and whether it can be fulfilled in some other way.

The way we interact with other creatures cannot, however, be reduced simply to a set of ethical principles. Fundamental to our attitude, and therefore our behavior, is the way we perceive the world around us. Much modern thinking is dominated by ways of perceiving that are based on “nature red in tooth and claw”: the world is an arena of cutthroat competition, a battleground of selfish genes. It is important to recognize that these are not objective descriptions, but frameworks for an interpretation of the facts—lenses through which we perceive reality. And the Church offers us a different lens, that of the icon. An icon of the transfigured human being, and in some cases the environment around him or her, does speak to us of the actual world around us and how to treat the land in which we live. The ultimate contrast is not between sharing our environment or preserving it in a pristine state. The choice before us is whether or not we will embrace its potential, as the saints have done, so that natural and man made features alike become a sacrament of divine presence.

livingThis is an excerpt from Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology by Elizabeth Theokritoff, published by SVS Press. Emphases added.

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God does not need words

People often ask: how should we pray, in what words, and in what language? Some even say: “I do not pray because I do not know how; I do not know any prayers.” You do not need any specialized skill for prayer. You can simply talk to God. Many Orthodox Churches across the world use a special language in the divine services, such as Church Slavonic or Koine Greek. But in private prayer, when we are alone with God, there is no need for any special language. We can pray to God in the language we use when speaking with people, when thinking.

Prayer should be very simple. St. Isaac the Syrian said:

The whole fabric of your prayer should be succinct. One word saved the publican, and one word made the thief on the cross heir to the heavenly kingdom.

Prayer can be extremely brief. If you are just starting out on your path to prayer, begin with very short prayers, such as can allow you to focus. God does not need words; he needs men’s hearts. Words are secondary; of paramount importance are the feeling and disposition with which we approach God. To approach God without a feeling of reverence or with distraction—when during prayer our mind wanders—is  much more dangerous than saying the wrong words in prayer. Distracted prayer has neither meaning nor value. A simple law is at work: if the words of prayer do not reach our heart, they will not reach God. As it is sometimes put, such prayer does not reach above the ceiling of the room in which we are praying, and it should reach the heavens. Therefore it is very important that each word of prayer should be felt deeply by us. If you are incapable of focusing on the long prayers contained in the prayer books of the Orthodox Church, try your hand at shorter prayers:

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, save.

Lord, help me.

God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

One ascetic struggler said that if we could, with the full force of our feelings—with all our heart and soul—just say the prayer “Lord, have mercy,” then that would be enough for salvation. But the problem is that, as a rule, we cannot say this with all our heart; we cannot say this with all our whole life. Therefore, in order to be heard by God, we tend to use many words.

Let us remember that God longs for our hearts, not for our words. If we turn to him with our whole hearts, then we will certainly get a response.

 

9780881415285__41267.1443033296.300.300Excerpt from Prayer: Encounter with the Living God by His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev). Emphases added.

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A good steward for others

stjcfilterFor our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants.

Therefore let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you. This happens also in great households. Many people have entrusted their financial affairs to their household servants. Those who have received this trust keep what has been given to them, and do not misuse the money, but distribute it where and when their master directs. You also must do this. For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.

 

new_image__93654.1348857563.300.300From St. John Chrysostom’s second sermon on Lazarus and the rich man, as published in On Wealth and Poverty (SVS Press, 1984).

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It is good to settle in the heart.

Are we always able to receive the divine in us? When we invite friends to our home, we clean the living room, adorn it with flowers, make it as beautiful and welcoming as possible, to make them feel the warmth of the friendship with which we want to surround them. Is the same true also for the divine guest? How do we accept him in the abode of our heart? When he knocks at the door, the living room is perhaps in disorder, the floor has not been swept for several days, garments lie around on the furniture, the windows have not been washed, and the light is poor. How could the one who is the Light put up with such poverty? But there is much worse. In the back of the living room a darkened corridor opens areas where the dust of years has accumulated, and where there is a rancid smell that grips us by the throat. Certain pieces are condemned: the lock has been rusting for ages. What shameful secrets hide in those places? What skeletons are concealed in the closets?

