Let’s continue to look at how we become a healing presence. We begin by turning to Christ. We do that by encountering others — the others Christ sends to us — and giving them Christ’s strength and hope. Not our own, but his. Fascinatingly, in a humbling way, we know that he wants us to carry his fire of healing to flow through us to others.
This is surrender. We surrender our ego. Surrender is not flat or dull or capitulating. It can be filled with music and wonder and awe. Surrender is a receptive engagement with the present moment, much like a bride awaiting her bridegroom. That’s just a lovely image. The bride awaits her bridegroom, to be receptive to him. Christ is our bridegroom.
And I’d like to begin by having us listen to a little music of surrender. The music of surrender: “Behold the Bridegroom Cometh.”
Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And again unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom
But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!
That’s what it’s all about. It’s about us becoming musical. Becoming music. Allowing Christ through us in a new kind of way. We become a new creature.
We don’t control our interactions with other humans; God does. As St. Barsanuphius said, “Do not forget that without God there is no healing for anyone.” None. None without God. The way we have more to give to others is to have less of ourselves involved. We surrender our ego to heal others. This is a variant of, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” My neighbor, friend or stranger, must increase in my own mind, and then — autopilot — I’m thinking less of myself. It’s called surrender of the self.
Surrender is not defeat, but victory. It’s not passive, but highly active. I do something; I’m proactive. As we can see, this is clearly countercultural. Generally, the culture defines surrender as a winner and loser situation. Either I win and you lose, or I lose and you win. However, according to the Christian understanding of surrender, when I surrender my ego, [exhales] I let go, I win, and the other person wins. It’s a win-win situation.
I’m reminded of the little story of the evangelical teenager who met her ex-pastor at a shopping mall. The pastor was surprised to see her, and she was surprised to see the pastor. The pastor said, “Diane, it’s good to see you! You know, I haven’t seen you in church for a while. Is anything going on?”
Diane responded, rather curtly, “I’m not going back to any church ever again. You pastors all say the same thing.”
The rather baffled pastor said, “Diane, in the last four years, you have been to three different churches. How can we pastors all be saying the same thing?”
She replied, “It all comes down to this, however you say it. You all say, (A) God is good, (B) I am bad, (C) try harder.’ It doesn’t work. And I’m out of here.”
Diane is absolutely right. That approach is the opposite of authentic Christianity, and it doesn’t work. Diane has the pulse of the truth.
Authentic Christianity, and therefore, authentic helping and healing, is the opposite. We try harder to not try harder. We try to learn to let go and let God do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. That’s the heart of the matter. It’s not like I did something wonderful; I was in a position where I really helped and healed somebody. Oh no.
A few years ago, I had a very interesting experience at St. Vladimir’s Seminary institute — summer institute. I was scheduled to give a talk at 9:30 am. After matins, I tried to catch Fr. Thomas Hopko to share a quote with him. I had the quote on a handout, a bunch of sheets I was going to give out during my talk.
Fr. Tom Hopko happens to be my spiritual father, so I wanted his blessing to do that. I had a quote from St. Theophan the Recluse on the handouts for the institute participants. When I went to approach Fr. Hopko, he was speaking with a woman, so I just waited. When he finished, I said, “Fr. Tom, I have a quote I’d like to share with you.”
He said, “No, Al, I have a quote I want to share with you.”
I said, “No, Fr. Tom, I have a talk to give in ten minutes downstairs.”
He said, “Well, Al, then just listen to the quote I’m going to give to you right now.”
And of course, I said, “Okay.”
He opened a book he was holding, The Art of Prayer, and read to me a quote he wanted to read to me. It was the exact same quote that I was holding in my hand as handouts for the participants. I’m holding the quote that he’s reading. I was blown away — utterly blown away. I had this chill up my spine. Of all the books in Fr. Tom’s library, and all of the quotes in this particular book, The Art of Prayer, he read to me the quote that I then handed him.
Now, I don’t want to make more of this than it is. It is what it is. But the coincidence for me was mind-blowing. And of course, we Orthodox don’t believe in coincidences.
Here’s the quote he read and the quote I then handed him, which is powerful to me to this day, from St. Theophan:
Seek God: such is the unalterable rule of all spiritual advancement. Nothing comes without effort. The help of God is always ready and always near, and it only is given to those who seek and work, and only to those who put their powers to the test, and then cry out with all their heart: Lord, help us. So long as you hold on to even a little hope of achieving something by your own powers, the Lord does not interfere. It is as though he says: ëYou hope to succeed by yourself — very well, go on trying! But however long you try you will achieve nothing.’ May the Lord give you a contrite spirit, a humble and contrite heart.
