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April 14, 2019 | Wisdom
“Whatever gentleness you use in speaking to others, the very same gentleness will Christ use with you. With whatever measure you measure out with others, with that very same measure will He apportion to you.”
Elder Joseph the Hesychast
It is easy to go to confession. When we stand before the priest, there is usually a list of sins available. We can look at it and be reminded of our sins. An experienced priest will be able to help us by suggesting possible sins that we may have committed. At the end of confession the priest asks us: do we repent of our sins? Note the question, dear brethren! We are not asked: have you confessed your sins? But – do you repent of your sins?
And so, dear brethren, we have reached the fifth Sunday of the Great Lent. Today the Holy Church offers us St. Mary of Egypt as a supreme example of repentance. Not everyone is able to understand why, precisely, the Church has chosen her. “She led a most sinful life,” – they say, – “she was a terrible sinner.” But such words can be said only by those who have not yet come to understand the sacrament of penitence.
Let us carefully consider this extraordinary sacrament. Let us first look at how it is revealed to us in the example of the venerable Mary. St. Mary of Egypt led a dissolute way of life. Arriving in Jerusalem, even there she continued to engage in debauchery. But when she wanted to go into the church and venerate the Lord’s precious Cross, she was barred from entering. Gradually she understood why that was happening and began weeping bitterly. Catching sight of an icon of the Mother of God, she prayed to it, repented her way of life and vowed, under the guidance of the Holy Virgin, to reform her life.
At first glance it may seem an easy thing to do. However, let us think, dear brethren: how many of us have truly repented our sins? The Church calls us to penitence and communion. And so we go, and we confess our sins, and we partake of the Holy Mysteries. But… during confession, do we truly repent? or do we only list our sins?
It is easy to go to confession. When we stand before the priest, there is usually a list of sins available. We can look at it and be reminded of our sins. An experienced priest will be able to help us by suggesting possible sins that we may have committed. At the end of confession the priest asks us: do we repent of our sins? Note the question, dear brethren! We are not asked: have you confessed your sins? But – do you repent of your sins? And when we answer: yes, I repent, – we must feel complete remorse in our hearts and truly repent, repent in the same way that Mary of Egypt repented her sinful life.
At least once in our lifetime we receive encouragement towards penitence. Mary of Egypt was barred from entering the church. She understood the reason and spent the following 47 years in penitence. For us the doors of the church are not closed; however, we close them ourselves. “How is that?” – you may well ask. – “I go to church, I confess, I take communion.” Dear brethren! If we, knowing that a service is going on in church, go out to amuse ourselves instead, or sit around the house in idleness, or if we, having taken communion, immediately begin to pass judgment on others and commit anew the sins that we have just confessed, – we close the doors of the church upon ourselves. Even if we enter the church physically, our constant and unrepented sins bar from our souls the grace, the purity, the comfort which we expect to receive in church.
We must understand the sacrament of penitence and immerse our-selves fully in it. After St. Mary of Egypt realized her sins and her guilt, the Holy Virgin led her out of society into the desert, where she became completely immersed in repentance and spent many years in this spiritual labor. For her absolute repentance, her soul was totally healed and she ascended to a level of absolute sanctity. When the venerable Zosimas found her in the desert, she was waiting for him. She had become like the angels.
St. Mary actually confessed only three times in her life: the first time – before the icon of the Mother of God, when she became aware of her sins; the second time – in church before her departure for the desert; and the last time – to the elder Zosimas, when she recounted her life to him. But she repented for 47 years. Through her penitence she so purified her soul, returned both her soul and her body to such a paradisal state, that she lay dead in the desert for a whole year, untouched by corruption, or beasts, or the burning sun, or the windswept sands, and when the elder Zosimas found her, a lion came out of the desert and helped bury her. Thus the Lord Himself glorified her and gave her to us as an example of supreme repentance.
Five weeks of the Great Lent have passed already, dear brethren. Let us ask ourselves: have I begun to repent as Mary of Egypt once repented? Have I become aware of my sins? Have I truly understood them and have I repented of them with a sincere intention of reforming myself? Let us not come to confession simply to list our sins, dear brethren, but let us come and repent of them in all earnestness, let us purify our hearts, so that we could truly sing: “The angels sing in the heavens of Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Saviour, and may we on earth glorify Thee with a pure heart.” Amen.
