All of us are born into this world with a deep and insatiable longing for Paradise. Perhaps we are not even aware of it. Most of us bury it beneath the mire of our passions; we try to satisfy this pure and holy desire with the trinkets and amusements of this fallen world. We become as ships tossed to and fro, as wanderers amid the wasteland of this life, consumed by a gnawing hunger for we know not what. But no matter how we might try to slake our endless, unquenchable desire, we all — like the Prodigal Sons that we are — always end up finding ourselves enslaved to our passions, perishing with hunger, and very, very far away from home.
We are exiles. And precisely so: we have been banished, driven out of our ancestral home, barred by a flaming sword from the Tree of Life, condemned to a life of suffering and of ceaseless toil for the sake of mere husks of bread. It is the life that we ourselves have chosen — and still choose, countless times each day, with every sin we commit and every passion we embrace.
But sometimes there is given to us a moment of grace, a moment when we “come to ourselves,” and remember that this life that we have chosen is not the only life that we can choose. We remember the Father’s House, we remember the Paradise we have forsaken, we remember that Christ our God has taken away the flaming sword guarding the gates of life, and that at any moment of our lives we can choose finally to return again to our true home. Great Lent is just such a moment of grace, an opportunity for us to remember our first love and our true life, a chance to return at long last to the embrace of the Father and the joy of His House.
But in order to return to the Father’s House, we must first leave the fields in which we have fed the swine of our passions. We must first learn to hate the house of our captivity. We must first resolve to no longer feel quite so at home in the “far country” of this world and in the embrace of its swiftly-passing pleasures. In short, we must choose to become true exiles — no longer exiles from Paradise, but exiles in the midst of this present world.
We will soon begin once more to read in church from that great spiritual masterpiece, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus. It is no accident that the first three chapters of that book — the first three rungs of the spiritual ladder — are precisely: On Renunciation, On Detachment, and On Exile. Without laying this foundation, there can be absolutely no progress in the spiritual life.
Yes, today is a Sunday that celebrates the limitless forgiveness of our Heavenly Father, and His perfect readiness to rush out to meet us no matter how far astray we have gone. Yet we ourselves must still choose to accept that forgiveness, to open ourselves to that embrace. And despite the fact that God desires nothing more than our return to Him, the simple truth remains that unless we ourselves set out on the journey, it will be impossible for us to ever arrive at home.
We call today the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Yet let us remember that his is not the only story we hear in today’s Gospel passage. The parable begins: “A certain man had two sons.” And though at first they appear to be quite different, in fact they turn out to be in many ways the same. Tragically, it seems that neither son truly loved their father. The younger son took his inheritance and left the Father’s House, squandering it with riotous living. But though the elder son remained, it turns out that his real desire — the love that truly filled his heart — was not so very different from that of his brother, and he was consumed with bitterness and envy because he was never given “so much as a kid” to make merry with his friends. He, too, desired first of all his own inheritance and the pleasures of this life. And though he did not leave like his younger brother in order to give himself up to those desires, nevertheless in the end it was he who refused to enter into the joy of his Father’s House. It was his heart that remained cold and darkened, and it was he who chose to remain ultimately alone.
This is a very real danger for all of us, especially those of us who live in this holy monastery. We can hide our self-love and our spiritual decay under the mask of outward obedience. We can wander spiritually all throughout the world without our bodies ever leaving these holy walls. And we can far too easily scorn, mock and condemn those who, by all appearances, have plainly chosen to depart from the Father’s House — and yet all the time be ourselves far more deeply lost than they.
It is sometimes better to be the younger son starving in the pig pen than the elder son who, though outwardly abiding in the Father’s House, does not truly love Him. It is oftentimes easier to “come to ourselves” amidst the misery and emptiness of the world than under a false veneer of piety. Because it is only by realizing we have wandered that we have any hope of beginning the long road home. It is only by experiencing the pain hiding beneath our pleasures that we can come to choose the path of escape. Sometimes, to taste the bitterness of the world we ourselves have poisoned is the only medicine that can cure us.
In the words of Abba Dorotheos (words which we will soon hear read again in our monastic trapeza at the outset of the Great Fast):
How have we come into all this affliction? How have we fallen into all this misery? Is it not because of our pride? Is it not because of our senselessness? Is it not because we took the wrong decision? Is it not because we chose to impose our bitter will? Why? Was not Man created with every luxury, in all joy, in all rest and in all glory? Was he not in paradise? God said, “Do not do that" but he did it. Do you realize the enormity of his pride? Do you see his obstinacy? Do you see his insubordination? Therefore, when He saw his impudence God said: "He is a fool, he does not know how to be happy. If he does not have a hard time, he will be totally lost. If he does not learn what sorrow is, he will not learn what rest is.” Then He gave him that what he deserved and expelled him from paradise. Thus, Man was given up to self-love and to his own desires which would crush his bones, so as to learn not to trust himself but the commandment of God. The hardships from disobedience will teach him the calmness that comes from obedience as the Prophet says: "Your own wickedness will correct you" (Jer 2:19).
So during the Lenten season ahead — and throughout all our remaining life in this present world — when we see our sinfulness, when we come face to face with our brokenness, when we begin to learn by bitter experience just how terribly we have gone astray — let us not despair. Let us not be dismayed at it. Let us not ask: “where is the Lord?” He is walking this path of exile beside us. He is with us in every dark place our sinfulness might bring us, even down to the lowest depths of hell. He did not send us into this fallen world so that we would perish, but precisely so that we might find the one and only path that leads back to His Father’s House.
To Him be all glory, honor and worship, together with His unoriginate Father and His all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.