Awakening from Exile
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, February 12, 2022
The Readings for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son are from: Luke 15:11-32; 1 Cor. 6:12-20
Today, on this Sunday of the Prodigal, we are over half way through our “pre-game show,” as Father referred to it a few Sunday’s back, and we now stand only two weeks away from the actual start of Lent. And just so, today’s Gospel reading directs us toward a key moment in our understanding of today’s theme that accompanies this Parable. And this theme is “our return from exile” — meaning that we’ve wandered far from the love of God, and now have made the choice to turn around, return home, and like the Prodigal, be welcome back into the arms of the loving Father.
Yet, the key moment the Prodigal experiences in this story is not merely his choice to return home. For he cannot choose to return unless he first awakens to his own reality. We read in verse 17 that the Prodigal “comes to himself,” or as the original Greek phrases it “into himself, he came to his senses,” or “he came to his right mind.” Here is why this moment is so pivotal: None of us can first come into repentance and turn ourselves around, unless we have an awakening experience in which we come to our right sense of mind, and into our right state of being. We need to awaken from our self-slumber!
I’d like to suggest that the difference between these two states of being — being asleep to ourselves, and becoming awakened to ourselves — is but a chasm that divides our false selves, from that deep, interior space where the image of God rest within us — that of our true selves. And the distance between these two selves within us is great, and getting from one to the other is no easy task. Thomas Merton once captured the vastness of this divide when he wrote: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon, if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” 1 Speaking more plainly, Richard Rohr expands upon this notion stating that, “The false self is who you think you are, and thinking does not make it so.” “The True Self is who you are because of the divine indwelling, the Holy Spirit within you. 2 This is the solid basis for human sacredness.” 3
Indeed, the true self is the divine image within all of us! It is the natural state into which all of humanity was created, and it is ALL that we will be in the hereafter. The true self is characterized by contentment, peace, self-awareness, humility, and unconditional love for all people. It is as Richard Rohr states, “indestructible.” “The True Self cannot really be hurt. There’s nothing to prove or protect with the True Self.”
If the True self is our natural state of being, the false self, by contrast, is our unnatural state of being, and it is characterized by our drive toward self-sufficiency, rugged individualism, disconnection from our fellow humans, and is ultimately — like the Prodigal — our alienation from God. It is pure egoism, and it always demands we be the most important person in the room. It wants to be seen. It is, in essence, all the defense mechanisms we build up around ourselves to avoid looking at the deeper reality of who we truly are as Children in the image of the Living God!
It is no wonder Merton described it as “an abyss that separates us from ourselves.” For the false self is essentially all the ways in which we fall asleep to ourselves, shutting off our minds, and easing into auto-pilot that we might exist more comfortably in the world around us, and without any awareness of ourselves in this state. Without thinking, we unconsciously rely upon our anger, our vanity, our envy, and our instinctual drive to amass more and more trash in our lives we don’t actually need — but still feels good to have it. I honestly can’t think of a better description of what it is to be an American in the 21st Century than this. America’s economy depends upon our living in this very manner, in fact. Social media, for one, thrives on each of us becoming irate, and in turn, lashing out against our neighbor in order to drive more traffic to their internet platforms. If you follow me on social media, you know I’ve fallen prey to this more than once. Other social media platforms prosper off you feeling terrible about yourself. Popular influencers market their wares and seem to have ALL the things that you don’t — and they make you to feel like you really need more of what it is they’re showcasing. It is a virtual space where someone will always have better stuff than you, more money, even a fitter body you’re not biologically capable of attaining, but they’re more than ready to sell you on how easy it is to get it. This is, essentially a virtual world where many are living the very best of their own false selves, and it usually makes us feels less than we truly are. But this is the cycle the false self falls prey to. We go about chasing after some thing, or perhaps after some person, that will make us feel better about ourselves. And we chase after it like the Prodigal, until we bottom out, see ourselves as failures, and let the cycle pick up all over again — chasing after something new to make us feel better about ourselves. The question is, will we truly awaken like the Prodigal and return from the exile of our false nature and learn who we truly are? Remember: “The True Self cannot really be hurt.” 4 Mother Theresa once stated that, “If you are humble, nothing will touch you. Neither praise nor disgrace because you know who you ARE.” 5 But we’ve grown so accustomed to living in this cyclical pattern of the false self that we have a hard time seeing the world in any other manner. It simply feels normal.
