Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Homily: Send Down Your Spirit!

Sunday, May 22, 2016: 4th Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralytic; Martyr Basiliscus, Bishop of Comana (ca. 308); Commemoration of the Second Ecumenical Council (381); St. John (Vladimir), Ruler of Serbia (1015); Monk Martyr Paul of the Lavra (Mt. Athos—1818).

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

There are two healings in this morning’s readings. The apostle Peter heals the bedridden Aeneas and Jesus heals the paralytic at Bethesda. In both cases, the healings have an evangelical dimension.

We see this clearly, in the first reading. As word spreads of Aeneas being restored to wholeness of body “all who dwelt at Lydda and Sharon … turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:32, NKJV).

As for the healing in the Gospel, Jesus tells the man “Take up your bed and walk” and to “sin no more” (John 5:8, 14, NKJV). Confronted by the Jews for carrying his bed on the Sabbath when “it is not lawful” for him to do so sets the stage for an initial proclamation of the Gospel (kerygma).

Here’s how it happens.

After he finds Jesus again, and now, secure in his understanding as to what has happened to him, the newly healed man seeks out his critics and tells the “that it was Jesus who made him well” (John 5:15).

I think sometimes that the evangelical work of the Church is neglected or is deformed because so few of us have experienced the healing mercy of God. Reflecting on the resurrection of Tabitha, St John Chrysostom tells us not to “concern ourselves with grave monuments or memorials.” To this warning, we should add the tendency of some to build intellectual monuments to their own cleverness. Just as some (wrongly) think they honor the dead by works of stone, some imagine (again, wrongly) that they draw others to Christ by clever arguments and the “multiplication of words” (see Matthew 6:7).

This isn’t to denigrate either art or scholarship. It is rather to take seriously what Chrysostom calls “the greatest memorial” for the dead and to which I would add, the greatest witness to the Resurrection. Gather, the saint says, “the widows around; tell them his name; ask them to offer prayers and supplications on his behalf.” Whether the person is dead in the body, or dead is sin, standing before God in prayer is “how to rescue people not from the present death but from the death that is to come” (“Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles,” 21 in ACCS, NT vol V: Acts, p. 116).

Our prayers for others, our acts of mercy for them, don’t just help them, they also transform us. St Cyprian says of Tabitha “So powerful were the merits of mercy, so much did just works avail! She who conferred upon suffering widows the assistance for living deserved to be recalled to life by the petition of widows” (“Works and Almsgiving,” 6 in ACCS, NT vol V: Acts, p. 117). There is nothing that is so much to our own benefit as interceding before God for another. Whether what we offer is spiritual or material, the love of neighbor grants us eternal life. “Look at the gain, look at the harvest,” Chrysostom says of the blessings God poured out on Tabitha, “but note that it was not for display” (“Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles,” 21 in ACCS, NT vol V: Acts, p. 117) but for the sake of those in need.

Without mercy, without prayer—liturgical and personal—the evangelical work of the Church is stillborn; it is just vain repetition and a glorification of my own ego. To see the harm caused when mercy and prayer are absent, we need only turn again to this morning’s Gospel.

Rather than thank God that a child of Abraham “loosed from this bond on the Sabbath” (Luke 13:16, NKJV), the Jewish leaders condemn the man and, by implication, God Who healed him. It’s easy enough for me to criticize, and even condemn, those who put the Law of Moses (or the canons!) before the mercy of God. And yet, how often have I done the exact same thing? Haven’t I just done this in my example?

Why do we, why do I, do this? Why do I condemn others for the same sin that—in this very moment—I commit?

I do this because I “have forgotten the fundamental truths of Christian life.” I am forgetful because I am “immersed in the darkness of materialism or the exterior and routine performance of ‘ascetic labors'” as Sergius Nilus writes in the introduction to St Seraphim of Sarov‘s On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit. I am, in other words, in love with the externals of the faith at the expense of my own, inner life the “true aim” of which, according to St Seraphim, is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”

The fact is my brothers and sisters, God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit are at this very moment at work in each and every human heart. “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” Jesus tells those who “sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.” (John 5:18, NKJV).

