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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
Curing the Illness of Pharisaism
Transcript of a homily by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus (as transcribed by the Orthodox Center for Dogmatic Enquiries—translated by the staff of "Orthodox Heritage," edited for length).
Having promised yesterday, I will say a few words on the topic of Pharisaism.
All these things that take place—everything that we do—our pilgrimages, our candles, our night-vigils, our prayers, our fasts, our gestures of charity—everything that we do in our life—are for what purpose and what is the reason that we do them? The answer to this question is very important, because correctness about our spiritual life is dependent on it.
Let me give you an example: I ask children at our summer camps: "what is God’s greatest commandment? What is God’s most important commandment, my children?" And all the children—all of them—quote various commandments: do not steal... do not lie... do not be unjust to your fellow-man... respect your parents... love your neighbor... However, none of the children suspect that not a single one of these is God’s first commandment. I suspect that the same is likely true among most grown ups as well.
God’s first and only commandment—all others are in reality the result of this first one—is to love God with all of your heart. Christ Himself said that the first commandment is: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. (Mk 12:30)
And a second commandment, similar to the first—which springs from within the first commandment—is the one that says love thy neighbor. Everything else is a result of these. If you love your neighbor, you will not rob him, you will not lie to him, you will not be unjust with him, you will not take his things, you will not tamper with his wife, you will not interfere with his home, you will not censure him... That is what we mean by "it springs from the first commandment." The love thy neighbor is likewise a result of the first commandment. If you truly love God, it is impossible to not love your neighbor. Therefore, the first and only commandment by God is to love God Himself with all our heart. Subsequently, whatever we do in church, has that precise purpose. And that is why we go to pilgrimages, why we fast, why we pray, why we go to confession, why we light candles, why we read the lives of saints, ... It is our way of loving Christ.
Now, where is our mistake? The mistake is that, unfortunately, we say that we do all these things in order to just become good people... and that is where the big hoax lies. It is the step that we all stumble over. Because, if the purpose of the church was just to make us better people, then there wouldn’t be any need for a personal relationship with Christ, nor would there be any reason for Christ to have come to the world. Why do you think we aren’t able to understand the saints? Or, to ask it in a simpler manner, why is it that we cannot understand those who love God?
We often ask whether it is necessary to do certain deeds in order to be saved, to be near to God. Is it necessary, let’s say, to depart to the mountains or the desert (as some saints did)? Of course not. If we could understand that our relationship with God is not only for the sake of salvation, but is a relationship of love, only then will we understand the saints and why they did the things they did (much of which cannot be interpreted rationally). This is because love transcends logic. Even secular love—the way that one person loves another person—for example when one wants to get married, he loves the young lady that he will wed, and the same applies to the young lady—then they do things that seem totally irrational. If, for example, you were to ask her or him who is the most beautiful or handsome one in the world, they will probably say it is their beloved. Naturally, they are seeing the other through their own eyes... Our eyes see something entirely different... The prospective bride will describe her man with the finest words. She sees no flaws in him, no faults... she can’t see anything bad about him, because love transcends all these things. And, of course, the same holds true for the groom as well.
Love cannot be forced into the molds of logic. Love is above logic. That is how God’s love is. God’s love surpasses human logic. That is why we can’t judge with logical criteria those people who love God. That is why the saints reacted with a logic of their own; they had a different kind of logic, and not the logic of humans; because their logic was the "logic" of love. So, the church does not teach us just to become good people, not in the least. It is only natural, that we have to become good people, because if we don’t, then what have we succeeded in doing? Our Church teaches us to love Christ, to love the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Inside the church, a relationship develops. It is a personal relationship between man and Christ; not with the teaching of Christ and not with the Gospel. The Gospel is something that helps us to reach the point of loving Christ. When we reach that point of truly loving Christ, the Gospel "will no longer be needed." Nothing will be needed... all these things will cease... only man’s relationship with God will remain. That is the difference between the church and religion.
Religion teaches you to do your duties, the way the idolaters did. An example: let’s say that we went to our pilgrimage sites, paid our respects, left some money in the charity box, left some lit candles, some oil, or even our entreaties, our names, our offering-bread, everything. All these things are religious duties, but our heart has not changed in the least. The hour of duty ends, and we are the same as we were before: we are ready to attack the other, ready to protest about the other, ready to be sour again, the way we were before.... Our heart has not changed. And thus, we do not acquire that relationship with Christ, because we simply confine ourselves to duties—to religious duties.
