The Authentic Person


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 14, 2024 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA

I want to begin this morning with a story told to me by my dear spiritual son and friend, Yianno. He has been going with me to minister at the prison in Concord for years. One day he and his wife got into an argument and their youngest daughter who is 5 heard it all. After the argument ended she followed her mother into another room and had some advice for her. I hope I get this close to right.

She said something like this. "Mommy, you must be more respectful of Daddy. You mustn't talk to him that way." And then she and her mother went to see Daddy and she repeated to him what she had said to Mommy. Then she added something else, nothing short of miraculous wisdom. It went like this, "Daddy, your brain is broken. You must learn to speak from your heart."

That is the condition we find ourselves in. Our brains are broken. When we speak ill of one another it is because our brains are not working as they should. When we deliberately cause one another grief, arguing, holding grudges, complaining, and criticizing we are not speaking from our hearts, but rather from our broken brains. Someone once said that the mind is a great tool and a terrible master. St. Basil put it this way, "The devil works through the mind and God works through the heart." Someone else stated that you cannot think your way out of a problem you thought yourself into. All of those are true, I think. 

I see glimpses of this dichotomy in today’s Gospel reading when the father of the epileptic boy responds, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  “I believe” came from the heart and “help my unbelief” points to the mind.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus speaks of a grand spiritual excavation of the interior life. Each rung represents something that can help us overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of transformation in Christ. The book is written for monks, so if we read it, we must keep that in mind. But this excavation is necessary for all Christians, not just monks, if we are to be transformed by the "renewal of our minds". The Ladder is something of a road map for the pilgrimage from the broken mind to the sacred heart that we, as disciples of Christ, must take. It is short distance and a long journey.

You may have asked what all these spiritual practices we do during Great Lent (and throughout the year) are for. I'm sure there are many good answers. I want to offer one you may not have heard. The quote you are about to hear comes from the Metropolitan of Limassol which is a city in Cyprus. I only wish our resident Cypriot Mr. Coundouris were here. He would like this reference.

His Eminence Metropolitan Athanasius wrote these most meaningful lines. "The Fathers of the Church never spoke about uprooting our desires, our impulses as if we could reach into our hearts and cut out our feelings, exceptions, desires, impulses, and appetites. Instead they speak of the transformation of these things, their re-education, as it were....this movement toward Transfiguration does not destroy our personalities but sanctifies them, transfigures them, makes us the best possible versions of ourselves, the very person God created us to be..."

I'm not sure of this, but Metropolitan Athanasius may be the same Cypriot hierarch who instructs us in another place to become our own best friends. This is not only good spiritual teaching, it is good psychology. Nevertheless, we need to remember that the outer work will be great if the interior work is strong.

St. Gregory Nazianzus wrote that the glory of God is the human person fully realized. I think that is what St. John may have had in mind when he wrote the Ladder: how to set us free from everything that obscures the image of God in us, the Light hidden under a bushel. Orthodox spirituality seeks to help us to become fully realized, authentically human. And to be authentically humanness to be one with God.

Interestingly, the last rung of the Divine Ladder is Love. That is why Jesus talked about Love so often and why I preach about it nearly every Sunday. God is Love, the inescapable power which accompanies us through all the steps of life and Love is also the endpoint of the eternal journey. All resistance to Love is sinful because it obscures the Truth. If Lent is about anything, it is about connecting more deeply with the Lord, with our neighbors and ourselves, not for ourselves alone, but for the life of the world.

Here is one more story for you. It gives a beautiful example of the difference between a transfigured mind and one that is still stuck in delusion. The story is placed during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and 16. 

An Armenian nurse was captured by the Turks along with her brother. Her brother was killed by a Turkish soldier as she watched. She managed to escape and served in a military hospital. One day she discovered that the same soldier who had killed her brother was wounded and brought to the very hospital where she worked. Something cried out in her, "Avenge your brother!" That is the voice of the broken mind. But a stronger voice called her to love which is the voice of the transfigured heart/mind. Listening to the stronger voice she nursed the soldier to health. When he finally realized who she was he asked her, "Why did you not kill me?" Her answer was, "I am a follower of Him who said, "Love your enemies, do good to those which hate you." (Luke 6:27) He answered, "I have never heard words like this." The broken mind and the transfigured heart each have a different perspective on life. One leads to death and the other to life.

As we approach Great and Holy Pascha let's redouble our efforts to recognize when we are being ruled by our broken brains and to live and speak from our hearts.  If we are open, then the Light of Christ will illumine every part of us and shinne for all the world to see.