Very Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko: There can be in my heart on the square yard of turf that I’m standing on, I can make that paradise if I want to, and no one can stop me from doing that. Nobody can stop that if I want it, but it leads to the next point. If you really want it and take responsibility, you must also come to the deepest conclusion in your gut that you can’t do it. In the 12-Step program, that would mean the first step: “I am powerless.” I don’t have it within me to bear these crosses. I don’t have it within me to love my enemies. I don’t have it within me to kill the passions. I don’t have it within me to face the griefs. I can’t do it, and if I try to do it, it’s just going to crush me; it’s going to overwhelm me. That’s where that feeling is true. When people have that feeling, it’s true—if they were going to handle it themselves.
So when I say I’m going to take responsibility, then if you’re a Christian and you’re taking up your cross, what you must do then is to hand it all over to God. Taking responsibility means I have to do it, but I can’t, but God can, and that’s the whole meaning in Scripture of what is impossible with people is possible with God. If we say to Christ, like Peter did, “Lord, who can do what you teach? Who can take up their cross? Who can forgive the sins of the enemy? Who can bear the evils of the world? Who can take on the burden of the brother or the sister? Who can be totally faithful to God even when they’re nailing you to a cross? Who can do it?” Well, it’s very important that Jesus doesn’t answer Peter, “You can, Pete, as long as you try.” [Laughter] No! He doesn’t say that. You know, people burn themselves out trying to be Christians without God, because they’re going to do it. Well, you can’t do it. That’s what it means when the word of the cross says, “My power is made perfect in your weakness.” Unless you become weak, you’re not going to become strong, and unless you become totally weak by saying, “I have no power,” then and only then can the power of God act.
So Jesus says to Peter: No one can do it, Peter. No one can do what I teach. With man this is impossible. Not just hard or improbable or impractical, but impossible. But with God, all things become possible. And that’s the meaning of the cross. The meaning of the cross is: through the power of the cross, what is humanly impossible now becomes possible; that we can love with the love with which God and Christ has loved us. And we can not be poisoned and killed and put down by evil, any evil—inside us, outside us, around us, in any way—physical evil, emotional evil, mental evil, social evil, economic evil, political evil—none of that can touch us, none of that.
Now, turning it over to God—some people have to be brought to bottomlessness, bottom-lying before they can do that, but we have to do it at some point. That means every thought, every feeling, every act, every movement of our heart, every breath that we take has to be turned over to God. That’s what St. Paul means when he says, “Take every thought captive for the sake of Christ.” Every look, every feeling, we say, “I can’t handle this, Lord, but you can.” That’s what dying daily means. That’s what crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires means. That’s what putting to death what is earthly in you means. It doesn’t mean I, by some force of willpower, am going to overcome these passions and feelings and memories and griefs which are plaguing my life and killing me. No, I can’t, but what I can do is die to them every minute: give them to Christ’s death. Let Christ expiate them on the cross for me. You offer yourself to God every minute, and every minute he kills you and resurrects you, and that’s how it works. That’s exactly how it works, and that’s what co-crucifixion every minute means. That’s why St. Paul said, “I die daily.” Or St. Herman, he said, “From this day, from this hour, from this moment, let’s love God most of all.” But we cannot do this alone.
When we are admitting the realities and the griefs and the sorrows and the passions and the addictions of our life, it’s absolutely essential that we admit them to another human being. It is not enough that we tell it to God in the secret of our heart. It won’t do us any good, because we’re only informing God of what he already knows. But the sign that we really want to do something about it is when we share it with another person, and it’s a dogma of our understanding of Orthodox Christian worldview, Christian view of life. It’s an essential Christian element. And by the way, we should be very happy that the 12-Step program also sees this, and they use it better than we do nowadays when we have churches where people say, “I don’t have to go to confession.”
Confession is part of it. Not only the confession of our sins, of our offenses, but the confession of our thoughts, the confessions of our feelings, the confessions of our griefs, the confessions of everything that runs through our life, our dreams even. To get it all out and to have some help in looking at it and finding out what it’s telling us about what we need to do about our life, because without looking at those things, we don’t know what to do about our life, and without looking at them with someone else’s help, we’ll never be able to see them clearly.
