In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. [Amen.]
It’s always good in a way when I don’t have a topic to talk about, but it’s also a bit difficult because I don’t know what I’m going to say. There’s a bit of a trick there, because if you’re left to your own devices, I will always go back to the same things that are important to me, and that is a bit dangerous, because it’s almost like sort of a public confession. If you keep on talking about, I don’t know, the temptation to eat, that tells something about you as the speaker and about your appetite. [Laughter] If you keep talking about the need to fight the temptation to strangle anybody [Laughter] that tells something about your anger. So I did try, again, to diversify the topics I approach, simply because I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m fighting with. [Laughter]
But there are some things that are extremely important to the way I relate to my faith, and perhaps that’s the one thing I should say at the very beginning, that whatever you hear, not only from me today, but whatever you hear—when you read an author’s book or when you listen to somebody in a podcast on YouTube or whatever—try not to receive as what you are given as competing versions for a path to salvation. There is no such thing. If Father has an experience and he is teaching you based on his experience, and I have an experience and I’m trying to teach you based on my own experience, there’s no competition there. If you think about it on those terms, “Which of these people is right? Which of them [is] wrong?” then you’ve missed the point, and you’ve turned something that should be enriching for your life into something that is not even Orthodox in the spirit that hides behind it.
All a speaker or a monk or a nun or a simple man or a simple woman, all we can do when we meet to discuss any thing on any topic is either to give a lecture, a way to completely remove yourself and your experience, and you just kind of regurgitate what you’ve read and you try to give it a nice structure so it makes a point, or you make it based on your experience: it’s just that, your own experience. You just bring your own experience, you put it on the table, and it is just as valued as any other experience, or if it’s based on your experience, it’s just that: your experience. You just bring your own experience, you put it on the table, and it will just have as much value as any other experience. It’s only at the end of one’s life that Christ will actually have the authority and the right to discern between them and say, “This was correct; this was less so.”
We have 2,000 years of that experience behind us, because we partake of the experience of the Church, and each year, each generation, each century, comes with new, amazing paths to achieve our salvation. They are equally valued, and the point of having them is to have us to find in them, somewhere hidden in those 2,000 years, one path that is more or less similar to ours. And when you find that, that should give you strength; that should give you courage. There’s a risk always. You kind of feel like you’re wandering in the desert, and your experience doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen, anything you’ve heard. Then all of a sudden there’s one particular saint—maybe a well-known one, maybe a lesser known one, but there will be one particular saint—whose life, whose experience, whose path to salvation will be similar to yours. There’s a lot of courage with finding that particular saint.
What I wanted to say in this just very brief footnote or introduction is: don’t receive anything I say as competing against anything someone else might say. Listen to all these voices that speak to you, and allow your path to simply react to the one that it reacts to. And that means, for you, that voice, that experience, is closer than the other ones. Again, it doesn’t deny the other ones. It seems close to where you are during that time in your life. The one thing that stays with me, through Lent and even outside Lent, through my whole experience as a man and as a monk and as a priest, so far at least—the one thing that, if I were forced to choose one virtue or to choose one idea, one concept, whatever you want to call it, that would summarize Christianity for me, it’s the need to keep on striving, to keep on struggling, to keep on forcing oneself and never to judge. I think there’s nothing else for me personally as significant or as useful and at the same time as difficult to achieve as this attempt to not judge: not to judge anyone I meet nor to judge the world as a whole, not to judge a beloved government, not to judge oneself, really, at the end of the day. Because there is just one Judge up there, and only he, only Christ, has the authority and the honor of being a Judge.
I would like to speak a bit about that, about not judging, which always comes with the ability to forgive and to just move away from one’s sinfulness and the sinfulness of those around us. We begin Lent with a Sunday dedicated to this virtue of forgiveness, and at the end of Lent the purpose of everything we’ve done—hopefully we’ve done it by then: all our fasting, all our prayers, all these services, hopefully if we can, a bit of vigil, some prostrations, some sort of physical asceticism… Although to use the term asceticism for what we do is such a misuse of the word… But by the end of Lent, the point is that we’ve started forgiving each other, and we should end with being forgiven. It’s a very clear balance there, with what we invest in Lent in the beginning, our forgiveness with those around us, and what we hope to achieve at the end of Lent, what we hope to be given at the end of Lent, the forgiveness of our own sins by God himself.
The business deal is there from the very beginning: “The measure that you use for others is the measure that shall be used for you.” That’s not a threat, as I’ve kind of understood it for a long time. It’s not a threat. It simply is a statement of a fact. It is a fact, it is a reality, it is something that simply happens, because that is the way things are. The measure that you use in judging others will become the measure of our own judgment. It’s the same way in which God in Eden told Adam and Eve that if they ate of that tree, they should die with death, that isn’t a threat that’s supposed to keep them away from eating; that was simply stating a fact: “If you do that, you will die.” It’s like you telling your kids, “If you touch the stove, you are going to get burned.” You’re not threatening them, “If you touch the stove, I’m going to set you on fire.” You’re just stating a reality: “If you do that, this is what happens.” The measure that we use in judging and forgiving or not forgiving others is the measure that will be applied to us, to our own judgment, to our being forgiven or not forgiven.
