November 2005

Fr. Antony PortraitDear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Christ is in our Midst!

I remember my first visit to an Orthodox Church. It was in Tulsa, Oklahoma on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning and I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. From the moment I entered that little converted billiard hall I knew I had left behind everything familiar to me as "church."

The smell of incese, the mystical chanting, the unfamiliar form of worship and the iconography did not have a place in my frame of reference. I was a stranger in that place. I had entered another world. Still, I could not mistake the fact that I was drawn to the experience. It was peacful, beautiful, and otherworldly. For an hour and a half that morning, I suspended my normal everyday concerns and allowed the presence of God to envelope me. From that day forward my life changed.

Human beings most of the time fear the unknown. We feel insecure when we venture outside the familiar. We cling to what we know and return to those things to which we are attached. But the spiritual life demands that we leave behind the familiar, like Abraham when he was called by God to leave the land of his birth, his homeland. God calls us to detachment from the security we think we have because it is not real. When Jesus says, "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me," is pointing to this. Real security lies only in God. Everything else is ephemeral. Everything changes, every relationship ebbs and flows, nothing outside of God is stable.

We need to step outside of our comfort zones. Christ calls us out of the boat and on to the tumultuous Galilean waves. God calls us to leave Egypt behind and follow him into the wilderness. The Promised Land is not familiar. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes about this strange pilgrimage.

Imagine a sheer, steep craig, with a projecting edge at the top. Now imagine what a person would probably feel if he put his foot on the edge of this precipice and, looking down into the chasm below saw no solid footing or anything to hold on to. This is what the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. For here there is nothing to take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; our minds cannot approach it. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of things that the soul knows.

If during the pilgrimage of our Christian lives we find ourselves entering unfamiliar territory or navigating strange waters, if we feel things we have never felt and see the world around us in new and different ways, it may well be that the Lord is leading us out of Egypt and Ur and into Eden. I think we should expect and long for no less. For those of us born into Orthodoxy and those of us who are now "familiar" and cozy with it, the temptation to coast happily along is constant. That is why we must shift into high gear and work even harder to overcome our apathy.

Be sure of this, that "the Transcendent is completely different from the nature of things that the soul knows." We cannot expect the Kingdom of Heaven to conform to us. The great Sufi and mystic poet Rumi wrote these words that are more than apropos:

The Ocean of Purity said to me:
Nothing is attained without effort.
To get to this precious pearl,
You must first smash the shell.

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Antony Hughes