Inner Stillness Amidst Inner Turmoil
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, November 20, 2022
Homily on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos in the Temple
Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28 Nov. 20th, 2022
When we look at today’s Gospel passage, it delivers to us a central message that Christ is in our midst! But we do need the eyes, and the stillness of heart to recognize this fact. As we heard in the account, Martha receives Jesus into their home but soon gets “distracted with serving,” (as the text tells us). Her sister Mary, by contrast, acquires the inner stillness necessary to contemplate the Lord Jesus in their midst. As we see from the text, she sits at His feet and listens as He teaches. For acquiring this type of inner stillness, in contemplation of Christ, IS the ‘Good portion.’ And as the passage teaches… to the one who truly seeks, and finds it… it “cannot be taken away”
But what happens when we try our hardest, and are simply unable to find that inner stillness? As I’ve come to learn over the past few months, there is so much we face externally that unsettles so much of who we are internally. And I know that many of you can relate. Some of you have recently experienced the death of a loved one. I know others are dealing with feelings of loneliness, which can lead to a sense of rejection deep down, and perhaps even unworthiness. I know that some of you feel as if you are not simply good enough. Many of us have even suffered trauma in one form or another. All of these things make it quite hard to stop and even begin to quiet the mind. When we are wracked with guilt, or suffering from the unnerving pangs of anxiety, or perhaps even depression, it can be incredibly difficult to muster the courage to simply light a candle, sit before God, and gather the strength to pray. And if we’re being honest, the Church at large hasn’t done a tremendous job at talking openly about mental illness. (I’m grateful for Deacon Jeff and his sermon last month on the topic). And what I’m about to say is a bit difficult to admit… but in some cases the Church, instead of working to understand the sheer weight of mental illness has, unfortunately, added to the burden of our inner suffering.
I happened upon a quote from one of our monk-Saints recently that I won’t cite here, but suffice it to say that when I read the quote online, I was incredibly discouraged. The statement seemed to look down on one’s experience of anxiety and depression, almost as if to say that one who experiences these emotions isn’t good enough in their spiritual pursuit of salvation. And perhaps he was right! But what ever the intent, in the midst of my own inner turmoil, I certainly wasn’t motivated by this statement to muster the ability to pray. I, of course, don’t think he had any ill intent. But I did feel that my own inner suffering — all the anxiety, sleepless nights and other symptoms that come with being in the process of losing a loved one — I felt that I was doing it all wrong, and that I wasn’t good enough, or perhaps not even Christian enough.
To be fair to this monk-Saint, he’s much further along on the road to his theosis than I am, and I’m certainly no spiritual giant. And to quote someone with a little more wisdom than I, “The church not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” All of us are sinners striving to become saints, after all. And most of us are …still striving. And that’s OK. And for this monk-Saint living in a monastery most of his adult life, I am grateful for his devotion to the monastic profession, and his life of prayer on behalf of us all! We need it! On the other hand it’s probably to fair to say also that he has no great experience of what it’s like to live in the modern world.
In the Orthodox faith we do have a tendency to idolize the modern monastic life as a form of spiritual super-heroism, and that the words they speak are prized almost as highly Scripture itself. Father Antony once had to remind me that “All that comes from Mt. Athos today isn’t always gold.” And I admit … I found this to be a reassuring sentiment. So it’s also good for us to remember that, truly… the only form of human perfection we know of in our faith was not a monk. It was a woman! And this woman whom we celebrate today was, in fact, a human being who suffered pangs of emotion just as all of us do.
Mary had the human experience of what it was like to be a mother. It was Mary who gave birth to Christ, and nursed Him as a mother would. And therefore she knew what it was like to be woken in the middle of the night by a screaming child; she also knew what it was like to fear the loss of her child; Luke Chapter 2 tells of an account where Jesus had gone missing for three days. When Mary and Joseph finally locate him in the Temple, she says to him, “Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And I find comfort in knowing that our model of human perfection in this life, wasn’t a person isolated from ordinary life, but someone — a woman — who it seems suffered from forms of anxiety from time to time.
We also know that Mary chose to become a refugee when the head of the Roman state sought to kill all first born male children. And therefore she likely knew the fear and despair that can come from being a foreigner living in strange land, knowing that her only child was the target of a state-sponsored execution. And we know most famously, that Mary stood by the Cross and watched as her son was brutally tortured and killed. I think it’s safe to say that Mary, our very image of human perfection in this life, through God’s grace, experienced the very real nature of human emotion, fear and suffering as we all have in varying ways. But remember — before any of these things took place —Mary chose to say YES to God. That is, the Mother of God, whom we call the Theotokos, assented to the work of the Holy Spirit, saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
And perhaps, this is the model each of us can remember. All of us at one point in our journey chose to say YES to the Holy Spirit when we came into the faith. Some of you, perhaps, were baptized before you made that choice for yourselves. But, nevertheless, you still chose to own your faith and live as an Orthodox Christian. You chose to say YES. And just as Mary said YES, and thereafter lived a life full of ordinary human emotions, perhaps we too — in all the turmoil of our human emotions — can simply say YES “Let it be to me (also) according to your word,” and simply go with that which comes to us thereafter. For some of us, that may be all we can do in that moment. And that’s OK.
And let us not forget that each of us is a Temple of the Living God who dwells within. The Entrance of the Theotokos in the temple makes possible our entrance into that Temple. For she gave birth to the one who makes our salvation possible, and who make it possible for us to be that very Temple of the spirit of God who dwells in our hearts. May we each have the courage to say: “Let it be to me (also) according to your word.”