The Gergesene Demoniacs

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, July 12, 2009

Matthew 8:28-34; 9:1 (5th Sunday of Matthew)

Finding a place of sanctuary, a refuge from the tempestuous world in which we live is an essential element for a healthy spiritual life.  The word "sanctuary" comes to us from the Latin word "sanctus" which means holy.  A sanctuary is a holy place where we can go to find peace and commune with God and with others who also seek refuge. The spiritual life is a search for sanctuary.

The demoniacs in today's Gospel were driven by dark forces to choose an unholy place in which to dwell.  Tombs were considered to be the dwellings of ghosts and demons.  They were not wholesome places.  There the demoniacs isolated themselves from other people attacking those who attempted to come near.  The bottom line is that these poor men were miserable.  They were not able to break free from the terrible cycle of suffering in which they found themselves.  Their choice of dwelling reflected the chaos within. Many people live like this.  They may not be possessed by literal demons of course, but by passions and fears that enslave in the same way.  Paradoxically, many come to prefer misery to happiness and despair of ever finding a way out.  Spirituality that does not offer a path out of needless suffering and of authentic transformation is worthless.

There are two kinds of sanctuaries.  One is what we see all around us in these four walls.  Orthodox Christians build churches as sanctuaries filled with holy things, icons, chanting, incense and holy actions: liturgies, sacraments and prayers.  We surround ourselves with holy things in order to aid us in the process of salvation.  In order to keep this place a holy place of refuge we have to keep it clean, pay the bills and improve and beautify it as best we can. All who seek such a sanctuary of compassion and holiness are welcome. In this place the oneness of humanity is celebrated and the beauty of the image of God in everyone is revered as we gather around the holy table as the Body of Christ.  The godly love and compassion we nurture here is the source of the warmth, light and dynamism we feel and experience as we worship together.  This place is a true sanctuary of the first kind.  Still if the hearts that inhabit the church are filled with hatred and pride even the most beautiful temple will be nothing but a whited sepulcher.

The other kind of sanctuary is interior.  We call this sanctuary the "heart."  "The kingdom of heaven is within you," Jesus says and when he instructs his disciples to enter into their closet to pray he is speaking of the heart.  The problem is that the heart also needs to be cleansed, maintained and beautified like this building in order to be the sanctuary it was created to be.  Without proper maintenance the heart cannot clearly reflect the truth that it is the very place where God dwells.  The heart is where the struggle that St. Paul describes in Romans 7:19 is played out:  "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil that I will not to do, that I practice."  This cognitive dissonance causes internal suffering; a painful rift between the image of God within and the often unwise choices we make.  The spiritual life aims to bring this suffering to an end by removing this cognitive dissonance.

Orthodoxy teaches that it is through bringing the heart and the mind together that we are able to create a true sanctuary within where we can go at will.  "There is a time coming," Jesus said to the Samaritan Woman, "and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth."  (John 4:23)  This does not mean that physical sanctuaries will vanish, but that sanctuaries of the heart-mind will be awakened in the faithful through synergistic cooperation with the Holy Spirit.  The faithful will be recognized because their hearts will be filled with the light of God and the sweet-smelling incense of purity.  Compassion will be the sign of God's indwelling in our hearts because God is love.  There is no truer sign.

All the great spiritual works Orthodoxy holds dear speak of this path. The spiritual life is something that must be practiced with every breath, as St. Paul instructs, "Pray without ceasing."  Prayer and meditation taught by the Church through Her scriptures and sacraments is the narrow path that leads to freedom, peace and happiness.  Thanks be to God that people all over the world have begun to awaken again to follow this proven path.  Science and psychology have joined in the effort as well showing us how spiritual practice literally changes the wiring of the brain.  It appears that meditation and prayer actually activate neural circuitry in the brain like nothing else does resulting in a verifiable increase in sensitivity and compassion!  The Holy Fathers and Mothers experienced the transformation Jesus promised and have passed down to us what they learned.

There is much talk in parishes about doctrines, dogmas and history and not much about the pragmatic ins and outs of the spiritual life which, if practiced, would revolutionize.  Real change is possible from the inside out!  The peace that passes understanding, though a gift is something we literally can begin to work towards.  By the grace of God, we have not been left as orphans to be forever enslaved by suffering.  The Gift of the Holy Spirit revitalizes the natural gifts granted to all human beings and together we cooperate with him in the great work of deification.

I hear people say all too often that they do not come to Church because they are just not "religious." "There are 'religious people,' Father Antony, and there are the people who are not religious." That is simply not true! The fact is that we are really not talking about religion at all, but about a way of life. Perhaps people feel this way because the image of religious fanaticism has perverted the image of the spiritual person as weird and unreasonable.  If that were the only way, I would not be standing here. 

Religious extremism is unattractive to say the least.  But authentic spirituality is not extreme or unreasonable and can be practiced quietly with as simple an aim as the pursuit of inner peace or the alleviation of personal suffering.  Since God is "in all places, filling all things" spirituality is as simple as learning to appreciate and live each precious moment to its fullest.  You don't have to become a "crazy fanatic" to practice the spiritual life you just have to come alive to being who you really are. In fact, I would say, that extremism makes authentic faith impossible.

Start by taking a little time to take a conscious breath, to learn the beauty of silence, to pay attention to the present moment, to learn how to quiet the incessant and meaningless dialogue in the mind, say a little prayer now and then with full attention.  Care for your neighbor a little more than yourself. Notice that there is beauty all around if you are willing to see it.  Choose wisely what you will think, say and do.  Slowly, but surely, with such simple practices the mind awakens, the heart becomes pure, the love of Christ reveals itself and the light of the kingdom begins to illumine the soul like the stars of heaven.

In this way we make of ourselves a sanctuary where the Lord is worshipped in spirit and truth.