As in Heaven, So on Earth

The Lord Jesus taught us: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  (Luke 6:31-36)

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Let’s imagine that we are now in heaven.  We’ve made it to the kingdom of God.  I look around at the other people who are also in God’s Kingdom.  I see some people who were always kind to me back on earth, so I try to figure out how to be kind to them here in heaven.   I see someone who forgave me in my lifetime when I really hurt them, so I walk up to them and talk to them.   Over there I see some people who I never liked in life, and they turn away from me and pretend I’m not there.  That’s OK by me as I don’t really want to deal with them.  I see someone else who betrayed me one time and told all my friends and family about something bad I had done.  They were truthful about what they said, but it embarrassed me and caused other people to condemn me.  When I see that person in heaven, I’m disgusted and decide to find people I like rather than have to be around someone who told everybody about my problems.

What is wrong with this picture of heaven?

It’s just like earth.

So we have to think what did our Lord Jesus teach us about how we are to treat people who have cursed us or despised us or hated us or wronged us or offended us?  We are to treat them as we want to be treated.

Heavenly values are not: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.  They are not about reciprocity.  There is no retaliation in heaven.  No mutual gift exchanges either.  No treating others as they deserve.   Rather, the only principle guiding how people are to treat one another in God’s Kingdom is Love.   Treat others in the same way that you hope God will treat you on Judgement day – with mercy, forgiveness, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness.  Those are heavenly values.

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When Jesus says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?  He is saying, what sort of gift is that?  Is it a gift to pay people back for the good things they do for you?   That’s not a gift, that’s just pay back.  On the other hand, God gives His gifts to us whether we are good or evil.  God gives rain and sunshine to all.  God’s gifts go far beyond what is expected, deserved, earned, because they are gifts of love.  God gives us life, and we are supposed to be pro-life, which also means we should love all who are alive (which we also know is very hard!)

From the Triads of St Paul (19th Century British Document), we do encounter a Christian thinker reflecting on what Jesus commands us to do:  “There are three ways a Christian punishes an enemy: by forgiving him, by not divulging his sin, by doing all the good in his power.”  We punish them by not behaving as they behave, and by not giving them any reason to hate us.  They’ll have that!

Jesus said: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.”

This used to be called what?     The Golden Rule

This rule says to treat people as you want to be treated.  If you want people to respect you – what do you need to do?  Respect them.  Don’t try to buy their respect by giving them gifts or praise, that is bribery.  Don’t just do them favors so that they will think well of you.  That’s manipulation.  If you want their respect, respect them, treat them with respect.  Treat everyone as you want to be treated.  Don’t command it of them or demand it from them.  Model it.  Show them how you would like to be treated by how you behave and treat them.

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You want them to serve you?  Then serve them.

Do you want them to love you?  Then love them.

Constantly and at all times by your own behavior, attitude, words and deeds demonstrate to others how you want to be treated.

If you are self centered and selfish, you are telling others that is how you want them to behave as well, so don’t be angry when they reflect back to you how you are behaving.

Finally we remember the words of St Paul in today’s Epistle:  “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”   (2 Corinthians 4:6-8)

Darkness is what we already have, but the Gospel commands are the light which shines out of our darkness and gives us the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.  God’s commandments can make even this earth into heaven.

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The Greatest is Love

If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing. Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servants of God, by it we recognize his apostles. Christ said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples.” By what? Tell me. Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons? No. Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.

For the power to perform those other wonders is a gift which comes only through a grace from on high. This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal. A man’s nobility does not usually stamp the gifts which are given from above in the same way as it marks the achievements which come from a man’s own efforts. Therefore, Christ said that his disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love. For when love is present, the one who possesses it lacks no portion of wisdom but has the fullness of complete and perfect virtue. In the same way, when love is not there, man is bereft of every blessing. This is why Paul exalts love and lifts it on high in what he writes. Still, for all he may say about love, he never fully explains its true worth.