Remember, Christian soul, that this ascent on high is indispensable for anyone who wishes to save his soul unto eternity.
Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky)
Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mk. 8:34), said the Lord to his disciples, calling them unto Him, as we heard today in the Gospels.
Dear brothers and sisters! We too are disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, because we are Christians. We too are called unto the Lord, to this holy temple, to hear His teaching. We stand before the face of the Lord. His gaze is directed at us. Our souls are laid bare before Him; our secret thoughts and hidden feelings are open to Him. He sees all of our intentions; He sees the truth, and the sins we have committed from our youth; He sees our whole life, past and future; even what we have not yet done is already written in His book. He knows the hour of our passing into immeasurable eternity, and gives us His all-holy commandment for our salvation: Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Through living faith, let us lift up the eyes of our mind to the Lord Who is present here with us! Let us open our hearts, rolling back the heavy stone of hardness from its entrance; let us hear, ponder, accept, and assimilate the teaching of our Lord.
What does it mean to deny ourselves? It means leaving our sinful life. Sin, through which our fall occurred, has so encompassed our nature that it has become as if natural; thus, denial of sin has become denial of nature, and denying nature is denying ourselves. The eternal death that has struck our souls has become like life for us. It demands food: sin; it demands to be pleased—with sin. By means of such food and pleasure, eternal death upholds and preserves its dominion over man. But fallen man accepts the growth of the dominion of death in himself as growth and success in life. Thus, he who is infected with a fatal disease is overcome by the forceful demands of this disease and looks for foods that would strengthen him. He seeks them as the most essential foods, as the most needed and pleasant delights. The Lord pronounced His sentence against this eternal death, which mankind, sick with terrible fallenness, imagines to be life: For whosoever will save his life, cultivating in it the life of fallenness or eternal death, shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it (Mk. 8:35). Placing before our eyes the whole world with all its beauty and charm, the Lord says, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? What good is it for man, what has he really acquired if he should come to possess not only some minor thing, but even the entire visible world? This visible world is no more than man’s temporary guesthouse! There is no item on the earth, not a single acquirable good that we could call our own. Everything will be taken from us by merciless and inevitable death; and unforeseen circumstances and changes often take them away even before our death. Even our own bodies are cast aside at that sacred step into eternity. Our possession and treasure is our soul, and our soul alone. What shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mk. 8:37), sayeth the word of God. There is nothing that can recompense the loss of the soul when it is killed by eternal death, which deceitfully calls itself life.
What does it mean to take up our cross? The cross was an instrument of shameful execution of commoners and captives deprived of a citizen’s rights. The proud world, a world at enmity with Christ, deprives Christ’s disciples of the rights enjoyed by the sons of this world. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me (Jn. 15:19; 16:2–3). Taking up our cross means magnanimously enduring the mocking and derision that the world pours out upon followers of Christ—those sorrows and persecutions with which the sin-loving and blind world persecutes those who follow Christ. For this is thankworthy, says the Apostle Peter, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For even hereunto were ye called (1 Pet. 2:19, 21). We were called by the Lord, Who said to his beloved ones, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).
Taking up our cross means courageously enduring difficult unseen labor, agony, and torment for the sake of the Gospels as we war with our own passions, with the sin that lives in us, with the spirits of evil who vehemently make war against us and franticly attack us when we resolve to cast off the yoke of sin, and submit ourselves to the yoke of Christ. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, says the holy Apostle Paul, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12). (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5). After gaining victory in this unseen but laborious warfare, the Apostle exclaimed, But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world (Gal. 6:14).
Taking up our cross means obediently and humbly submitting ourselves to those temporary sorrows and afflictions that Divine Providence sees fit to allow against us for the cleansing away of our sins. Then the cross will serve us as a ladder from earth to heaven. The thief in the Gospels who ascended this ladder ascended from out of terrible crimes into most radiant heavenly habitations. From his cross he pronounced words filled with humility of wisdom; in humility of wisdom he entered into the knowledge of God, and through the knowledge of God, he acquired heaven. We receive the due reward of our deeds, he said. Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom (Lk. 23:41–42). When sorrows encompass us, let us also, beloved brothers and sisters, repeat the words of the good thief—words that can purchase paradise! Or like Job, let us bless the Lord who punishes us, Who is just yet merciful. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, said this sufferer, and shall we not receive evil? As it hath pleased the Lord so is it done; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 2:10; 1:21). May God’s promise, which is true, be fulfilled in us: Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him. (Js. 1:12).
Taking up our cross means willingly and eagerly submitting ourselves to deprivations and ascetic labors, by which the irrational strivings of our flesh are held in check. The Apostle Paul had recourse to such a crucifixion of his flesh. He says, But I keep under [in Slavonic: “deaden,” or “mortify”] my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (1 Cor. 9:27). They that are in the flesh, that is, those who do not restrain their flesh, but allow it to overcome the spirit, cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). Therefore, though we live in the flesh, we should not live for the flesh! For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die (Rom. 8:12) an eternal death; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live (Rom. 8:13) an eternal, blessed life. The flesh is essentially restrained by the spirit; but the spirit can only take control of the flesh and rule it when it is prepared to submit to its crucifixion. The flesh is crucified by fasting, vigil, kneeling in prayer, and other bodily labors placed upon it wisely and within measure. A bodily labor that is wise and within measure frees the body from heaviness and corpulence, refines its strength, keeps it ever light and capable of activity. They that are Christ’s, says the Apostle, have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal. 5:24).
What does it mean to take up our cross, and take up specifically our own cross? It means that every Christian should patiently bear those very insults and persecutions from the world that come to him, and not any others. This means that every Christian should manfully and constantly war with those very passions and sinful thoughts that arise in him. It means that every Christian should with obedience and dedication to God’s will, with confession of God’s justice and mercy, with thankfulness to God, endure those very sorrows and deprivations that Divine Providence allows to come upon him, and not some other things painted and presented to him by his proud dreams. This means being satisfied with those bodily labors that correspond to our physical strength, the ones that our flesh require in order to keep it in order, and not to seek after increased fasting and vigil, or all other ascetic feats beyond our measure, which destroy our physical health and direct our spirit towards high self-opinion and self deceit, as St. John Climacus describes. All mankind labors and suffers upon the earth, but these sufferings differ; the passions differ that war against us, the sorrows and temptations differ that God sends us for our healing, for the cleansing away of our sins. What differences there are in people’s physical strength, in their very health! Precisely: every person has his own cross. And each Christian is commanded to accept this cross of his own with self-denial, and to follow Christ. He who has denied himself and taken up his own cross has made peace with himself and with his own circumstances, with his own position both internal and external; and only he can reasonably and correctly follow Christ.
What does it mean to follow Christ? It means studying the Gospels, having the Gospels as the only guide of the activity of our mind, heart, and body. It means adapting our thoughts to the Gospels, tuning the feelings of our heart to the Gospels, and serving as an expression of the Gospels by all our deeds and movements, both secret and open. As we said before, only the person who has escaped deceit through voluntary humility (Col. 2:18), who has desired to obtain true humility of wisdom where it abides—in obedience and submission to God—is capable of following Christ. He who has entered into submission to God, into obedience combined with complete self-denial, has taken up his own cross, and accepted and confessed this cross to be his own.
Beloved brothers and sisters! Bowing down bodily to worship the precious Cross of the Lord today according to the rule of the Holy Church, we bow down also in spirit! We venerate the precious Cross of Christ—our weapon of victory and banner of Christ’s glory—each confessing from his own cross, “I have received the due reward of my deeds! Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom!” By recognizing our sinfulness with thankfulness to God and submission to His will, we make our cross—that instrument of execution and mark of dishonor—an instrument of victory and sign of glory, like unto the Cross of the Lord. Through the cross we open paradise to ourselves. Let us not allow ourselves any evil murmuring, and especially not any soul-destroying blasphemy, which is often heard from the lips of the blind and hardened sinner, who writhes and thrashes upon his cross, vainly endeavoring to escape from it. With murmuring and blasphemy the cross becomes unbearably heavy, dragging to hell the one crucified upon it. “What have I done?” cries the sinner in denial of his sinfulness, accusing the just and merciful God of injustice and mercilessness, blaming and rejecting God’s Providence. The one who saw the Son of God crucified, mockingly and evilly demanded of him, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us (Lk. 23:39),—let him now come down from the cross (Mt. 27:42). But our Lord Jesus Christ was pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh and to endure death in order by the cross to make peace between God and man, and to save mankind by death from eternal death. Having prepared the holy Apostles for this great event—the incarnate God-man’s sufferings and shameful death, potent to redeem the human race—the Lord informed the Apostles in good time that He must be given over into the hands of sinners, must suffer much, be killed, and resurrected. This forewarning seemed strange and unlikely to certain of the holy Apostles. Then the Lord called unto Him his disciples and said to them: Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Amen.
