Orthodox Women in the Healing Ministries was founded in 1992 with the mission of providing support to Orthodox Christian women who work in the medical and healing professions. This includes doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and the like. These are lectures from their annual retreat held at Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, MI.
Rev. Fr. Silviu Nicolae Bunta: Since this is being taped, I guess I should apologize for my Milwaukee accent. [Laughter] I spent six years in Milwaukee, and this is what I picked up. [Laughter] I am not used to podiums. It looks so official. I promise I’ll try to stay in the vicinity of it as much as possible, but eventually I am sure I will just walk around.
You have a handout. We won’t get to it for a while, because I have an introduction, actually, that I would like to read. I would like to mostly read today, for whatever reason, probably I am tired, but I will also attempt to speak freely, which is my favorite form of addressing anyone. Again, I will let you know when we get to the actual text that I would like to look at.
I was asked to give two talks this weekend and, given your interest in care, particularly in healthcare and the fact that tomorrow’s talk will be open, I almost immediately decided on the topics, as Monica can attest. They have indeed preoccupied me for a while. The first is meant to offer a specific spiritual framework for healing. The second talk, tomorrow, will have a broader focus, on sin. Sin is always fun to a Transylvanian—[Laughter]—but specifically in the way it relates to the way we perceive our inter-human relations, including healthcare. To put it succinctly, the first talk will argue that, based on the essentials of our Orthodox spirituality, to tend on the other is to tend on God.
The second will bring forth, hopefully, the extraordinary insight of our tradition according to which all people are truly, deeply interconnected through space and time, and therefore we are all guilty of each other’s sins. That’s quite bad news. It follows then that to take care of the other is not only a divine commandment—because we are commanded to do so—but also integration into the divine and the real human, because there is not much distance between the two.
My talks could fall neatly into two broad categories of theology—and I’m being a little bit specific here; sorry about that—the first one being about the knowledge of God, how we understand God to be; and the second one about the knowledge of the human being. In other words, today I will try to highlight how some aspects of our Orthodox knowledge of God, of who and what God is, informs in essential ways our understanding of healing, of attending to the ones in pain; while tomorrow I will attempt to show how some essential aspects of our understanding of the human being, particularly of sin, are foundational to our understanding of care and compassion.
To introduce today’s talk, let me point out today the common description of the care for the other, and that happens even when it is offered from a spiritual vantage point, overlooks what I have come to believe is an essential aspect of Orthodoxy, and indeed of Christianity. Tending on the other is viewed more and more commonly in an ethical-religious framework. Taking care of the other is a commandment, for example. Not that we, by the way, all agree on what the commandments actually mean and how far they extend. Next comes the social. It is a common aspect of human society to look after its own. Or the anthropological: It is in the human nature to show compassion to others. There is also even the religious framework. A person of faith, of prayer, looks after the other.
While all these aspects are valid and good, the problem with all of them is that, in and of themselves, dis-joined from the aspect I wish to look at here today, they do not overcome a fundamentally individualistic conception of God and humanity. In other words, in all these frameworks, there is still a distance between us—between each other—and between us and God. Yet these models prevail in our common language, probably first and foremost because they are quite universal, so therefore, easy to use, easy to understand, easy to pass around. Secondly, I think they suit the Western mind most of all. For a long time now the Western mind has been driven by activist rationalism and rarely, if ever, does it know how to attend to problems, but through determined and calculated action.
Moreover, as I was driving over here I was talking to a good friend of mine, a fellow priest, and in our conversation we both realized that the Western mind is enamored with the truth, and the truth, more often than not, leads to very, very bad things—that’s another problem with the Western mind—but truth as a formula, truth as a statement, not truth as a Person. Probably St. Iustin Popovic, the Serbian recent saint, is right. He labeled all these perspectives as humanism, and has argued repeatedly actually that the West is intrinsically humanistic. For a long time now, he would say, the West first, and now modern culture in general, because the West is everywhere, has idolized the human person, the human person turned confidently toward his or her own abilities and virtues.
Humanism then proposes the following: to be tolerant: that means to be accepting that someone else has equal rights to one’s own; and to be compassionate, which means that someone else suffers just as one suffers and thus is relatable; as opposed to loving as God loves. And God loves in the sense that he wishes someone to exist, and that wish collapses all distance between him and the other, and he takes on our own suffering. Also humanism proposes to be open-minded, but that’s opposed to being mindful; proposes to be free, that is to be free-willed, as opposed to being spiritually noble; and also suggests that we be confident, as opposed to being certain. In one word, to be human—which, by the way, today’s society professes openly as its overarching interest. I’ve heard again and again and again endless talks on what it means to be human. Probably so have you. To be human, at least in today’s world, is to live in one’s own life, in one’s own values and aspirations, and yet live ethically, if ethics suits us. Not that this is bad in itself, but it does pale in contrast to the model of life, or worldview, that humanism has overthrown, which I will bring up today.
Moreover, humanism has essential flaws. The outward expression of humanism brings in the most recent words of someone who is a done. By the way, a done is a technical category for a group of religious people in the United States. There is a growing body of research on religiosity in the United States, and by the way the fragments that grow the most quickly today in this country are actually two: the atheists and the dones—the ones who have been going to church and have professed one form of Christianity or another, but they are simply done with it. These are called the dones. Yes, d-o-n-e. There is my Milwaukee accent. [Laughter]
Well, this person recently said in an interview, which I read online a few months ago: “I am tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do,” and also, of course, what to believe. Many people believe the solution to this doneness, to the quality of being done, is to listen more closely to the other. I would say that, on the contrary, this attitude can only legitimize and propagate humanism: doneness. As if God wanted to prove that the only way to be human, truly human, is for one to die to himself or herself and to live the life of the God-man, that the only true human being is the God-man, Christ, this modern theme of humanity is itself self-destructive. We are more tolerant today, humanistically speaking, at the price of being more self-centered and lonely. We are more open-minded at the price of being more disrespectful of values. We are more compassionate at the price of being more disengaged. We are more confident at the price of being more anxious and depressed.
