V. Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko: It would certainly be the teaching of our Church tradition, from the Bible and the lives of the saints and the whole Church tradition, that every person is created in the image and likeness of God and every person is unique. No two people are the same, though we share exactly the same human nature, but every one is a unique person, and every person has a unique calling from God. Every person has a work to accomplish in his or her earthly life. The task of life is to find out what that work is and to do it, to find out, first of all, who we are, to find out who I am, what I’m supposed to be, and then what I’m supposed to do according to who I am.
It would certainly be the teaching that this excludes no one—no one. It is not right to say that only clergy, or priests or deacons or monks, have a “religious vocation.” It’s interesting, by the way, that the word “religion” is not even in the Bible. In fact, there’s a sense in which religion is fallen man’s attempt to try to make sense out of reality, and that Christianity in that sense is the fulfillment and the end of all religions. And Christianity is not a religion.
So there isn’t such a thing as a religious vocation and a not-religious vocation. Some people are called to work within the Church. It is the vocation of some people to be priests, to be theology teachers, to be monastic people—monks or nuns. But we must not think that it is only these people who have some type of “religious vocation.” Everyone has a calling from God—everyone. Everyone’s calling is unique.
We speak a lot today about choices: what do you choose to do. I think from that point of view we have to make a little comment. Certainly we have choices. Certainly we are free. Our choices are not boundless, because we’re creatures. I did not choose to be born in a certain place, at a certain time, within a certain Church tradition, within a certain nationality, being a certain sex, and so on, with certain wounds to my life that I have to inherit by being born in this world—I did not choose that. But where I do have certain choices—freedom, better to say, certain freedom—is what I do about it. Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say that the whole meaning of life, spiritual life, life itself, is how do you deal with what you’ve been dealt; how do you use what God has given you.
So there are certain choices, but if you take it really to the end and put it in strictly Christian terms, there aren’t choices at all. If you pray every day, “Thy will be done,” if you really say to God, “You show me who I am and what you want to do,” there’s a sense in which all choice is reduced to that one choice, to say yes to God, and not to have 14 things in front of you and to say, “What do I decide to do?” No, you ask the question: What does God want me to do? What is God calling me to do with what he has given me, with what I have? It’s certainly the teaching of Jesus that there is no justice in this world when it comes to that.
You know the parable of the talents? Some have one, three, five, whatever. Jesus said that we’ll be judged only according to what we have received and what we have done with it, which is very different. And Jesus also teaches very clearly, St. Luke’s gospel, 14th chapter, I believe it is, in which he said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” And to whom people give much, they expect the more.
We like to joke here at the seminary or put it in a joking way: The final accounting is not on a curve. [Laughter] The Last Judgment is not on a curve. God does not compare us to the other person and say: You did better or worse. Before God, we are absolutely identical. That’s why everyone can even pray: God came to save the sinners, of whom I am the first. Not because I’m the first and Peter’s the second and [Paul’s] the third and Al is the fourth, but because every one of us in the uniqueness related to Christ is the first, because we’re not judged by comparison. There’s no comparison.
Everybody has a vocation. Everyone has to find out what that is. And the vocations depend upon a lot of things, a lot of things that we believe are provided by divine providence, positive things and things that we would consider to be negative things. But from the Christian perspective, there’s no such thing as a negative thing. Let’s just use the most powerful example that we could find. There are some people whose vocation it is to suffer in this life. There are some people whose vocation it is to be sickly. There are some people whose vocation it is to be cared for primarily by others and to show their care to others by how they show themselves to be cared for. Probably that’s one of the hardest vocations going, especially in America, where we’re all supposed to be doing, active, so and so. If we think that we can’t or we don’t, something’s wrong with us or we don’t have any vocation. That’s not true; that’s not true at all, not at all. Probably the most difficult vocation is the vocation to be victimized by the sin of the world and to suffer with Christ as the victim of the sin of the world and in order to consecrate that and offer that to God. That’s a work that only a few perhaps are strong enough to take.
In any case, everyone has a vocation. The majority of vocations are not within the Church, as I said this morning. Some of us are called to work strictly within the Church, to be clergy. The task of the clergy, as I said this morning, is for the well-being of the Church, for the very being of the Church—the Church is what it is in the way Christ himself has fashioned it—for the sake of being the presence in this world of God’s kingdom, of the resurrected life, of eternal life, in the glorified Christ, through the Holy Spirit already in the world.
Those who have vocations to clerical life or to clergy life—to be bishops or priests, deacons… And in the early Church there were deaconesses; there’s a big talk now about reestablishing that; in the early Church there was an order of widow, there was an order of virgin, that were consecrated positions in the Church. These positions were for the edification of the Church, the well-being of the Church, the ongoing life of the Church, the maintenance of the life of the Church. Canonically, the people who have these vocations are forbidden certain secular employment; they are not allowed to have certain jobs in everyday life. For example, they are not allowed to be a politician; you’re not allowed to be a businessman; you’re not allowed to be in military; you’re not allowed to be in law. You’re not allowed to be in anything where there can be an ambiguity relative to party spirit and so on. You cannot be in a position where you’re buying and selling, certainly not at interest. This is forbidden by the canonical law.
Some of our priests and deacons and so on have to have employment other than Church employment, and the only employment that would be blessable would be manual labor, healing, arts, teaching, things like that where there is not built-in this compromise with the fallen world that is very often built in of necessity to other vocations in the world.
Our task today, however, more, and certainly this afternoon, is to speak more, though, about the people who are not called to the clergy. But the clergy have to know that their task—and since I am one, our task—is the task of enabling, empowering, inspiring, guiding, protecting, comforting the people of God, God’s people, in their everyday life and work. I think one of the things that we always have to talk about more and more, and certainly in the seminary here and in our churches, is: How does the life of the Church relate to the life of the people outside? How is the preaching, the teaching, the prayer, the sacramental activity… Can people understand, is it clear to them how all of this truth of God is to be actualized in their actual, daily living? because that’s what all this is for. This is what all this exists for.
