On the Sunday of All Saints

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, June 03, 2007

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen

Today let’s look at two verses from the readings for today’s Divine Liturgy, one from the Epistle and one from the Gospel.

The first is from the Gospel. “And everyone who has left houses or father or mother or children or lands for my name’s sake will receive manifold and inherit eternal life.” The Lord is inviting us to meditate on the subject of detachment from external, earthly things, but as always he calls us to something deeper for we are called not only to do things that are pleasing to God, but to think them as well. The inside of the cup must be clean as well as the outside.

The second verse from the epistle illuminates this for us: “let us lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” To “lay aside the weight of sin” is not simply to stop doing sinful things, but even more to stop being governed by sinful thoughts arising from our conditioning. As we think, we become. A spiritual teacher said to his disciple, “If you think you are a cow, you may grow horns.”

Detachment is essential. St. John Climacus makes detachment the second rung of his Ladder of Divine Ascent. In order to climb the ladder to the second rung it is necessary to lift both feet. Both mind and body must cooperate in order to progress.

Larry Rosenberg tells a story in his wonderful book LIVING IN THE LIGHT OF DEATH that may help explain the effects of detachment. A colleague of his by the name of Christopher was invited to a hospital to see a patient who had been confined to an iron lung for over forty years. She had contracted polio at an early age. Somehow though she radiated contentment and peace to the doctors and nurses. Everyone loved being around her. Christopher asked, “How can you be so happy?” She replied, “Every now and then someone opens the window, and a breeze comes in.”

This happy woman had had nearly everything taken from her and yet she was joyful. Her body was next to useless, but she learned that happiness doesn’t rely on external things, but on something deeper, something within. She adapted her internal life through tragedy and pain to a reality greater than career, external beauty, earthly power or wealth. She had found the very ground of her being. Polio had taken from her the ability to cling physically to earthly things, but something even greater had happened in her. The terrible chains of mental and emotional clinging and attachment and their opposite, aversion, had also been broken. She had adapted not only to the physical limitations of her body, but also to the image of God she discovered within.

The famous priest-monk Fr. Roman Braga said that during his long time in solitary confinement under the communist government in Romania he realized he had a choice to make. Either he would go insane or he could begin to explore his inner landscape. Thank God, he chose the latter. Instead of insanity he gained wisdom.

Vladimir Lossky makes this point explicitly in THE MYSTICAL THEOLOGY OF THE EASTERN CHURCH. He writes, “Man is united to God as he adapts himself to the fullness of being which opens up in the depths of his very own person.” The image of God within each of us is the “fullness of being” and our true identity. It is wonderful to know that the key to happiness, to contentment, to peace and to communion with God lies inside waiting for us to discover. Every moment, whatever it may bring either good or bad, is rich soil for spiritual movement and growth.

We have all been conditioned by heredity and environment to think and behave in certain ways. We are largely unaware of WHY we do WHAT we do from day to day, but if we are to change and to grow in the image of God, then we must take the risk of looking deeply and “diving into ourselves” so that we can both see and understand what goes on in our own minds. Do you think real change cannot occur? Modern science has discovered just how very pliable the brain is. What was once thought to be hard-wired is now known not to be. Neuroplasticity is the word for it. The spiritual life is the reconditioning of the inner landscape. Everything we do as Orthodox Christians is geared to helping the necessary transformation take place within. Our services, prayers and practices are repetitious because it is through repetition that reconditioning occurs. With the grace of God the reconditioning becomes a right of passage from death to life. The result is that all of life changes both within and without.

We should approach our inner selves with compassion, not to judge, to condemn, or to place blame. It is our job merely to see and then to understand. From this vantage point the miraculous can occur. Negative emotions, psychological sticking points and mental wounds are transformed by the light and power of the Holy Spirit who waits only for our permission and cooperation to effect the changes that must take place. In this way we become “co-workers” with God in our own salvation and, by extension, that of the whole world. The greatest miracle, says Climacus is not raising the dead, but shedding tears of repentance.

So Jesus says we must leave behind father, mother, children and our possessions if we are to follow him. It does not mean that we should no longer care, but that we should care in a way that liberates, not imprisons. Not with attachment, but with detachment. We must stop clinging to external, earthly things and our inner conditioning like drowning people cling to pieces of driftwood. The secret is in letting go. The “sinful weight” the author of Hebrews speaks of is the painful conditioning of the mind of which our sinful behavior is only an outward sign.

“Do not put your trust in treasure that moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal,” the Lord tells us, “but seek first the kingdom and everything else will be added to you.”