A Word from the Holy Fathers:
Welcome to the first broadcast in the second series of A Word from the Holy Fathers. When we concluded the final broadcast of series one, in January 2010, the intention that we stated at the time was to begin this new series only a month later. Well, it’s said that events sometimes conspire against our best laid plans, and it is now nearly two and a half years later.
But, by the grace of God, we are here once again and able to resume our weekly reflections on the Orthodox life as it is handed to us through the heritage of our Fathers and our Saints in the Church. I would like, today, to read a small section from one of the spiritual homilies of our Father among the Saints, Makarios the Great – this being in particular the 13th Homily collected under the title Fifty Spiritual Homilies. Saint Makarios writes the following:
He who wishes to be a friend of God, and a brother and son of Christ, must do something more than other men, that is, to consecrate heart and mind themselves, and to stretch up his thoughts towards God. In this way God secretly gives life and help to the heart, and entrusts Himself to it. When a man gives God his secret things, that is, his mind and thoughts, not occupying himself elsewhere, nor wandering away, but putting constraint upon himself, then the Lord deems him worthy of mysteries, in greater sanctity and purity, and gives him heavenly food and spiritual drink.
“He who wishes to be a friend of God, and a brother and son of Christ…” This is how St. Makarios begins that short section I just read. And it is a remarkable thing to say, to invoke, upon his hearers. St. Makarios does not say to those listening to this spiritual homily, “You who wish to know more about God.”
He does not address those who want to have a better understanding of Christ or a more profound, more robust, knowledge of God or of the faith or of the Church. He addresses those who wish to be, in his own words, “a friend of God, and a brother and a son of Christ.”
Too often in the Christian life we fail to pay adequate attention to precisely what it is we are saying, because these phrases “friend of God, son of the Father, brother of Christ,” are not uncommon phrases. And it would be surprising if any of those listening to this broadcast had not in one or another context or situation heard them before. In fact, many of us have heard them countless times; more than we can remember.
And yes, though they strike us perchance as beautiful or poignant, have we really reflected on what is being said? “You are one who wishes to be a friend of God.” This is how Saint Makarios begins, “a friend of God,” with all that friendship implies – that intimacy of personal relation; the fact that one is not abasing, not a stranger, but close with heart meeting heart, mind meeting mind, and life taken into life. “Do you wish to be a friend of God?”
Think of all the generations, all of the centuries, who strived simply to be a follower, an adherent, one who kept the principles that God had set forth, one that subscribed to the laws and decrees that He had issued. For centuries, this was deemed enough. For what could be greater, what could be more exalted than to live after the manner of life described by the Creator of life Himself?
And yet in Christianity, we find precisely the answer to that question, what could be more than this? To be the friend of the Creator of the universe; to know Him not simply through His decrees; to engage with Him not simply through His laws, but to be befriended of the Creator and the Fashioner of humankind; to be drawn not nearly into a community of His followers, but to be drawn into His family; to become, in the words of Saint Makarios, “A brother and a son of Christ.”
This is the potential that awaits the Christian person – something far more grandiose, far more majestic than any other promise made in the history of humanity. And it is more grandiose and more majestic precisely because it is more intimate; it is more personal.
And yet because it is personal, that is, it deals with my person and with who I am, not simply what I believe, or what thoughts I subscribe to, but who I am as a person relating to God, the Holy Trinity, because it is personal, this relationship and this communion in God Himself requires something more than merely my thoughts; more than merely my beliefs. It requires something of the whole of my being.
And it is of this that Saint Makarios is speaking in this short text. “He who wishes to be a friend of God, a brother and a son of Christ, must do something more than other men,” he says. More is expected of us as Christian people. Very often, whether we intend to or not, we seek the easiest way forward. What are the requirements? What is the minimum that must be done in order to be able to say I am a Christian; I am a follower of Christ?
But Saint Makarios says to each of us, that if you wish to be more than merely a follower; if you wish to be a brother, a son, a friend of God Himself, something more is required of you than is required of others. Then, Saint Makarios specifies exactly what that is. What is required of us, in his words, “to consecrate heart and mind themselves, to stretch up our very being and all our thoughts towards God.”