Now, if we look now, quickly, at the great majority of God’s people, who would not be called to monastic life or ordained service within the Church, we could ask the question: How do we understand their work? How would we understand the work of what we call today—perhaps sadly—lay people? I say sadly, because in the early Church everyone was belonging to the laity. There wasn’t this idea: clergy and laity, as if they were two different strands. There was the life of the Church, everyone in it having his or her calling for the edification of the Church and for the activity of the salvation of the world. The clergy were primarily, and in a certain sense almost exclusively acting within the body in order to enable, empower, inspire, instruct the people in their day-to-day life.
The first reflection that we can make has to do simply with the person’s own spiritual personal life. I mean, before we get to a person’s vocation or calling or job or task, we have simply to look at the person’s life as a baptized, sealed, chrismated member of the Church, a person who has become a member of Christ. So that the first work of the person is the interior work of his or her own life, to find the will of God for my own life. That particular work everyone has to be engaged in. It is the work of prayer. It is the work of participating in the worship of the Church, which is the common work of all Christians. And the liturgy is the common work of all Christians; it’s not something that the clergy do that the people attend.
I’ve been in churches sometimes where I have the feeling that we up front were putting on a show and the only thing that was missing was the popcorn. [Laughter] People came in, they sat on soft seats, we had ushers with flowers, they showed them their program, and then they sat back and kind of watched the Byzantine drama of the Divine Liturgy or something. That is not our view. It’s the work of everybody involved. You come to church, you stand on your feet, you pay attention, you sing the song. Somebody says, “Peace to you,” and you say, “And to you, too!” You don’t look out the window. You say a prayer; you say, “Amen.” You see somebody’s reading; you listen. And that is hard work.
At the beginning it can be fun, and usually the Lord makes it fun in the beginning. You come in and it’s nice. You see the icons, and it’s pretty; you like the priest. But that’s not supposed to last. It’s only supposed to last—St. John Climacus said—long enough to get you hooked. And then when you’re hooked, God shows you what you’re really there for. And then you see what that word means to me, what it means to my life, what it means to my job, what it means to my decision, what it means to who I am as a person. And to stand in church and to listen to those psalms and those hymns and those prayers, that’s a work of a Christian, and that’s an obligatory work of every baptized person. People say, “Why do I have to go to church?” Because that’s the work that you have to perform.
You go to church to work. You don’t go to church to be titillated, entertained. It’s not food for thought. It’s not rest and relaxation. As I said this morning, it’s not a trip into some escaping world of childhood where it’s all pretty and nice; it’s hard work: to come to church, to stand there, to pay attention, to listen, to bring it in. And the word of God is like a two-edged sword: it cuts to the bones and the marrows, the heart. It gets inside there, and it hits all those painful places, and all those questions come.
St. Isaac of Syria said if you’re going to do this work—and this is the work of all Christians, of all people, not just the clergy—you’ve got to be ready to stand the stench, the garbage that’s in you that’s going to come up, that you’re going to have to see, all those demons in there and all those places that God has to heal. That is part of the work of every person, and every baptized person is involved in that particular work. That work goes on not only in the church; it goes on all day long every day of the week: to remember God, not to forget God, to commune with God, to live in touch with God, wherever you are: on an airplane, in the office, in a conference, in a meeting, at family, at home, with your children.
St. Benedict said that the work of a Christian is always—in three Latin words—age quod agis; you do what you’re doing, and you do it to the glory of God, and whatever you do, you do to the glory of God. But in order to be able to do everything to the glory of God, you have to have times where you only pay attention to the glory of God. See, there’s a saying: you can’t pray ceaselessly unless you pray regularly. You can’t remember God all of the time unless you have certain times that you give aside just to remembering God. Every Christian should have a rule of life, a rule of prayer that they keep during the week to remember God. That would mean intercessory prayer, that would mean reading, that would mean quiet—and those things are not luxuries; those are works that if a person does not do them, they cannot consecrate the life that God has given them. It’s impossible. And that includes even being quiet.
One great Roman Catholic writer, St. Francis de Sales, Frances of Sales, he said in one of his writings: Every person who’s trying to live a godly life should have at least one half-hour a day that they spend in total silence before the face of God. At least one half-hour a day. He said unless they are particularly busy and have really important things to do—in that case, they have to spend a whole hour. [Laughter] Because their work is too important.
I read tapes, like Psychology of Success and all of that. One friend of mine, a nun, gave me one of these for Christmas, just for fun. You know that business people are told that if they don’t do that, they’re not going to become rich? Well, anyway… [Laughter] There has to be this quiet, there has to be this attention, and the first work is the work of repentance in one’s own life. That’s hard work, and everyone’s called to that work.
Then you have the work that would be in your home. See, there’s the vocation: is one going to be married or not married? Is it God’s will or not? How does one deal with one’s relationships with one’s family, with people that you have to deal with? How do you deal with your own personal world that you live in? We all have our own world, and to consecrate that world, St. John Chrysostom said to make that world mikra ekklesia, a little church, where God is glorified, where God’s will is done, where God’s word is present, where the Holy Spirit is active. We have to create that community where we live, and each one of us has to find the way to do that.
So then there are vocations of being a husband or a wife or a child or a parent or a cousin, or one of the hardest vocations going today is the single person in the world, the single person who is not living in a Christian community or a monastery and has to live every day in the fallen, secular world. That person has to have a community somehow. We must find ways in our church that there would be someone that we could be faithful to, accountable to, answerable to, someone who is responsible and involved in our life. You cannot live the Christian life alone. The only thing you can do alone is go to hell. [Laughter] There’s even a saying in our Church: Those who go to hell go to hell alone; those who go to heaven go to heaven with the other people who are helping them and they are helping to get there together. So we need one another, and we have to find how that would work and work it, work it in a way so that there will be the actual work done in a Christian home which is, again, hard work. It doesn’t just happen. It’s something that you work at.