(St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp. 52-53)

True Lenten Charity

He gave Himself up for the life of the world (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

“Strive to acquire humility, and charity – the real charity, which never limits itself to gifts no matter how generous, but, consuming the heart with infinite compassion for all creatures, generates a pure flame of good will and the firm decision to help every single one of the great host of unfortunates.”  (Macarius, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, 56)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”  (Genesis 9:8-17)

God’s covenant relationship is not just with the chosen people, but with all creation, which God repeats again and again as God talks to Noah:  with every living creature (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16), with the earth (9:13),  with all flesh (9:15, 16 and 17).  If God so loves the world which He created, shouldn’t we?

Love God with ALL Your Heart

St Gorazd of Prague

“For example, God says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all our might’ (Deut. 6:5); yet how much have the fathers said and written – and still say and write – without equaling what is contained in that single phrase? For, as St. Basil the Great has said, to love God with all our soul means to love nothing together with God; for if someone loves his own soul, he loves God, not with all his soul, but only partially; and if we love ourselves and innumerable other things as well, how can we love God or dare to claim that we love Him? It is the same with the love of one’s neighbor. If we are not willing to sacrifice this temporal life, or perhaps even the life to come, for the sake of our neighbor, as were Moses and St. Paul, how can we say that we love him? For Moses said to God concerning his people, ‘If Thou wilt forgive their sins, forgive; but if not, blot me as well out of the book of life which Thou hast written’ (exod. 32:32); while St. Paul said, ‘For I could wish that I myself were severed from Christ for the sake of my brethren’ (Rom. 9:3). He prayed, that is to say, that he should perish in order that others might be saved – and those others were the Israelites who were seeking to kill him.” 

(St. Peter of Damaskos, The Philokalia, pp. 175-176)

The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)

Kindness

Kindness does not mean overlooking people’s sins; it means forgiving them. Kindness also does not mean “being nice” to everyone whoever they are and whatever they do. It does not mean “going along” with others in every way. A kind person will correct others, if need be, and his very kindness will be shown by his care and concern for the well-being of his fellow creature “for whom Christ died” (Rom 14.15).

(Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 85)

The Foundation of Love

Spiritual progress has no other test in the end, nor any better expression, than our ability to love. It has to be unselfish love founded on respect, a service, a disinterested affection that does not ask to be paid in return, a ‘sympathy’, indeed an ‘empathy’ that takes us out of ourselves enabling us to ‘feel with’ the other person and indeed to ‘feel in’ him or her. It gives us the ability to discover in the other person an inward nature as mysterious and deep as our own, but different and willed to be so by God.

In this fallen world the unity of human beings has been broken, everything is a ‘rat race’, and I try to free myself from the anguish that torments me by projecting it onto another, the scapegoat of my tragic finiteness. The other person is always my enemy and I need him to be so. In Christ, however, death has been defeated, my inner hell transformed into the Church, I no longer need to have enemies no one is separated from anyone. The criterion of the depth of one’s spiritual growth is therefore love for one’s enemies, in accordance with the paradoxical commandment of the Gospel that takes its meaning solely from the cross – Christ’s cross and ours – and from the resurrection – again Christ’s and our own.

(Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 270-271)

Maintaining the Unity of the Community


“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”   (Isaiah 55:6-9)

The rise of desert monasticism occurred because some Christians hoped they could live a communal life based solely on the Gospel commandments of Christ rather than on the wisdom and power of the world.   They rejected the success of imperial Rome and the “Roman Peace” based in worldly power and might.  They understood the ways of the world could be more efficient but they believed the means must be consistent with the end rather than that the ends justified the means.  They were not willing to sacrifice their morality based in the Gospel commands to achieve their desired goal.  Or rather, they saw living in this world according to the Gospel commandments as the goal, not the means to the end.  They were not trying to earn their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, rather they were trying to live the up-side-down values of the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth.  As they prayed – as in heaven, so on earth – so they tried to live.