The worldview proposed by Orthodoxy, by our spiritual tradition, is very different. As the same 20th-century Serbian saint noted, Orthodoxy is built around an entirely different principle, which he so poignantly calls theanthropism, built on theanthropos, which means literally the God-human, the Person of Christ. For us Orthodox, the foundation of life, including care for each other, is not humanism or humanist values, good as they may be, to a certain extent, but the Person of the God-man. In simple words, for us the care for the other is based not on care for commandments, not on social necessities, not on what it means to be human, and certainly not on religion. By the way, I understand religion to be a human construct. Actually a famous Greek theologian and Orthodox [author and professor] published a book against religion, and he argues quite solidly and convincingly that we are not a religion; we are life.
So when this is not based on religion, but it is rather based on what God is, on God’s selfless dwelling among us and within us, on his infinite and unconditional love for all, on the non-distance between him and all. What God is is revealed first and foremost in the Incarnation. That’s why we believe that the Incarnation is the fulfillment of the eternal divine plan for us in the words of the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the anaphora we’ll hear tomorrow morning. How is our God… What does the Incarnation reveal? One of the parameters of theanthropism, especially as it reflects on the care for the other, that’s what I’m trying to get to next.
First and foremost, the Incarnation, the God-man, reveals God’s selflessness. Theanthropism, at the core of our faith, the Person of Jesus Christ, proceeds from this image of God, different from all other images on which other Christian denominations are based, especially very different from the humanist image of God. If humanism is built on a God that is just and compassionate, theanthropism, Orthodoxy, is built on a God that is loving selflessness itself.
And he is not just. He tells us himself that he is humble, right? Gentle and humble of heart, if you remember the Gospel of Matthew. He is humility itself, and we are reminded of that on the very first Sunday of the Triodion. This is your very first text.
The word who humbled himself even to the form of a servant showed that humility is the best path to exaltation. Every man, then, who humbles himself to the Lord’s example is exalted on high.
Then again—you have two more texts:
Let us eagerly follow the ways of Jesus the Savior in his humility. We desire to attain the everlasting tabernacle of joy and to dwell in the land of the living.
O Master, thou hast shown to thy disciples the humility that raises man on high.
As these hymns made clear, God’s humility or selfless nature is not purposeless. It targets us, and its one and only function is to raise people on high. I would say that it is in the very character of God to be all about us. Our God is not closed up in himself, and we are not accidents of history to him. We are not an afterthought, nor are we peripheral to him. He has made us mean everything to him. We are everything to him, to the point that he forgets about himself. This is the ultimate meaning of Philippians 2:6-7, and we have it here.
Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
Thus he filled himself with suffering, and I would also say, he filled suffering with himself. Also Philippians, the continuation of that passage:
Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
In Hebrews 4:16 has that beautiful expression that says that our High Priest is a co-sufferer with us. He co-suffers our weaknesses. And although the English word sympathy comes from that Greek word, I think sympathy is much softer. The Greek word literally says he suffers what we suffer. It’s not just sympathetic, from a nice observational distance: I see you and you suffer and I feel bad about it. No, what he’s telling us is: I am taking on your pain. Whatever you are going through, I am going through with you.
Such is God that, when in our services we ask him to be compassionate toward us, we ask for two things—and sorry for bringing some Greek in here—namely, oikteirmos and splagkhnon. For example, we do this during the hours, when the priest blesses God, “Have pity on us,” and the Greek is actually: “Oikteiresai emas and bless us, shine the light of his countenance upon us and be merciful to us,” as you will hear either me or Fr. John say tomorrow. That “have pity on us” is actually oikteiro, which is a word developed out of an old conjunction, a very old Greek conjunction, the conjunction oi, which is a cry of pain. We therefore ask God to be in pain for us to the point of screaming.
The other verb, used so often in our services, is equally powerful. The noun, splagkhnon comes from the other noun, splagkhna, which actually means intestines, entrails, the insides. The verb itself means to hurt down to the most inward part of your body. That is also what we ask God to do for us, many times. That’s one of the most common words in our services, most commonly used verbs. We only ask him to be so because he already is so. He already has oikteirmos; he already is in pain for us to the point of screaming.
In 2 Corinthians 1-3—it’s not on here; sorry—we call him the Father of compassions—as we call him, actually, during a few services; and by the way the noun used there is oikteirmos—he is the Father of pain-to-the-point-of-screaming, but such is the nature of the liturgy, asking God to be what he already is. I am borrowing an expression used by the late and of blessed memory Fr. Tom Hopko. Our liturgy is not really doing anything for God; it’s not, as you can imagine, as we all imagine. It’s doing everything to us. It’s a very repetitive reminder of what he is. If we take the liturgy to be a cry to God to be something else that he isn’t already, we are mistaken. We are not reminding God what he is—he knows very well—we are to remind ourselves constantly of what he is.
Our God is of such nature that he sees his death for us as his glory. I was resting for a few minutes in St. Nicholas, and as I was sitting down, I noticed there were some copies of The Burning Bush nearby, and I grabbed one. I opened it on a sermon that Fr. Roman gave last year, and he brought up the passage in Mark where James and John ask the Lord, if you remember, that when he comes in his glory—and Fr. Roman points out what they were looking forward to is to be, he put it beautifully: like the Secretary of State and the Speaker of the House; that’s how Fr. Roman put it—to be on his left and his right side in his glory. And the Lord tells them: You don’t know what you’re asking for. Why? Because, as Fr. Roman points out, he is in his glory when he dies for us. That’s the glory of God. God views the death for us as his highest honor. And that’s also in St. Nicholas Cabasilas, and that’s the next passage on the handouts.
