It is as if tears pour out of your letter. You strived to reach a high position. You thought that you would also find happiness. Many others around you did the same. So you had to fight for it, push, and endure anxieties. You figured that happiness, not just happiness, but life itself, would begin with obtaining this position. Until then, you considered yourself unfortunate, almost non-existent. Finally, you attained the desired goal. For a few days you felt like you were born again. Then the disappointment came. Of course, you were as far from happiness as you were before. Except earlier, you believed that happiness did exist—somewhere in the high positions—but now you have lost that faith. You have reached the clouds but not the stars. Now you regret your running after happiness on the wrong path and encouraging others to do the same. So you wish to go back to your former modest position where the burden of responsibility is lesser and the stings of envy weaker. Perhaps you will find this story useful:
The story of silver…
In a big park, a celebration was prepared, but nobody could enter it without tickets. Many wanted to come in, but they could not pay for the tickets. Then, a rich man, wanting to test human weaknesses, threw a handful of gold coins into the crowd of children. They were fake coins, tokens, and among them was only one real silver coin. The children rushed for the coins, fought, argued, until they gathered them all. Nobody bothered picking up the silver coin because they figured that gold was more valuable than silver. Those who gathered the coins were holding them in their hands and they felt happy for a moment. But soon, something unexpected and miserable for them happened. When they approached the park gates and asked for tickets, it turned out they had fake money, and city guards took them to jail. Only one of them was wise and seeing what was happening to his friends, he threw down the coin he had and went and picked up the silver one. With that coin, he paid for the ticket and went into the park for the party.
The party is the Kingdom of Heaven, or the kingdom of immortal happiness. The coins are fleshly desires and worldly vanities and self-delusions which draw people away from the kingdom of true happiness and into the kingdom of torment and darkness. Pure silver is the inner goodness and the truth of a righteous man. Children who were easily fooled by the glitter of the world are the sinners. The last child who discarded the fake gold and took the real silver is the repentant sinner.
Taken from St. Nikolai (Velimirovich), Missionary Letters of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, Part I: Letters 1-100, ed. Fr. Milorad Loncar, trans. Hierodeacon Seraphim (Baltic), vol. 6, A Treasury of Serbian Orthodox Spirituality (Grayslake, Illinois: Joe Buley Memorial Library, New Gracanica Monastery, 2008), pp. 145-7. This excerpt is posted with permission of the editor and the New Gracanica Diocese. Missionary Letters of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, Part I is available for purchase from the online New Gracanica Bookstore. (Please note that the New Gracanica Bookstore is not affiliated with The Monastic Library or the Hermitage of the Holy Cross.)
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, when we commemorate our holy mother, St. Mary of Egypt. Before speaking about her, let me begin with something a little different that will illustrate the difference between Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman that we heard about in today’s Gospel.
During the first Great Awakening in 18th century America, when Protestant revivals were sweeping the nation, there was one church in Enfield, Connecticut that had been largely unaffected by the widespread religious revival. On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards, one of the most well-known Puritan preachers in America, was invited by the pastor of the Enfield church to deliver a sermon to them. His aim was to teach his listeners about the horrors of hell, the dangers of sin and the terrors of being lost, and thus was delivered his most famous homily, anthologized in English literary textbooks ever since, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
I am sure you did not come to church this morning expecting to hear a message written by a Protestant minister, but bear with me, and you will see my purpose. I will quote only a few paragraphs that capture the essence of his sermon, and that will be sufficient.
Edwards is addressing the people in this particular congregation who remained in their sin and showed no signs of repentance, ignorant of the eternal consequences. After making the point that God is angrier with these sinners who are still on earth than even with those He is tormenting in hell, he writes:
Thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment;… In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God. …
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. …
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours… It is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.1
What if St Mary of Egypt had been in that congregation that morning? Do you think she would have repented of her sins and understood God’s loving-kindness toward sinners? Or would those pious Puritans have branded her with a scarlet letter, judging her to be under the wrath of God until they saw fit for her to be forgiven? Had Simon the Pharisee been there, perhaps he would have been glaring at her, wondering how she had not dropped down into hell already. I can assure you that Edward’s sermon makes very little mention of God’s love and mercy for sinners. When he does, later in the sermon, he writes:
Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy. [Here, Edwards seems to be offering some hope!] But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable… cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare. God will have no other use to put you to, but to suffer misery; you shall be continued in being to no other end; for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction; and there will be no other use of this vessel, but to be filled full of wrath. God will be so far from pitying you when you cry to him, that it is said he will only ‘laugh and mock’.2
It is said that Edwards never finished his sermon on that day, because people kept interrupting, shouting, “What must I do to be saved?!” But what kind of conversions were they, I wonder?
