There is within us, a yearning for something better. We feel ourselves to be refugees in a land that isn't quite right. We desire peace, joy, and growth within our own lives; but find peace to be far too fragile, joy far too temporary, and opportunities for growth undermined far too often. We desire all our relationships to be full of trust, comfort, and mutual assistance; but find them also be far short of our hopes and expectations. So we make due with what we have, find what joy we can in our hobbies, our religions, and whatever relationships that have either never been tested or that we have managed to salvage, despite the tests.
But we were meant for more than this. We were meant to do more than just distract ourselves to death. We were made for something better. No matter how we try to cover it up, drown it out, or ignore it, the still small voice inside us is there, reminding us of the truth. That we were born to become perfect; perfect in joy, perfect in peace, perfect in fellowship with others (who were also born to become perfect). Perfect in the Unity that transcends creation and gave it breath. That we are not living up to our calling, that we have missed the mark, that we have settled for far less than we should. That our lives have been one compromise after another, justifiable and understandable, to be sure; but nonetheless weighing us down and keeping us from the only goals that are worth achieving.
St. Paul put it very starkly: All have missed the mark (sinned) and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
[He was writing to an audience who recognized the tension between what was right and good and true – and the lives they were leading. They recognized not only that the “world groans in sin” (Romans 8:22), but that we groan with it. I sometimes worry that we are losing this recognition. It is easy for us to see that world is messed up, but ourselves? Are we willing to admit that? The Jews had the law to convince them that it was impossible to live perfectly – what do we have? A society that works with our pride, constantly telling us that we are victims, that we have done nothing wrong, and even if we have “missed the mark”, it is only because circumstances did not allow for a perfect choice. In short, we have a society that is quite willing to blame the 1% or the unions or the Russians or some other group, it is full of people who are not willing to admit their own culpability and confess their own imperfections. But if we cannot do this, then how can we become perfect? And if we do not admit to the damage our choices have done to us and our relationships, how can we heal?]
The fact is that we are all fallen. We are all broken. None of us are capable of living the kind of lives we were meant to live. None of us are capable of giving others the kind of love they deserve. We must admit that before we go on. This is the cancer that eats at us as individuals and that destroys all our relationships. It is the thing that stands between us and the journey to peace and perfection.
This is the message of every prophet of every time and age: there is something wrong with us and with this world, but we were made for something better. This truth is so fundamental that it is found in every religion and informs every great work of art. It is not just part of the religious theology of Christianity, but something that is obvious to everyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear. And every religion has a way of dealing with it, and because the human situation (both the environment and the breath of God within us) is common to us all, we should not be surprised that the solutions often overlap.
Orthodoxy is the fullness of the Truth, not just for us as Ukrainians or converts, but the fullness of the truth period. For all mankind everywhere and at all times. If the Buddhists are doing something right, then they are doing something Orthodox. What I would like to do is present the three basic modes or mechanisms that God has established for all His people to heal their brokenness and grow them in perfection; these are the Mysteries, our love for one another, and hesychasm. The one thing that is key to each is the role of Christ. He is the one that 1) fills our rituals 2) blesses our love for one another and 3) greets us when we come to him in the stillness of our hearts.
The Way to Christian Perfection
Throughout the Gospels, we have accounts of sick people who encountered Christ and were saved. Throughout the history of the Church He established to carry on His work, we have the same thing: people, communities, and nations being brought to wholeness and perfection through Jesus Christ. This is a reminder that Christ's mission – and thus the mission of the Church of which He is the living head - is real. He has the medicine that heals what truly ails us; and that this medicine is applied through developing a relationship with Him. All such relationships require some sort of mechanism. In the case of normal doctors, the mechanisms are things like conversation, prescriptions, and a healing touch. Through these modes, our relationship with our doctor brings us into greater health. Christ is our Great Physician and the mechanisms or modes that allow us to benefit from His care, power, and perfection are called mysteries. Today I would like to speak about three of these modes.