And perhaps this is one of the reasons the Church has set aside this particular Sunday as a day to focus upon our return from exile. We need to be awakened, and to return from the captivity of our false selves. And I think this is where the goodness of the Orthodox Church comes into focus. Our liturgical cycles are designed to help us find healing and reconciliation through Christ, that we might “come to ourselves,” and become conscious of our reality, with the hope that we will, in turn, recognize the image of God within us. Remember that all the themes of each given Sunday are embodied in these services. We simply need to the eyes to see them, and the ears to hear: In today’s Synaxarion during Matins, for instance, we heard that:
“…in the person of the prodigal son, we view the wretched condition that sin creates for us, distant from God and His Sacraments. However, we become aware of ourselves and awaken, hastening with hope to return to Him through repentance. Our Savior wants to call back ... all those who have been overtaken by despair, lacking hope of forgiveness for their grave sins. The Father encourages all of his lost children to remove the desperation from their hearts, and revive their energies …"
So what does this return from exile actually look like? Inasmuch as I’m asking this question aloud, I’m equally confessing that I’m not 100% certain, because I’m still working this out for myself. Like you, I am a work in progress. Nevertheless, I still have a few suggestions. First, I think we should remember that the Church has given us 40 days of Lent as a spiritual training ground for us to work this out. The Apostle Paul tells us to “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” 6 This should remind us that salvation isn’t a one time buy-in. It’s a life’s work. My second suggestion is to utilize the sacraments of the Church to help work this out — to bring you into the recognition of your false self. Confession serves as an aid for bringing into focus all those false parts of yourself you’ve allowed to take hold and rule your interior space. And this is where I’m especially glad to call St Mary’s our spiritual home. Sitting in confession with Fr Antony has been life-altering for my own personal and spiritual journey. Something Father continually tells me during my own confession time is not to run from those emotional parts of me I’m trying to heal. As if running away from and ignoring those parts will make them go away. “Don’t freak out,” he’s told me on multiple occasions. And this has been some of the best advice. For, truly, if being so hard on ourselves about our shortcomings actually worked, it really should have worked by now. Instead, embrace those parts of your false self that seek your attention. Recognize them; acknowledge them in your presence, but don’t give them agency. Just acknowledge them, let them be. And then move on.
And speaking of sacraments, we also mustn’t neglect the Eucharist. If you think you aren’t worthy to approach, good. You’re not. But this isn’t about worthiness. Remember that the one person obsessing over worthiness in today’s parable is the elder son. And he’s the person we are not supposed to emulate. If being worthy was a requirement for receiving Eucharist, neither myself, Deacon Jeff or Father Antony would be able to give it to you. But recall the words Father just prayed aloud in the Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn: “No one who is bound with the desires and pleasures of the flesh is worthy to approach… Nevertheless … Look down upon me a sinner… cleanse my soul and my heart … and by the power of the Holy Spirit, enable me …”
Friends, this is part of our journey from exile… coming into the arms of the Father at the Eucharist. And especially so during our 40 day training ground of Lent! For each of us, in approaching the Chalice with the simple recognition of our unworthiness makes us just like the Prodigal in today’s Gospel reading. For the Prodigal states, “'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.' And he arose and came to his father.” And what does the Father do? “'Bring the best robe… put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf … and let us eat and make merry!” All of us are sons and daughters of the Father. We all were once dead, and through Christ have been made alive again!
1. Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2004). 11.
2. Romans 8:9
3. "True Self, False Self," The Center for Contemplation and Action, accessed Feb, 2, 2023, https://cac.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/7-TRUE-SELF-FALSE-SELF.pdf.
4. Ibid, Rohr, “True Self, False Self.”
5. Mother Teresa, “Mother Teresa’s 15 Tips to Help You Become More Humble,” The National Catholic Register, September 5, 2019, https://www.ncregister.com/blog/mother-teresas-15-tips-to-help-you-become-more-humble
6. Phil. 2:12