These Christians developed an entire literary genre firmly based in these values of the Kingdom – the apophthegm, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.  These sayings are part of a wisdom literature of the people of God.  They are not rules and rubrics, but wisdom based in experience.  Sometimes they are simply stories  which show how they tried to live together with the only rules being those of the Gospel.  What we see in these stories is sometimes even humorous.  Today, we might look at them and say how ridiculously impractical for we can see easy solutions to their problems – correct the mistakes and move on.  They however wanted to live in the unity of love, and believed they must never ever break that bond of mutual concord.  So for example we read this sagacious aphorism:

Once when Abba John was going up from Scete with other brothers, their guide lost his way and it was night. The brothers said to Abba John: “What shall we do, abba, for the brother has lost his way; maybe we will wander off and die?” The elder said to them: “If we tell him he will be grieved and ashamed. But look here: I will pretend to be sick and will say: ‘I cannot travel [further] so I am staying here until dawn,’” and so he did. The rest of them said: “Neither are we going on; we are staying with you.” They stayed [there] until dawn and did not offend the brother. (John Colobos, Give Me a Word, p. 135)

Our pragmatism would smile and say, “just tell the guide he is going the wrong way.”   Their dilemma is that they must not break the unity of love between themselves, and so rather than point out the fault or failure of the guide, the one elder feigns illness to stop the guide from going further astray, rather than embarrass the guide by pointing out his fault.  They looked not for the most straightforward and pragmatic solution to their “problem” –  that they are lost.  For them, the real problem was: knowing they are lost, how do they stop the guide from making everything worse without shaming him.

“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.”   (1 Peter 4:8)

The values of the Kingdom must be lived, and so without ever pointing out the guide’s error, they found a way to stop and wait for daylight to see where they were.  The Light of Christ would shine on them, but they had to find the way to get to that point without offending the guide.  And in this story, everybody else except the guide knew they were lost.  It isn’t majority rule in the Kingdom, it is majority love.

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.   (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

The Way of Love is the Way of Co-suffering

Nicholas Kotar in his book, The Song of the Sirin (Raven Son Book 1), has one of his characters ask a thought provoking question – a thought experiment about human creativity.  We are capable of creativity and of making things beautiful, but we come into a world not of our making, and so we interact with that world.  Humans have a synergy with creation and with God.

“Tell me, Voran. What is the most beautiful thing a man can mold and form, though it is not of his own creation?”

Voran had already contemplated this question for a long time, and thoughtfully gives a reply which immediately suggests to  him a follow up question.

How many times had he pondered the same question while sitting half-frozen on the banks of their river of a morning?

“His own life,” he said.

The most beautiful thing that we can form which we did not create is our self!  This is why Christianity is not mostly about learning information, but it is about formation.  We are each in the process of forming our soul, our self.  We cooperate with God in creating our self – true synergy.

“His own life,” he said. “To make his own life beautiful, what must he do?”

It came to him like floodwaters, overwhelming.

The answer to this question is one which Orthodox Christianity has embraced, contemplated and attempted to live in its spirituality.  God has imbued us with the gifts necessary for and capable of making things beautiful.  It is truly a good that we can add to creation.

To love as God loves is to love to the point that one suffers with the other, for the other and even because of the other.

“A human being can only become truly human if he lives for others.  That way, the way of love, is by necessity the way of pain. Shared pain. Co-suffering.”  (page 82).

The way for us to become truly human – to make ourselves good and beautiful is the way of love, the self emptying love which God revealed in the incarnation.  For God to become human, God emptied himself.  For us to become fully human is to become as God is, which means we too must empty ourselves.

“The kind of co-suffering we are talking about is …  precisely in the ability to understand man, fathom the good qualities he possesses, and to appreciate him, freeing him from the admixture of falsehood.  What is required for this– in addition to humble love– are a power and broadness of mind.  Thus, co-suffering is the ability to come to an inner self-identification with a person, a joyous blending with all that is good in him, and sorrow about all that is negative.  This is precisely where a ‘fisher of men’ is revealed.  Such people somehow manage to penetrate a person completely, to appropriate all his thoughts, to become linked to his very heart and soul, to raise his whole being to truth and love.  All this requires spiritual knowledge, sincere love and the ability to know the innermost thoughts of a person without reacting in a negative manner.

Hieromartyr Gorazd of Prague

The prerequisite of this influence of one will upon another may be stated thus: By humbling oneself, loving and learning about people, a human being ascends or returns to a primordial mysterious union with everyone and, in pouring the holy content (acquired through communion with God) of his soul into the soul of his neighbor, he transfigures the inner nature of the latter in such a way that merely by the consent of his will, the difficult path of his rebirth is almost accomplished.”  (Anthony KhrapovitskyDOSTOYEVESKY’S CONCEPT OF REBIRTH, pp 37-38)