On Cheesefare Sunday

Letter from Fr. Antony Hughes from Sunday, March 9, 2008

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Colossians 3:12 

On the Sunday of Cheese Fare we remember the exile of Adam and Eve from Eden.  It is a tale of tragedy, but also of love.  You see, although our first parents disobeyed God and were commanded to leave the garden; it was not out of anger that God sent them away.  His motive was not anger, but love.  The Holy Fathers say that if Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree of Life at that point, they would have lived forever in their sinful state.  The result would have been eternal enmity between humanity and its Creator.  The love of God did not permit this to occur.

The very worst lie is the one that is almost true.  A truth can never be anything but one hundred percent true, or it is not true.  Think of the serpent's temptation of Eve.  The devil begins with a simple and obvious question. "Did God say you shall not eat of every tree in the garden?"  Eve answered, "Yes, we can eat of them all except the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said that we should not even touch that one because if we do, we will die."  That part was absolutely true. The serpent never denies the facts. That would be too obvious and easy to refute. We have to beware of the twist and it always comes in the interpretation. The serpent replied, "You're kidding, right?  Surely that is not true.  Do you really want to know what's up? God is afraid that if you eat of that tree your eyes will be opened and you will be like Him!"  Ah!  The devil, the father of ego, appeals to the ego!  The devil, say the Scriptures, is the "father of lies", but if the untruth is too obvious it won't fool anybody.  It has to be subtle. It has to be clever or we might never fall for it. 

The Church teaches that God wants us to become just like Him, but the devil counters, "That's right, but you can do it without God. You can do it on your own."  The Church teaches that Adam and Eve were not ready to eat from that tree, but they would have gradually grown to the place where they could.  God would have revealed that perfect moment to them.  The serpent convinced them that the time was right when they decided it was right.

Think of the lie told about Jesus during his trial. After searching hard for a witness to speak against him one was found who said, "I heard him!  He said that the temple would be destroyed and he would rebuild it in three days."  Jesus did say that, didn't He? But the truth here is in the interpretation!  He was not speaking literally of the temple of mortar and stone, but of His own body of flesh and bones. He was speaking of His death and three-day resurrection. The lie was subtle, but whenever a truth or its interpretation is twisted, even slightly, the whole thing becomes a lie.  That is why the Church insists that the truth of Scripture is not in the reading, but in the interpretation.  

The Holy Fathers insist that emersion in Holy Scripture is essential for spiritual growth, but since we are so easily deceived by our own minds they also insist that to understand the Bible correctly we must read it through the "eyes of the Church" for whom and by whom it was written.  Our egos, of course, will always deny the need for this.  The subtle untruth that Scripture may be privately interpreted comes from the prideful assumption that whatever we think about a verse is the Holy Spirit speaking to us.  Because we are not pure vessels it is much more likely our own voice rather than His. The Scriptures call us to "test the spirits" and that is done by submitting our ideas to the mind of the Church. Remember the words of St. Paul to Timothy:

...but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how to conduct yourself in the household of God, which is the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth. (I Timothy 3:15) 

The Scriptures sprang from the Church, not vice versa.  Humility, obedience and reason impel us not to interpret Scripture privately.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, how do we tell when we have fallen into an untruth apart from submitting our ideas to our spiritual father or to some other reputable Orthodox authority?  There is only one way and that is by the fruit that comes of it.  If what we believe leads to love and compassion, then we know we are likely on the right path.  Humility is another sure sign for without humility our lives are simply dreadful.  Does our belief increase in us the knowledge of our utter dependency on God and that we must never exalt ourselves over our neighbors?  If so, then rest assured there is something most worthy in it. 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3

There is one more sign.  Does our belief produce in us happiness and joy?  "Be joyful always," writes St. Paul (I Thessalonians 5:16), but if we are not joyful, then what can be wrong?  Guilt, shame and despair sap our strength and deprive us of joy. So many Christians are miserable, depressed and unhappy and believe this is somehow good.  "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice," writes St. Paul again.  There can be no rejoicing if we are trapped in a belief system that does not produce it.  Guilt and shame give birth to despair (the greatest sin of all).  St. Paul laments to the Galatians (4:5), "what has happened to all your joy?"  What happened is that the Galatians started listening to the Judaizers who taught a different interpretation of the Scriptures than St. Paul!  The erroneous teachings robbed them of joy!  The truth always produces joy.  Unhappiness is a sign that we are off track.