Then there will be work within the Church. You see, there will be work within the Church community. This morning, I was a little bit—how can you say?—critical of this development of our time of lay ministry. Now I’m critical of it because I think it feeds into a certain secularistic point of view, that if a person goes once a week and works on the church board or goes to vespers and lights the candles, well, that’s their church work; then the rest of it is not church work. Or if someone gets involved in a visitation of the sick program through the parish: that’s their church work. I’m even tempted to say—God forgive me—that in some churches, reading the numbers at the bingo is “church work,” or tending bar in the church club is “church work,” because it’s for the church. You’ll even have people who say they can’t go to church services much because they’re doing other things for the church, which is in fact activities around the church.
Now, there is positively—here’s the positive point—such a thing as the ministry of lay people within the Church. The Church is not the clergy. There have to be church councils, there have to be church boards, there have to be foundations, there have to be societies for visiting the sick people, because the work has to get organized. There has to be schools for children in the Church, there has to be activities that the church run that not only need not, but in most cases it is better not to be done by the priests or by the deacons. So one of the problems that we do have is that in many of our churches people will not accept ministry unless the person is a priest or a deacon. If they’re in the hospital, they want to see the guy with the collar; they don’t want to see some lady with her prayerbook or something.
That’s something I think that we have to change a little bit, because the priest certainly should be there, he should know his flock, but realistically speaking, even in the early Church, the widows and the virgins and the deacons and the women deaconesses, they were visiting the sick people, they were saying the prayer, they were laying on the hands. It wasn’t all done by the bishop or the presbyters. It was done in the community. So there is work to be done in and for the Church that lay people have to do. That vocation is as much a Church vocation as being the priest and serving the liturgy. There’s a lot of vocations like that: musical vocations, artistic vocations, administrative vocations, healing vocations, charismatic vocations: prophetic people who know how to counsel, who know how to help other people. There’s a sense in which, in many of our churches, the priest thinks it’s his job to do everything. So you do everything, and everything not well at all.
But the priest’s job is primarily to be the epi-skopos, to look over, to supervise, to see that things get done, not to do everything. But to see that what needs doing gets done by the people of God for the… Well, St. Paul in Corinthians, he said for three things: for exhortation, edification, and consolation of the faithful: oikodome, paraklesis, and I forgot the other one. In Russian it’s nice: nazidaniya, obodreniya, i utesheniya; for the consolation, the edification, and the exhortation of the faithful. That’s what the prophetic ministry is. And that’s a charism: that doesn’t belong to the clergy; it belongs to whomever God gives it to, and God gives these gifts to people in the Church in different ways to exercise for the upbuilding of the Church. That is Christian work, and we have to foster, nurture, cultivate, open up that particular area of Church life.
But the most important point is the next one, and that is: What about the job itself? What about the things we do every day, eight hours, ten hours, twelve hours a day? What about the work that we go to when we get up on Monday morning, after the Lord’s day is past and we have to go back to work? Going to work: we have jobs. What can we say about that? What we must say is that, for the great majority of believers in God, is where the real work is being done. That’s at least equally important—and I’m tempted to say even more important—than certain of the other things that we do. Now, nothing here is more or less important, but if you just look at it from the point of view of the amount of time given to it, the amount of energy, the amount of responsibility, the interaction with people, the decisions that are made that affect human life—where you invest your money, how you use it, what you do with your time, how you treat the people you work with. If you’re a person who has a leadership position, how do you treat the people that you have to care for? If you’re dealing with the public—I don’t know, children in school or patients in a hospital or customers in a store—my mom ran a store—how do you deal with those people? What do you do and how does that relate to the kingdom of God?
Here I think that there are three things, at least for the sake of our reflection today, that are absolutely essential to our understanding of things as Christians. The first is that that is an arena for God’s work. You must not exclude that from your so-called spiritual religious life. God is there. God has to be there. Your main work—and I can say “you” now because I’m talking to lay people, of which I am not one—your work is to bring God with you there, to be kind of [what] they call theophoroi, to bear God, to bring the presence of God to where you are, and to bring the presence of God to bear upon what you’re doing.
How is that done? That’s done, I think, as I said, in three ways. First of all, we can say—we have to say—that simply our behavior—our behavior: how we act, how we look, how we speak, how we move, how we talk—that’s all showing, you see, something of the kingdom of heaven: how we treat people. Here we would speak about what we would simply call the virtues. We try to bring the Christian virtues, the powers of God, the energies of God, to our work. In other words, we try to be loving people, kind people, honest, just, merciful, compassionate, generous, philanthropic. In other words, just our comportment, our behavior, is to act in—well, we know what we mean—a Christian way: act according to the teaching of Christ. We don’t lie, we don’t cheat, we’re not unfair, we don’t intimidate, we don’t embarrass.
I mentioned St. Sergius this morning, but one of the amazing things about St. Sergius, who was a leader, ultimately, of huge numbers of monasteries—16 of his disciples are canonized saints; can you imagine?—well, this man, one of the things also said in his Life by Epiphanios, was he never made a person blush. In other words, he never publicly shamed or embarrassed anybody. Can you imagine being an abbot of hundreds of monks and never publicly embarrassing anybody? In fact, if he had to correct somebody, he went in the night, knocked on the door. They would say the usual formulas they had. They would say whatever: Glory to God, or something like that, and they’d say, “Who is it?” And he’d say, “The abbot,” and they’d say, “What is it?” He’d say, “You know,” and leave. And they knew! [Laughter]
So the first thing, which we don’t have time to belabor and perhaps don’t need to belabor today, is simply the personal behavior, but even what we would call professional behavior today. I hate that word “professional,” by the way. I think it covers a multitude of sins. “Be professional about it.” But there is a sense, and not professional but simply dignity, kindness, respect for people, infinite respect for the other human being as a creature made and loved by God. See, that has to be brought and has to be brought into the marketplace. It’s got to be brought into the school. It’s got to be brought into the bank. It’s got to be brought into wherever we are. That’s what we’re bearing; that’s what we’re supposed to bring. We don’t even have to say anything. We don’t have to go around with “Jesus loves me” on my lapel and three crosses and an icon on my back. Don’t need to do that. As a matter of fact, when people do that and do not do this, we’re in big trouble.