He considered it gain to be dishonored for our sake. By being sold for a trifling sum, he would hint that he came freely as a gift, to suffer death for the world. Willingly he died, having wronged no one, either for the sake of his own life or for the common good, supplying graces to his murderers far greater than they could wish or hope for.
God sees taking on our suffering as his greatest glory. We truly see the King of Glory on the cross. Our hymns call the cross “his footstool and his throne.” If you listen to our hymns on, of course, Holy and Great Friday, but also on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, those are the two most common images associated with the cross: the footstool, which was actually the footrest of the throne in the holy of holies in the Temple, and the throne of God, because that’s where God wants to be enthroned. He doesn’t want any other glory.
By the way, the hymns for the Exaltation of the Cross indicate that the following texts are prophesies and that they were fulfilled in the crucifixion. I have the hymns here. You have two hymns, and a little bit indented further to the right the two… Sorry, first come the Old Testament texts, the two psalms, and then the two hymns. First psalm, Psalm 98:
Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship the footstool of his feet, for he is holy.
And then at small vespers on the Exaltation, we sing:
With the Psalmist, O Master, do we now behold the footstool on which thine undefiled feet rested, your precious cross, exalted this day with love.
And the second psalm:
How thou hast multiplied thy mercy, O God! The sons of man shall hope under the shelter of thy wings.
And the hymn:
Today the holy words of David have truly received their fulfillment, for, lo! in the sight of all the world we venerate the footstool of your undefiled feet and, putting our hope in the shadow of thy wings, we cry aloud unto thee, O all-compassionate Lord: May the light of thy countenance be marked upon us.
God, then, suffers for us through the core of his being, or rather it is in his very being to suffer for us. And I dare say that suffering in itself is theophoric. It’s a fancy word. Every now and then I make up these fancy words. Or someone has made them up before me, but I use them to appear smart. [Laughter] It generally impresses my students, so I do it. I’m sorry. I cannot pass up a good opportunity. So suffering is theophoric. In the suffering itself is God. Without suffering, there is no communion with him. If one doesn’t suffer in the flesh, one needs to participate in Christ’s suffering for the world, as St. Isaac of Syria puts it; and that’s the next text.
Without tasting of Christ’s suffering with understanding of the significance, the soul will never be in communion with him.
So if you’re not in pain, bad news! [Laughter] You have to take on pain. That’s the meaning of this very, very, very long passage from St. Mark the Ascetic, which is also on your handout, which I’m not going to read in its entirety. I will come back to this tomorrow, actually, because it also makes an essential point about sin. So I will come back to this, but it’s on your handout. It’s almost a page-long passage.
Given that such is the character of God, such is his nature, the ones who suffer are always in God. Since God takes on our pain, our being in pain is to suffer with God, not by God, not without God, not outside of God, but in God, with God. When we are in pain, all we need to realize is that God is in pain with us, co-suffers with us, or suffers our own pain. God is then the greatest peak of humility, of humble compassion, and we are most God-like when we sit at the gate hungry, when we are thirsty, when we are strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned: when we suffer from when we are down. We are like our God when we are spat upon, when we don’t have a place to lay our heads, when we are judged and we don’t defend ourselves, when we make ourselves even lower than animals, when we love everybody dearly, when we are unable to bear any injuries suffered by any creature let alone of a fellow human being, when we take on the other’s injuries.
It seems to me that the greatest aspect of godliness hides itself in pain, in suffering. Moreover, God who wants that all be saved and come to the knowledge of himself, hid himself, hid salvation in life itself, in its most mundane aspect—in pain—so that we may all be cleansed through life itself, so that we may all be saved, as he desires.
The presence of God in our pain, or, more clearly, the presence of God with and in those who are in pain, is the one thread that runs throughout these creatures. If there is one thing that all the texts in the Scriptures say, it is this one thing: God is always near those who are in pain. The examples abound, and this is not the place and the time to list them, so do not worry. I will only mention a few examples. This idea, for example, is articulated in the only Last Judgment passage that we have in the New Testament, in Matthew 25.
I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.
That speaks for itself. The very story of poor Lazarus also comes to mind. As our Church Fathers noticed, nowhere in that gospel passage are we told that Lazarus, who goes to heaven, was a righteous person. Nowhere! Actually, our Church Fathers again and again make the point that he wasn’t righteous. He wasn’t quite, you know, a good human person. He was saved, as, for example, St. John Cassian puts it, St. John Chrysostom and many others, solely in virtue of his patient suffering. He was not a good guy.
Forty years ago, the famous Spanish physician and researcher, Pedro Laín Entralgo, called Christianity “a religion of the sick.” He was right, but I think he was right in more ways than he could imagine. He was mostly right in this particular way: The weakness of God for the weak ones comes through so clearly in our Scriptures. That’s probably the way in which he is most right, that God has a weak point for the weak ones. And that comes through very clearly, by the way, in the Magnificat. God exalts those of low degree.
By the way, I should make it clear that here—sometimes you hear different translations: “The humble ones”—it’s not about a spiritual attitude, of humility, for example, the spiritual humility, but it is rather about humbleness as a social condition. And God also fills the hungry with good things—also in the Magnificat.
Another passage that I would bring to your attention: As recent research has elucidated, the poor in spirit, to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven in the beatitudes, as we will hear these days, are the anavim. It’s a Hebrew and Aramaic concept. And the anavim means poor, sick, afflicted, oppressed, marginalized, you name it; in probably two words, the beaten down. To them belongs the kingdom of heaven. As Fr. Roman pointed out in that sermon I was just reading not long ago, look around, and what you see, you will see again, but upside-down. The ones who are at the top will be down, and the ones who are down will be at the top.
Then of course there are many other passages. I gave you, I think I put down, I hope I put down three of them, yes. Sorry, we’re on the second page, right after the long quote from St. Mark the Ascetic. Psalm 50, which we know:
A broken and humble heart God will not despise.
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and he will save the crushed in spirit.
And Psalm 146:
The Lord sets the prisoners free. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who were bowed down. He upholds the widow and the fatherless.