St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
In the Law it is written that God commanded the sons of Israel to give a tenth part of all they had acquired during each year, and thereby bring a blessing upon all their deeds. With this in mind, the Holy Apostles established and committed to us as a help and benefaction for our souls something yet greater and more exalted–that we should set apart a tenth portion of the very days of our lives and devote them to God. Thereby might we also receive a blessing for all our deeds, and yearly cleanse the sins we have committed over the course of the whole year. Thus discerning, they have sanctified for us out of the 365 days of the year these seven weeks of Holy Great Lent. So they set apart these seven weeks; but later the Fathers deemed it wise to add yet another week: first of all, so that those wishing to initiate themselves in the ascesis of the fast over the course of this week might accustom themselves to it and prepare themselves for it; and secondly, in order to render honor to the number of days of the Great Fast which our Lord Jesus Christ fasted. For after subtracting Saturdays and Sundays from the eight weeks we have forty days; the fast on Great Saturday is particularly honored, because it is most sacred, and the only Saturdays throughout the year on which a fast it kept. Seven weeks minus Saturdays and Sundays make thirty-five days, then to this is added the fast of Holy and Great Saturday and half of the Bright and Light-bearing night; thus we have thirty-six and a half days, which equals exactly a tenth part of the 365 days of the year. For the tenth part of three hundred is thirty, the tenth part of sixty is six, and a tenth part of five is one-half (of the Bright Day). So, as we have said, there are thirty-six and a half days–the tenth portion of the whole year which, as I have said, the Holy Apostles have sanctified for us for repentance and the cleansing of the sins of the whole year.
So blessed, O brethren, is he who preserves himself well in these holy days as he should. For though it might happen that being human we sin out of infirmity or negligence, still God has given these holy days in order that, striving with heedfulness and humility of wisdom, we take care for ourselves and repent for all of our sins, and we will be cleansed of the sins we committed during the whole year. Then our souls will be delivered from their weight, and we will arrive at the Holy Day of the Resurrection cleansed, receive Communion of the Holy Mysteries uncondemned, having become new through the repentance of the Holy Fast. In spiritual rejoicing, with God’s help, we will celebrate the entire Holy Pentecost season–for the Pentecost season, as the Holy Fathers say, is the repose and resurrection of the soul. This is signified by our not kneeling during whole Holy Pentecost season.
Thus he who desires during these days of Lent to be cleansed of the sins he has committed over the course of the whole year should first of all refrain from eating much food, for the lack of limitation in food, as the Fathers say, gives birth to every evil in man. Then he should also take care not to violate the fast without great need, not to seek tasty foods, nor weigh himself down with excess food or drink. For there are two kinds of gluttony. The first kind is when a man seeks pleasant foods, and does not always wish to eat much, but desires something tasty. It happens that when this type tastes a dish he likes, he is so won over by its pleasant taste that he holds the food in his mouth, chews it for a long time, and regretting to part with its pleasant taste, he delays swallowing it. This is called in Greek “lemargia,”–the demon of the throat. The other type is assailed by the desire to eat a large quantity–he does not desire good food and is not concerned about its taste, but only wants to eat, whether the dishes are tasty or not, and he makes no distinction. His is only concerned with filling his belly. This is called “gastrimargia,” that is, the demon of the belly.
