Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Now the Bad News…

A continuation of my notes from the retreat I did this weekend at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Scottsdale, AZ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For several years I served as the chaplain for students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. This left me free on the weekend to serve different parishes in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio in the absence of their priest.

One year, I was at a different parish every Sunday for the entire summer. From May through August, I served Liturgy and preached at parishes in all the different jurisdictions: Greek, Antiochian, Ukrainian, Serbian and OCA.

And in each parish, my sermon was some variation of the same theme: Jesus loves you.

And in each parish for the whole of the summer, I got the same two responses again and again from multiple parishioners: (1) "Wow! That was the best sermon I ever heard!" and (2) "I never knew Jesus loved me." As you can imagine, the first response was gratifying—like everyone else, I enjoy hearing I did a good job.

But my joy was mixed with sorrow. It bothered me that some many Orthodox Christians simply did not know that they were loved by Jesus Christ.

I spent the better part of the next 2 or 3 years thinking about why people didn't know they were loved by Jesus Christ.

The conclusion I have come to, and I found this above all In St Augustine's own struggles in the Confessions, is that sign of our fallenness is not, primarily, that we do bad things. No I know that we are sinners when we realize that we are in the grip of grief, that we do not know that we are lovable, loved and able to love. To escape that grief, to hold it a bay, even momentarily, there is very little that we won't do.

How then do we put this grief behind us and become sensitive to love?

In a word, asceticism. As the newly elected primate of the OCA, His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, argued asceticism, which is "the root and the foundation of our whole life as a Christian" is nothing more or less than the

awareness of the presence of God. It's what the Fathers called the "remembrance of God", and it doesn't mean that you're remembering it in your head that God is present, it's that God's presence is a fundamental part of your own awareness. You know that He is present, and when we can bring that awareness of His presence by stilling our minds and stilling our hearts, then His love overflows through us. And transforms us. And that experience of sanctity isn't just limited to when we walk into or church. It isn't just limited to when we venerate the icons or go before the relics of the saints. That experience of sanctity is with us everywhere, all the time. We have to do the one without forgetting the other.

Through prayer and fasting I begin to still my own egoic strivings for power and control. And over time I become in God and after God I become an authority for myself. The fruit of asceticism, the goal of asceticism, is for me to become the author of my own life rather than to live the life that is written for me by others who use (often unintentionally) my own transitory desires against me.

For this reason, again to quote Metropolitan Jonah,

We need to have spiritual discipline. And the disciplines [are] not in ends in themselves, but [serve our own growing] spiritual awareness and transformation and conversion of our souls, in order to do the act of ministries. Otherwise what are we doing with the act of ministries, they become some kind of projection of our own egos. And that's not going to help much, if anybody, least of all myself.

In my view, it is the bitterest of ironies that the more I turn my life and desire for happiness into a project of my own ego, the more happy alludes me and the more I lose control over my own life. Autonomy and happiness are the fruits of an ascetical self-denial that aims not only at the eradication of vice but the cultivation of the life of virtue that lies just below the surface of human sinfulness.

More tomorrow…