That is something that needed a lot of clarification, at least for me, in the first years of my monastic life. Then for some reason there are some things that you come across, and they keep on nagging you, they keep traveling with you. You try to reject them, you try to focus on something else, you try to make your life about something else, but at the back of your mind, somewhere there, there’s this feeling, this tiny little voice that keeps saying the one thing that you should be paying attention to is this one thing about not judging and forgiving. For a long time, I thought forgiving means that I should forgive those who have harmed me in a way, whoever spoke badly of me or did something bad to me or things that mattered to me or people I loved and so on: I should try to forgive them. But then quite quickly I’ve grown in understanding, and I realized the need to forgive is equally found in myself, because I fail people around me so frequently and in such horrible ways that it began to feel like almost a sort of a bad joke from Christ, the idea that he should ask me to forgive those around me, when the more I focused on what was going on, the more I realized that the one who did the wrongdoing was myself, not so much those around me. But then forgiveness became, instead of a tool that I should apply to others in order that I should forgive others, forgiveness became this thing that kills you in a way, because the more you allow it to work in you, the more it will show you how desperately in need you are to be forgiven yourself.
What are we in need to be forgiven of? Well, of course, the obvious things: You’ve offended someone, you’ve spoken badly of someone, you’ve done something to someone, and so on. But then there’s also so much more. There are all those wonderful things that I could have done into the world, and I haven’t done. There are all those people I’ve passed in the street and I haven’t stopped to say a nice word or to give them the one dollar that I had, but I could have given them that one dollar and I didn’t, because I thought they looked kind of drunk or they look like they’re using drugs or they look like they are going to misuse my money. But instead of becoming someone who helps, I became a judge yet again. There’s no qualification in Christ’s commandment to help people. There’s no word in the Scripture that says you should help those who deserve to be helped. There’s nowhere in the Scripture that says you should give the food to those who are going to eat the food, not throw it away or sell it to get cigarettes or… The commandment is help, full stop. You do the helping. What they do further is entirely up to them, not to you. It’s none of your business anyway, because I am not the judge.
There are all those people I’ve failed by not helping, and there are all those people I’ve failed by not being the man I could have been, by not being the monk I could have been, by not being the priest I could have been. There are all those people I’ve failed simply by not being the holy man that I know I could be. Even now I know I can be a holy man, not because I have some sort of instinct in me, but because Christ tells me—and he tells each and every one of you, and every single human being he’s ever created—he tells us: Be holy like your Father who is in heaven. That’s what he asks us to become. And he wouldn’t ask us to do something that we can’t do. He’s not an absurd God. He doesn’t come from a place where he just wants to frustrate us and bring us to our knees and destroy our self-confidence. He’s not asking us to fly. He’s asking us to be what he knows each and every one of us can become: a holy man or a holy woman. When we fail to be that, we actually fail not only ourselves; we fail everyone around us, and we fail the world at large. Every time a potential saint is reduced to a wonderful citizen, every time holiness, sanctity, is reduced to morality and a set of moral values and a set of rituals, you have—we have—killed something that could have completed the salvation of the world.
One of the worst things that I’ve ever heard is a story about our Elder Cleopa in Romania and this woman who went to him. She wanted to make his confession, and he wouldn’t receive her in confession because he kept on saying, “You’ve murdered three priests, and one of them was also a monk.” The woman kept saying, “It’s not me! I’ve never killed anyone, let alone three priests. I think I’d remember if I had killed three priests, and one of them a monk.” Eventually Fr. Cleopa told her, “You have killed three priests and a monk, because those were the people, those were the men, the kids you have aborted would have become. The kids you have aborted in God’s will were supposed to be three priests, and one of them also a hieromonk.” Every time we kill in ourselves the holy man and the holy woman we could be, we abort a saint in us. There’s no difference. God made us not only for our sakes. Our existence, our sin and our holiness does not concern only ourselves. We do not stand before ourselves only, and we do not fall alone. When we fall, we drag the whole world down, just a little bit more.
Every time I turn my face away from God—and this is the meaning of sin; to sin, its original meaning, we don’t need to break a law. There’s no such thing as a list of things that we should be doing or we should not be doing, and because we contradict one of those written laws we have sinned. Sinning is turning one’s face away from God, willingly and just because we so choose. Every time I do that, I abort this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful holy man that I believe Christ wanted to create when he created me. When I do that, I do exactly the same thing that that poor woman has done. When I do that, I not only affect myself; I don’t let myself down, but I let down and perhaps I completely compromise the chance of salvation, the opportunity of salvation, opened to all the people whom I’m going to meet in my lifetime, because, again, nothing happens by accident in God’s world. If I meet you today, that has been, in some way that is beyond my understanding, already agreed in God’s plan. He has already done so much groundwork, so to say, so much background work to bring you to me today and has put in me the experiences that I’ve had simply because he knows that, potentially at least, there is something that could have happened here today that could change in you or me or all of us in a way that brings us closer to salvation. And when I fail to be the holy man that I know I can be, because he tells me that I can be, I have not only betrayed myself, I’ve betrayed all of you, and I am responsible for all of that.
You see? When we ask for forgiveness, it’s so easy to reduce the world to the material world around us and to see you and you, because we have bodies; we have physical beings; we perceive each other. It’s easy to say, “Forgive me because I’ve said something wrong,” “Forgive me because I didn’t have patience,” “Forgive me because”—I don’t know—“I hit you” or something like that. But to have the humility that allows you to realize that you have sinned because I have failed you, that is much more subtle and more difficult to realize. And I pray to God that that is something that you will take away from me today. If you take that away, I have not wasted my time.