I will tell you also about the etymology of these words. The word “margenin,” demonic possession, is the word used by Hellenic scholars to describe those who are possessed by demons, and the possessed person is called margos. So when anyone has this infirmity, that is, a demonic compulsion to fill the belly, then their infirmity is called gastrimargia, from the words indicating demonically-possessed, and belly–that is, to be demonically possessed with regard to the belly. And when the demonic possession regards only the throat it is called lemargia, form the words meaning throat, and demonic possession. Therefore he who wishes to be cleansed of his sins must take great care to flee these kinds of gluttony; they satisfy not the needs of the body, but passion; and if one surrenders himself to them it will be accounted unto him as sin. The act in lawful marriage and fornication is one and the same, but the aim constitutes the difference of the matter; for one acts to conceive children, while the other acts to satisfy his love of pleasure. It is the same in relation to food: to eat out of need and to eat in order to delight one’s taste is one and the same act, but the sin is to be found in the intention. Someone eats according to need when he determines for himself how much food to take in a day; and if he sees that this quantity of food he has determined weighs him down and should be a little decreased, he therefore decreases it. If it does not weigh him down, but is rather insufficient for the body and his body requires a little more, he adds a little more. Thus having tested well his need, he holds thereafter to a determined measure and eats food not in order to delight his taste but rather to maintain his body’s strength.
However, even the little food that someone eats should be received with prayer, and he should condemn himself mentally as unworthy of any food or consolation. He should likewise pay no attention to others who out of some current requirement or need receive some comfort in this regard, so that he might not desire comfort for himself, and in general he should not think that the repose of the body is an easy thing for the soul.
Once, when I was still in the community, I went to visit one of the elders–for there were many great elders there–and I found that the brother who was serving him took food together with him. Seeing this I told him separately, “Do you not know brother, that these elders who, as you see, eat and make certain condescensions for themselves according to their needs, are like people who have acquired storehouses; and after working for a long time, they have stored therein what they have earned until they have filled them. Once they have filled and sealed the storehouses, they begin again to work now for their own expenses, and they collect another thousand gold-pieces so that they will have something to use in time of need, preserving what they have set aside in the storehouses. So also these elders, after working a long time, have gathered in their youth treasure for themselves, and having sealed it up, they have worked a little longer, to have something in the time of their old age and infirmity to take from, and preserve what they have gathered as a treasure trove. But we have not even acquired the storehouse itself. What shall we have to spend?” Wherefore we should, as I have said, when taking food out of bodily necessity, condemn ourselves and consider ourselves unworthy of any consolation and even of the monastic life itself, and we should not take food without restrain, so that it will not be to our condemnation.
We have said this concerning restraint of the belly. However we must not limit our temperance to food, but refrain also from every other sin. Just as we fast with our stomachs, we should fast also from every other sin; just as we fast with the belly, we should fast also with the tongue, restraining it from slander, from lying, idle-talking, from belittlement, from anger, and in a word, from every sin that is performed by the tongue. We must likewise fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things, not give freedom to our eyes, not look at anyone shamelessly and without fear. The hands and feet should also be constrained from every evil deed. Having fasted, as St. Basil the Great says, by a favorable fast, removing ourselves from all the sins of all of our senses, we shall attain to the holy day of the Resurrection, having become as we have said, new, pure and worthy of Communion of the Holy Mysteries. But first let us go out and meet our Lord Jesus Christ Who comes to suffer, and with olive and palm branches let us receive Him sitting upon the foal of a donkey, entering the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Why did the Lord sit upon a foal? He sat upon a foal so that He as the Word of God might subdue and convert our souls–which as the Prophet says are like irrational and unthinking animals–to His Divinity. What does it signify that He is met with palm and olive branches? When someone goes to battle with his enemy and returns victorious, all his subjects greet him as victor with palm branches, for palm branches are a symbol of victory. Likewise when a man suffers offense from another and wishes to appeal to a someone who can defend him, he brings him olive branches, crying out and entreating for mercy and aid, for olive branches are a symbol of mercy. Therefore we meet our Master Christ with palm branches for He is Victor, for He has conquered our enemy; and with olive branches asking of Him mercy, entreating that just as He has conquered for us, so we might conquer through Him–that we might be bearers of the sign of victory not only for the sake of the victory He has won for us, but also for the victory we have won through Him, by the prayers of all the saints. For to Him is due every glory, honor and worship unto the ages. Amen.