The Gospel today from the 8th chapter of the Gospel of St Mark urges us to deny ourselves, take up our own crosses and to follow Christ. Note that we are not asked to take up the Cross of Christ, but to take up whatever crosses, whatever suffering, whatever problems are present in our own lives. St Augustine reflected and prayed a great deal about this biblical passage because he was challenged by it, just as it challenges each of us. In Sermons on New Testament Lessons 46.1 St Augustine wrote:
How hard and painful does this appear! The Lord has required that ‘whoever will come after Him must deny [themselves].’ But what He commands is neither hard nor painful when He Himself helps us in such a way that the very thing He requires may be accomplished.
St Augustine saw that “whatever seems hard in what is [asked of us], love makes easy.”
St Augustine gave his friend Laetus advice which I find helpful, and I hope you will find helpful. St Augustine wrote in the fifth century words that still apply in the twenty-first century. He told Laetus:
When I noticed that you were being slowed down in your divine purpose by your preoccupation with domestic cares, I felt that you were being carried and dragged along by your cross rather than that you were carrying it. … [Yet] this is your very own cross which the Lord commands [each of] us to carry that we may be as well armed as possible in following Him.
In other words, St Augustine is advising us that carrying our own crosses with patience and perseverance prepares us to draw closer to Christ. We are not asked to be crucified on a cross with nails being driven into us and to suffer terrible pain. We are each asked to carry, in St Augustine’s phrase, our own “domestic cares,” rather than to let those “domestic cares” drag us down into worry that we will not be able to cope with the challenges of life. The dictionary defines “domestic cares” as those cares “belonging or relating to the home, the family or private life.” The one thing that will lead you into trouble in your very own domestic cares is to run away from those cares, to pretend that you don’t have any cares. The cares can remain private, or can be shared with a friend or can be brought to confession, but you have to admit to them, just as Laetus admitted them to St Augustine, who then wrote to him.
Remember that St Augustine advised that “whatever seems hard in what is [asked of us], love makes easy.” How does “love” make our domestic cares easy? My experience is that we learn to love more deeply the person or situation that is causing us the trouble. That’s not easy to do, but possible. In the Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, we are urged to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus Christ also urges us in the Gospel of St Mark, chapter 12, verses 30 and 31: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
The question that emerges is: What is the relationship between loving God, loving your neighbour and loving yourself? Clearly, all three kinds of love are important, but how do you balance your commitment in your time and your use of your own talents to these different priorities? A sixth century saint, St Caesarius of Arles, preached: “What [God] commands is not difficult, since He helps to [accomplish] what He commands. … Just as we are lost through loving ourselves, so we are found by denying ourselves. Love of self was the ruin [of Adam]. If he not loved himself in the wrong order, he would have been willing to be subject to God, preferring God to self” [end of quote}. It’s that phrase “in the wrong order” that I find helpful. We love God first, and then we love ourselves. That way the Lord guides us into how best to love Him and to love ourselves.
St Bede preached that love of God and love of your neighbour go together. He said: “Neither of these two kinds of love [that is, love of God and love of your neighbour] is expressed with full maturity without the other, because God cannot be love apart from our neighbour, nor our neighbour apart from God. … There is only one adequate confirmation of whole-hearted love of God—labouring steadily for the needy in your midst, exercising continuing care for them.” In other words, to achieve, in St Bede’s attractive phrase, “full maturity” in our lives, we need to love God and our neighbour. Furthermore, as St Caesarius advised, it is important to love God first, before we love ourselves.
These Church Fathers are interpreting the Bible beautifully and advising us well. However, we still need to work out for ourselves how this advice applies to our lives and to our participation in the Church. In Christ at Work: Orthodox Perspectives on Vocation, Ann Mitsakos Bezzaerides asks, “What should I do with my life?” She suggests that
...for Orthodox Christians, the matrix of discernment [that is, the guiding pattern in how our decisions are made] is formed in prayer and fasting, repentance and confession, seeking wisdom from the rhythm of the liturgical year, and from a spiritual father.
Now, as we begin a new liturgical year, it is good to consider how we wish to live our lives. We each have own unique vocation, our own calling to use our talents to the best of our ability. Therefore, it’s important to learn what our talents are. Children and teenagers, what subjects do you especially like at school? What activities are you good at? How can each of us, whether we are young or old, use our talents to serve others and to serve the Church? As we learn to love God and to love our neighbour, we also learn to know ourselves better, to use our talents, and, in a sense, to love ourselves. Therefore, loving God, loving our neighbour and loving ourselves are a unity, in the right order, with loving God first.