Looking ahead

Saturday of the 9th Week of Luke 

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Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 9: 57 – 62 

And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.  Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.  And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

St. Theophan the Recluse interprets the Lord’s words for us in this way:  The disposition of the inner man must be transformed, not only his outward behavior.   The detachment He calls us to must detach the love of the heart from the world and direct it entirely to God.   

   “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” That is, he who thinks to be saved while glancing back at what he should abandon for the sake of his salvation, is not being saved, is not walking, is not directed toward the Kingdom of God. It is necessary to destroy once and for all everything that is not compatible with the work of salvation. Those who think to be saved see this themselves, but they always put off parting with certain attachments until tomorrow… To suddenly break with everything is too great a sacrifice. They want to give things up in a leisurely fashion, to not stand out in front of others—but they almost always fail. They introduce salvific routines, while the dispositions of their heart remain as before. At first the incongruity is very sharp: but “tomorrow,” and their promises of change shut the mouth of their conscience. In such a manner, with everything tomorrow— always tomorrow—the conscience grows tired of saying the same thing over and over, and at last, falls silent. Here thoughts start to come that things can be left this way. These thoughts strengthen, and then are established forever. An exterior which is outwardly proper is formed, with inner improperness. This is a whited sepulchre before the eyes of God. The worst thing is that the conversion of this sort of person is as difficult as the conversion of those who have become hardened in open sins, if not more difficult… Meanwhile, this person thinks that everything is fine. – from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year

There are several places in the Gospel at which the Lord calls men to a radical conversion that demands leaving absolutely everyone and everything behind in order not only to believe in Him but also to dedicate every waking hour to the work of the apostolic ministry.  Not all disciples are called to this ministry;  as St. Paul teaches us, there are “gifts differing” (Romans 12: 6ff), and each Christian must find his place in the variegated, hierarchical, and finely tuned ensemble of inexhaustibly different personalities that is the Church.  But the inner disposition to which we are all called is the same, which is the continuous sense of the presence of God, godly fear in this presence, and the unwavering desire to please Him at all times, in every circumstance, albeit in a way appropriate to our station in life.   

The twisted religiosity that St. Theophan describes in his commentary today is not that of a nominal Christian, but that of one who is knowledgeable and consciously committed.  The saint is addressing us, the churchgoing sort of people who read the sort of books that saints write; he is not talking to the “cultural Christians” who just show up for name’s day and Slava parties, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  The latter crowd are really lost.  But we can be lost too, by doing the dangerous thing the saint describes:  erecting a comfortable routine of religious behavior that we set up as a wall between us and real conversion.  You know how that works:  “All right, God:  I say x prayers, I confess and commune x times per year, and I give x to the Church, and I do x good works.  Now leave me alone!”  

Fortunately for us, God does not leave us alone:  He keeps inspiring in the heart a loneliness, an ache, a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction with our worldly mediocrity, a desire to be set afire by the flame of the divine eros.  On the other hand, as St. Theophan points out, we can at some point harden our hearts so utterly as to be lost forever.   And this can happen in this life, even before death.  Heaven and hell both start here.   

The way to avoid this terrible inner death is the struggle for continual – and, ultimately, continuous –  inner prayer of the mind and heart, which alone converts the inner man and detaches him from the world.  This is a divine gift, of course, beyond our power, but the good news is that the Lord wants to give it to us.  There is an excerpt from another of St. Theophan’s writings that Hegumen Chariton of Valaam quotes in his collection, The Art of Prayer, which I believe I have quoted before, but it bears repeating:  

Gather yourself together in the heart, and there practice secret meditation.  By this means, with the help of God’s grace, the spirit of zeal will be maintained in its true character – burning sometimes less and sometimes more brightly.  Secret meditation sets our feet on the path of inner prayer, which is the most direct way to salvation.  We may leave all else and turn only to this work, and all will be well.  Conversely, if we fulfill all other duties and neglect this one task we shall bear no fruit.  – The Art of Prayer, pp. 77-78

Let us take these wise words to heart and dedicate a portion of every day to what the saint terms “secret meditation,” that is, the repetition of a short prayer or verse, with the struggle for attention, asking the Lord for the grace of true inner prayer.   We must be detached from this world at some point, whether we like it or not, for we are all going to die.   Better to begin living in Paradise now, through prayer, by our own free will and God’s grace, than to love this world with all our heart and find it suddenly wrenched away from us, against our will, by sudden misfortune or an unprepared death.   

Let us not look back but forward, to the Kingdom of God. 

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