The root of despair is the belief that we are bad and unworthy of forgiveness from God and ourselves.  But if we are created in the image of God that cannot be true!  The sinful thoughts and negative emotions do not come from the image within, but from the "image" we have created for ourselves, the "false image", the ego.  We must never identify ourselves with that "false image" or we are doomed to a life of unhappiness.  The proper Christian way is to define ourselves as created in God's image and to begin to live according to that incontrovertible truth.  Our sins, our thoughts, our emotions do not define who we are, the image of God does.  If we believe ourselves to be slaves of sin, then that is surely what we will be!  A joyful alternative is open to us! How subtle is the demonic lie that sin, guilt, shame and despair are natural and good!  Nothing could be further from the truth.

We must not be afraid to reconsider our way of thinking if it does not produce compassion towards ourselves and our neighbors.  Our minds may have to change. Often we fear that a change in our opinion means a departure from the Faith, but that means we have fallen for the idea that they are always one and the same!  This also means that we deny the possibility of growth for a personal faith that does not change does not grow.  We cannot ever say that we have reached the summit of knowledge to say nothing of wisdom.  As the Desert Fathers say, we are always hoping to make a good beginning. 

The ability to repeat scriptures, doctrines and dogmas does not mean that we have come to understand them correctly or mined their depths.  But there is a still, "more perfect way" that is: to "love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself."  The Scriptures, dogmas and doctrines, if understood correctly and deeply, will lead us to the One of Whom they speak, and He is love.  When we have become intimate with Him no words, no concepts are necessary. "Silence is the language of the world to come" (St. Isaac of Syria). The "world to come" is that world we enter when we come to know experientially that God is "everywhere present and filling all things."  This we can come to know before we die, in this life.  To accomplish this, say the Holy Fathers, we must learn to be silent and still and to be distracted by neither good nor bad thoughts.  Read these words from St. Peter of Damascus:

We should not be distracted by anything; neither by dreams, whether evil or seemingly good, nor by the thought of anything, whether good or bad, nor by distress or deceitful joy, nor by self-conceit or despair, nor by depression or elation, nor by a sense of abandonment or by illusory help and strength, nor by negligence or progress, nor by laziness or seeming zeal, nor by apparent dispassion or passionate attachment. Rather with humility we should strive to maintain a state of stillness, free from all distraction, knowing that no one can do us harm unless we ourselves wish for it.

During Great Lent, if all goes well, we will change.  We will ascend a step or two towards being who we really are: the image and likeness of God.  Lent is all about the need and the possibility of change that is so much more than skin deep.  Applying a layer of Lenten piety on top of our normal way of living and thinking will not do.  Both must change! As Jesus said, we must not put new wine into old wineskins.  So, let us develop wineskins of silence and stillness so that we become good vessels for the new wine of the Spirit.  Through silence and stillness we will come to be able to hear and read the Word of God and the teachings of the Church and understand them as they truly are and not as we want or "think" them to be.

We have to accept that true repentance means real change. If we let go of everything that is not love and nurture stillness, then we will be well on the way to transformation, to love and to true happiness and joy.  For this to happen it is necessary that we let down our defenses and let go of the idea that no change in us, our thoughts, our convictions, our actions is necessary. Humility recognizes this need. Then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, our eyes will open and we will see the road before us.

Remember, the test of our faithfulness to Christ is in the fruit our faith produces.

Your servant in Christ,
Fr. Antony