If it is not in this life, it is assuredly in the next one, because there is no distance between the one in pain and God.
God’s weakness for the week is enunciated most clearly in the… St. Paisios the Hagiorite, by the way, put this very bluntly. I think this is in here, yes.
Those who come close to people in pain naturally draw near to God, because God is always by the side of his children who are in pain.
Because God is so, we view healing as much more than tending to our fellow human beings. In other words, our understanding of pain is spiritual; it’s not humanistic. In pain, much more than in any other aspect of life, the boundary between Creator and creature collapses. It follows, then, that our understanding of healing is spiritual. It is not anchored solely in an ethical system of virtue—we are being told to do it—or of sympathy—it’s the nice thing to do—due to the fact that our knowledge of God places God next to and within the ones who are in pain… Here is the passage of St. Makarios next in our handouts.
What, for instance, if there was a king who came upon a certain pauper whose whole body was covered with leprosy? He would not be ashamed of him, but would apply medicine to his wounds and so heal his sores, enough so that he would receive him at his royal table, clothe him with purple, and made him a king. In this way, God also has shown himself to the human race: He washed their wounds and healed mankind and led them into the heavenly bedchamber.
For us, then, philanthropy, the love for the other, is not truly to love the other. Such a definition, as I said, implies a certain distance. In our constitution, with the presence of God, there is no such distance. Now we can add that God’s humbling presence in all those in pain, that is, throughout the world, abolishes such distance once and for all.
To summarize—and instead of practical conclusions, I thought I would have—of course, I could not help it; it’s a professional deformation—two long passages. To summarize, God is the greatest peak of humility, of humble compassion, and we are most God-like when we are in pain. God is in pain itself, and when you come close to your patients who are in pain, you draw near to God. In other words, you serve in the holy of holies.
Moreover, as I will explain tomorrow, our Orthodox outlook on humanity rests on the essential truth that all created things are one. I am anticipating here, but tomorrow I will quote Dostoevsky, who put it this way: “Everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else. Touch one place, and you set up a movement at the other end of the world.” It follows, then, that there is no such thing as individual suffering. There is no such thing as individual. To echo St. Paul, the suffering of one member of this cosmic body is the suffering of the whole body, and to go back to my point, it is the suffering of God himself.
Based on these two perspectives alone—the interconnectedness of everything and God’s humbling presence in our pain—those who are in healing ministries are in a privileged position. You do serve in the holy of holies of humankind.
So what does this location mean practically? How does it translate in actual behavior? You could probably also ask me, “Well, Father, this all sounds wonderful, otherworldly—how does it look in real life?” In real life it looks—I’ll put it in two words, well, with a definite article, three words: the holy person.
So what does it mean in actual behavior? What are we supposed to do? Embrace them all. Embrace all of them, warts and all. Love them as God loves them. Be kind. There’s the passage from St. Isaac of Syria.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Such is the sign of purity. Suffer with the sick; be afflicted with sinners. Exalt with those who repent. Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone. Be a partaker of the sufferings of all. Rebuke no one. Revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.
And this is a famous passage, for all of you who already know it.
What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole creation: for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for the demons, for all that exists. By the recollection of them, the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grieves such a person’s heart and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled, and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For these reasons, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually, even for the irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner, such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.
Also, I would say collapse, destroy, vanquish all distance between you and your patients, as God destroyed all distance between himself and them. In reality, there is no distance between you, as I hope I will make clear tomorrow—more clear tomorrow. Don’t be compassionate; be one with them. Don’t just suffer for them; suffer with them. Don’t be tolerant; be loving, as God is. Always smile. Always fill others with joy. And this is my last passage. This is from Elder Aimilianos, who is the spiritual father of my bishop, so I cannot help but end with a quote from him.
St. Basil says (and these are the words of St. Basil first): Let words of consolation leap forward before the rest of your speech, confirming your love for your neighbor. You who are in the monastery when you approach your brother, you who are married when you approach your spouse, you who are a father or a mother when you approach your child, let words of consolation leap forward before the rest of your speech.
By the way, to leap forward is a beautiful imagery. It is an imagery of joy, and joy is essential to all of this.
Whatever you say, whatever you think of saying, say it only after you have said a word or two which will give the others joy, consolation, a breath of life. Make them say: I feel relief; I feel joy. Make others proud of you, love you, dance for joy when they see you, because everybody in their life, in their home, in their body, in their soul has pain, illness, difficulties, and torments. And St. Basil adds this: Let your face be bright in order to give joy to him who speaks with you.
Once you’ve made the other person smile, don’t stop smiling. Let your face be a radiant sun, so that throughout the conversation, the other will continue to feel the same happiness. When we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” everybody is included, the world. When God sees such love, when he sees the paradise in my heart, that my heart has room in it for everyone, then it will be impossible for him not to find room in his paradise for me and you.
Thank you. [Applause] And I stayed in front of the podium the whole time! I’m quite impressed with myself. [Laughter] I don’t know if we usually allow for questions.
Hostess: If it’s all right with you, Father.
Fr. Silviu: Yes! Oh, yes. I love questions more than I love the sound of my voice. [Laughter] Yes.
Q1: This is going to sound like a really stupid question, but if God is in suffering and we’re closer to God in suffering, why do we try to redeem it?
Fr. Silviu: Because we can’t all bear it. And trying to relieve it is okay, if we must, but truly—and I think that’s where your question is going—we don’t have to. Yes, we don’t have to.
Q1: I mean, if we want to.
Fr. Silviu: I mean, we want to, but I think that’s also an expression of humanism. We merely try to heal everything and over-heal everything. We sterilize everything, and we try to get rid of pain. Pain is bad, and that’s an aspect of humanism, if you ask me. That is an aspect of that that has replaced the worldview that has replaced this. Pain is bad. Well, not according to our tradition. Pain is not bad in itself, but if we cannot bear it, then, yes. It’s not wrong to try to get rid of it, but it is wrong to say that pain is bad.
