As promised I am going to resume what we were talking about yesterday …
One may wonder what the purpose is of all the things we do as part of our worship, namely our visits to holy places, the lighting of candles, the all night vigils, the prayers, the fasting, alms giving etc. The response to this question is very significant since it will reveal whether or not we are leading a proper spiritual life.
Let me give you an example. I often ask the kids at the camps which is the most important commandment the Lord gave. And they all give me various answers: ‘Do not steal’, ‘do not lie’, ‘do not harm other people’, ‘respect your parents’ etc, yet no child ever suspects that none of these is the first command given by the Lord.
They often believe that the first commandment is ‘love thy neighbor’, yet when I told them that this is not it, one child once said: ‘Yes, I know the first commandment. It is ‘multiply and fill the earth’! Of course this isn’t the first commandment either!
The first and only command given by the Lord is ‘love your God with all your heart’; all others follow from this one. Jesus says: The first command is: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your entire mind and with all your strength”. He also gave a second command similar to the first which is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12, 30-32). Everything else follows from these two. If you love your neighbor you will not steal from him, you will not lie to him, you will not harm him, or take his possessions, you will not bother his wife or his home and neither will you condemn him. ‘You shall love your neighbor’ is also the outcome of the first commandment. If you love the Lord it is impossible not to love your neighbor. In other words, a natural result of loving the Lord is to love our neighbor.
Therefore, the first and only commandment is to love the Lord with all our heart and everything we do as part of our life in the Church has this purpose. We visit places of worship, we fast, we pray, we go to confession, we light candles and we read the lives of Saints and all the rest of it, in order to love Jesus.
So, what do we do wrong? Unfortunately, we say that we do all of the above in order to become better persons. This is the great disillusionment. This is the obstacle that we all stumble on. If the Church aimed to help us becoming better persons then there would be no reason for us to build a personal relationship with Jesus, neither would He have had any reason to come to this world.
Why do you think it is so hard for us to understand the Saints? Or to put it simply: Why are we not able to understand those who love the Lord?
We often say: ‘Is it necessary to do these things in order to be saved and be with the Lord?’ ‘Is it necessary for example, to live alone on the mountains? Of course not, this is not necessary’. However, if we appreciate that our relationship with the Lord is not about being saved, but it is about loving, only then we are able to understand what the Saints have done and why. Otherwise their actions remain incomprehensible to human logic, since love goes beyond reasoning.
The case is similar to what happens in the world when two people love each other; they end up doing things which do not stand to reason. If you ask a man: ‘who is the most beautiful girl in the world?’ he will reply that it is his girl. He sees her, of course, through his eyes. Our eyes may not agree with him! Or he may describe her personality in the best possible way, without seeing any flaws or saying anything bad about her, since love goes beyond these things. Love rises above logic and is not bound by it.
The same thing happens with the Lord’s love. It is beyond human reasoning. That’s why it is impossible to understand those who love the Lord. It is for the same reason that the saints exhibited behavior outside common sense. Their common sense was that of love.
Our Church does not teach us how to become better persons. (This is necessary of course. Unless we do this what else is there to do?) It teaches us to love Jesus; to love Jesus Christ as a person.
A relationship develops within the Church. It is the personal relationship of man with Jesus Himself and not with His teachings or with the Gospel. The Gospel is something which helps us love Jesus. But as soon as we accomplish this, we do not need the Gospel. We do not need anything. These things stop. This is the difference between the Church and religion.
A religion teaches you how to discharge your duty, just like the heathen do. For example we visited the places of worship, we worshiped the icons, we bought candles, offered oil, written our names down for the priests to pray etc. These are our religious duties. Yet, our heart did not change at all. As soon as we did our duty, we went back to our ways; ready to fight, ready to complain and pick a bone with the others. Our heart did not change. We have not started a relationship with Jesus yet, because we simply rely on doing our religious duty.
You must know that religious people are the most dangerous people in the Church. Pray that the Lord saves us from such people. Once when I was administering at the Altar and said the prayer: “Lord save the devout”, one Hayiorite monk said as a joke: ‘Lord, save us from the devout”! In other words, Lord save us from the religious people who have perverted personalities without any personal relationship with Him. Such persons only discharge their duty and it is for this reason that the Lord never reveals anything to them. I am confessing to you, that I have never met worst enemies of the Church than the religious people.
When the children of such religious people- even of priests and theologians who pretend to be devout-, tried to become monks or priests, the parents became worst than the devil. They lashed at everybody. They became the worst enemies of their children.
I remember some parents who used to bring their children to preaching. When their children tried to take a step further, the parents became furious and were throwing the worst accusations against everyone. Once, I said to one such parent: “It was you who brought the child to preaching, not me”. On a different occasion when I realized that a young girl had fervent zeal for the Church, I told the father: “Do not bring her here again because she will become a nun and you will say that it was my fault”. He responded: “No Father, we adore you!” When his daughter did become a nun, he still doesn’t talk to me seven years later!
These were the people who would never miss the chance to hear a preaching; they were always the first to go to all night vigils, to read books and what have you…When the time came for their child to chose freely his own way, they changed stance and their behavior revealed that Jesus had never spoken into their hearts. They were simply religious people. That’s why I tell you that religious people are the most difficult kind in the Church.
You know what? Such people will never be healed because they believe that they are close to the Lord. On the other hand, the sinners, those who are lost, know that they are sinners.
