17 September OS 2016 – Friday of the Fifteenth Week of St. Matthew; Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Cross; Holy Martyrs Sophia and Her Daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity
In the Gospel today, the Lord tells us, along with the Apostles, “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid!”
At that time, Jesus constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people. And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray. And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land. And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them. But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out: For they all saw him, and were troubled. And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid. And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened. And when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore. –Mark 6:30-45
St. Theophan the Recluse exhorts the reader to abide peacefully in the Lord within, even when the seas of life threaten to overwhelm him:
“Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.” Here is the pillar of our hope! Whatever misfortune or sorrow there might be, remember that the Lord is near, and be inspired through courageous patience. As He then suddenly appeared before the Apostles who were in danger on the sea, so will he show His help and protection suddenly to you when you are in danger. He is everywhere and is always ready with His protection. Only stand with Him or before Him in faith, prayer, hope, and devotion to His holy will. Your spirit will be joined to the Lord, and from this comes every good thing. However, this does not mean that there will immediately be dignity, glory, and honor, and other such things. External things might remain as they are, and but there will arise a courageous and placid abiding in the order of event which it pleases the Lord to arrange for a person. And this is the main thing that everyone in danger should seek: happiness on the inside, not the outside. Inner blessedness always exists among those who are in a living union with the Lord. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 193-194
Years ago, when I was a much younger priest, our deacon’s wife told me of an encounter with a visitor to our little parish church. A neighbor was walking by one day and noticed that the church was open, and the diakonissa welcomed her to come inside and look around. She did so, and then she remarked as she left, “You know, I have walked by this church hundreds of times, and I always thought it small. But now I see that the inside is larger than the outside.”
One secret the saints understand is that what is inside of us is bigger than what is outside of us. No saint would be moved by the late Carl Sagan’s appeal to “billions and billions of stars” as evidence that man’s existence is an arbitrary and meaningless accident of evolutionary history. The sheer quantity of material things in the universe says nothing, one way or the other, about the existence of that which cannot be seen, the life of the soul.
One reason we have such trouble becoming saints is that the world has boondoggled us by its constant harping on quantity and mass, on making and buying and having and enjoying and worrying about more and more and more stuff until one cannot think straight. The powers that be want to reduce our entire education to some of kind of training that makes us better robots to produce and consume the material stuff out there, and the parents who want their children to “succeed” increasingly agree with this goal as the ultimate purpose of life. Poor children.
People who think and live like this regard St. Theophan’s words as essentially meaningless. What is the sense of abiding placidly on the inside if there is no inside, if life is simply a constant stream of sense impressions, of pleasure and pain?
We are Orthodox Christians, and we believe that the spiritual life is real, but to the extent of our immersion in the busyness of the materialist society, we do not experience or live by this belief. Our real life is, in fact, going on deep inside of us, all the time, but all too often it is untended, undirected, un-purified, and frankly, for the most part, unknown. It is a very real, indeed our permanently real life, but it is likely heading off into a very bad direction, indeed to an ultimate disaster of eternal dimensions. Meanwhile we check our text messages, post videos on Facebook, and feel constrained, even morally obliged, to entertain countless opinions offered by the ignorant about meaningless events orchestrated by the demonized people in charge and served up as the “latest news.”
The good news is that this is not necessary. We simply have to withdraw our attention, at least periodically, from the show going on out there, and pay attention to what is going on inside of us, to the life of the soul. The Church offers us many helps to do so, a vast treasure trove of spiritual reading, prayer books, service books, visual aids such as icons, auditory aids in the form of Church chant, you name it. We all know what these things are, and currently it is considered fashionable to admire them. But they are not there primarily to be admired, because they are tools – they are there to be used.
When the winds and waves of life overwhelm us, we will abide placidly in happiness if we will have prepared ourselves for the crisis by a conscious spiritual life, by a conscious struggle to live according to the commandments of Christ. Saying daily prayers, the struggle to cleanse the conscience, to repent of sins of thought, word, and deed – the entire active effort of Christian life – yes, these things are difficult for our fallen nature, but they are not impossible. Indeed, they are most possible, because God gives us the power to do them. And, furthermore, when we do them, we acquire a happiness that the world cannot give and cannot take away.
This is not an impersonal self-help program to attain a static inner peace; it is active friendship with a Person Who is showing us the way, giving us the strength for the job, and Who is the goal of our efforts, Who comes to us and says, “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.”