Let me say emphatically, calling all the saints as my witness: this is not Who God is. Time does not permit me to express the errors of biblical interpretation that Edwards makes here regarding the meaning in scripture of the phrase “the wrath of God,” so let’s leave that aside.
But let us reflect rather on how someone like St. Mary of Egypt viewed God. We can be confident that her life is pleasing to God, because, as most of us know, hers is the only saint’s biography read publicly in church as part of the liturgical services. The Church in Her wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, gives us an example that clearly demonstrates God’s abundant compassion for even the worst of sinners. It is safe to say that most of us, in one way or another, to greater and lesser degrees, can relate to St. Mary of Egypt, in that most of us have defiled ourselves with sins and passions of various kinds, whether in the past, or even at present, and like the prodigal son, we have squandered our inheritance. Now, we are trying to repent and struggle to achieve union with Christ, but for many of us, we still view God in the way that Jonathan Edwards presents Him. Perhaps we don’t even view our sins as being as bad as St. Mary’s were, but still the following description might describe us. Some people, particularly us westerners,
…tend, by nature or training, to see God always as the stern, unappeasable Judge, whose dealings with man are always based on law and justice, and who demands of us an exact fulfillment of rules and rubrics. And we, in fulfilling these, do not really hope for, or believe in, the transfiguration and renewal of our souls and minds. At best, we hope that our scrupulous fulfillment of the Law will induce God to overlook our flaws and sins that we, in our heart of hearts, feel remain always with us, unforgiven, unchanged, and unchangeable. In such an atmosphere, one’s spiritual life is not really a journey into communion with God through repentance and deification, so much as a dreary pendulum of efforts to appease an inscrutable and implacable God, interspersed with the outbreaks of resentment and frustration this causes us. Naturally… this leads either to a mental breakdown, or to the abandonment of participation in church life, which we come to feel is not “working” for us.3
And thus, we never understand who God really is, and never truly repent, not feeling in our hearts and believing that God is compassionate and loving. But St. Mary of Egypt shows us both what true repentance is, and also a deep understanding, despite our wretched state, of Who God is, and His love for us given through His Most Pure Mother and all the saints. The saints were people just like us and struggled against the very same things we struggle against.
From her life she recounts her sinful past to Abba Zosimas, the priest-monk who found her in the desert: “Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality. … For about seventeen years,… I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. … I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life. That is how I lived.”4
Later she tells how she took ship to Jerusalem at the age of 29: “Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls.”
But she does not despair, and she tells Abba Zosimas: “But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.”
Magnanimously! What a perfect word to describe how God waits for us! All of the Sundays leading up to Great Lent, we have heard of God waiting magnanimously for sinners to turn to Him: Zacchaeus, the Publican, the Prodigal Son.
Again, St. Mary said: “For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.” How strange! St. Mary is quoting the Bible here (Ezekiel 18:23)—the same Old Testament that Jonathan Edwards liked to quote from. How different, as we shall see, is their understanding of God.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, after failing multiple times to enter the Church on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, being held back by some invisible force, she retreats to the porch and there begins to understand that because of her impurity, she is prevented from venerating the precious and life-giving cross. She continues:
And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the most holy Mother of God. Not taking my eyes off her, I said, ‘O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy icon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. Rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.’ Thus I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying. And I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the temple. And no one seemed to thwart me; no one hindered my entering the church. I was possessed with trembling, and was almost in delirium.
Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before—as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me—I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the life-giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. Then I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed her with these words: ‘O loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men. Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfil my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!’ And at these words I heard a voice from on high: ‘If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.’ Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: ‘O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!’ With these words I left the porch of the church and set off on my journey.
Even having heard these words of St Mary of Egypt, I am not sure that words alone can convince us of the unfathomable love of God for the human race. The Holy Scriptures are full of expressions and acts of God’s love, the services are overflowing with this kind of language, the gifts of God in His Church, the love we receive from others, the beauty of God’s creation, the intercessions and miracles of the saints, the weapons we are given against the devil, the joy that awaits those here and now who turn to God with all of their hearts, like St Mary: how can words express this, so that we believe it, accept it, embrace it and live it?