Jesus Himself had said that whores and the tax collectors will be the first to enter the Kingdom of Heaven while the Pharisees will never enter because they were religious. The Lord’s word had never touched their hearts. They just went about adhering to the religious norms.
Therefore, let us be watchful and let us understand that the Church is a hospital which offers treatment and helps us love Jesus. Let us also check to see whether Jesus’ love which is like a burning flame has been set ablaze in our hearts and whether we truly love the Lord. If on the other hand, we find wickedness and selfishness and vice in our hearts, we ought to start worrying. It is not possible to be full of vile if Jesus has taken residence inside our hearts.
For, how is it possible to stand in prayer and yet be full of vile against other people? How is it possible to be reading the Bible and yet not accepting your neighbor? How is it possible to say that ‘I have been active in the Church for so many years- I am a priest, a monk or whatever’ and yet not accept the first and the last thing in spiritual life: love and patience? If you haven’t learnt this, you haven’t achieved anything, nothing at all, nothing.
In the parable of the ten virgins, Jesus told five of them that He had never known them. He threw them out of the bridal chamber simply because they had no love, even though they had accomplished all other virtues. He wanted to teach them that even though they had all the external virtues, e.g. chastity and a thousand other things, they had not managed to achieve what was most important of all, namely love. If you do not achieve this, what do you need all the others? For example, I may refuse to eat oil today because I am fasting and yet I may be ‘eating’ my brother alive all day.
There was a saying at the Holy Mountain: “Do not ask if you are allowed to eat fish at times of fasting. Just do not eat the….fisherman and forget about the fish!” Pestering the other person everyday is much worse than allowing you to eat a drop of oil at times of fasting! There are people who may start a fight because the other person dared dip the spoon in the salad which had oil on days of fasting!
See how ridiculous these things are? We become the laughing stock of both the devil and those away from the Church. Those who approach the Church goers, instead of seeing people who remind them of Jesus – sweet, mature and well-balanced- they notice instead all our passions and our vices and say: ‘If I join the Church am I going to become like them? I better skip it!”
You, who go to Church how, have you benefited from it?
As we were saying yesterday, we went to places of worship, we went to the Holy Mountain etc, what benefit did we derive? Has our heart been transformed? Have we become more humble, sweeter, and meeker at home, at work or at our monastery? If we haven’t managed to change, then at least we ought to become more humble through repentance. If we haven’t managed this either, then people ought to mourn on our behalf. Time passes away never to return and yet we are still ‘counting the days’.
Elder Paisios used to give this response when people were asking him how long he was living at the Holy Mountain: “I arrived the same year with my neighbor’s donkey! And he meant that neither of them had changed; just as the donkey remained a donkey despite his many years at the Holy Mountain, the same thing was happening to him!
People, usually priests or monks, say: “I have been at the monastery for forty years”. They do not realize that such a long time counts against them. The Lord will tell such a person: “You have been at the monastery forty years and you haven’t managed to change! You are still getting angry, still criticize people, still answer back and still refuse to submit to others. You have been here forty years and you have yet to learn the first principle of monastic life- to be able to say a sweet word to someone’.
I am telling you these things so that I may hear them too. All these apply to me first of all. I am telling you these things because I am doing them myself, that’s why I know them.
Therefore, let’s at least humiliate ourselves. Let us shut our mouths when we feel our ego well up inside us; let us recognize that we also possess all sorts of passions which ridicule us in front of others and make us seem foolish in the face of the Lord. If we humble ourselves and stop thinking that we are important, then we may slowly start changing for the better through repentance which is the result of humility. He, who refuses to find excuses for himself, is the one who truly repents. He, who always finds excuses either in front of others or during his silent talk with himself, will never learn what repentance means.
Therefore, let’s examine ourselves, my brothers, and see if the Lord’s love resides inside our hearts and whether we are truly able to repent so that at least the Lord may heal our nature. Let’s allow our relationship with the Church to heal us so that we may be liberated from passions and sin.
People often ask: How can we manage this?
We will manage if we abandon ourselves with trust in the hands of the good Lord, the healer. When we do this, the Lord who knows what each one needs, will slowly guide us through our various circumstances and our hardships, to our perfection at the end of a long path. We ought to trust the Lord just as we trust the doctor or the captain of a ship. We know that no matter what happens he will take us where we want to go.
It is also important to remember this: Just when everything seems humanely impossible to restore, when one turns to the Lord, everything becomes possible again. Jesus said that what seems impossible for man is possible for God. Indeed, every day we are witnessing the miracles performed by the Lord, despite our difficult circumstances and the abundance of sin. There are still people who love the Lord, thriving like roses in spite of the thorny bushes.
The great miracle of our deliverance is accomplished despite our human weaknesses, our troubles and the troubles the Church, our family, the whole society are facing.
When all is said and done, the only solution to all our problems is to turn towards the Lord and love Him. Then the Lord will heal us and help us rise again even if we are like dead fish. The only thing we have to do is to throw out all the trash from our hearts and replenish them with the love for the Lord. And then we have to build our life, our studies and our family on top and around this love. If one manages to do this then his life will become like paradise and he will be happy. Paradise is nothing but the love of God; hell is nothing more than the absence of this love.
In conclusion, I pray that the Lord’s love accompanies you and helps you remember that whatever we do should not be done in order to become religious people, but people who love the Lord. Thus our lives will be transformed and we will be transformed in Jesus Christ our Lord.
by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol