The Good Will Factor

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.   (Matthew 7:12)

“There is nothing we can offer to God more precious than good will. But what good is will? To have good will is to experience concern for someone else’s adversities as if they were our own; to give thanks for our neighbor’s prosperity as for our own; to believe that another person’s loss is our own, and also that another’s gain is ours;

to love a friend in God, and bear with an enemy out of love; to do to no one what we do not want to suffer ourselves, and to refuse to no one what we rightly want for ourselves; to choose to help a neighbor who is in need not only to the whole extent of our ability, but even beyond our means. What offering is richer, what offering is more substantial than this one? What we are offering to God on the altar of our hearts is the sacrifice of ourselves!”

(St Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p. 65)

Spiritual Pleasures

“We are aware of a difference between the pleasure we experience in our bodies and that we experience in our hearts. Physical pleasures, when we lack them, arouse in us an all consuming desire for them. As soon as we possess and devour them, though, our satisfaction turns into distaste. Pleasures of the spirit, on the other hand, seem distasteful when we do not possess them, but once they begin to be ours, our desire awakens. The more hungrily we seek them when we have begun to enjoy them, the more do we enjoy them even as we hunger for them.

With our bodies it is the desire that gives us pleasure, not the gratification of our desires with the spirit, as the desire is nothing, the fulfillment is all the more pleasing. Physical desire leads to satiety, and satiety leads to distaste for what we desired; spiritual desire produces satiety, and satiety leads to new desire.

The pleasure of the spirit increases our inner longing even while it satisfies us, since the more we savor it the more we perceive that there is something more to long for.”  (St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p 15)

Patience: Being Able to See Clearly

“Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors. As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”  (James 5:7-11)

“Patience is a virtue,” goes the saying.  It is indeed one oft mentioned in the New Testament but rarely in the Old Testament.  Patience needs other virtues to bear fruit, otherwise it can just be inaction, passive tolerance.  Patience needs to be coupled with the actions of love, kindness and mercy to be Christian virtue.

“Therefore the patient [people] should be told to study how to tolerate those whom it is necessary for them to love. For if love does not follow patience, the virtue on display will transform itself into the greater sin of wrath. Thus, when Paul says: ‘Love is patient,’ he immediately adds: ‘it is kind’ (1 Corinthians 13:4).  Clearly those who are tolerated in patience are also loved with unceasing kindness. And so, the same great teacher when he was persuading his disciples of the virtue of patience, was saying: ‘Let all bitterness, and wrath, and indignation, and clamor, and blasphemy be put away from you’ (Ephesians 4:31). And having put all outward matters in good order, [Paul] turned to the internal life when he added: ‘with all malice.’

Because clearly, it is useless for indignation, clamor, and blasphemy to be endured externally, if internally malice, which is the mother of all the vices, dominates. In vain is wickedness cut from the outer branches if it survives at the root internally, only to grow again in many forms. Thus, the Truth well says in person: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and speak falsely of you’ (Luke 6:27).  For it is a virtue before men to endure adversaries, but it is a virtue before God to love them. Because the only sacrifice that God accepts before his eyes on the altar of good works is the flame kindled by charity. Hence, to those who were patient but did not love, he says: ‘And why do you see the particle in your brother’s eye but not see the beam in your own?’ (Matthew 7:3)

 For the disturbance of impatience is the particle, while malice in the heart is the beam in the eye. For the breeze of temptation blows the former, but consummated iniquity makes the beam nearly immobile. Rightly, then, was it added: ‘You hypocrite, first remove the beam from your own eye and then you will be able to see so that you can clear the particle from your brother’s eye’ (Matthew 7:5).  It is as if it were being said to a wicked mind, which grieved inwardly but feigned patiences externally: ‘First, cast off the beam of malice and then correct others for their mere impatience; otherwise, if you do not even attempt to conquer your own pretences, you will suffer much more than simply bearing the faults of others.'”

(St. Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, pp. 104-106)

The Sin of Envy

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart.  What is feeding this illness?  The happiness and good fortune of others!  The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received.  Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues.  That turns a negative passion into a good.   I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own.  This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life.  One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.

“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”

The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 108)

Love One Another

And so when the Lord said, This is my commandment, that you love one another, he added immediately, just as I have loved you.

He means that we must love for the same reason he has loved us. My friends, when the devils draws us to take pleasure in passing things, he also stirs up a weak neighbor against us. This neighbor may plot to take away the very things we love. In this case, our enemy is not concerned with doing away with our earthly possessions; he wants to destroy our love. We may suddenly begin to burn with hatred, and while we try to be outwardly invulnerable, inwardly we are gravely wounded. As we defend our few external possessions we lose our great interior one, because when we love something passing we lose true love. Anyone who takes away one of our external possessions is an enemy; if we begin to hate this enemy, our loss is not of anything external, but of something insides ourselves. And so whenever we suffer anything from a neighbor, we must be on our guard against the enemy hidden within. Our best way of overcoming this inner enemy is to love the one who is attacking us from without. The unique and supreme proof of love is this: to love a person who opposes us.