That’s one of the main reasons for confession. You get another person involved, and they can say, “Well, what about this and what about this and do you think this and that?” and so on, and then we’re ready and then it helps us. The Church from the beginning was always that, where you opened your life to other people. It’s allegedly people, of course, that you can trust, that love you, that care about you, that are willing to help you, and therefore aren’t going to lie to you. They’re not going to cover over your evils. They’re not going to say, “It’s okay, honey,” when it’s not okay. They’re going to say, “That’s wrong, yes, but now what are we going to do about it? How are we going to handle it? How are we going to give it to God to handle?” And then you need very concrete steps very often. People need concrete, specific advice: how to turn one’s life over to God. It just doesn’t happen.
I’m still willing to admit that if we really want, God will see that it happens, but normally we’ll see it by him providing us the human help that we need. I love to say that on this level it’s not magic, it’s not miraculous, and it’s not mechanistic. There’s no mechanics for it, it doesn’t magically happen, and there’s no miracles on this level. God can—I don’t know—he can part the Red Sea, he can make the sun stand still, and he can heal my broken leg, but he can’t do a thing about my inner freedom and about my giving my life to him in the act of sovereign freedom to be co-crucified with him unless I want to. Therefore, that ball is in my court. Now, when that happens, we even see that that’s grace, but it has to be done.
So we need to share it with others, to be willing to say this: if we are unwilling or incapable—and it’s usually a mixture of both—to verbalize our sins, our failures, our passions, our feelings, our dreams, our deepest thoughts, at least to one other person, then I think we could absolutely insist that we are not really wanting to take up our cross, and we don’t really want to be healed; we are still in delusion. We are still in delusion. Even just the ability to sit down and to talk to each other and even to be even criticized a little bit: maybe you didn’t do that totally rightly. [Laughter] That’s really what’s destroying us. It’s what’s destroying us, because then the delusions just keep adding. The unreality that we live in just keeps multiplying, and we don’t even know where we are any more. If we’re going to solve a problem, we at least have to know what it is and admit that it’s there.
This is what taking up the cross means because to do this is incredibly painful. It’s painful, especially to the old Adam. The old Adam dies, screaming and shouting, and doesn’t like dying at all. It’s very painful. It’s very painful for the ego; it’s very painful for a lot of things. And then even the good Adam is painful. It’s godly grief, it is real sorrow, it is real pain—Christ suffered pain on the cross—no ungodly grief and no misery from sin, his own, that is, but he certainly had to suffer from all the sin and everything else that was there that was very painful, but that very painful activity, once one is in it, is seen, as I said this morning, to be joy itself, to be happiness itself.
Here someone asked me to make a sentence about what’s the difference between joy and happiness. Human fun and happiness means getting what you want; joy means doing what God wants, which is still in your best interests. And that’s why a lot of people are unhappy: they don’t get what they want. In fact, George Bernard Shaw, I heard recently on a tape, said, “Hell is where everyone will have to do what they want.” [Laughter] By the way, this guy who was giving this talk, Hauerwas, he said our American society is demonic to the core in the sense that it tells us that the greatest achievement and freedom in life is to do what you want, and even to make laws to ensure that, as long as you don’t bother somebody else from doing what they want. That is totally demonic, because doing what we want in the fallen world is evil itself. It’s isolation itself. It’s madness itself. Only doing what God wants brings the real joy. So you can be very happy getting what you want, and there’s a sense in which the people who are in hell will be very happy to be there, miserable in their happiness, so to speak, but that’s certainly there.
If we are sharing it with another and turning it over to God, the one last thing that I would say here is this. This dying daily and the ability to die to everything requires for us Christians this love of God which in our particular way of putting it means to unite the totality of our life to Christ and him crucified as our Savior and our Lord. It means to unite our memories with the memory of him, our wounds with his wounds, our hurt with his hurt, our rejection with his rejection, our victimization with his victimization, our injustices with his injustice, our questions even, our frustrations, our confusions with him, because on the cross he said, “My God, my God, why?” It’s no sin to say, “Why?” We can say to God, “Why?”—as long as we’re hanging on the cross.
So it’s uniting ourselves in every way to Christ and letting that Christ’s power of the cross, which we pray in our services that we don’t want it to abandon us because we want that power, which is the power of the love of God, but that’s got to get into every crevice of our soul, every recess, and we have to want to do that. Now how do we do that? Very quickly, just picking it off here, if we want to, there’s three things that are essential: prayer, which is the act of purposefully and intentionally uniting ourselves in our totality with God through Christ and him crucified; sacraments of the Church, being baptized, being sealed, having the Holy Spirit on every part of our body to bear what we have to bear in this world, certainly confession, opening ourselves, certainly the mystery of the holy Eucharist, the body broken and the spilled blood, whereby all this power becomes accessible to us, where we receive it into our life; and then I would add to prayer and sacraments the silence, the openness, the waiting, the trusting, the living with the emptiness, living with the hurt, but not living with it in the sense that we pamper it, deny it, or simply put up with it, but we admit it and then we are waiting for the grace of God to enter in and to take this for us.
Now this, as I said already, has to be done every minute. The crucifixion is a perpetual event. I think as the holy Fathers teach if we do not learn how to die every minute of every day, we will not learn how to die when the real end comes. To put it this way, we’ve got to practice dying. Every moment of every day is a practice in dying. It’s a practice in letting go, letting go of our life, giving it to God, letting go, as I already said, of the good things as well as the evil ones, the achievements as well as the failures, the successes as well as the sins: letting it go all the time and living in the present moment at each present moment. The only way each present moment can be transformed into paradise is if it dies and is offered to God and then resurrected again from his hand. That’s why the whole dynamic of the spiritual life is crucifixion-resurrection. We are constantly dying and constantly being raised, constantly dying and constantly being raised, constantly letting go and constantly being reconstituted, constantly being offered and constantly being consecrated. This is how life works, and this is what taking up the cross is. It’s a constant turning over and dying to our own life and even being put to death by Christ, even being killed by his truth, his light, his love, his glory, so that what is earthly in us could be killed, what is evil in is could be purged out, and then we could come to life again.
So the crucified life is what we live until Christ comes again in glory. That’s why we say even in the Eucharist we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes, and we die with him. St. Paul even uses that expression: We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the power, the transcendent power, belongs to God and not to us. And then he said we bear in our body the death of Jesus, that the life of Jesus can be alive in you. So that we die that the other can live, and in that dying we ourselves get resurrected, like the New Adam did, like Christ did. He said: God, you said this is the way you want it done. Okay, here it is. Now you do something about it. And he does: he raises us from the dead. Every minute we can say that to God: I’m going to do it your way, but you have to do something about it—and he does.
As long as we think that we can or we will or we’ll figure it out and we’ll even use the grace of God as we see fit, forget it. It does not work. So the absolute continual dying to ourselves, that Christ could be formed in us, dying to our own mind so that we could have the mind of Christ, dying to our own will so that we can have the will of God, dying to our own thoughts so that we can have the thoughts of God… Einstein said on his deathbed, “I want to know the thoughts of God. Everything else is details.” But you can’t know the thoughts of God unless you’re ready to die to your own, unless you’re ready to give up your own. It doesn’t work otherwise. Dying even to our earthly life so that we can be raised again to eternity. Dying to our bodily needs and cravings so that we can be filled with what God gives. If we’re going to say yes to God, we have to say no to certain other things, and that’s what includes this daily dying, the participation in Christ’s crucifixion every moment of every day until he comes again in glory.
To the measure that that happens, we already live the risen life. The Fathers were very bold on this. They said we can live the risen life before the resurrection comes, on condition that we die before we die. St. John of the Cross even had a poem: dying that I do not die. He was sad that he didn’t die sufficiently, and that’s why he wasn’t resurrected sufficiently. So this dying before we die is what life is all about. You might even say Christian spirituality is teaching and helping people to die, so that they could live the life of Christ. So this is what the word of the cross ultimately is, and that’s why, in our weakness and in our folly, the wisdom and the power of God can act. So to the measure that that’s actually happening, to that measure we are already liberated from this world. To that measure the devil can’t touch us. To that measure we’re not affected by the things around us. We reach what the Fathers call apatheia, dispassion. That doesn’t mean contempt or insensibility; it means freedom. We are already free. We can be free. We’re not caught any more. We’re not enslaved any more. But to the measure that we have not died, to that measure we’re still enslaved, and that’s just how it works.