However—and this would be point number two—there is what could be called the overt witness, where you actually name the name, where you don’t advertise or crusade or intimidate people or browbeat anybody, but where it’s very clear—and it’s delicate how this is actually done—but it’s very clear that you are a Christian: that you are a Christian, that you believe in God, that you belong to God, that your decisions are made in that way—and that we would be willing to make some kind of overt witness to that, that we would not be ashamed of if we could possibly do so.
That, in the modern American society, becomes a very difficult issue, and we must pray to God really for real discernment about how to do that. I know people who teach in public school systems: they’re not allowed to wear a cross, for example. They’re just not allowed. It’s just like in the old Soviet Union; they’re just not allowed publicly to go into a classroom with a cross on—things like that. Certainly you can’t be preaching the Gospel in a public school or to everyone who comes into the bank, you say, “Do you accept Jesus as your Savior?” or something. I mean, obviously you can’t do that, and it’s not appropriate to do that, as a matter of fact. Probably that’s why a lot of people don’t want to be Christians, because other Christians are acting that way without much to show themselves, and simply turn people off.
I once made a scandal at a meeting about evangelism where I said, “We must evangelize much more and therefore be much less interested in converting people.” They said, “What do you mean by that?” I said: Evangelism means that you pronounce, by word if you can, but certainly by activity, by demeanor, by comportment, that Christ is risen from the dead, that there is eternal life, that we are made in God’s image, and that we can be loving, kind, compassionate, gentle, just people. And if somebody asks us, we can name the name; we can say, “Yes, I believe in Christ. Yes, I go to church.” If it’s possible, we could even show it in some way, if it’s within our own means. It’s possible.
But at the same time, conversion and what happens to that person, that’s up to God. St. Innocent, our greatest missionary, said, “God converts people, not missionaries.” Missionaries only bear witness; they testify. And they’d better have something to bear witness to, and not just empty words. Jesus said, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws him, and no one comes to the Father except by me.” So our task is to be available people who would bring the presence of Christ.
Now there are, certainly, places where people in their job can have this kind of overt witness. For example, I know people who own their own business who will have their offices blessed by the priest, may have an icon on the wall. I just talked at lunch with a fellow whose children gave him a present, saying, “Daddy, this diptych is for your desk at work.” So could he put that icon at his desk at work? Well, some places you can; some places you can’t or it wouldn’t be very helpful, but at some places you can, or you can go into some, I don’t know—I’ve been into some Orthodox dentists’ offices where you might see an icon on the wall; you might see some literature on the table; there might be some possibility of external witness. You have that now, such things as wearing a cross or something in your lapel or how you dress, or nowadays you even have to mention t-shirts, although I still can’t stomach that—it shows how old I am. To see the Rublev Trinity on a t-shirt is totally out of the case for me. You want to go up and kiss the guy’s chest, you know? [Laughter]
I really think there is a kind of desecration. It’s not a really great witness to God to have the Theotokos on your salt shaker to salt your mashed potatoes with. There’s a place for that, you see? I must even honestly say at the seminary I have troubles with putting icons on the covers of our publications even, because who knows where those books go. A person like my dear departed mother, it caused her no [end] of trouble, because she just couldn’t throw those things in garbage, so she’d cut them out and put them in a bag and burn them and put them in the garbage, and she was highly incensed that the church mail would come with a picture of the Virgin Mary on the envelope that fell in the snow and a dog came—ooh! But anyway, that’s another issue for another time.
But there is a sense in which an external expression of our faith—for example, saying a prayer in a restaurant, not standing up and making everybody be quiet—[Laughter]—but you’re there, you say a prayer, unobtrusively, naturally. There is that kind of witness that should be made when it’s possible in a normal setting. So we have our behavior, and then we have what could be external witness, signs that we would show or people would ask us.
The holy Fathers say you should never give advice to anybody unless they ask you, because if you start giving everybody free advice, you could be pushing them deeper in a hole, they’re not ready for it—but when they ask you, you should be ready to give an account of the hope that’s in you. But St. Peter says in the Bible even: but you do it with gentleness. You do it with gentleness. And here we must say very, very clearly that any polemics, any argumentation, any competition, any intention to win cannot be considered Christian, cannot be blessed by God. We’re not out there in a fight with people. The only person we’re in a fight with is the devil, and evil, but not with other people. Other people, you see, are to be treated very, very kindly. In 1 Peter it says: “Always be prepared to make a defense”—and in Greek that would be apologia, to defend; not to defend in a fighting way, but an answer, like we pray at the lity, kai nyn apologian, a good answer at the dread judgment—“so give an answer to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” So we first have to see the hope that is in us; then they can ask us about it.
Yet do it with gentleness and reverence, and keep your conscience clear, so that when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame, for it is better to suffer for doing right if that should be God’s will than for doing wrong.
So gentleness—gentle and reverent: this is how we do it.
Still we’ve got to get to what I consider the most important today, because I think it’s the less understood: What about the work itself? Suppose you go to work, and you’re trying to be kind and loving and honest and compassionate and careful and respectful; you’re trying to bear witness in any way you can which is fitting for the occasion, for the setting where you are. If it’s within your power, you put a little icon on the wall or whatever. You take a day off to go to church on Holy Friday or something; that’s a certain kind of public witness that a person could make—things like that.
But what about the work itself? Suppose a person is a dentist: what about the actual dentistry, the actual function of taking care of someone’s teeth? Suppose a person is a teacher: what about the actual teaching? I’m not talking about teaching church school; I’m teaching, I don’t know, computer science somewhere. Suppose a person is an artist or a musician or a scientist or a research person, or suppose a person is working with the earth or with the animals or with God’s multiple creation; suppose a person is in business: they’re in business, they’re making a product, they’re selling it, they’re buying and selling—what about that activity itself?
Now there are some folks who would say in and of itself that doesn’t matter at all, as long as what you’re doing is good, not bad. I once dealt with a person who allegedly was making porno movies. If that’s your job, you have to stop. [Laughter] If that’s your job, you have to stop. If your job is—I don’t know what—selling crack on the New York street: you have to stop. I mean, there are certain jobs you cannot do. But even the good jobs, some people will say, it has nothing to do with the kingdom of God; it has nothing to do with salvation. As long as I’m a kind person, a pleasant person, a Christian person, I’m not lying, not cheating, and as long as I’m witnessing to the measure that I can—if I’m a dentist, I put an icon up; if I’m really Orthodox I have a lampatha; if I’m really Orthodox I have olive oil in it [Laughter] so I’m really bearing witness there; whatever, you see, and I have literature around—and I won’t grade it with Orthodoxy what literature we have around—but what about the activity itself? What about the dentistry itself?