15507959496_ffb4ed8d0f_nThat is why Truth himself bore the suffering of the cross, and even bestowed his love on his persecutors. He said, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Should we marvel that his living disciples love their enemies when their dying Master loved his? He expressed the extent of his love when he said that no one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends. The Lord had come to die even for his enemies. He said that he would lay down his life for his friends to show us that we are able to win over our enemies by our love for them, then even our persecutors are our friends. But no one is persecuting us to the point of death, and so how can we prove that we love our friends? In fact there is something we ought to do during times of peace to make clear whether we are strong enough to die for the sake of love during a time of persecution. John, the author of the gospel I have been quoting from, says in his first letter: Those who have this world’s goods and see a brother or sister in need, and who close their hearts, how does God’s love dwell in them? And John the Baptist says: Let one who has two coats give to one who has none. Will those who refuse to give up a coat for the sake of God during a time of peace give up their lives during a persecution? 

You must cultivate the virtue of love during times of tranquility by showing mercy, and then your love will be unconquerable in a time of chaos. First you must learn to give up your possessions for almighty God, and then yourself. You are my friends…  How great is our Creator’s mercy! We were unworthy servants, and he calls us friends! How great is our human dignity, that we should be friends of God! Now listen to what this dignity costs: if you do what I command you. And we have already heard that this is my commandment, that you love one another.”  (Spiritual  Readings from St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, pp 48-50)

The Blind Man Healed at Jericho

The Gospel lesson of Luke 18:35-43 has a blind beggar petitioning Jesus for mercy.  The blind man is given the gift of sight by Christ.

Then it happened, as He was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) writes:

“We must believe that our Savior’s miracles were truly performed, and that they are revelations as well; his works show us one thing by their power, and tell us another mystically. We do not know the historical identity of the blind man who was sitting by the wayside as Jesus drew near to Jericho, but we know who it is he mystically represents. The blind man is the human race. Driven from the joys of paradise in our first parents, and ignorant of the brightness of divine light, our race experienced the darkness of rejection. Yet we are enlightened by the presence of our Redeemer, so that we can already behold the joys of inner light through our desire for them, and can direct our footsteps, our good works, in the way of life.

The blind man is described as sitting by the wayside, and also as begging. Jesus himself told us: I am the way.

Those who are ignorant of the brightness of eternal light are blind. If they already believe in their Redeemer they are sitting by the wayside. If they believe, and acknowledge the blindness of their hearts, and if they beg to receive the light of truth, they are sitting by the wayside and begging. If any of you recognize the darkness of your blindness, if any of you understand that you lack the light of truth, then cry out from the bottom of your hearts, cry out with your thoughts, cry out ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Be Friends of God: Spiritual Readings from Gregory the Great, pp 23-24)

Peacemaking In a Troubled World

The Lord Jesus said: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

In the Orthodox Church liturgies, prayers for peace abound in the litanies.  Additional the celebrant and congregants wish each other peace throughout the services.  When the Gospel is proclaimed, peace is wished upon all those listening.

Yet, we know that peace in the world is elusive, even though Christ our Lord commands us to love even our enemies.  We pray for and hope for and pursue peace with all, and yet we cannot determine how others will act towards us or towards each other.  St. Gregory the Great, (d. 604AD) reflects on the difficulty of wishing to pursue peace in a world in which many are not interested in peace at all, nor are they influenced by or concerned about God.   Are Christians only to be Good Samaritans and come in and help those who are suffering, or do Christians have any mandate to resist or prevent evil from occurring, even by the use of force?

St. Gregory writes:

“Therefore, those who are peaceful should be advised that if they desire human peace too greatly, they might fail to reprove the evil conduct of others. And by condoning that behavior, they will sever themselves from the peace of the Creator – for by avoiding external quarrels, they will be punished for breaking their internal alliance [with God]. For what is transitory peace if not a footprint of eternal peace? Therefore, what could be more demented than to love a footprint, pressed in dust, but not love the one who made the impression?

Thus David, when he would bind himself to the internal footprints of peace, testifies that he did not hold any concord with evil persons, saying: ‘Did I not hate them who hated you, God, and waste away because of your enemies?’ For to hate God’s enemies with a perfect hatred is to love what they were made to be but to reprove what they do; in other words, to reprove the actions of the wicked but to remain of assistance to them. Therefore, we must well consider what a great sin it is if we silence our criticism of the wicked and hold peace with them. […] The peaceful are to be advised that they not fear to disturb the temporal peace by offering words of correction. Again, they should be advised that they keep inwardly with undiminished love that peace that will be disturbed externally by their reproving words. David declares that he has observed both prudently when he says: ‘ With those who hate peace, I was a peacemaker; when I spoke to them, they fought against me without a cause.’ Notice that when he spoke, he became embattled, and yet, despite this opposition, he was peaceful. He did not cease to correct those who were incensed against him, nor did he cease to love those whom he reproved.

