Audio length: 25:34 minutes
Transcript published: June 22, 2012
Touching upon all the gifts that the season of Great Lent offers for spiritual growth, Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, delivers four reflections on the emergence of life through suffering, brokenness, and death. With astute attention to the teachings of Scripture and the Fathers, Fr. John centers on the necessity of dying for true life in Christ—life eternal—to emerge.
As we heard from the hymn from Holy Saturday, which we reflect on early today, let us also keep the economy of death and so keep a Sabbath in the flesh. In this way and this way alone, we will find peace, the Sabbath, not the avoidance of trials and tribulations but the peace of God which overturns and overcomes all such things; enables us to come to life and to be created as human beings in His image and likeness; brethren of the First-Born of God, brethren of the First-Born from dead that to which we are called to all eternity.
Perhaps more than anything else, even life, God is the God of peace. The Kingdom that Christ ushers into; the realm of this present world is the peace of God. And among the gifts of the Spirit, peace recurs with insistence. And as we can only enter into life on the basis of Christ, so too we can only find peace in the encounter of God keeping the Sabbath of the flesh. Only when we do this will we know God.
This says in Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God.” And only when we do this will we hear God. This says is Psalm 62:
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly moved. For God alone, my soul, waits in silence, and my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.
These two passages in the Psalms are linked with two particular episodes in the Scripture. The first, “Be still and know that I am God,” echoes the words of Moses in Exodus. The Lord will fight for you; you only have to be still. Moses says this when the Israelites have fled Egypt and are being chased by the Egyptians. And the Israelites are complaining again:
Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? Didn’t you think that there were graves in Egypt? It would have been better for us to be slaves in Egypt than to die here in the wilderness. Yes, we would have been slaves, but at least we would have had roofs and houses and food.
And in the face of all of this murmuring Moses says, “Fear not. Stay firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see, you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be still.” The Lord Himself will fight for us. All we need to do is be still.
We too, following 4:08 and more intensely during these 40 days of Lent, have left Egypt behind. We’ve committed ourselves to no longer live by the idols of Egypt or by the appearances of this world; to enter into that life which God alone can give. And our temptation is always to go back. All of our murmuring, all of our dissatisfaction expressed in however many diverse ways, all of this ultimately has its roots in our desire to be back in Egypt.
The battle, as we saw today, is not with others, however unjust we may think that others are being or however unjust we may think our fate is. The battle is not with others. The battle is with ourselves; that part of us which feels insulted, slighted, abused; that part of us which wants to be comforted by which Egypt has to offer; all the things which appear to be good in this world. And so the battle is to allow ourselves to be broken down, to be molded as clay, and to be created.
If this is our path, our passage, and our struggle, then it’s one we can only traverse, pass through, and emerge on the other side if as Moses told the Israelites, “Be still, so that God can fight for us.” Our battle now is not with physical forces, with pharaoh, his horsemen, and his army. No, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “It’s with the invisible forces;” all the thoughts, all the temptations, all the spirits of the world which try to hold us back. “Be still, and God will fight for us.”
As a battle is no longer with physical forces; nations battling nations, people fighting against people, neighbors against neighbors, the space of the battle and the nature of the battle has changed. It’s not a battle with the body, as is sometimes thought, especially in that popular image of Christianity as a religion of escapism that looks upon the body as somehow evil needing to be fought so that the soul can escape.
Or perhaps, more subtly, we think that we fast in Lent because there’s a problem with our body or that we need to lessen its needs somehow. No, it’s not the needs of the body that are a problem, but our minds perception or rather delusion about these needs, so that the place of the battle is indeed the body, but the battle itself is a spiritual struggle to free our minds from the slavery that we’re accustomed to in Egypt, so that it’s not my body, as if I am somehow distinct from it, something other than my body, but rather so that I finally become flesh, clay in the hands of God.
The second Psalm that I quoted, Psalm 62, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” That Psalm calls to mind Elijah on Mount Horeb, lodging in a cave. The people of Israel have forsaken the covenant, overthrown the altars, killed the prophets, and Elijah says, “Only I, alone, am left,” and they are looking for him to kill him.