No one comes to the Church except by the prompting of God and because of an experience, however obscure, of His great mercy. It is our great privilege—mine as well as yours—to help people discern the presence of God in their lives. It is our calling as Orthodox Christians first to help people understand the faith that God has planted in their hearts. And and then, second, God has called us to foster that faith so that they, in turn, can be able to assist others in saying “Yes!” to God.

Fidelity to our vocation requires that we be men and women of prayer. But even prayer is not enough. St Seraphim says that

… prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

One month from today we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Let us, each of us, stand before God in the coming days and weeks and ask Him to renew in us the grace of the Holy Spirit so that, like the Apostle Peter, we can give an effective witness to the mercy of God to all we meet.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Why Cultivate Inner Stillness?

What do we mean when, like in the last post, we talked about inner stillness? And why do we need to cultivate stillness in our spiritual lives? Let’s see I can answer the second of these questions first.

Stillness, the Orthodox theologian Fr John Breck writes, is important for a number reasons. We need stillness if we are “to attain spiritual knowledge.” It also is essential as we “engage in spiritual warfare against the passions and against demonic powers.” Finally, in stillness we are able to hear “the voice of God.”

Fr John recounts a saying from the Desert Father. “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word.  The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'” If we want to acquire inner stillness and the wholeness of being that comes through the Jesus Prayer, we need to practice “solitude.” Real inner peace is the fruit not only of divine grace but also of adopting a certain attitude toward the world of persons, events and things.

Specifically, we need to undertake “a temporary withdrawing from the noise and busyness of the world that cause endless distractions and hinder us in our quest for God.” This is more than not being around people or not talking to people. No, what’s necessary is that we “transform the heart and mind, our inner being, into a place of silence and solitude, an interior monastic cell in which the Spirit of Truth dwells, to teach us everything we need for our journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. John 16:13-15).”

It is this same Spirit Who inspired the authors of Sacred Scripture, Who leads the Church in every generation, raised up the Church fathers to defend the faith and preach the Gospel. Above all else, it is this same Spirit that caused the Son to come and dwell in the womb of the Most Holy Theotokos.

It is the Holy Spirit Who together with the Father and the Son comes to dwell in our hearts at Holy Baptism. When we turn inwards, we do so not to flee from our neighbor but to find the Holy Trinity. When we find the Holy Trinity, we also find our neighbor.

Together with physical silence, inner stillness allows us to hear the God Who dwells in our hearts. This is why, as I said earlier, prayer isn’t so much talking to God but listening to Him. By stopping my inner monolog, or, at least, slowing it down, and by stilling my heart, the Jesus Prayer helps me listen to God as He speaks to me in the depths of my heart. Stillness, says St Isaac the Syrian, “brings fruits that no tongue can speak of, neither can it be explained.”

Unfortunately, some misinformation has developed around the Jesus Prayer. Our prayer life should be sober and regular, not prone to emotionalism or erratic. And while guidance from our spiritual father or confessor is important, we don’t need to be afraid to start praying even if that guidance doesn’t seem available. Remember, we a have guide in the Holy Spirit and as long as we don’t deviate from the moral or dogmatic tradition of the Church—the same tradition that the Spirit inspires—we are on safe ground.

Remember the same God Who inspires us to pray, also inspires those who offer us guidance in prayer and He will bring us that guidance when, and how, it is needed.

So the first rule of cultivating inner stillness so we can hear God speaking to us is this: Begin. And beginning is easy.

St Porphyrios says that

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer.

It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

Gently, without pressure, without pushing.

When I talk with people about their spiritual lives I often come away with the impression that they don’t think praying counts unless it hurts. So many of us think we need to stand at attention to pray; so many of us undermine our own spiritual lives because we act like a soldier on guard duty and not like a small child on our Father’s lap.

So, to cultivate inner stillness we need to begin. But how, concretely, should we begin?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next post: How to Cultivate Inner Silence