Here I would like to say that there’s a very important theological point here, because some people would say that doesn’t matter. That’s just a job; that’s just a task. The conveying of the information or the use of the computer or the actual production of the crown or the root canal, or the production of this particular musical piece or this particular painting or this particular care for these particular animals or these particular plants or something—it doesn’t have any meaning because it’s passing away anyway. Isn’t this world all passing away? Doesn’t it all die? I mean, isn’t the kingdom of God just our soul being saved through our gracious behavior? So of course you should have a job, of course, but the job itself doesn’t mean anything, especially since it says in the Bible it’s all toil, it’s all futile, it’s all drudgery, it’s all going away.
Well, here’s my theological point for the afternoon. I am convinced personally that the resurrection of Christ, Christ’s descent into Sheol to raise all the dead, that he has come to save the world, but there’s got to be something to save. Jesus said that he has come that nothing good would be lost. So we have a confidence, because we believe in the resurrection, that the kingdom of God is not just the spiritual reality of our souls. That’s even a condemned heresy in Orthodoxy. You have the resurrection of the body. You have the re-creation of the cosmos. You have the hundred million galaxies with the hundred thousand million stars, all being filled with the divine energy, becoming the very body of Christ when Christ comes in his parousia. Everything will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Everything will become a whole holy Eucharist. There’s no need for priests—thank God!—and archimandrites and bishops, in the kingdom of heaven: the Great High Priest will be there. Everything will be a eucharistic sacrifice and everything will be in Christ, raised, and everything will be filled with the glory of God, and we all will be there.
But the Scripture says that every nation will bring its treasure before God on that day, and they will offer to God what they have done. They will offer to God what they have accomplished. If Mozart didn’t write this song, Christ couldn’t save that song; there would be no song to save. Now, we don’t know how God saves Mozart’s whatever—Eine Kleine Nachtmusik—but we believe that if it is a good, beautiful creation—and it can only be so if God’s presence, power, and beauty are in it—then somehow or other, that’s saved for everlasting life. And therefore it becomes already now in this world a sign of the kingdom to come.
So we believe. Jesus said if you even give a person a cup of cold water, it’s not lost in the kingdom of God. Suppose you build the Twin Towers? You could say, well, the Twin Towers are going to crumble. If some terrorist doesn’t blow it up, it’s going to blow up or fall down anyway sooner or later. Okay, the Twin Towers may fall down sooner or later, but the Twin Towers as a creation of a human being, as an activity of care, of love, of intelligence, of form, of use for good—we Christians believe it is somehow saved in the kingdom of God for everlasting life. We don’t know how, but we believe that it is. We do not believe that it is futile to build a building, even if it passes away, because somehow that building is saved in Christ. It is not futile to arrange a garden with beautiful flowers. Humanly, the flowers all wilt and pass away, but God saves all the flowers. Therefore, if we consider new kinds of flowers with new kinds of biogenetical engineering, they can also be saved in the kingdom of heaven.
So what we actually do is critically important, and I think that every one of us has to see our work as a task that is foreshadowing or anticipating or bearing witness to or incarnating something of God himself, because we believe that everything that’s possible to be shaped and fashioned in the creaturely order already exists somehow in the divine manner in the divine Being that we can’t even imagine. But there cannot be anything in creation—the Fathers speak about this in very technical terms; I could do it for you, but I won’t now—but in God there are all these logoi or such that are divine expressions, that are then re-created in creation through us. So every act is kind of a theurgical act. It’s an act of bringing the divine creativity, beauty, elegance, glory, wisdom, shape to a certain reality. If you invent a device to measure the temperature of gas in a process of refinement, that’s something that anticipates something that’s beautiful from God: the power, the ability to check, to use, to refine that gas, to use a car, to make a life. It’s something of God. It’s not just something passes away, it might as well be a cracker-jack. No! No.
I think it’s very, very important that what we do we believe has eternal meaning. The class that I teach never existed before, will never exist again, is uniquely on that day, God saw it from all eternity, and whatever has been actualized in a beautiful, good, lovely fashion in that class—not just if I’m a nice guy and the students are friendly and we all say our prayer and hang an icon in the corner—but the actual class, the actual teaching, the actual content, that is saved in the kingdom of God. Therefore, I will answer before God, not only if I’m a nice guy, not only if I’m friendly to the students, not only if I don’t embarrass them and shame them, not only if I put an icon in the corner with a lampatha in front of it, but I will be asked by God: How did I teach the class? How did I prepare my lecture? Did I work on it or did I not care?
The Prophet Jeremiah says, “Cursed are they who do the work of God negligently.” If you mow the lawn, you have to care how you are mowing the lawn. If you’re building a house, you have to care how you are building the house. Now, you can say, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” That’s true, and the holy Fathers say if you talk only to talk, you’re pronouncing your judgment. If you write only to write, you’re weaving your shroud. If you build only to build, you’re building your tomb. But still, you have to speak, you have to write, and you have to build.
But if you’re doing that to the Lord of God, by the inspiration of God, that is not lost. That is saved; that is not futile. To do it is not toilsome drudgery; it’s an act of glorifying God. I think that we must regain that approach to our life, that what we do, actually the work itself, not just the work around it, but the work itself can be an act I’m almost tempted to say like the Divine Liturgy—where you prepare it, you break the bread, you pour the wine, you offer it, you invoke the Holy Spirit, and it becomes a mode of divine presence; it becomes a mode of holy communion to people, that technical device, that particular business transaction, that particular artistic work—the hand of God is in it. Otherwise, what is it? But God loved this world. He loved all these realities. He gave us this power, not that it would just disappear and go down the tubes, but that it would somehow be saved in the kingdom of God, and that’s what salvation means.