The Word of the Lord then told Elijah to go stand upon the mountain before the Lord, and the Lord passed by. There’s a great wind, which tore apart the mountain, but the Lord was not in the wind. There’s an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the tremors of the earthquake. There’s a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And finally, a still small voice; the voice of God, who spoke to Elijah, comforting him and giving him direction.
Likewise, the world buffets us, pounds us, tears us apart as it passes by. Living in this world, we are torn apart by its storms. We are unsettled by its tremors. We are burned by its fire. As we sing, “The sea of life surges with a storm of temptations,” so that all we can do is to take refuge in the calm haven that is Christ.
How we are to do this is perhaps best expressed by those hesychasts, those who took the image of Elijah on Mount Horeb as their paradigm. They developed very sophisticated practices of prayer to do this, including controlling their breathing; adopting a seated position in a crouched shape; concentrating their attention, not on their navel as they are accused but in a circular manner, so that their minds can be brought back to their hearts along with the breath as they say the Jesus prayer. Now as important and as useful as all of their things are, what is even more important is what they thought they were doing when doing that.
St. John Climacus, whom we remember in a few Sundays time, he played with the Greek image of a human being as a soul trapped in a body waiting to be released. Or, in our modern language, I have a body, the body that is somehow distinct from me, something other than the eye that I am. St. John plays with that image and turns it upside down. He says, in a really pithy definition:
A hesychast is one who strives to confine what is incorporeal within the body, as paradoxical as that might be. A hesychast is one who strives to enshrine within the body that which is incorporeal, to keep all the powers of the soul, our thought, our imagination, our desire, all the things that we think of as belonging to our mental life.
To enclose all of that within the confines of one’s self, the body, this for St. John is the very definition of a hesychast. “A hesychast is one who strives to enshrine what is bodiless, within the body.” It really is a profound statement. The battle is not against the body or to separate our mind or our soul from the body, but rather the battle is to enshrine our mind in the body.
Our body after all is the Temple of God. The mystery of the Incarnation is that God, who is infinite and beyond everything, becomes flesh, and this is given for us to do as well. If God becomes flesh, why should we try to be anything else? Why should we try to be somewhere else? If it’s in and through the flesh that we know the Word, well then we too must enshrine our minds within the body if we want to the know the Word and so know God, so that we might also become flesh with a heart of flesh, malleable; open; responsive to the hands of God.
But how tremendously difficult this is. Even to stand for a couple of hours in church and not let our minds be elsewhere; to listen to a talk like this for some twenty minutes and not have our minds elsewhere; to work on a project and not have our minds be elsewhere; to talk to somebody, be present with them and not have our minds elsewhere.
All the time, our minds are tempted to think of other things; to be elsewhere, rather than here and now in the flesh. Our minds are always somewhere else. Just think about it. No wonder we don’t know any peace, any stillness, any hesychia. So our primary task is to keep our mind in the body; to keep the mind still. And only in this way, as Moses told, of being still can God fight for us. But this is an incredibly difficult task.
Almost invariably, our mind starts to wander. And when it starts to wander, almost invariably, it’s because it’s tempted by the things of Egypt; all the things that I have to do to ensure my own continuance; all the numerous tasks that I have to do daily to maintain my so called life; all the errands I need to run; all the chores I need to do daily; all the papers I have to write; all the books I need to read; all of these things that make up our so-called life in this world or rather the appearance of life in the appearance of this world. For as we have already seen, this is not life.
Perhaps we’re tempted in other ways with things that are less than human; less than what it means to be human as we’ve seen it that is to die to ourselves; to become fashioned by the hands of God as a living human being. We’re tempted in all sorts of other ways that are less than human. Our thoughts, instead of being in our minds in our flesh, are instead drawn to memories or things done in the past; things that have been said or done to me in which I appear to have been slighted, and now I resent thinking about the things which are no longer here or things that I have said and done and now feel proud about it, perhaps exalting myself, but again things that are not actually here.
Or else our minds are drawn to the future, what I will do and say next time I meet so-and-so or other ways in which I can make myself good; try to exalt myself. Our minds are continuously drawn away from our bodies, here and now. We are always tempted to be elsewhere.
This battle with the mind, trying to keep it still, really, I think, is the basis of all our ascetic struggle, even those things that seem to be very physical like fasting. In fasting, the struggle is not with the body but with our perception of the body. We’re not fighting the body. We’re fighting the thoughts, the temptations, the perceptions, the delusions which are not properly ours, even if they’ve become habituate.