C1: It seems like we’re commanded to try and get rid of it—feed the hungry.
Fr. Silviu: Absolutely, yes.
C2: To relieve the pain of the other.
Fr. Silviu: Yes. I was talking about my own pain. The pain of the others, oh, yes.
C2: It’s about the pain of the others.
Fr. Silviu: Yes, we have to do everything to relieve their pain, even if pain is not bad.
Q2: As related to our pain, don’t we have to try to leave it with God? Isn’t this the idea? Isn’t this what we have to do? There is a story from the Philokalia about a father who was fighting with God, and he said, “God, I am suffering.” I might not… You know the story, probably, that I’m thinking about.
Fr. Silviu: I think I know it.
Q2: The father was very mad, because he thought God was not helping him, and he was in pain. Then God said, “You know what? The next time…” God said, “I am always with you, and you have to just, when you walk on the beach, you just have to…”
Fr. Silviu: To look, pay attention.
Q2: Yes, “to look behind, and you will see that I am always with you.”
Fr. Silviu: And he saw footsteps.
Q2: And it was true. God was with him. And at the same time, the father was in big pain, and there were only two.
Fr. Silviu: There were two footsteps.
Q2: Yes, and the two were God’s. So he said, “You said you would help me, and when I was in big pain, you didn’t help me, because it was just me there. There were just two footsteps in the sand.” And God said, “Yes, those were mine, because I was carrying you.” So isn’t this [the] image that we need to make present in our sufferings?
Fr. Silviu: Yes, true, but it’s not for everybody.
Q2: Not for the other one; for us.
Fr. Silviu: Yes, it’s not for everybody to carry their own suffering without trying to fix it. That’s what I’m trying to [say]. We’ve talked about taking on the pain of the others, trying to relieve it, but how about my own pain? As I said, I’ve only started to look into this, but I cannot think of a passage in which a Church Father would order people not to take medication. On the contrary, there are a couple of times, actually, they said—and one of the passages is in the Philokalia—that pain can be very detrimental to the perfect ones, to the ones who have reached very, very close to perfection or are perfect, because it can be very, very confusing when you are there. So in other words, go ahead and try to relieve your pain if you cannot bear it; it’s fine. That is okay.
Q2: There’s a limit, right? We have to try to know ourselves, where is our limit? But I have a limit. “Give me the Tylenol right away.”
Fr. Silviu: Exactly, see, that is a wrong attitude. Trying to fix everything, even things that are very simple and very bearable, yes, just because we don’t want to put up with any of it. But we each have different limits, and we each can bear different things, different pains. What would be a good indication… If you were to ask me—I don’t know—if you were to ask me, I would say if you lose your joy, fix it. That’s the problem. If you lose your joy, fix it. If you don’t lose your joy, bear it. But the moment you’ve lost your joy, your pain is no longer useful to you, so fix it. Go see as many doctors as you can, as many nurses as you can.
Although the truth is that there is no distance between us, there is no one-size-fits-all dealing with pain. There isn’t. But what is clearly wrong, again, is to be fearful of it, to hate it, to try to get rid of it, to call it evil. I think in the West—I think the West calls—this is just my intuition; I’m not sure if I’m right—the West calls pain evil because the West reads Genesis 3 differently from the way we do. If you read Genesis 3 pretty much like the West, pain is given to the human person as a punishment, Adam and Eve as a punishment for what they have done. But that’s not how we read Genesis 3. It’s not a punishment; it’s a blessing. It’s corrective, it heals—pain can heal. God knows, it can heal many people of their pride, can heal many people of their very rough nature, can soften up probably even the most harsh person. We don’t believe that pain is evil, because if it were, we wouldn’t have it. If it were evil, we wouldn’t have it.
Q3: Like a medicine, right?
Fr. Silviu: Yes, but there can come a time when pain is no longer a medicine, and I think the indicator—see, if you’re asking what is the light, what is the light that I’m supposed to look out for? Which one of the buttons will send a light up? I will say: The moment you lose your joy. Some saints can carry a lot of pain in amazing joy, like St. Porphyrios. He was blind at the end of his life, couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, was in excruciating pain. Or like St. Paisios, whom I quoted, who was bleeding out of all his orifices, but was always full of joy.
Q3: Because he accepted the will of God.
Fr. Silviu: Yes, because he understood everything. He understood everything. St. Porphyrios put it once this way. If you understand what it means to say Christ is risen, nothing could put you down. Those are three simple words—two words in Greek. Two words for him. Two words. If you understand the meaning of those two words alone, nothing could put you down. And I think that’s what they did for him. He understood what it means to say that Christ is risen, and nothing put him down. If you understand everything—it’s a leap of faith, truly. You change… We are called to change the air we breathe. We are called to change everything about us. But once you change it… And that’s the big conundrum, right, because people want proof in advance. “Show me that this will work.” There is no scientific proof. Do it, try it, and then you will have it. First you do it, and then you will have it. Sorry, more questions?
Q4: It would be a piece of cake for all of us caregivers if everyone was Orthodox and understand Christos anesti that you talk about, but where I am, very few people are Orthodox, so we have a balance of the faithful, no matter what they’re full of—Jewish, Christian, whatever—and the faithless. Faithful people are easy to take care of. You have an instant connection with them, so they’re easy to—they might even want you to pray with them. But the faithless ones, they are the challenge. “I want to know how many, when, why. I want to know what’s going to work before I take it.” That’s what you said. Do you have some advice on caregiving?
Fr. Silviu: God is more in them than in the others, for the simple fact that you have a harder time to connect with them. I’ll give you a story; it’s one of my favorite stories, and some people here have heard it before, because I think I offered it in a couple of sermons here at the monastery. It’s actually from one of my favorite patristic writers, from St. Dionysios the Areopagite. This is from I think his fourth letter, yes, and in this letter he talks to a priest. He writes this letter to a priest; he was a bishop, and he writes the letter to a priest who had so many troubling issues in his parish, and he was himself very uneasy and anxious and all of this.