So let’s pray God that we really would believe all this, because I want to make this point clear, because so many people think that when you speak about the cross you’re speaking about morbidity, gloom, sadness, awful, yucky—That’s all I hear about: the cross; I want to hear about the resurrection!” Well, there ain’t no resurrection without the cross, but there is no joy without the cross either. I think we must stand on that, and we must bear witness to that, because people are making themselves miserable by bypassing the cross. If we would only take it up, then we have a chance for our misery to go away, and then we have a chance really to live the life of God which he created when he made us in his image and likeness as love.
Basically that’s it, and we can have about half an hour or so now to talk about some of these things. Yes?
Q1: I find some people seem to say the West stresses the cross and the East stresses the Incarnation, but you’ve got to have the resurrection as well as the crucifixion, and the crucifixion as well as the resurrection. So I see a contradiction. Do you think there really is a distinction?
Fr. Thomas: No. No, that was my whole point. There isn’t any. There’s a lot of stuff that professors of theology make up in libraries that don’t hold water. [Laughter] One of those is that the East is for transfiguration and glorification and the West is for crucifixion; that the East stresses the divinity, the West stresses the humanity and so on. I think that you go one millimeter into any Church tradition, and the authenticity of it, and you’ll find that it’s both there. They’re can be aberrations. I’ll just give you some examples of aberration. You could have Orthodox running around saying, “We’re for resurrection. We’re for transfiguration. And that means we should eat good meals everyday,” and all this kind of stuff. That’s an aberration. Then you could have other ones who say, “Oh, we have to suffer.” So then they start beating themselves with whips like was done in many Roman Catholic orders in recent centuries. God will provide the suffering. You don’t need to beat yourself up. [Laughter]
So that’s an aberration. Or you have people nowadays who insist on what God can do, God can do, unless you have feelings of God’s presence and unless he’s there blessing you and lets you have earthly blessings, they wouldn’t even think God is even in your life. That’s an aberration. So unless the people would also find God in their crosses and in the abandonment and so on, then they’re not really living the full, deep Christian life. “Name it and claim it” is an aberration.
So there are aberrations. Sure there are. But when you have the authentic life, what you realize, as according to St. John’s gospel, is it’s in the cross that Christ himself is glorified, not even humiliated but glorified, because his humiliation is a glorification. That’s the whole ironic point. John 13:31: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. For when he is lifted up”—it means on the cross—“he will draw all people to himself, for unless a kernel of wheat go into the ground and die, it remains alone, but when it dies it brings forth much fruit.”
How did it begin? “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” It doesn’t say, “Now is the Son of Man humiliated. Now is the Son of Man left in abject misery.” No, it says glorified, because his cross is his glory, and he even prays that way: “Give me the glory that I had with thee before the world was.” And that’s not peculiarly Eastern. St. Francis of Assisi said: “The most humble sublimity and the most sublime humility.” What he was saying is there’s that paradox, that you are not glorified unless you are humiliated in love, humble yourself in love, but that is not abject humiliation.
That’s why we stress so much in the Church that Jesus’ cross is voluntary. He gave himself up to the cross. He took the cross freely. Every dismissal of Holy Week, we say, “May he who is going to his voluntary passion and death…” because it wasn’t pushed upon him; he accepted it. When Pontius Pilate said to him, “I have the power to crucify you and the power to let you go,” Jesus said, “You have no power at all unless it come to you from God,” and then he said, “I could call 20 legions of angels and wipe out you and the whole Roman empire if I wanted to.” But he doesn’t act that way, because he’s not of this world, and that wouldn’t have done any good.