The Apostle Paul is really blunt with words that are always good to recall, especially during Lent, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do. Only take care that this liberty of yours doesn’t become a stumbling block to the weak.” Whether we eat meat, vegetables, drink water or wine really doesn’t matter. More important is the attitude we have toward food and drink. That determines whether we are a glutton or not, a drunkard or not.
For instance, do we think that we can’t do anything in the morning until we’ve had our morning coffee? Well, that’s not true. We can. It’s our perception, our sense that we can’t do anything. That is the problem. That is what needs to be broken down together with all the habits and addictions that we are ourselves have built up.
Once we recognize where the problem actually lies that we are not fighting against flesh blood, but against spiritual forces; against thoughts; temptations; resentment; anger; delusions; all the different things that seize our mind and lead them against God and against our neighbor; all the things that wreak havoc with our lives causing most of most of the time to know no peace but only to know the chaos of churning emotions such that we can no longer sense the presence of God here and now; only once we recognize this can we know where the battle lies, and only then can we turn it over to God; let it go; be still; let Him fight so that the armies of pharaoh are not able to drag us back into the bondage of Egypt but rather that we can cross over the waters and pass into the Promised Land enjoying its eschatological peace.
But again, this is an incredibly hard matter. It means relinquishing our will. Once we do so, then God is the one who fights. We will hear all the noises of the battle; all the thoughts which fly into our mind from who knows where, but we will also know peace, because we won’t be swayed by them. We won’t be ensnared by their enticements. We won’t be led by them into reacting without thinking, but rather we’ll be able to dispel these thoughts of things which are nonexistent, which are alien, which are foreign to us.
So these two features then are the basis of the spiritual life, of the life in Christ, or simply life. These two bases ensure the victory secured by Him. Being still to let God fight; being still to relinquish our egos so that God can dispel all the advancing forces; being still by holding our minds to enshrine our minds within our bodies so that we can, as Elijah, return to ourselves, learn the power of prayer, hear God in the purity of our hearts, hearing the still small voice that comes after all the noise.
Now if we’re able to hold ourselves in such stillness, what then is it that God will affect? The verse in the Psalm that we started off with makes it very clear “For God alone my soul waits in silence; because from him comes my salvation.” And what is this salvation apart from coming to share in His own life? And why do we need to be silent to receive it? So that we can lay aside all our preconceptions as to what it is that we want, expect, think that we need; so that we can finally be the malleable clay in the hands of the Creator.
I want to finish these reflections by reading a passage from St. Irenaeus of Lyons, which expresses so many of the things we’ve been talking about over today and yesterday. He writes:
How then will you be a god, when you are not yet made human? How perfect, when only recently begun? How immortal, when in mortal nature you did not obey the Creator? It is necessary for you first to hold the rank of human, and then to participate in the glory of God. For you do not create God, but God creates you. If, then, you are the work of God, await the Hand of God, who does everything at the appropriate time-the appropriate time for you, who are being made. Offer to Him your heart, soft and pliable, and retain the shape with which the Fashioner shaped you, having in yourself his Water, the Spirit, lest you turn dry and lose the imprint of his fingers. By guarding this conformation, you will ascend to perfection; the mud in you will be concealed by the art of God. His Hand created your substance; it will gild you, inside and out, with pure gold and silver, and so adorn you that the King himself will desire your beauty. But if, becoming hardened, you reject his art and being ungrateful towards him, because he made you human, ungrateful, that is, towards God, you have lost at once both his art and life. For to create is the characteristic of the goodness of God; to be created is a characteristic of human beings. If, therefore, you offer to him what is yours, that is, faith in him and subjection, you will receive his art and become a perfect work of God. But if you do not believe him, and flee from his Hands, the cause of imperfection will be in you who did not obey, and not in him who called you. For he sent messengers to call people to the feast; but those who did not obey deprived themselves of his royal banquet.
So let us struggle and then, brothers and sisters, for the next 40 days, knowing the true nature of our struggle that our struggle is with ourselves not with others; not with our body; not with our neighbors. And struggling to control our minds, let us be still so that God can be victorious and so that we might come to share in the royal banquet that He’s called us to.