And you must know that such people—you know, "religious" people—can become the most dangerous kind in the church. May God protect us from them... Once, when I was officiating in church and we were citing the words Lord, save the pious...; a Holy Mountain monk jokingly remarked: "Lord, save us from the pious..." In other words, God save you from those "religious" types, because their behavior often implies a warped personality, which has never had a personal relationship with God. These types [of persons] merely perform their duties towards Him, but without any serious relationship involved and that is why God says nothing about this type of person. And I too, must confess, that—from my own experience—I have never seen worse enemies of the church than this type of "religious people."
Whenever the children of religious people, or of priests and theologians—or even of those who in church act like theologians and with self-importance—tried to become monks or priests, they [the parents] became even worse than demons. They would become exasperated with everyone. I remember parents who would bring their children to our homilies, and when their child progressed spiritually, they became the worst among all and found faults with all others. And I would say to them: "But you were the ones who brought the child to the homily; I didn’t bring him..." One other time, I told a father whose daughter I could tell had a zeal for the church: "Make sure you don’t bring her again to any homily. Don’t bring her to talk with me, because your daughter will become a nun and afterwards you will say that I was to blame." He replied: "Oh no, father, far be it! We adore you!" And his daughter did in fact become a nun... It has been seven years now, and he still isn’t talking to me...
People who wouldn’t miss a single homily, all those who were always the first to show up at homilies, night-vigils, Bible studies... they would also bring their children along; however, when the time came for the children to exercise their freedom—to decide by themselves which path to choose—then those people would move to the extreme opposite camp, thus proving that Christ had never spoken to their hearts. They were merely "religious people." That is why religious people are the toughest kind in the church. Because you know what? Sometimes, people like these will never be cured, because they only think they are close to God.
Sinners, on the other hand—the "losers," so to speak—at least they are aware of their sinful nature. That is why Christ said that publicans and prostitutes will go to the Kingdom of God, whereas to the Pharisees He had said: This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.(Mt 15:8). They had merely adhered to the observance of religious formalities.
Therefore, we should all pay close attention and understand that the church is a hospital that cures us and helps us to love Christ, and our love for Christ is a flame that ignites inside our heart so that we can examine ourselves, to see if we are within God’s love. If we discern all those forms of malice and selfishness and wickedness inside us, then we should be concerned, because it is not possible for Christ to be in our heart when we are full of "vinegar" inside. How can you be praying and at the same time be full of bile towards another person? How is it possible to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? How is it possible to be part of the church for so many years—either as a monk or a priest or whatever—and yet, where is the alpha and omega of our faith, which is love? Where is that patience towards your brother? By not embracing true love, it means that you have accomplished absolutely nothing.
We saw how Christ reached the point of telling those virgins that He would have nothing to do with them. He threw them out of the wedding hall even though they had all the virtues; what they didn’t have was love. It is as if He was telling them that "you may have external virtues, you may have remained virgins, you may have done a thousand things, but you didn’t achieve the essence of that which is the most important." What’s the use, whether I consume olive oil today, or I don’t? I may [fast and] not eat olive oil, for example, but I devour my brother from morning to night... They used to say on the Holy Mountain "don’t ask if I eat fish; as long as one doesn’t eat the fisherman, he can eat fish"; or, "as long as you don’t eat the oil-bearer, you can have a drop of olive oil to eat." To "devour" someone with a sharp tongue is far worse than consuming a spoonful of olive oil. And yet, we focus on things like that: we eat oil, we don’t eat oil; we eat fish, we don’t eat fish...
You can see how ridiculous these things are and how the demons make fun of us, as well as all those who are outside of the Church. And when such non-Orthodox minded folks approach us, instead of seeing the people of our Church transformed into Jesus Christ—into sweet-natured people and mature people, well balanced, fulfilled people, full of harmony inside them—they instead observe us driven by all of our passions and the sourness that accompanies them; and they will inevitably say: "What? And become like one of them? I’d rather not!"