As Fr. Florovsky pointed out, the world is redeemed on Golgotha, not on Tabor. In Luke’s gospel it says specifically Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking together, and they were talking about, it says in the Revised Standard Version, “the departure that he was to make in Jerusalem.” In the original Greek it says, “the exodus,” and that’s a technical term. They were talking about the new Pascha and the new Exodus that was going to be made in Jerusalem, not from Egypt to Palestine but from earth to heaven, from death to life, from this world to God’s kingdom. That’s the new Pascha, but he only talked about it on Tabor; he accomplished it on Calvary, on Golgotha. No one can be saved by being transfigured by grace; you’re only saved by dying with Christ and rising with him. Every gift of God is given for that purpose, by the way.
Q2: Jesus once sent out his apostles and told them, “Do not take one dime in your purse.” So if you believe all these things about taking up your cross and sharing the good news of Christ, why don’t you immediately leave your present work and go out and do these things? How do you decide if that’s the proper decision at the proper time?
Fr. Thomas: Sure. I would say, to put it kind of a little bit bluntly, do the things I just mentioned and you’ll know. [Laughter] Because if you take the reality of your life as it is and try to see it and offer it to God and come to terms with it and do something about it, it means that you’re actually living, not some other reality and not even some fantasy reality.
Just I want to make a little bit of a correction there about what you said and then deal with the second part. When Jesus told the disciples, “Take neither scrip nor staff nor shoes nor one cloak,” or anything, that’s when he was sending them out for their earthly ministry to announce that the Messiah had come, to warn the towns that the Messiah was there. But before he was crucified, he said to them, “He who has no shoes, now let him get some. He who has a coat, get a cloak, too.” In other words, it’s going to be a long haul. He even said, “If you don’t have a sword, get one,” and Peter says, “We have two,” and he says, “That’s enough.” [Laughter] But the point being is you cannot… I think it’s a misuse of the Scripture to use that particular text as what was expected of the Christians after the resurrection and Pentecost.
Now, certainly it’s the case that some people can be called to, well… let’s put it another way. Everyone is called to one or another life, which means to take up the crosses that God actually gives to them. Of course, one of the great delusions of the devil is to make us want crosses other than our own: not to take the one that God gives us, but to want to have the one that the neighbor has. [Laughter] There’s even a story about that in one of the lives of saints, where the person had a vision or a dream or something where God took him in a room and showed him all these crosses. Of course, it’s symbolic of their life. And he said, “Okay, you wanted to choose? Choose whichever one you want.” Finally when he got the one he wanted, he said, “You sure that’s the one you want?” and he said, “Yeah.” Then God says, “But that’s the one you’ve always had.” [Laughter]
So in other words, we don’t know. Now, if you had asked the question: How do you know? How can you know? How can you know if you’re taking up the cross that God has given to you? And I think the simplest, easiest answer, which is impossible to do without God’s grace, is to live fully in the present moment where you are. Just try not to sin where you are. Bear the crosses that you have. You have a job? Do it to the glory of God. You work with other people? Love them; forgive their sins. Just consecrate the life that God actually gives you. To use the modern slang: Bloom where you’re planted. And then if God wants to move you, he will, but then it will be him and not you.
But the worst thing that you can do is to jump here, jump there, think this, think that, maybe this, maybe that, and then just the devil will play with you like a yo-yo. I always tell people that if I interview them for coming to the seminary. I say, “Unless you’re really convinced to come, don’t come.” But once they’re here and they want to leave, I say, “Unless you’re convinced to leave, stay.” Sometimes they even say, “Make up your mind.” [Laughter] Well, the point is you live where you are. You live where you are. You consecrate the actual realities of the life given to you, which is full of crosses, without any doubt, because there’s nowhere in this fallen world that they’re not going to be.
Do what you’re doing, as St. Benedict said to his monks, adje quod adjis, do what you’re doing, but do it to the glory of God. Now, if you cannot do what you’re doing to the glory of God, then you’re going to have to make a decision whether you ought to keep doing it or not. See, and that’s why a lot of people don’t really want to look at what they’re doing, and they want to block out certain aspects of what they’re doing, because they know that if they really look at them, they can’t do that, and that’s the problem, of course. That’s where delusion comes in.