In this letter, St. Dionysios tells him the story of another priest, whom we venerate as a saint today, St. Carpos, and this priest was once approached by a pagan who asked him to baptize him: he wants to convert to Orthodoxy, to Christianity. The priest was very happy, was very excited, said, “Absolutely. We’ll go through the catechumenate program, and you’ll be baptized.” Well, this catechumen, not long afterwards, was approached by another pagan, a fellow pagan, who convinced him not to go ahead with it: “Do not become a Christian.” Of course the priest heard about it. He was very upset, to the point where he lost his power to pray—but he still did it. He switched himself to the autopilot, prayed every night. He did all his prayer rules.
And once, while he was still praying, but still very much troubled by this anxiety and with a little bit of anger, a little bit of resentment, with a little bit of confusion in his soul, the heavens opened, and he saw the Lord, in the heavens, on the throne, surrounded by angels and the saints and the joy of heaven. And then the earth opened under his feet, and he saw this huge chasm, dark chasm, with lots of cries and screams of pain. Right there on the side of that big precipice, on the very side of it, were those two pagans. At some point, they lose their balance and they fall in, but they grab at the very last second of the high ground with their hands, with the tips of their fingers, and they hold onto it for dear life.
St. Carpus goes like: “They had it coming! Yes! The moment has come!” [Laughter] And he waits. And snakes come out of the precipice, and they roll up on these two poor souls, and they pushed them, they pulled them down—but they don’t fall in. So St. Carpus is looking up, pretty much asking the Lord, “What are you waiting for? Why don’t you go push them in?” The Lord is not doing anything, so St. Carpus himself tries to help, and, you know. [Gasps, laughter] And at that moment, when he raises his hand to beat up these two poor souls to fall into hell, the Lord stands up, goes down to the precipice, with all his angels and all his saints, picks up those poor souls by their hands, and tells St. Carpus, “You have your hand raised. Now it is I whom you must strike, for I would gladly take the beatings for all mankind.”
So in other words, if we are under the impression that they are further away from God that the others, that’s not the case. They may themselves be closed up to God, but God has not closed anything of himself to them. Because they are the most difficult to deal with, because they are the most difficult to deal with, that’s where you will find God the more. Not in the rosy place, not in the easy place, but he is in those people. He loves them literally to the death. We have to be constantly mindful of that. We have to remind ourselves. I know it is difficult, and I think God knows how difficult it is to put up with some people, but if we want to be like God, we have to love them just the same. Because they create more trouble for you, that’s where you will have more crowns. [Laughter]
Q4: It’s a happy ending!
Fr. Silviu: There you go. See, I really came up with the best at the end. That’s a good strategy. I was actually on the Holy Mountain with Fr. John a few months ago, and I was talking to one of the fathers there, who is truly, truly wonderful—a saint, if you ask me, from what I could tell. He is dying; he has as terminal disease. Once, out of the blue, he told me—I don’t speak modern Greek, but I could make out some words because I know old Greek—“Father, if we knew how many crowns are in heaven for every single little suffering we get, we would so rejoice for them.” So for every single frustration you get, there is a crown in heaven. But when you don’t get a frustration, I’m sorry: there isn’t any. [Laughter] Because that father never told me that I don’t have any idea how many crowns we’ll get for all the happy things. No, the crowns come with suffering.
That’s where your crowns hide: on the heads of those people who frustrate you, that drive you crazy, that you can’t talk to because they are impossible to talk to. But that’s where they are, and it’s very, very hard. What helps in very pragmatic ways is to keep in mind the cross. Keep in mind the cross, and that will help—someone. Some people’s frustrating nature tempts even the most patient of people.
Any other questions? Yes.
Q5: Isn’t it the sort of psychological pain that we have to really hang in there with, more than the physical? I mean, I’m in favor of counting yourself well, but I know that I was in a situation—recently, but lots of times—where people around me, like she said, they’re driving me crazy. I don’t want to deal with this; I can’t bear it. Then I think: You can’t bear it? Millions of people put up with more than this, and you’ve got to deal with it.
Fr. Silviu: Well, if possible, always only think of the others. If possible, deny yourself. Deny yourself. One of the fathers in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers put it this way, and I think it’s spot-on, one of our great saints. He said: The greatest wall we can raise between us, and between us and God, is our own will. When we want things to happen a certain way, we want things to work out a certain way—I think that’s at the core of humanism. We want the truth. We want things to be correct. Even looking for the correct thing can be very, very wrong. Even looking for the right thing can be very, very wrong. How do we know that? We can tell for sure that that is the case, because God didn’t do that. If he had come down to look for the right thing, I think it’s safe to say we would have all been in trouble.
No, the greatest enemy we all face is inside. We live with it every day. We make friends with it almost every minute. When things are just happening our way and we want them to happen that way—kill that enemy. If there’s anything we have to kill—and I don’t think I’ve ever used the word kill in my life—but I’m telling you now: Kill that enemy. That enemy needs to go. And it doesn’t only just hurt the others, but it hurts ourselves, because, as we all know, being of a more mature and wise age than my undergraduates—every time I tell them this, they go like: What is he talking about? [Laughter]—things will not work out our way. We can try all we want, but at the very end of those repeated trials stands unhappiness, depression, and all the other very, very dangerous things. They will not work out our way. It’s impossible, because my will will always collide with your will, with the will of another person, with the wills of those around me. There will only be war and unhappiness and misery and everything else for everybody. That’s the enemy. We have only one true enemy, which is our own will, how we want things to be, how we think things should be.
The irony is—try it—the moment we give up on how we want things to be, they will happen for us. [Laughter] The harder we try to make things happen ourselves, I think God in his infinite love just steps back, and basically is thinking: Oh, you know? You think you know how to do it? Okay. I’m watching. Show me.