You, who are a churchgoer, tell me how the church has benefited you. You have visited several pilgrimage sites, you saw the fathers, you saw the holy relics, you saw the Holy Mountain, the Holy Mother at Tinos Island. What was the end benefit of all these experiences? Was your heart transformed? Did you become humbler people? Did you become sweet-natured? Did you become meeker people in your homes, your families, your monastery? Or at your place of work? That is what truly counts. If we did not achieve those things, let us at least become humbler, with true repentance. And, if we did not manage that either, then we are worthy of many tears—we are truly pitiful...
When asked how many years he had lived on the Holy Mountain, Elder Paisios used to say: "I came here the same year as my neighbor’s mule." (His neighbor, old Zitos, had a mule—and you know how every cell on Mount Athos has an animal, a mule, for carrying their things. That animal has a long life span; you don’t buy a mule every day—they are too expensive). "Well, the year that I came here, to the Holy Mountain, my neighbor purchased his mule in the same year. We have the same number of years on the Holy Mountain, and yet that poor beast remained a mule, but then so did I. I didn’t change at all."
So, we quite often say "I’ve been here for forty years;" and we, priests and monks, tend to say these words: "I have been in the monastery for forty years." But what we do not realize is that all these years are not in our favour. God will say to us: Forty years, and you still haven’t managed to become something? You are still angry after forty years, you still censure, you still contradict, you still resist, you still are not submissive to your Elder? You’ve had forty years, and you still have not learnt the first thing about monastic life and about Christian life. What am I supposed to do with your years? What am I to do with you, if you have spent fifty years with frequent confessions and you cannot respond to another person with a kind word? What use are all these things to Me?
All of these facts weigh against us. And I am saying all these things first about myself. Because they apply to me first... And because I know these things from myself, that is why I am telling you about them (and why you must also think I am saying them to each one of you). People think that I’m referring to them, but it is not so. It is first about me that I mentioned these things... about me first... We need to consider these things to at least humble ourselves; let’s keep our mouth shut, as all those egotistically-driven behaviors ridicule us and make us look foolish in the presence of the Lord.
If we humble ourselves and cease to have grand ideas about ourselves, maybe then can we begin to correct ourselves, gradually, through true repentance, which is born out of true humility. He who does not strive to justify his actions truly repents. He who keeps justifying himself will never repent; and that person who always justifies himself—either externally or internally—will never learn the meaning of repentance. That is why we should always examine ourselves. As the Apostle says, let us test ourselves, to see if there is a love of God inside us, if we are living within the realm of repentance, so that God can cure our existence; this kind of association with the Church can heal us, and thus we can become people who have been cured of their passions and their sins.
Many ask how we can reach this point. How do we get there? Well, we do it by leaving ourselves in the hands of the Good Physician—God; when we leave ourselves trustingly in His hands; because when we are in various circumstances, in difficulties, God knows what is best for each one of us and will lead us along those paths that will slowly, over the years, perfect us. All we need to do is give ourselves to God with trust, the way we give our trust to a doctor, or the captain of a ship. We show trust. He leads us, and we do not worry about the destination and the arrival timer; we know that the one steering the ship is mindful, vigilant, and he knows the way and is careful.
Another important element that I would like to discuss a little further with you (also because some of you have asked me to do so) is on the issue of time.
Did you notice during these days that we have been spending on this ship, how we had no external distractions? We had nothing to draw our attention elsewhere, like at home, for example our televisions. Did you see how much time we had available? We even conversed among ourselves. You who are married had time to talk to each other. The children played together, they talked amongst themselves, and we had lots of time to ourselves and we communicated with each other, and that is the most important element of all: that we could communicate. The most tragic thing is at home, when everyone is sitting in front of the television and they don’t talk to each other... time slips away and people do not communicate with each other. And even worse than this are the program we see on television! They are the source of the worst corruption for us, for our children and for our souls.
One day, when we had disembarked and were walking about, I noticed in one of those refreshment cafes, that a television was on; and, even though nobody was paying attention to it, the TV was still on. So I stood there for a moment, to see what it was showing: I guess it was something like some people who were chasing after some other people all the time, and there was a constant chase, there were guns, bullets, cars, explosions, jumping from one house to another, etc. But these are things that your children, your young children, sit and watch; so much violence... and I’m not even discussing the obscenities that can be heard, which have destroyed even elderly folks. I hear about such things during confession. Elderly people, very old people, who are otherwise very respectable, have been ruined by television, from all that vulgarity that they are exposed to every day. I’m not referring to that specific damage right now; I am referring to all the other things—all the violence that the television projects. Our children become over-familiarized with violence and will naturally become unruly and disobedient; they will do things that are entirely foreign to their human nature!