icon of christ illumined by candle at night

Leanne Parrott Photography.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it” (Jn 1:5)—or has not received it, the Apostle John writes. What does such darkness mean? Is it the inner darkness that reveals the somber face of sin at work in the world, at work in the heart of people when they turn away from the one who said: “I am the light of the world”? (Jn 8:12, 9:5) In this case, the heart becomes the receptacle, or the garbage dump of what cannot be mentioned. Its depths hide the unvoiced feelings, the frustrations—everything that was bad or unloved—and also, whether one is aware of this or not, the suffering of being a sinner. A great saint said that if one gathered all the sins of humanity, they would form only one drop of water in the ocean of God’s mercy.

The modern era arrogantly challenges the notions of “sin” —a challenge that neither questions sin as such, nor above all suppresses it! In the court of justice the general tendency consists in accumulating excuses to explain, even justify, the behavior of a defendant. He may have suffered from an unbalanced mind, an unjust social situation, unworthy parents… One must at any price rationalize what depends upon an irrational mystery, evil. A simple victim of elements he no longer controls, the criminal of all kinds is deprived of any type of freedom. He has perhaps undergone the weight of social determinisim, hereditary or other, but, ultimately, a part of his being remains irreducible…

It is time once again to honor inner discipline, effort, and prayer, to let a little bit of light shine. Life is a fight between light and darkness. The heart is in the fray of this fight. Man can be submitted to various conditionings. The latter can illumine a particular behavior, but they will never exhaust the totality of the human being. Man always keeps a bit, a spark of liberty in his innermost heart of hearts. This is why the Apostle Luke writes that “the good man draws good things from the good treasure of his heart, and the evil man draws evil things from the evil treasure of his heart.” (Lk 6:45) As the dynamic center of the person, the heart allows one to identify the latter under its veil of light, or of darkness.

If it is accepted that the heart designates the deep “me,” the most intimate spot of the person, then we may begin to listen to what it has to say to guide our life, and to let it unfold freely. It is good to settle in the heart.

heartThis is an excerpt from To Open One’s Heart: A Spiritual Path by Archpriest Michel Evdokimov, published by SVS Press. Emphases added.

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Sincerity, simplicity, the ability to live in the present hour

The following is an excerpt from The Diary of a Russian Priest, by Father Alexander Elchaninov.

11057304_794602690619513_7808786073871428098_nWhy are childhood impressions so important? Why is it essential to fill a child’s mind and soul with light and goodness, starting from the very earliest stages of its life? In childhood we find a natural gift for faith, simplicity, gentleness, a capacity for tenderness, compassion, imagination, an absence of cruelty and hardness. Now this is precisely the kind of soil that yields a harvest thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or an hundredfold. When, later in life, the soul has become hard and dry, a man can be cleansed anew and saved by the continuing presence of his childhood experience. That is why it is so important to keep children close to the Church–it will provide them with nourishment for their entire lifetime.

Contact with children teaches us sincerity, simplicity, the ability to live in the present hour, the present action–an essential element in Orthodoxy.

11141352_820233414723107_9207659691058308090_nChildren are, in a sense, reborn daily: hence their spontaneity, the lack of complexity in their souls, the simplicity of their judgements and actions.

Moreover, their intuitive distinctions between good and evil are direct and straightforward, their souls are free of the bonds of sin, they are not continually judging and analysing.

All this we possess as a birthright which we wantonly scatter on our way, so that afterwards we must painfully gather up the fragments of our lost fortune.

PB-DIRUEL__07309__52251.1339570928.300.300Father Alexander Elchaninov, one of the most gifted priests of the Russian emigration, died from a tragic illness in 1934, at the age of fifty-three. In his early years he was involved in the cultural and religious movements which transformed the country’s literature and art during the period 1900-1910. He was ordained comparatively late in life, after passing through the harrowing experience of the 1917 revolution. While deeply rooted in the spiritual and ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church, Father Alexander remained close to the intellectual movement of his day.

Photography: Leanne Parrott Photography

 

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