C3: And he waits for us to accept that he is God and I am just a human.
Fr. Silviu: Yes. That’s the very definition of prayer. The definition of prayer is not asking for something; the definition of prayer is not asking for anything. We use so many words in the church so that when we are outside of the church we don’t use any words. The Church is praying for everything, right? I know you’ve been to services, not just the Liturgy, but many other services: the hours, vespers, matins, akathists, you name it. Put them all together. Everything that we need is being prayed for, with one voice, with one accord, as some translations run, the voice of all, including the voices of angels.
That happens here so that we don’t pray like that out there. Out there, we don’t have to ask for anything. We just have to understand God loves us all. That’s all. It doesn’t require many words. Most of the Fathers say that that just requires a few words: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us” or “on me.” That’s all. That’s all it requires, because prayer can also become our greatest big enemy, if it is an expression of our will: God, give me this. God, give me that. God, please make the others understand my point. [Laughter] God, please take this from me.
Q6: In the parable of forgiving the debtors, the story of the monastic, there is a story there that says that “because you asked, I gave this.” The point is what you’re asking for, so that, even if you’re asking… Many people here have children, and we pray for them. There’s the akathist we have in the bookstore, the Akathist [to the] Mother of God, Nurturer of Children. There’s lots of things we’re praying for in there, that is always in my will and thank God. So we can give words…
Fr. Silviu: Yes, we can, but this is the place to do it. This is the place to have all those prayers, because otherwise, praying all on your own, for your own things, is ultimately an expression of that individualism again. When it comes to children, do talk to God, but you don’t need to talk to God; God knows. The prayers, all those long prayers—let me put it this way—are there to teach us how to pray without them. They are useful, absolutely—otherwise they wouldn’t be there—but if you learn how to pray, their usefulness has ceased.
If you pray in here, you don’t need those any more. The deal is to stand before God, speechless. Actually, a parishioner [said], because it was one of the recent Sunday gospels, the idea of prayer is to tell God: Go away, because I don’t deserve you. It is Peter’s attitude. The idea of prayer is not telling God I need that, please give me that. It is our will, that is true. We do say that in all our prayers. We have those prayers to teach us, to soften us up, but the moment you are softened up, you don’t need those words. You become prayer itself. It will become obvious when that moment will come, because when that moment would come, you can’t stop it. As St. Isaac says, when that moment will come, you will be so soft that no injury to any creature you could just look at. And in that moment you no longer need those prayers.
You need this, though; the Liturgy always you need. And come here, and the Liturgy will do everything for you. We do ask for everything in the liturgy, not just capital-L Liturgy but all the liturgy, all the services, everything, including our kids, our children and everything.
Q7: We’ve been talking about asking, but what about giving thanks?
Fr. Silviu: Oh yes, yes.
Q7: That is part of what we are as teachers. It’s reminded me: There was a priest who recently died. Fr. Lazar wrote—he was a classmate of his—and he mentioned that this priest—I think that his name was Fr. Tregubovich from the East Coast—Fr. Lazar wrote about him, and said that this man always said, “Thank God.” So to Christianate these moments of frustration, you transform it by saying, “Thank God.”
Fr. Silviu: Yes. Thankfulness can be done with words, too, but at a certain point it becomes a state—a state of being—you understand that everything is done for us. That’s also in our anaphora, in our Liturgy prayer. The translations are somewhat awkward, because he says: “All things done for us,” but really we should pause a bit and say: “All things—done for us,” because everything that happens happens for us.
Then we mention blessings, and in some translations they are “seen or unseen,” as if some of them are physical and others of them are spiritual. Nah, that’s not what the prayer is trying to say. The prayer is “phaneron kai aphanon,” the ones who look like blessings and the ones who don’t look like blessings. So what is it that doesn’t look like blessings? Well, let’s start with pain.
If you understand the anaphora, you understand that everything is a blessing. Now, to teach us that, of course there are very particular strategies. I talk about strategies. I don’t know why I like the word strategy; I like the word strategy. One very useful strategy, for example, because this is the most common situation: When someone frustrates you, when someone does something that throws off your peace, to thank God that through that servant, he showed you how little you love him. Even that is useful to us.
Our saints realize that thankfulness is permanent, constant, because they lived up to the words of the anaphora. They understood the words of the anaphora: Everything is a blessing. Some are in disguise—and what a disguise! because you couldn’t tell, even from half an inch away. This doesn’t look anything like a blessing! God knows how that happens, but we have to trust that that is the case, because our saints told us that it is, and our anaphora tells us every time that it is. Everything is done for us, and everything is a blessing, even those things that do not seem to be blessings.
That’s why I like to translate the phrase as “blessings manifest and unmanifest,” those that look like blessings and those things that do not look anything like blessings.
So, yes, thankfulness, but that is also a state. It all comes at once. It’s thankfulness and prayer: petitionless prayer, wordless thankfulness, and infinite joy. I think I had another question?
Q8: Yes, once they asked St. Paisios about cancer, why there is cancer. He said, “Why you don’t want cancer? I see many souls are going to heaven because of the cancer.” He called it the disease that leads to haven.
Fr. Silviu: Yes, yes. Indeed, and that’s very difficult to comprehend. One of my best friends has just finished chemotherapy. So in other words, we still don’t know if he’s made it. It’s difficult to comprehend when you deal with it, when you’re in front of it, when it’s right there, staring you in the face. But it’s difficult if you’re grounded in this life. It’s a matter of perspective, again. If this is all there is, well cancer is horrible!—but it isn’t, and we don’t know how horrible it is. Many times, we ask questions religiously, with true faith and with true prayer and with true pain, but we ask questions that are anchored deeply in this life, and we want good answers that make sense of them in this life, but there are no good answers. None in this life.