We are, in other words, to offer everything within us; everything that we are for this one task of communion with God. All of the other things that find their way into our lives must either be called into the service of this task of drawing a heart and mind into Christ’s love, or they must be cast away. There is no room for anything in the Christian life, nothing whatsoever, that does not support this singular purpose of drawing and being drawn closer to the Lord Himself.
And why do we do this? Why do we commit to so great a sacrifice? The promises made to the Christian person, answering that very question, are almost beyond our comprehension. It is in this way, Saint Makarios says, answering this type of question, that God will secretly give life and help to the heart. Brothers and sisters, that in and of itself would be enough. If offering up and consecrating our whole being to God were to earn us nothing more than life and help, this would be more than enough to reward all the struggles of our ascetical life.
And yet, Saint Makarios finishes that sentence with something that defies any expectation. “In this way,” he says, “God secretly gives life and help to the heart, and entrusts Himself to it.” God entrusts Himself to the heart that loves Him. Think of what this truly means. God, who has fashioned the universe; He, who at a spoken Word, spoke light out of darkness and created the heavens and the earth and all that is within them and created the human person and created you and me, entrusts Himself to His own creation and pours out Himself into the heart of His own creature in response to nothing more than love, than a heart given up with love for God.
“When a man gives God his secret things,” Saint Makarios says, “that is, his mind and thoughts;” when we do not occupy ourselves elsewhere or wander away from our love of God, but in Saint Makarios’ words, “we put constraints on ourselves.” We often think of constraints, limitations, as being binding and enslaving, as if any constraint were automatically something negative.
But Saint Makarios, echoing the voice of all the Fathers, proclaims that constraint is a means of freedom. It is when we constrain ourselves from frivolously wandering after this and that; when we limit ourselves so that we are not distracted by whatever comes our way, hither and thither; when we constrain ourselves so that our heart, which is so precious and so beloved of the Creator Himself; it’s not given away to that which is underserving, when we so constrain ourselves, we find the freedom to engage with the love of God.
We find the freedom to offer ourselves, not partially and not only a fragment of ourselves, but the whole of ourselves, “all of our secret things,” as Saint Makarios calls them, through that constraint that we impose on our own selves, we find the freedom to give ourselves to God. And when we do this, Saint Makarios reminds us, “then the Lord deems him worthy of mysteries, in greater sanctity and purity, and gives him heavenly food and spiritual drink.”
When we offer our heart to God, desiring to be His friend, and son and brother; when we constrain our life that our life might be lived fully and that which we offer be complete and whole, then a mystery beyond our comprehension takes place. God entrusts Himself to our hearts.
He deems us worthy of mysteries of which neither Heaven nor earth can speak, and He does so with sanctity and in greater purity than the heart of the mind could of themselves ever conceive, so that the human person, becoming the friend of God; receiving these mysteries; participating in God’s own life, is fed by God Himself – receiving “heavenly food and spiritual drink.”
Christianity proclaims, into our broken and disfigured world, promises that defy our expectation – that sin can be forgiven, that the broken can be restored, that the sick can be healed, that the dead can arise. And yet in the midst of so many great and wonderful promises, there is perhaps none greater and none more profound than the promise that the human person, for all his frailty, weakness, rebellion, and apostasy, this human creature may become the friend of the Creator of all; that he may become brother and son to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; that his own heart can contain within it the Creator of all; that this human person can be fed with heavenly food; that this weak creature can receive the mysteries of the Eternal God.
In all of Creation and in the whole economy of redemption, there is perhaps no greater promise than this. So let us, you and I, each of us who struggles to live up to the calling of the Orthodox life, respond to our Fathers, the Saints who have trod this path before us. Let us hear the words of Saint Makarios, who begins with the assumption that we seek that friendship with our Creator that can transform our lives.
And let us, so being inspired, follow the directions of our Holy Fathers that we too may learn to overcome all that keeps us from this life, from this transfiguring life, that we also may be made worthy of mysteries in greater sanctity and purity; that we may be given heavenly food and spiritual drink from our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Through the prayers of our Father among the Saints, Makarios the Great, and of all the Saints, have mercy upon us and save us, O God, Amen.