And that’s the end of that quote. And that’s the point of this podcast — this series of podcasts. We can achieve nothing, certainly not helping another, at all, by ourselves. In fact, probably when we do, we can end up doing more harm than good. But when we surrender to Christ, then all things are possible with him.
This distinction is subtle but vital. It’s the difference between doing something on my own steam or following the lead of the Lord and doing his desire.
By way of example, my daughter Beth — who is now married and has three kids — but when she was in college, spent a semester in Siena, Italy, doing research. She stayed with a family and became like a daughter to them. Beth did as her own term paper project a study on the baptistry in the Siena Cathedral.
The cathedrals in Siena and in Florence, which is about fifty miles away, were built at about the same time. Two majestic cathedrals, fifty miles distant. They were built competitively. When one cathedral occupied more ground than the other, then the other expanded its nave. When one raised its roof, the other built a tower. The competition deteriorated into darkness. There are ugly tales still told about the building of those neighboring cathedrals.
Both cathedrals are, I would just say, ravishingly beautiful. Just gorgeous to the eye. And we know that the cathedral in Florence was designed by Michelangelo.
Well, Beth finished the studying the Siena Cathedral baptistry to her satisfaction. She then decided to take a bus on a Sunday afternoon to visit the Florence Cathedral to see what it was like. Beth told the woman of the house about her plan.
The woman said flatly, “If you go to Florence to see that cathedral, don’t ever come back to this house again.” She was dead serious.
The hatred from centuries ago continues to this day in the humans who live at least in Siena, and perhaps in Florence, as well. Both cathedrals are magnificent, but we might well wonder if they give God all the glory they could.
The point is clear. If we do or build anything from our own motives, we’re probably building or doing something counterproductive, probably in vain. If we try to learn to surrender but seem baffled by the entire approach, then where do we start? We start where the Lord told us to start. He said, “Ask. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.” That’s from John 16.
Jesus is not stingy with light or strength, especially if we ask how to become a healing presence to others. But our little part is to ask and ask and ask and ask. That is, we try to live in the Lord’s presence and take our cues from him. We say, “Thy desires by done, not my desires, but yours.”
In the quote that Fr. Hopko read to me, the person in the quote was hoping to achieve something by his own powers. It simply doesn’t work. We can learn to try to not try so hard. As St. Irenaeus said, we can learn we can relax in God’s hands. Or St. Gregory the Theologian said something very similar: “It’s necessary to be at ease to know God.”
We have to work and we have to strive. We have to do stuff. But our efforts need to be fueled — the fire has to be fueled, be directed — by hearing God’s voice. Following his beckoning to our heart, striving to surrender to him in us and in others. All this has to do with whether we’re going to be effective mutual healers or not. That’s it. Often — often, often — many of us, certainly myself, have trouble with this.
I want to quote a little piece of research for you. Researchers did an interesting study on missionaries of all denominations who returned prematurely, that is, before their agreed date of return. The researchers gave the missionaries a rank order list of items — that is, rank these in order of importance, rank them from one to ten — reasons for your returning. And the list included such items as “I couldn’t learn the language,” and “Found the living conditions to be unsatisfactory,” and so on. The number one reason by far that the missionaries returned prematurely was, “The presence of other Christian missionaries.”
We understand what’s being said. They came back, they couldn’t live in this foreign country, because of the other human Christian missionaries they were with. I find that astounding. For me, that’s a compelling conclusion. The returning missionaries said, in effect, the greatest block to spreading Christ’s word was the presence of their fellow Christian missionaries.
We have much to learn from that study. Because, of course, the conclusions probably have a generalized application. Perhaps one of the great hindrances to the spread of Orthodoxy today is our own impact on our own fellow Orthodox believers. And then of course, by cascade effect, onto others who see it all. That thought can give us room to pause. We can learn to become a healing presence better as we learn to open ourselves more to the music of the Bridegroom and ask for more grace. “Lord, I surrender myself to you to do with me as you will. Grant that I may become a living presence to others.”
In our next podcast, we’ll look at stillness as a door, as an opening, to that healing fire within us. Thank you.