So I think that the best way of doing God’s will is simply to say: What does God want me to do right now? The cross you have to bear right now is to listen to me, because I’m talking to you. [Laughter] The cross that I have to bear is to say something that’s not going to harm you and me both. There’s only at any given moment one thing to do: what that moment requires. We can’t do what yesterday required, and we can’t do what tonight or tomorrow requires; we can only do what is required now. That’s part of what I meant by the dying minute to minute. All we have to do is to say: Where am I now? Am I married to this person? Okay, stay married. Do your best. Don’t think about not doing it. Be faithful to it. If you’re not and you don’t know what to do, be faithful to that. Say the honest word.
I would even say don’t think too much. According to the Fathers, thinking is one of the great ways of not taking up one’s cross. [Laughter] You go back and analyze it, think about it, discuss it, and not do it! For the 49,000th time. Like Theophan the Recluse said, like a cow chewing its own cud. That’s why silence is so important, even interior silence, silencing the thoughts. Anastasios of Sinai in The Philokalia said every sin comes from thought. They torture us, those thoughts, and we have to just say, “Shut up! There’s only one thing for me to do now. Don’t torture me about the future of the seminary. I have a tough enough [time] getting through vigil tonight.” [Laughter] I might be dead anyway or the Lord might come or whatever. It’s counterproductive.
Now, this is not fatalism. It’s just the opposite of fatalism. It means being totally vigilant and awake to where we are: mindfulness, wakefulness to where we are. That’s the only thing that’s required [for] us. The problem is half the time we’re not where we are. Once someone said to my wife, “Your husband’s not home very much.” And she said, “And even when he’s home, he’s not home.” [Laughter] Three years ago, I would have thought that was a funny joke; now it sticks like a knife in my gut. [Laughter] It’s hard to be home when you’re home—but when we’re home we’re supposed to be home, totally, completely available to that dinner if we’re eating dinner.
Even the Buddhists discovered this. They asked the Buddhist wise man, “What is wisdom?” He said, “When you eat, eat; when you sleep, sleep.” [Laughter] And the guy said to him, “Anybody can do that.” He said, “Oh, no!” [Laughter] He said, “When I eat, I think a thousand thoughts, and when I sleep, I dream a thousand dreams.” Then there was a joke about once the Buddhist disciple came down and the Zen goshu was sitting there, and he was reading the paper while eating his breakfast, and he thought, “He said, ‘When you eat, eat,’ and there he is reading the paper!” So before he could say anything the elder Buddhist looked up and said to him, “And when you eat and read the paper, eat and read the paper.” [Laughter]
There will never be a time when we don’t have to say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive.” We’re not God. So, living in this world, we will fall. Therefore, I would say whenever we become closer to God, we know more even of our failings. That’s why a lot of people don’t even know they have failings: because they don’t know God. They don’t know how far off the track they are, because they don’t know the track. They don’t know how much they’re missing the mark. Amartia in Greek means to miss the mark; that’s what is usually translated in English “sin.” But you can’t know you’re missing the mark if you don’t know there’s a mark. So being more sensitive and conscious to the presence of truth and wisdom and God’s way gives us a greater sense of our sin.
Very often it can happen that if a person gets into church, they can, as time goes by, think even that things are getting worse. We should come to the church and be thrilled at first. Then it should all fall apart for us, because we have only a neophyte view; we have a childish view. God gives us a lot of consolations in the beginning. You go to church and it’s nice, the priest is nice, the icons, and the people are friendly and so on. But all that has to wear off, because all that is just superficial. You can’t live on that very long. The Lord will even sometimes give consolations, sometimes even miraculous consolations, like the healings and things like that, to get a person hooked, you see. [Laughter] And then you hear the bad news of the Good News: there’s a cross waiting for you.
So a lot of times consolations and comforts and insights and blessings of God, very palpable, they’re with us in the beginning of the spiritual life, but then, because we have to grow up to pure faith and pure hope and pure love and complete trust in God and bearing the burdens of the neighbor and overcoming the evil by our good and so on, that’s what has to happen in maturity. We have to give up childish things, as St. Paul said. Go from milk to meat. Grow up to the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ, which means being co-crucified, and when the heavens are silent and it seems that God is not there, and when nothing is working humanly right for you, but you still trust God can overcome evil by your goodness and doubt by your love, your faith, and so on, and hatred by your love. Well, this has to happen.