Likewise, Paul said: ‘If it is possible, as much as it is in you, have peace with all people.’ For just as he was about to exhort his disciples to have peace with everyone, he began by saying: ‘If it is possible,’ then added: ‘as much as it is in you.’ For indeed, it was difficult for them who were to correct evil acts to have peace with everyone. But when temporal peace is disturbed in the hearts of evil men because of our correction, it is necessary that peace should remain in our own hearts. For it is rightly said: ‘As much as it is in you.’ (The Book of Pastoral Rule, pp 151-153)

Peace is to rule in our hearts, even if we have to confront evildoers and those who disturb the peace.  We should defend what is good and right without losing the peace that comes from Christ.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Charity: The Love of God

St. Jacob of Alaska

“Let the sowers of strife hear what is written: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.’ On the other hand, let them recognize that if those who make peace are called the ‘sons of God’, then those who confound it are the sons of Satan. Moreover, all those who separate themselves, through discord, from the lifeline of love will wither and die.[…] Therefore, let the sowers of strife consider the extent to which they sin. For when they perpetuate this particular sin, they also eradicate every virtue that they may have in their heart. For in this one evil, they beget many others, because by sowing strife they extinguish charity, which is the mother of all the virtues. And because nothing is more revered by God than the virtue of charity. Therefore, whoever destroys the charity of his neighbor by sowing strife acts as though he were in the service of God’s enemy. For he takes from their hearts this very virtue, which the devil lost before his fall, and he cuts them off from the path by which they might return.”   (St. Gregory the Great – d. 604AD, The Book of Pastoral Rule, pps.154-155)’

St. Gregory the Great
St. Gregory the Great

In these weeks of Great Lent we take note of the divine words of St. Gregory the Great: “nothing is more revered by God than the virtue of charity.”   While the ability to fast from food differs greatly from person to person, all of us can practice charity with neighbor and stranger.  We each are able to make it our Lenten effort to protect and preserve “the charity of our neighbor.”  We contribute to the lives of all when we live so as to enable our neighbor to be charitable.

Welcoming the Stranger: Christ Needs Your Hospitality

St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome (d. 604AD), writes:

“Dearly beloved, love hospitality, love the words of charity. Paul said: Let the charity of the brotherhood remain, and do not forget hospitality; it was by this that some have been made acceptable, having entertained angels hospitably; and Peter told us to be hospitable towards one another, without complaint; and Truth himself said: I needed hospitality, and you welcomed me.

Here is an incident generally believed, handed down to us by the reports of our elders.

A certain head of family with his entire household zealously practiced hospitality. Every day he received strangers at his table, and on a certain day a nameless stranger came among them and was brought to the table. As we his humble custom, the head of the family wished to pour water for his hands. He turned to get the pitcher, but suddenly he could not find the person on whose hands he intended to pour the water. He wondered what had happened; and on that same night the Lord said to him in a vision: ‘On other days you received me in my members; yesterday you received me in person.’

You know that when he comes in judgment he will say, What you did to one of these, my least ones, you did for me. You know that before the judgment, when he is received in his members, he is himself searching for those who will receive him. And yet we are disinclined to offer the gift of hospitality. Consider, my friends, how great the virtue of hospitality is. Receive Christ at your tables so that you can be received by him at the eternal banquet. Offer hospitality now to Christ the stranger, that at the judgment you may not be a stranger, unknown to him, but may be received into his kingdom as one of his own.”

(Forty Gospel Homilies, pps. 177-178)

Seeking the Episcopacy: Salvation not Reputation

In as much as the OCA is in the process of electing a new Metropolitan, we can consider the words of St. Gregory the Great (d. 604AD) about those who seek to become bishops.  Some according to St. Gregory seek the office of bishop for wrong reasons, looking not for their salvation but to enhance their reputation:

“Moreover, it should be noted that he said this at a time when whoever supervised the laity was the first to be led to the torments of martyrdom. Therefore, it was laudable in that era to seek the episcopate, when whoever held it would suffer severely. It is for this reason, then, that the office of the episcopate is defined as a ‘good work’ when it is said: ‘If one desires the episcopate, he desires a good work.’ Therefore, he who seeks not the good work of the ministry, but only the glory of honor, testifies against himself that he does not desire the office of a bishop. For a man does not love the sacred office, nor does he even understand it, if by craving a position of spiritual leadership he is nourished by the thought of subordinating others, rejoices at being praised, elates his heart by honor, or exalts in the abundance of his affluence.” (The Book of Pastoral Rule, pg. 41)