To obtain this, we must hear and believe the words of Christ: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? (Luke 11:9-13) That is, the Holy Spirit fills us with love for God, knowing how much He loves us. Very simple instruction!
But you might reply that you hear all this, and intellectually, you know that God is a God of love and not an angry and wrathful God, but still, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really believe this, even though you want to.
Be patient, and ask God to give you His love in your heart! Patience, patience, patience, with a little mustard seed of faith. If we don’t give up and don’t despair, gradually over time, we will be changed, and our heart of stone with be replaced with a heart of flesh, softened by our tears and the grace of God, so that we begin to love God and not just fear Him, and then we will see Him as He really is.
St. Ephraim the Syrian encourages those of us who feel as if our sins are too great, our hearts are too dull, or our view of God is one of sternness and wrath. He writes in the Spiritual Psalter (27):
Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve; pronounce not over thyself a final judgment for the multitude of thy sins; do not commit thyself to fire; do not say: the Lord has cast me from His face.
Such words are not pleasing to God. Can it be that he who has fallen cannot get up? Can it be that he who has turned away cannot turn back again? Dost thou not hear how kind the Father is to a prodigal?
Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly: I will arise and go to my Father. Arise and go!
He will accept thee and will not reproach thee, but rather rejoice at thy return. He awaits thee; just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as did Adam.
It was for thy sake that Christ was crucified; so will He cast thee aside? He knows who oppresses us. He knows that we have no other help but Him alone.
Christ knows that man is miserable. Do not give thyself up to despair and apathy, assuming that thou hast been prepared for the fire. Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.5
Let me repeat that! Hearken, ye Puritans!
Do not give thyself up to despair and apathy, assuming that thou hast been prepared for the fire. Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.
Imitate the prodigal son: leave the city that starves thee. Come and beseech Him and thou shalt behold the glory of God. Thy face shall be enlightened and thou wilt rejoice in the sweetness of paradise. Glory to the Lord and Lover of mankind Who saves us!
Now in case that didn’t sink in, let me conclude with St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 3:
I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… that he would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. (3:14-21)
—A sermon delivered at Holy Cross Monastery on March 19/April 1, 2012, Fifth Sunday of Great Lent (commemoration of St. Mary of Egypt).
Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” accessed April 16, 2013, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Sinners_in_the_Hands_of_an_Angry_God. (We again emphasize that “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in no way represents Orthodox Christian teaching, and it is quoted in the present homily only to illustrate that point.) ↩
“Safely Home To Heaven: A Letter From an Orthodox Nun To a Former Calvinist,” accessed April 16, 2013, http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/safely-home-to-heaven.aspx.↩
The source for this quotation and the following quotations concerning St. Mary of Egypt is Saint Sophronios of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt,” accessed April 16, 2013, http://www.stmaryofegypt.org/files/library/life.htm.↩
Saint Ephraim the Syrian, A Spiritual Psalter, or Reflections on God, ed. Bishop Theophan the Recluse, trans. Antonina Janda (Liberty, Tennessee: St. John of Kronstadt Press, 2004), 54.↩
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a teenager, I became the best of friends with another young man who was my age, and I spent most of my free time with him. This young man was known for being a very negative and critical person. My parents were not happy about our friendship, fearing the negative influence he would have on me, and they sometimes expressed their concern, but I would hear nothing of it, making excuses for him. One of the primary effects of that friendship was the terrible habit I developed of gossiping about people and slandering those whom I did not like. At first, I joined in with the desire to be liked and accepted by him, but later it became a part of me, whether I was with him or not. This friend and I would spend hours upon hours nearly every time we spoke, mocking and deriding other people, laughing at their expense, blinded by our pride and self-love, thinking we were better than everyone else. Deep down, I knew this behavior was wrong, but after several years of indulging in this sin, when I began to repent and change my way of life, this deep-rooted passion proved very difficult to uproot. I still remained very judgmental because my efforts to change were half-hearted.
A few years later, after my friend had moved away and we had lost contact, I remember having a conversation with a girl I knew, where I was mocking a mutual friend of ours, pointing out what I didn’t like about him, thinking that she was in sympathy with my poisonous words. At some point after I had amused myself for quite a while with these biting remarks, she blurted out, “My goodness! When I’m not around, do you talk about me like that?” Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word aptly spoken, so says the book of Proverbs (25:11). I fumbled for excuses, and tried to assure her that I never would speak about her like that, but I don’t think that she believed me. Why would she? Her words haunted me then, and twenty years later I still remember them with pain of heart.