What happens is, when people get into it, God himself starts stripping away these consolations. He starts showing other things. Then when you get into it, you start seeing to the depth that you have to get into. Remember when we used to meet over in Long Island Pete. How many times did Pete used to say, “I wish I didn’t know that.” [Laughter] Because the deeper he got in, the more he knew and the more he was responsible, so to speak.
So I think that what happens here is that we can start feeling bad. Let’s say, for example, we could pray easily and all of a sudden we can’t pray any more. We go to the church and it’s not thrilling any more. It’s the same priest with the same dumb sermon I heard three times, the choir is still off, some guy is still wailing, they don’t take the crying kid out, all of a sudden the icons aren’t as pretty as they first looked and you say, “Bleh!” And if I hear one more “Lord, have mercy” I’ll just throw up in the middle of the church! [Laughter] Well, you’ve got to go through that. You have to grow through that. That’s part of growing up. That’s part of getting through the external consolations and getting into the real meat of it.
To use my expression of Sister Edith, that’s God stripping away the toys. When we’re kids, children, he gives us toys, then he takes the toys away, and he says, “Stand up.” Then sometimes when he’s holding us as a child he has to let us go, and we feel that we’re let go. Well, he’s got to let us go. He’s got to let us go. How can we stand and walk by ourselves if he doesn’t let us go? So then you have the sense of being let go, and you don’t like it. Then you can’t pray, you can’t do this, it’s empty and so on. Then you think it’s bad, because a person will come and say, “I used to be able to pray; I can’t pray any more. I used to love church, and it’s not loving any more. I used to feel so good in the presence of God, and now I don’t feel so good any more. I read the Bible; instead of being inspired, I get depressed,” and all this stuff. That’s good. It’s exactly what’s supposed to happen: you’re growing up. You’re getting into it.
This summer I went… We had a consultation with the black churches in New York City, and I was driving around in a van, because they were staying at the seminary here. People from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and they used our facilities. I was part of the consultation. They have this singing group, so I bought a tape of their singing. They have a song which I think is pertinent here. They have a song which says, “Take me back. Take me back to the place where I first believed.” So when I drive around the car and I play that song, I sing with it. Because I’m Orthodox, it has to be antiphon. [Laughter] So I antiphon with the song. When they say, “Take me back,” I sing, “You can’t go back.” There ain’t no going back. You can’t go back to the place you first believed; it doesn’t exist any more. You’re here now, and you’ve got to go ahead.
So if we’re longing for some kind of joyful, spiritual childhood when we’re in a honeymoon of spiritual life, I’ve got news for you: it ain’t going to come back. You’re either going to go forward or you ain’t going to go anywhere. There’s no sense of kind of mourning the lost childhood of our religious reverie. Thank God it’s over!—because now it’s getting serious. But I think too many of us want that kind of childlike, childish religion all our life, and that’s the problem. We don’t have it, and God’s trying to say: Listen, I’m trying to give you something else, better, deeper, wider, truer. Take it.
Well, of course, it’s a cross, but you’ve got to take it, and that’s the way. That’s why pure hope, pure faith, and pure love is totally without consolation, and they will always connect that to Christ on the cross, and say: that’s perfection. That is perfection. Even all the people Jesus healed, they all got sick and died again. That’s not the final word.
Best advice: Don’t think about it too much. Just say, “Okay, I see my sins. They’re worse than ever. But God is good.” And turn it over to God. Give it to him, and go about your business. That’s what real repentance is. Real repentance is change, and you cannot change unless you’re constantly dying and constantly being raised. God does not want remorse; he wants repentance. Remorse very often is getting stuck over our sins and thinking, “I’m so bad,” and all this stuff, and then what enters in is ungodly grief and not blessed grief, where I’m really sad, not because I sinned but because I sinned. I sinned!—well, what else is new?
I think that the more a person comes close to God, the more the sense of they sinned they have and the better off for it, because they’ve got to learn their weakness, they’ve got to learn their powerlessness, and that’s what God is trying to teach!