The Walls of the House
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 1, 2015
I believe that the parable of the Pharisee and Publican is, on a deeper level, not about two different men, but that each character represents two different parts of most of us. The Pharisee part: the critic of others, the judge, the finger-pointer, the proud and defensive part. And the Publican: the one who is ashamed, who humbles himself, even degrades himself, as he points his finger not at others, but at himself. Both are finger-pointers with different objects of focus. The Pharisee on others, the Publican on himself. Who of us is not capable of both?
Another similarity while we’re on it is that each exhibits a variety of fear. The Pharisee must be right. He fears that the hyper-religious house of cards he has built to protect himself from his own suffering will fall if he does not defend it by condemning others. The Publican fears his suffering as well. He has built a house of shame to help protect him from his deepest pain. e has built aThe difference is he that shame is closer to the root of the problem than pride. So, both are finger-pointers because they are both afraid of their own suffering. Both exhibit pride although one is more ostentatious than the other. The poet Hakim Jamil wrote, Do not boast that you have no pride, because it is less visible than an ant's foot on a black stone in a dark night. And do not think that bringing it out from within is easy, for it is easier to extract a mountain from the earth with a needle.
The important thing that separates them and makes the Publican leave justified rather than the Pharisee is that the Publican has made the essential turn from external things to internal things. He has stopped blaming others and is blaming himself. That is a step in the right direction for sure and Jesus praises him for taking it, for it means he has begun the process of repentance, and it is only a first step. Repentance does not stop there.
Repentance eventually leads to a form of self-love that is pure. St. Francis of Assisi began his ascetical labors pointing fingers at himself and calling himself “Brother Ass”. Later, as he grew spiritually and psychologically he changed his name to “Brother Moon” for he discovered that underneath his stubborn, sinful parts was a treasure, a gift, a very beautiful thing indeed: human nature. This is the next step. We see beneath the parts that condemn and shame us to the root of who we are. As St. Anthony the Great said near the end of his life, “I no longer fear God, I love him.” The fruit of repentance is the transformation of fear into love. When we are no longer afraid, we are no longer addicted to thinking about ourselves and we can then become like God who is love.
This is the way to internal peace, for the only way to find the peace that passes understanding is to stop thinking about ourselves. As long as we are self-centered, there can be no internal peace. Only when we let go of worrying and self-concern are we able to move to the next step which is: to see that at the root center of ourselves is the kingdom of God.
This is when we stop defining ourselves by our defensive parts, but rather by the truth of who we are. Underneath the fear, pride, anger, shame and guilt is something greater, something beautiful and true, something that has the power to lead with wisdom and bring internal peace and equanimity. We call that something the image of God, the soul, the spirit. It has many names. The spiritual life is all about allowing the true self implanted in us by God to take its proper place and bring harmony to the cacophonous orchestra of internal parts that run our lives. The work is accomplished through the power of kingdom, our true selves, and the Holy Spirit that are all within us.
The author Michael Singer notes that if we look within we will see that we have built a house deep inside ourselves. It is a house of thoughts -- beliefs, opinions, rationalizations – a safe place to try and establish some control and security in life. When storms come, or disappointments, or people don’t act according to our rules of behavior, and the walls of our house are threatened, then we go immediately into defense mode, filling the cracks by lashing out at others or ourselves to keep the walls of the house secure. The only thing is, what we think is a safe house is really a prison. The soul which is naturally expansive and free is not meant to be walled in such a confined, little space. The soul longs for release. The walls must come down and that is why we should rejoice when things don’t go our way and suffering comes, not avoid it or resist it, but lean into and accept it gracefully. It comes to help break down the walls of our prison and set us free. And because there is nothing like suffering to save us from this dilemma, we say it is from God. We are not in control and we need to let go of the idea that we are.
Salvation comes from within, for remember, that is where the kingdom of heaven is. The walls of the internal house/prison must come down. That is our spiritual work.
To end let me quote once again Patriarch Bartholomew, from his book ENCOUNTERING THE MYSTERY, “The only viable means of spreading the Gospel, at least in the Orthodox Christian view, is the cultivation of one’s own soul in order to become sufficiently spacious enough to embrace all people.” What he says is the subject of several more sermons, but enough for now. The point is that we cannot cultivate the soul unless it is free not only to embrace all others, but also ourselves.