On the Sunday of the North American Saints

by Fr. Antony Hughes

Sermon Preached by Father Antony Hughes on Sunday, June 13, 2004

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Holiness is life lived in its fullness and all human beings who have a capacity for good share to some extent in holiness. Clement writes that everyone who “participates vigorously in life” shares in holiness. The ascetics and monastics do not have a monopoly on saintliness. There is holiness in all those who create beauty, in those who love deeply, in those who long and labor for justice, who seek for truth, who console and help their neighbors. Holiness is not determined by external standards of morals and ethics, but by a movement of the heart towards what is good.

Even the greatest of sinners has within them the capacity for sharing in holiness. That is why we must not judge anyone, even the sinner. The better way is to “throw a cloak over their sin” (as the monks of the desert insist) and find a way to nourish the seed of holiness in them. Jesus did this as much with the Woman caught in Adultery as with the Apostles who were fishing with their father in today’s Gospel. With the Woman he protected her from the self-righteous and prideful people who tried to stone her and then bid her adieu with these simple words, “Go and sin no more.” He did not read her a list of commandments to obey; He left her with a vocation and a path. With the Apostles He simply turned them from their daily scratching for survival to a deeper purpose: “Come and follow Me.” I have come to believe that the role of a good pastor is to look intently for the seed of holiness in everyone and find a way to nourish it.

St. Isaac of Syria has contributed to my understanding of this perhaps more than any other spiritual writer. Isaac tends to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Let me read to you a few of his surprising verses.

Love the sinner and do not despise them for their faults. Remember that you also partake in an earthly nature and do good to all. Let your manner always be courteous and respectful to all. For love does not know how to be angry or lose its temper or find fault with anyone out of passion.

Do not reprove anyone for any transgression, but in all things consider yourself responsible and the cause of sin.

Avoid laying down the law, as you would flee from an untamed lion. Do not join in this with the children of the Church or with outsiders.

Do not distinguish rich from poor and do not try to find out who is worthy and who is unworthy. Let all men stand before you as equal.

For Isaac of Syria there is one true sign that a person has attained purity and that is when she is able to recognize all people as good and sees no one as impure or profane. If we ourselves are good, then it is to the good in others we are attracted. If we, on the other hand, are evil ourselves, then nothing delights us more than pointing out the wickedness we find in others. The Fathers tell us that if the sin were not already in us, we would not see it in others. Good attracts good and evil attracts evil.

My spiritual father often exhorted me to move towards what is warm and light and shun what is cold and dark.

If holiness does indeed have a foothold in us, then what is left but to nourish the seed within? Whatever we find in ourselves that longs for good we must encourage; we must participate actively in the good we desire. Perhaps it is more important to search out and discover the good that is in us than to concentrate on uncovering the evil. Could this be the intention of the spiritual writers who call self-knowledge the greatest of the spiritual gifts like St. Isaac who writes, “To him who knows himself knowledge of all things is given. For knowing oneself is the fulfillment of the knowledge of all things”? Bishop KALLISTOS Ware once wrote that in the last judgment we will be more surprised by the good we have done than we will be with the evil we have done. Yet we seem to have got it all turned around, don’t we?

My dear ones, concentrate on all that is good, holy, pure, truthful and beautiful. Do not focus on the darkness whether it is within or without. Turn your eyes towards God and let your hearts become light.