Have you any idea what an ugly sight it is, when you see young children mimicking older people? They mimic adults, and they destroy their innocent childishness. Sometimes, when I am invited to an event, they bring along tiny toddlers and tell them to dance. And you see these little girls or boys, ten or twelve years old, full of innocence, making dance moves that they have seen older men and women do, entirely disgraceful, with another morality altogether. You can actually see how those children are being destroyed, with their emulations of the adults that they see on television. And also doing all sorts of things and entertaining themselves with choices that are catastrophic. And I am not saying this from the spiritual aspect only, but from every aspect—psychological, social and family.
Keep your children as far away as possible from such things. Help your children to not be dependent on television, because they will be filled with obscene images, and so will you. If you don’t allow your children to watch obscene movies, but you the adult does, then what’s the use? And what about those silly warnings that they write on screen—that the movie is not suitable under 17 or 13 or... Does that mean that if they turn 13 this sight becomes a suitable one? Of course those warnings only arouse the youngsters’ curiosity, and every one of them will inevitably watch the film. They think to themselves that if this movie is forbidden for those younger than 13, it must have something that is deserving of every curiosity...
In my opinion, the destruction that is inflicted on people’s inner world is incalculable. All positive and good images that one absorbs are extremely beneficial in one’s spiritual life. The same applies in reverse; the bad images that a person observes create damage that is literally extreme, and sometimes, we cannot tell if it can be cured.
If someone would study this phenomenon, he would see just how great a catastrophe television can wreak on a person’s psyche, and especially in younger people. But that is only the beginning; one evil will bring on another. It will be a whole chain of evils, because it destroys communication, it destroys time, it destroys the innocence of a person’s soul, and then man becomes exhausted; and being exhausted, he has no desire to do anything, especially anything spiritual. His soul gets filled with things that wearied him, and then he wonders why he is tired—he cannot understand why... Try eliminating television and the like (or at least minimize these evils), and you will see how much more relaxed you will become and how much free time you will have at your disposal.
Naturally, these things are not unrelated to our spiritual life, because a person’s spiritual life is a product of all the activities that a person does. By this, I don’t mean to say stop watching television altogether. I am not against it per se; it’s just that things like these make our life more difficult instead of making it easier, and they destroy it, the way it was destroyed by technological "progress" which has—otherwise—facilitated our lives. You catch a plane, and you are there. You get on a ship, and you get there quickly... or a thousand other conveniences. In the long run, such conveniences may have facilitated our lives, but they also trapped us and made us lose ourselves; they made us lose the beauty of our life and we eventually destroyed the world we live in, and now we want even more sciences and discoveries, to see if we can salvage what is left of it...
All these things that constitute the tragedy and by-product of our Fall make it abundantly clear just how impossible it is to humanly tackle this problem; and yet, if one turns to God, then we will see that which Christ had said that: With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (Mt 19:26). We can see around us that miracle by God, which, even in our day, with all the information and all these provocations taking place around us, and the accessibility to sin, still, there are people who love God and from among the thorns, we see roses spring forth.
Roses blossom from among the thorns, and the immense miracle of man’s salvation becomes reality, regardless of our own human weaknesses, our wretched state, our problems, the difficulties with our self, our church, our family, our society and the other elements that unfortunately bombard every person. That is why, to return from all these things, we need to return where we started from, when we said that the solution and the answer to all problems is for man to turn towards loving God, and that when man loves God, then God will cure him; God will resurrect him—even if that person is dead and decomposing—God will restore him, provided man discards from inside him all that is useless and put in his heart a love for God, and build his life around that love for God. And atop that love for God, to build his life, his marriage, his family, his path, his studies, his course in life. If man does that, then he will truly come to enjoy life and his life will become a paradise, because paradise is nothing more than God’s love, whereas "hell" is nothing more than the absence of God’s love.
So, it is my wish, as a conclusion to this homily, that the love of God will always accompany all of you, and that we should not forget that everything we do, we must do for that reason, and not just to be religiously behaving people. We must become God-loving people, so that our lives can be transformed correctly and we ourselves be transformed into Jesus Christ our Lord.
God be with you.