Truly the attitude, the proper attitude in front of these mysteries such as cancer is probably—I don’t know if you remember the story of St. Anthony, going down to the desert and asking all the essential questions: Why do some kids die? Why do some people die very young and others live to old, ripe age? Why are some happy and some miserable? God said: Mind yourself; this is not for you to know. Because I think St. Anthony was still anchored in this life. He wanted everything to make sense here and now. That’s a terrible short-sightedness that I think the vast majority of us are guilty of. Even when we are faithful, in our moments of faithlessness, we ask the questions that way.
Now what the saints have and we don’t, such as St. Paisios, is otherworldly vision. They can tell us: It’s two years, it’s five years, it’s ten years of cancer—but I know what’s coming to you. And in front of that, everything pales. Everything pales.
Q9: I have a question. You mentioned the case of people dying. More than less I belonged to the group of done, who would ask this question: How can he explain that your “good God” allows the kids and young people to suffer? And it’s hard to tell these particular people: Mind your own business.
Fr. Silviu: That’s not the answer we would give to them, no.
Q9: No, that’s right! [Laughter] However, no matter how hard I try, I couldn’t find a good answer. Each time I tried something different and I was still unsuccessful, so maybe you…
Fr. Silviu: No wonder, because there is no good answer. Because they want a God-filled answer to a God-less question. There is no answer. They want to make sense of something that’s here and now, something that’s visible only right now by the standards of something that they don’t see.
Q9: But some of these people are in big pain. They belong to the group of done, and I know a few people who are suffering because they are in that group. They got into that group after a big pain or for other reasons, but some of them are in big pain, so what’s our attitude in front of them? I mean, do we just not answer anything?
Fr. Silviu: No, no, no. There’s no answer to that question, but there’s something that we can tell them. Many times it works. First, yes, indeed, I’d like to point out that there is some research that suggests that the group of atheists and dones are truly exploding in the United States because of pain. Pain is the greatest contributor. It comes with disappointment and so many other things, too. I would put everything under this umbrella-term, pain.
The question itself doesn’t have an answer, but there is something that we can tell them, and I think something that can help. We can tell them that although you do not know it, when you are in pain, God is closest to you than ever. These people need to be reminded, need to be told that God is all-loving. Because they haven’t been told that, even by our fellow Orthodox. Why in this culture particularly? Because this culture is enamored with fairness and justice. We want things to be very fair and very just, and we want God to be just. It doesn’t work. Justice does not work. It doesn’t help anyone. I think there comes a time, and especially to these people, that we need to say: God is not just. God is madly in love with you. You mean everything to him. You may mean nothing to yourself, but you mean everything to him.
And keep saying that until the end of time. Never stop saying that, because God knows they need to hear it. There is no logical argument; there is no philosophical argument. That’s not what they’re after. That’s a trap in other words. When that question comes, that’s a trap. Can we please fight? That’s what the question is, actually. Can we please get into an argument? I’m challenging you. Let’s see who knows Aristotle better or whatever, logic better, any system. That’s the trap, and we fall right into it, because it’s so tempting.
It’s the ultimate question. The Bible struggles with it, too. The holy Scriptures struggle with it. Almost every single book asks it, and you don’t get any answers. God refuses to answer, which is so beautiful. Let’s refuse to answer the question, but instead let’s tell them exactly what God told us—not the answers to the actual question that we raised—throughout our history, through and with the cross. Don’t fall into the trap. Bring out the cross. See how that works. That is something we all need. The philosophical argument is just not working, or any other argument.
C4: She’s been trying to ask her question, and then we’ll cut, unless someone has to leave real quick, feel free. Maybe this is the last question.
Fr. Silviu: Okay, yes.
Q10: This is not a question, just a clarification on what you said before. When you said bring out the cross, do you mean pray for them? Do you mean just think about the cross?
Fr. Silviu: Oh, yes! You don’t just pray for them. You become one with them. You suffer with their pain.
Q1: You can become one with them if you are at that level of purity, but most of us are not.
Fr. Silviu: Pray for them. Do not judge them. Never, ever judge, period.
Q1: So, don’t judge, and pray.
Fr. Silviu: Yes. Never, ever judge. Yes. If God does not judge, as St. Isaac puts it, we should not judge either. Do not judge. These people need a big and infinite and endless and non-judging hug, spiritual hug. Nothing convinces them. Every time you are tempted to use words, don’t. Words will get in the way. Nothing will bring anything down like humble love, nothing. That’s another truth, a wonderful insight that Dostoevsky had: If you are tempted to use words, do not; humble love conquers everything. Words don’t do anything. The final question?
Q11: I was just looking at what you’re saying and the differences between humanism and God’s love and finding God in suffering and thinking upon the beatitudes and where we find God’s kingdom, and it’s in that suffering, in that poverty of spirit that it’s when we are in our dire straits and we have nothing in this world that can save us except for that complete faith reliance and by sharing—not by sympathizing, but sharing—in that suffering, then you can be reminded that we are not in the humanism but surrounded in that. It allows us to become more humble, maybe? and to kind of get away from interacting in a way or expecting answers that “I think that I deserve this” or “This isn’t just” or “I can fix this on my own” kind of rich man’s interpretation of what this world has to offer us as opposed to… Is that a good way to…?
Fr. Silviu: A good way to summarize it? Yes. Let me put it in somewhat harsher words. If you want to find God, you’ll find him at the bottom of hell. One of the greatest mistakes we are attempting to make again and again and again is to look for God in heaven, but that’s not the best picture of God. He’s everywhere: I’m not trying… My point is not geographical, by the way. It’s rather spiritual. That’s where it suits him to be. I think people who are there—and many of the dones are there—need to be told that, but with a very, very loud voice, so loud that we cover the other voices: of condemnation, of reproach, of judgment, of commandments, of religion, which is also a word that I hate, too, not just [Christos] Yannaras. I hate it, too. No, don’t offer up religion. That’s the broad attitude, I guess, in a few words. No religion. Christ, but no religion. Thank you. [Applause]