I’d like to finish this with two stories. You know I like to tell stories. Two stories. One is fictional, rooted in reality. Actually, three stories. [Laughter] One story is a story of—I think the writer is Bunin, a Russian writer; I’m not sure, though. But this is the story. The story is that there was a sailor, a Russian sailor who was dying, and the priest comes to give him his final anointing and holy Communion and confession. The priest says to the sailor, “You know, your life is coming to an end and you’re going to stand before the Lord. What are you going to say?” In the story, the sailor says, “Oh! I’m going to tell him I was a good sailor.” The priest looks at him and says, “You’re going to tell him you were a good sailor? Did you go to church? Did you say your prayer? Did you make your confession? Did you go to communion? And you’re going to tell him you were a good sailor?” And the sailor says, “Yeah, I’m going to tell him that. My brass was always shining. When I was on watch, I didn’t fall asleep. And I was never drunk when I had to work on the ship.”
In the story—the reason the story is written is because the priest is somehow scandalized. You see, he can’t think that being a good sailor has anything to do with Christ’s account of this man’s life, so he speaks to him about pietistic things: Did you say your prayer every night? Did you put your icon up—with olive oil? [Laughter] Did you keep the fasts? Whatever: keep the fasts, put up the icon, so on. But the point of the story, it seems to me, is that all of that, it’s very good to do, and even in the story the sailor somehow said, “Yeah, I believe in God and I said my prayer” and so on, but he realized that that wasn’t the end in itself, because if that did not produce him being a good sailor, what was it for? It’s an interesting story, you see, of two worlds going by.
Another story comes from my own life when I was a pastor in Ohio. A man came to me one day, a very good man, who was actually the warden of the church. He was on the parish council. He was the kind of fellow… I’ll just give you an indication of the kind of fellow this guy was. One night I got called to take Communion to someone in the hospital; it was about four o’clock in the morning. So I had to go to the church to get the Communion; the Communion is kept in the church. I lived about half a mile away. I come to the church, and there’s lights on in the church. Four o’clock in the morning, there’s lights on in the church. What’s going on in there? It was locked, but I went in, and I found this man and his wife cleaning the floor of the church. They said, “Father, what are you doing here!?” I said, “To take Communion to somebody.” They didn’t want to be discovered, you see. They felt it needed polishing and waxing, and people were walking, so they went there in the middle of the night to take care of this.
But anyway, this fellow came to me one day, and he said, “Father, I have a big problem. In work, they want to give me a promotion, and they want to make me a kind of a foreman.” He worked in an electrical factory, actually it was called Packard Electric. He said, “I don’t know if I should take it or not. I don’t know if that’s for me. It’s a promotion, it’s this and that, people will have to deal with it. I don’t know if I should or not. What do you think I should do?” I said, “I don’t know what you should do. Pray and see what you think and so on, maybe give it a try.” Well, to make a long story short, he tried it; he gave it a try. Then he came back and said, “Father, I don’t think this is for me. I think I’m going to tell them that I don’t want this job.” This is what he said to me.
So I said, “What do you do? What have you been doing?” He said, “I drill holes. There’s a little piece of metal, and I drilled holes in this metal.” Then he said to me, “You know, I really drill great holes.” [Laughter] He said, “You know, these young guys, these union and everything, they don’t care about the holes. They don’t care if the radio works or not. They put that wire around there, and half of them you have to throw out. Me and Adolph, we’re correcting it for these guys, you know. They ruin money and then they have to defend it. It’s terrible! But you know, I make really good holes. My holes, they’re accurate; they fit right in there. I think someone else could be the foreman. I’m going to stay in my job.” And I said, “God bless you.”
He was drilling those holes to the glory of God. It wasn’t just that he was a nice guy. He drilled good holes. I think our theology would say that means something. That’s not negligible, whether those holes are straight or not. Who cares about the radio anyway? No. In drilling that hole, he might have been Bach—I don’t know what, making the whatever, things that we think of, marvelous achievements. But every day, quietly, humbly, when he wasn’t waxing the floor in the middle of the night, he was drilling holes at Packard Electric, and he did that his whole life. I personally believe that he will go to heaven for that, and the holes will somehow be in heaven, too. [Laughter] They’re not going to be lost, you see.
The one last story is a story of Turgenev, about a young girl in a village; it’s called “Living Relics,” where a hunter is going to hunt, and he goes in from the rain into a little cottage. It’s dark in there, and then all of a sudden he hears a voice, and the voice says, “Master!” And he sees, lying in the corner of this little hut, a human figure. He goes and looks, and this figure says to him, “Don’t you recognize me?” And then she says, “I’m Lukeria.” That was her name, Lukeria. He said, “Oh my God, Lukeria.” And then he thinks Lukeria was the most beautiful young girl in the village, who used to lead the singing and the dancing and so on, and she’s lying here in this cottage. It’s even described that her face looked like an icon. It was dark, and her features were pointed, and it was kind of shiny where the light was coming through.
Then she tells how she fell down and got injured and came to this state, and the fellow she was supposed to marry, Vassily or something, married somebody else, and he has four beautiful children. She’s been lying there, and when she’s been lying there she’s taught herself not to think, but she says the prayers every day by heart and she says the prayer she says—the paraklesis—and then the priest comes and gives her Communion and tells her she has no sins because she’s suffering, and she says, “Oh, I have plenty of sins. You can sin with your mind, too.” Then she talks about the rabbits coming in and she talks about hearing them. Then she talks about her parents. Then she tells what she dreamt about Christ. Then the whole story ends; finally, she dies, obviously. It’s the end of the story.
Well, she had her work to do, too. From the Christian perspective, that was her work. That was her work. That everybody has a vocation; everybody has work. What she achieved there, talking to that man, caring for the little girl who would come in and give her flowers, the pilgrim ladies who would come by and give her something to drink, the priest who would come and she would straighten him out [Laughter]—that was her ministry; that was her work. Probably such a person really existed, because I don’t think Turgenev could ever have invented anything like that, so he probably took it somehow. But I would recommend that you read that story. Zhivyye moschchi, it’s called in Russian, “Living Relics.” How a person like that can have also the work of God to perform, and find that work and do it.