The first is the most obvious and the easiest to explain. It includes mechanisms with which you are already the most familiar. Baptism washes away the contagions this diseased world has spread throughout our systems; Chrismation seals us with the health and protection of the Holy Spirit; Communion transfuses us and unites us to the source of all healing; and so on. I stand at wonder in the face of people who believe that God is an absentee Father when He is so active in this, His Hospital. If we are tempted to fall into this way of thinking, then see these actions of the Church – the very Body of Christ our God – in a new way. You can be healed by God now as surely now as you could 2000 years ago in Galilee because He is as present and attentive here and now as He was then and there. All of the Church's disciplines, not just the Mysteries but also things like fasting, are part of this mode. To summarize this first mode, God heals through the Mysteries and Disciplines of His Church. All religions have rituals that provide comfort and some modicum of healing. But Christ is the Way to perfection – the Mysteries allow us to live in Him and Him in us. This is the fullness of Truth and you have it here.
The second is related to this one: God works through His people. God is one, and we are in Him and He in us. The love that we share is a manifestation of His love. The care that we give one another is His care. We tend to think of the Mysteries as something that only priests can serve, but the truth is much stronger than that. We are all part of His Body and His Blood flows in our veins. To the extent we have grown in Him and Him in us, we become His comforting voice and His healing hands to this world. Yes, we should emulate the paralytic man's friends by bringing people to the Church for healing (be it bodily or by name), but we should also continuously manifest the Church to them through our love for them. If we are truly Christian, then we are not in God and Him in us just when we are here in Church, but always. This simple truth is one of the great teachings of fathers like St. Gregory Palamas. He defended it against the temptation to see Orthodoxy as an intellectual meritocracy, with healing meted out by those who had read the most books and knew all the right words. God did not call us to read books, but to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, care for the powerless, visit the needy, and so on. To summarize this second mode, God heals through the Love of His people (the Church). Again, this is something that is common to all religions. But Christ is the Way to perfection; wherever two or more are gathered in His name, He is there; He is the one in need of help; as the source and fountain of all Love, He is the one that is manifested in every selfless act. This is the fullness of the Truth, this is the Orthodox Way.
The third mode is the way of silence, hesychasm. We are sick. Our minds have become warped. We confuse our will with God's and make an idol of our pride. We need to heal our minds. We cannot do this by reading books, even the right ones (although we can certainly make things worse by reading the wrong ones). Nor can we simply “try harder” to be good. Both of these simply act as offerings to our pride, trying to make it stronger so that it can overcome everything else. What we need to do is to quiet that pride and lower the mind to Christ. Hesychasm. God in us. Quiet. Peace. Restores truth and beauty to the center of our lives with the mind in its proper place as the executive of this beauty and truth.
So how do we achieve this peace? First, you have to immerse yourself in the Mysteries of the Church and you have to dedicate yourself to selfless love of and service to your neighbor (to include you spouses, your parents, your children, and even those people who unjustly seek to do you wrong). Next, you have to develop and follow a prayer rule. Spending five-ten minutes each evening and morning in prayer over an extended period of time is a prelude or warm-up for the way of silence.
[what we learn when we faithfully dedicate ourselves to following a prayer rule – single-mindedness, self-discipline, the mind of the Church, the basics of having a relationship with God; at some point, if we are paying attention, we will also learn a lot about our minds and our bodies]
The problem of thoughts – and the difficulty of finding silence. It's hard, but you certainly won't find it if you don't try! And if you don't, there is a real risk that the other two modes – being religious and being nice – will become distractions, taking us right back to where we were at the beginning of the story.
Which is why, my dear brothers and sisters, we embrace Great Lent with such fervor each and every year. We have all fallen short of the Glory of God, but through Christ we are saved. Through Him the warfare in our world and in our lives can be stopped; through Him peace can reign now and will reign eternally. Romans 8:19&21 says that “The creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God... because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” We are those children of God – if we accept Him and allow Him to transform our lives.