Today we remember our venerable father, St. John Climacus. I wish to speak with you now, using quotes from a chapter in St. John’s book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Each chapter is called a step, meaning a step on the spiritual ladder, and each step is connected with the one that comes before it and also the one that comes after it. St John says: “The holy virtues are like Jacob’s ladder, and the unholy vices are like the chains that fell from the chief Apostle Peter. For the virtues, leading them one to another, bear him who chooses them up to Heaven; but the vices by their nature beget and stifle one another.”1
Frequently you will hear St. John say such things like “this virtue is the mother of that virtue” or “this vice gives birth to many daughters” and so on. Virtues and vices are connected with one another, like links in a chain, like steps on a ladder.
The chapter I will be quoting from is Step Ten, “On Slander or Calumny.”
St. John begins in this way:
No sensible person, I think, will dispute that slander is born of hatred and remembrance of wrongs. …
Slander is an offspring of hatred, a subtle yet coarse disease, a leech lurking unfelt, wasting and draining the blood of love. It is simulation of love, the patron of a heavy and unclean heart, the ruin of chastity.2
I will add here that to those who have struggled for some time, it is no secret that our chastity can be ruined by both anger and judging. Slander is verbalizing our judgmental thoughts, but we can be overwhelmed with lustful passions even if we speak not a word, but merely judge and slander others in our thoughts, harboring ill feelings towards our neighbors, our brothers, our spouses, our spiritual fathers. God, in His mercy and providence, will allow temptations to beset us, so that we humble down and cease judging and slandering our neighbor and instead focus on the multitude of our own sins that we need to repent of. Our job is not to change other people, but to change ourselves.
St. John continues:
I have heard people slandering, and I have rebuked them. And these doers of evil replied in self-defence that they were doing so out of love and care for the person whom they were slandering. I said to them: ‘Stop that kind of love, otherwise you will be condemning as a liar him who said: “Him that privily talked against his neighbor, did I drive away” (Psalm 100:5, LXX). If you say you love, then pray secretly, and do not mock the man. For this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord.’ But I will not hide this from you… Judas was in the company of Christ’s disciples, and the thief was in the company of murderers. Yet it is a wondrous thing, how in a single instant, they exchanged places.
He who wants to overcome the spirit of slander should not ascribe the blame to the person who falls, but to the demon who suggests it. For no one really wants to sin against God, even though we all sin without being forced to do so.
I have known a man who sinned openly and repented secretly. I condemned him as a profligate, but he was chaste before God, having propitiated Him by a genuine conversion.
Do not regard the feelings of a person who speaks to you about his neighbour disparagingly, but rather say to him: ‘Stop, brother! I fall into graver sins every day, so how can I criticize him?’ In this way you will achieve two things: you will heal yourself and your neighbour with one plaster. This is one of the shortest ways to the forgiveness of sins; I mean, not to judge. ‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged’ (Luke 6:37).3
There is a story from The Prologue of Ohrid for March 30th that illustrates the beauty and ease with which someone may enter paradise. The monk’s name is not even remembered on earth, but he is known in heaven for this one virtue which he practiced his whole life. St. Nikolai writes:
This monk was lazy, careless, and lacking in his prayer life, but throughout all of his life he did not judge anyone. When dying, he was happy. When the brethren asked him how it was that with so many sins he could die joyfully, he replied, “I now see angels who are showing me a page containing my numerous sins. I said to them, ‘Our Lord said: Judge not, and ye shall not be judged (Luke 6:37).’ I have never judged anyone, and I hope in the mercy of God that He will not judge me.” And the angels tore up the paper. Upon hearing this, the monks were astonished and learned from it.4
St. John continues:
Fire and water are incompatible; and so is judging others in one who wants to repent. If you see someone falling into sin at the very moment of his death, even then do not judge him, because the Divine judgment is hidden from men. Some have fallen openly into great sins, but they have done greater good deeds in secret; so their critics were tricked, getting smoke instead of the sun.
Listen to me, listen, all you malicious reckoners of other men’s accounts! If it is true (as it really is true) that ‘with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged’ (Matthew 7:2), then whatever sins we blame our neighbour for, whether bodily or spiritual, we shall fall into them ourselves. That is certain.5
This brings to my mind what the psalmist writes: and let the trap, which he hath hidden, catch him, and into that same snare let him fall (Psalm 34:8, LXX).