So we all are doing it, but we’re doing it in the day-to-day basis of our actual life, and the Church exists for that. If the Church is an end in itself, then it is not what God wants it to be.
This paradox about work and rest, it was pointed out very clearly, which I didn’t do, that when Jesus Christ rests from all his work, lying dead in the tomb, that is his main work, because it’s exactly in resting from all his work that he’s destroying death by dying. So by being dead is the way he trampled down death, as we sing in thepaschal troparion, “trampling down death by death,” so you have the ultimate paradox: when Christ, God in human flesh, is finally dead, that is the epitome of the actual work that he came to accomplish.
Yes? [Inaudible] Can the non-baptized do God’s work? Absolutely. Any human being who has any possibility on this earth can do God’s work, if they do a loving, good, true, holy act objectively, yeah. Now, it depends why a person’s not baptized. Some people may not be baptized because they never heard about Christ. Some people may not be baptized because of the way Christians are. [Laughter] You know, there’s any kind of reasons why. St. Paul quoted Isaiah quoting the Lord, who said, “My name is blasphemed among the nations because of you.” So there are people who want no part of church, and they may very much be doing the work of God. We Christians must rejoice in that. We must say: Look how great that is, that even people who don’t believe in God, who don’t come to church, they could be a loving person or a good person or a kind person. We don’t say: Ah, that’s nothing; they’re just pagan. No, no. There isn’t any such thing as Christian love and other kind of love, Christian truth—there’s just love. If it’s true, if it’s loving, it’s good. Of course, it’s not if they think it’s true; if it’s objectively true. For us, Christ would be the truth; he would be the criterion.
I think the problem with work in our time is both sides. You have the ones who want the most days off as possible; then you have other people who work—the Firm, working through bragging that, you know, they go home every night at four o’clock in the morning and are back in the office at seven. It can work any way, any side, but the devil… I think two points that are important: one is that there is the sense of dehumanization of work in our time. Even my story of the holes, still he had to have some vision of the entire product and that he was participating. A person just drilling holes all day, unless you’re a very spiritual person, that’s very hard to consecrate such a job. It becomes just kind of this thing that you do.
So I think technology, in a certain sense, can contribute to dehumanization, but I think that there’s another element peculiarly American. I dread a little bit to get into this, because it takes a little bit of time, and we don’t have the time and I don’t want to take the time. But there’s a problem simply about this American way of life that from early childhood children are told, “You are special. You are great. You deserve a break today at McDonald’s. [Laughter] For all you do, this Bud’s for you!” and all that kind of American life that William Herberg, the great sociologist, said, “There’s no more ladder; it’s now an escalator.” [Laughter] You think you can stand still and you’re supposed to move up, and if you don’t move up, it’s someone else’s fault, because “I’m good, I’m great,” you know. I think that has created an incredible problem, because what happened is: a couple of generations have been taught that, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. And they feel they’ve been lied to, they’ve been betrayed.
I think that’s why they’re on drugs, on alcohol. Sylvia Plath, Mapplethorpe—stick your head in the oven with two kids eating breakfast or make art objects at government expense with crucifixes and urine bottles or something. I mean, I think there’s a rage inside people because the image of God has been ripped out and people have been told, “You can find and fulfill yourself as a person without doing anything.” And if you haven’t become at least a semi-millionaire with a Cordoba, with Ricardo Montalban worshiping it—Cordoba—and some beautiful woman, or man if you prefer, with you in the front seat or whatever—that it’s someone else’s fault, because it can’t be me. It’s supposed to happen. So I think that has also really done a job on work. It has really kind of de-sacralized. And work is a certain sacrament, if you want, using the words really loosely. In other words, it is a way of cooperating and co-working with God. But if it is not, if it is just a job and just for the good life and you’re not even supposed to be able to do anything right and still get the promotion and if you don’t it’s not your fault, this creates, I think, an incredible atmosphere, and that, I think, is where a lot of the rage is coming from and a lot of the pain. Then you do other things to try to handle it.
I’m repeating this a bit for the tape, but helping without humility, which is, of course, the mother of all the virtues, according to the saints… Every virtue is born of humility, and humility doesn’t mean saying, “I’m a pig; I’m no good.” Humility just means being realistic about what reality is all about; it’s being truthful. Jesus Christ was the most humble person who ever lived, but he didn’t sin. But I think that I would connect that to what I said earlier this morning about if you’re in it for your own ego, if you’re in it for your own agenda, if it’s not because of faith and trust in God in and of itself, you will constantly be disappointed, because you will not get the thanks, you will not be able to do it as perfectly as you want to, you will not be able to save everybody in sight.
There’s a certain kind of ego-centrism that can even get into helping. That’s why the Apostle Paul said, “Not only if I have all knowledge and speak in the tongues of men and angels and have faith to move mountains and know all the mysteries of the kingdom of God,” but he also said, “I could give my body to be burned, and I could give everything I have to the poor, but if there’s no love there, it profiteth me nothing.” That’s why this morning I said that it all comes together in love. You do it out of love and primarily out of love for God and faith that God will pull it off, but if you have any of the kind of self-interest, even in the helping profession, you’re going to get burned out, you’re going to be angry, you’re going to feel ineffective, and it’s really going to create a lot of troubles for persons.
So I think that we do have to say we’re stewards of God’s very graces and we do it just to do it, but what happens is somehow up to God, and we have to be able to look at it in that way. Otherwise, we drive ourselves crazy, and, to quote Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) in one of his books, “the only thing really accomplished by all our help is to drive the other people crazy by our abortive attempts at our own sanctification, taking advantage of them, because I am going to help you,” you see? [Laughter] And that’s not of God; that is just not of God. And it can work the other way around, too: accepting the help. Accepting the help, you need humility, too.
Macarius of Optina, one of the elders of Optina Monastery, had a letter from a woman once. It said, “Father, please pray for me to die, because I’m getting old, I’m sickly, and I don’t want my children to have to take care of me and I don’t want to be a burden to them.” He wrote back to her and he said, “Who do you think you are? Maybe God wants you to be a burden to them. Maybe that will be their salvation. Maybe it’ll be yours, when you can no longer do the cooking, the sewing… And you have to accept it from someone else humbly.” So he said, “You pray to God for his will to be done, and it may be that what God wants is for you to lie there five years and be taken care of, and it’ll be for your salvation and theirs, too.” So to accept help is not so easy either.
