Taking the More Excellent Way
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 21, 2013
I have two points to make today and they are about Mary of Egypt. They will lead me to the subject of this last week in our beloved city of Boston. Point number one.
Why did Mary go to the desert the most inhospitable place in the whole world? For one reason: she decided it was time to stop running from her pain, to face it, and be healed. The anesthesia for her hidden pain was, as we all know, lust and pleasure. She had to stop taking the drug.
In order to do that she had to leave behind her unhealthy way of life. The streets and brothels of Alexandria were the structure that supported her addiction to excitement and pleasure. She had to detach from it and from the false belief that unbridled pleasure brings happiness, that getting what she wanted when she wanted it was freedom. It is not.
The crisis that moved her to seek change is represented to us in the story of her attempt to enter the church of the Holy Sepulchre. When she tried she couldn’t get it. An invisible force stopped her. In actuality it was her shame and guilt that stopped her, that and the Holy Spirit working together to wake her up. Her bubble burst! Her illusion of happiness was shattered. All of a sudden she was denied something she wanted and her so-called happiness was shaken! With her perfect equilibrium broken, her happiness was revealed to be what it actually was, a thin veneer, a fragile dream, an illusion, a nightmare.
What happens when our perfect balance is challenged? Let’s look at how snowflakes grow. At the optimal temperature of 0 Celsius a drop of water will become a perfect hexagon; perfect, but ordinary. The beautiful shapes we think of when we consider snowflakes don’t occur until a crisis comes and the perfect temperature drops. Then and only then will the snowflake grow its unique, lacey dendrites and take on the immaculate, creative, unrepeatable fairy-tale shapes we love.
That is what happens to Mary when she leaves Alexandria behind and begins the difficult process of detachment. Only then does she begin to resemble her true, beautiful, unique human shape. Detachment is the way to growth, healing, and transformation.
Detachment is painful. We don’t really want to change. We don’t really want to be healed. We will hold on for dear life to nonsense like barnacles on a ship. Like the Gergesenes who witness the healing of the demoniacs, we want Jesus to go away and leave us alone in our so-called happiness. We are deluded and we like it that way. That is why crisis must come. Otherwise we would never get anywhere. Since we are so stuck in our ways crisis leading to detachment is the way of healing.
My second point is this. She did not go to the desert to punish herself. She went to find herself. I used to think of Mary’s time in the desert as a time of self-torment. It was not. She was not motivated by self-hatred, but by love. She met her internal enemies and did exactly what Jesus commands. She loved them. She turned the other check, she did not judge, she did not resist. She prayed for them. She began for the first time to treat herself with lovingkindness. Yes, lovingkindness! When the change we need is urgent, the cure is all the more urgent. But it is not punishment; it is surgery.
Looing deeply into her life she heard the voices of the least of the brethren; the voices she had all but drowned out in Alexandria. The silence and solitude of the desert revealed them. Anthony of Egypt discovered this truth as well, but the supreme example is Jesus himself who went into the wilderness for the metaphorical 40 days and 40 nights. There he listened to the least of the brethren in himself. They were the voices of all of suffering humanity as well as his own just like Mary for we are all connected. The only difference was that Jesus lived a life of detachment always.
Thomas Merton wrote, “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we…admire in ourselves – but what we resent, our wretchedness, misery, poverty, and our sins.” I have come to believe that if we have not yet discovered our own wretchedness, misery, poverty and sins we have not yet found the true and living Christ.
St. Paul writes that he wants to show us “the more excellent way,” the way of love. This is the path Mary took and it led her to the barrenness of the desert just as it has countless other people. Deserts take on different forms. In Russia they were often forests. In other places they are mountains, monasteries, caves. But this is not just for monks. There are deserts that appear in our lives, times and places of loneliness that we try so hard to avoid, but when they come, sometimes after a crisis, sometimes not, we should not avoid them. We should enter them.
This week we have been in a desert collectively. What transformation will come of it has yet to be seen, but much has been revealed. The potential for brutality lives in all of us. The potential for beauty and goodness does as well. My grandmother’s last words to me were Navajo words of wisdom. “Walk in beauty,” she whispered. Let’s you and I walk choose to walk in beauty.
Brothers and sisters, one thing that is supposed to set Christians apart from the world is the willingness to forgive those who hate us and those who love us and even those who try to kill us. We must forgive everyone for everything even 70 times 7 in a single day.
In crisis some rise to the occasion and commit acts of incredible courage and compassion, others run away. This time many did not run away. Many rose up and took the more excellent way. We can do that all the time even in the humdrum details of life as it usually is. Let’s do that.
It is time for us, every one of us, to commit ourselves to the more excellent way of radical love. Today we must choose the way of Jesus, the way of Mary. “Turn the other cheek,” “do not judge”, “do not resist evil”, “love your enemies and pray for those who despitefully use you.” Pray for the victims. Pray for the bombers. Pray for the dead. Pray for the first responders. Pray for each other. Pray for yourself. For Christians this is not an option; it is a commandment.
I was asked this week whether or not it is appropriate to pray for the terrorists. It is not only appropriate for us, it is a requirement. If St. Isaac of Syria could say that the heart of a true Christian weeps even for the devils, then surely we can bring ourselves to pray for a nineteen-year old boy.