St. John continues in Step Ten:
Hasty and severe judges of the sins of their neighbour fall into this passion because they have not yet attained to a thorough and constant remembrance and concern for their own sins. For if anyone could see his own vices accurately without the veil of self-love, he would worry about no one else in this life, considering that he would not have time enough for mourning for himself, even though he were to live a hundred years, and even though he were to see a whole River Jordan of tears streaming from his eyes. I have observed such mourning, and I did not find in it even a trace of calumny or criticism. …
This is one of the marks by which we can recognize spiteful and slanderous people: they are piteously plunged in the spirit of hatred; and with pleasure and without a qualm, they slander the teaching or affairs or achievements of their neighbour.
I have seen some committing the gravest sins in secret and without exposure; and in their supposed purity, they have harshly inveighed against persons who have had a petty fall in public.
To judge others is a shameless arrogation of the Divine prerogative; to condemn is the ruin of one’s soul.
Even without any other passion, self-esteem can ruin a man; and in the same way, if we have formed the habit of judging, we can be utterly ruined by this alone; for indeed, the Pharisee was condemned for this very thing.
A good grape-picker, who eats the ripe grapes, will not start gathering unripe ones. A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of whatever virtues it sees in anyone. But a fool looks for faults and defects. And of such it is said: ‘They have searched after iniquity, and in searching they are grown weary of searching’ (Psalm 63:7, LXX).
Do not condemn, even if you see with your eyes, for they are often deceived.6
How often I myself have learned from experience that my eyes can deceive me, that my thoughts against someone are completely false and imaginary and untrue. And yet, I can still nurture them, preferring the vanity and pride of believing my own eyes and my own thoughts over the way of Christ, who, even though He knew Judas would betray Him, even though He knew Peter would deny Him, even though He knew the apostles would abandon him and flee at His hour of need, even though He knew the Jews would demand His death, even though He knew Pilate would wash his hands of Him, even though He knew the Roman soldiers would spit on Him, even though he knew the multitudes would praise Him one day and the next day cry: “Crucify Him!”, even though He knew Thomas would doubt Him, even though He knew that all of us would be guilty of denying His love for us all, slandering and mocking one another, God’s very image; still He looks at us with unfathomable compassion and says to you and me, “Do you know how much I love you, my child? Do you know? If I were to show you how much, you could not bear it. I love everyone as my own children, from the least to the greatest, both saints and sinners. Why, therefore do you mock and slander and gossip about one another, crucifying me anew with these sins that are so easily overcome with very little effort? Let Me fill you with My love so that you may see yourselves as the worst of sinners, and everyone else as angels and saints: children of My love. Then you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
St. John concludes: “The tenth ascent. He who has mastered it is one who practices love or mourning.”7
When I was growing up, my parents used to have a quote that was decoratively written and hung in a picture frame in our kitchen. It said, “The absent are safe with us,” which means that those who were not present with us need not fear that they would be spoken ill of in our home. Although I can still remember that quote and where it hung in our kitchen, I did not apply that wise saying in my life, as you heard me tell you at the beginning. If that saying were hanging in your kitchen, here in our trapeza, would it be true? Are the absent safe with us?
Every weekday during the Great Fast, we hear in church multiple times a day the prayer of St. Ephraim. In a way, it is the golden rule of Great Lent. Someone asked me recently if they should say this prayer outside of the Great Fast. Of course, we don’t say it liturgically in church outside of Lent, but certainly, this prayer can be said throughout the year. With the last line especially we should imitate that nameless but blessed monk whose list of sins were torn asunder by the angels, and with all our hearts, beseech our loving and merciful Savior, “Yea, O Lord King, grant me to see my failings, and not condemn my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
—A sermon delivered at Holy Cross Monastery on March 12/25, 2012, Fourth Sunday of Great Lent (commemoration of St. John Climacus).
Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, Revised ed. (Boston, Massachusetts: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2001), 9.1, p. 87.↩
Ibid., 10.1-2, p. 89.↩
Ibid., 10.4-7, pp. 89-90.↩
Saint Nikolai Velimirović, The Prologue of Ohrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, ed. Fr. Janko Trbović, St. Herman of Alaska Serbian Orthodox Monastery, and St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, trans. Fr. T. Timothy Tepsić, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Alhambra, California: Sebastian Press/Western American Diocese, 2008), p. 316.↩
Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 10.8-9, p. 90.↩
Ibid., 10.10, 10.12-7, pp. 90-1.↩
Ibid., 10.17, p. 92.↩