Q1: Father, you said that a job well done is [Inaudible]. What happens with a job done badly? [Laughter]
Fr. Tom: You give account for it. It cannot enter the kingdom. [Laughter] It cannot enter the kingdom; it is not part of the re-created creation. Yeah, it’s lost; it’s lost. It’s lost.
Fr. Tom: Oh, it may permanently exist as a tremendous evil. Oh, yeah, sure. Sure, there’s a kind of flip-side of paradise. It’s called hell, you know. [Laughter] There can be an ongoing—how can you see?—cultivation of madness and destruction. Yeah, and that’s part of our doctrine. That’s why it’s so important what we do. It’s not neutral. And that’s something we Christians have to be mostly aware of, because if we have really died with Christ in baptism, really entered the kingdom, we don’t have any investments here; we don’t have any interests here. Now, you can say that glibly if you’re fat and got a job like I do, but at the same time we do have to say that Gospel clearly, that if we measure ourselves by our possessions or by our pensions or whatever, then we are idolaters; we’re not worshiping God; we’re not trusting God. Even some people get into measuring how much God loves them by how much they have humanly. That’s absolutely contrary to the Gospel. And some Christians even think that: the more you love Jesus, the better your TV works or something. [Laughter] We don’t believe that, not necessarily; you may have to witness, but it’s very, very hard, if you have responsibilities and children and so on, just not to have a job, not to have enough.
There’s always the problem: How much is enough? I think we all deal with that. We have five kids. Boy, do we deal with that. You know, how many t-shirts do you need? When we were kids, we used to say you had three: one in the drawer, one in the wash, and one on your back. But it’s a different world. How many hair blowers do you have to have? So it’s a great problem. We talk about this as Christians all the time, and it’s really a tough, tough issue, and it’s tough, of course, not only if people don’t have two hair blowers, but it’s tough if they don’t have food to eat or clothes to wear and things like that. I would agree with that.
I think if a person were to say, “I’m just working for my paycheck,” you could say, “What are you doing with the six days and 22 hours that you’re not in church?” Now, a person might have a job to keep body and soul together because they have another vocation. That’s possible, like the Apostle Paul. His vocation was to be the apostle to the Gentiles; his livelihood was making tents. But still, still, he had to make good tents. He couldn’t say, “I really don’t care about these tents. I’m the apostle to the Gentiles!” [Laughter] “So I’ll make a shoddy tent, sell it at a big profit, and go out there and preach Christ crucified.” [Laughter] Well, it couldn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. So I think there is a sense in which we do not have to identify our complete and total life with our actual work. In a sense, we really shouldn’t because, as Mary Ann said, you could lose it tomorrow. You could get sick, the job could be closed, you could die—you can’t be caught into it.
But I do believe—and that would be a big thrust of my talk today—that we have to bring the presence of God to the actual work. It cannot just be neutral. Even if it is a job that we’re just doing as a job, we have to realize, still, there is something of the activity of God in the actual work. I guess I’m overstressing it because I have the feeling after being a priest for 31 years, that this is something that really needs stressing, because a lot of people just don’t think of it in this way in my experience. If a person is in fact making wealth by legitimate means and sharing that wealth with the poor and the needy, nothing wrong with it. Jesus himself was buried when he slept the Sabbath rest in the tomb that belonged to a rich man.
Jesus said, “With God, all things are possible, even for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” because when that rich man went away, and they said, “Who can be saved?” he said, “With God all things are possible,” and that’s really what he meant. It is better—no, not better: chalk that, scrape that. [Laughter] It is not better. It would be definitely taught that it would be easier and less tempting to serve Christ if you are in fact poorer, because riches have the tendency to choke you. That’s even what Jesus used in the parable of the sower: the thorns and the cares choked the word of God, and these are the riches and the anxiety of life. So if a person says, “My vocation is to be rich,” they’d better be a deep, strong, spiritual person, because they’re putting their life into real jeopardy, because it’s so easy to get caught by… And that’s why the proverb says, “When riches increase, set not your heart on them.”
Principalities and powers meant the powers of this age. It actually means angels, that there’s these kind of cosmic forces and spiritual realms, and that Christ has come to give us Christians power and authority even over the angelic realms of the spirits. Yeah, even that we’re called to judge the angels, to sit on the thrones. Yeah, that’s the calling of the Christian. The Theotokos is more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, and so is everybody who keeps the word of God, who hears the word of God and keeps it; they’ll all be exalted over the angels. So to trample down the principalities and powers, it means to have power over the evil spirits. But when the disciples had the powers over the evil spirits, Jesus said to them, “Do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you; rejoice rather that your name is written in heaven, that you belong to the kingdom of God.”
So a person can even want to have religious powers in and of itself for egotistic reasons, and it profits them nothing. That’s why Jesus said, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’…” This is a good way to end; we have to end right now, so I’ll end with the words of the Lord. In the Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does—does works—the will of my Father.” And he says, “On that day, many will come in my name, saying, ‘We prophesied in your name, we cast out demons in your name, we did mighty acts in your name,’ ” and we can even add: We at St. Vladimir’s in your name, you see? [Laughter] We, I don’t know, built 13 buildings in your name. According to Jesus, on that day, a person may hear the Lord say, “Depart from me, you evil-doer. I do not know you.” He didn’t say you didn’t do it in his name; you did, but you didn’t do it to his glory. You didn’t do it out of love. You did it for some other reason. So it’s possible even to want to have powers over the principalities and authorities because “I want to have the power,” and then you may even get the power, as St. Pachomius said, so that when you find yourself in hell, you have no excuse. You even had powers over demons, and you didn’t love, and you didn’t glorify God. You took what God gives, but didn’t care about the Giver.
So I think work in and of itself has to be the work of God, to the glory of God, which then makes us godly. So we came full circle to where we started. Thanks, everybody. [Applause]