Today, a poor woman—whose body was altogether bowed over by an evil spirit—is made straight and upright, and glorifies God the Healer. Today, a hardened ruler of the synagogue—whose soul was altogether bowed down into the spiritual hard earth of a wicked insensibility—sees this miracle, and rebukes God incarnate.
We see this poor woman—who is described as not just hunch-backed, but altogether bowed together, with her face always looking towards the earth—we see her faith, her devotion to God without any impure motive, and we see her courageous long-suffering for eighteen whole years: she still visited the synagogue to hear the law and to pray unto God and glorify Him.
Today’s Gospel shows us two great wonders: one—a woman is healed from an affliction which she has suffered for eighteen whole years from an evil spirit; and, two—we see a hypocritical ruler of the synagogue completely blinded by spiritual delusion, earthly-mindedness and, not just numb to this miracle, but filled with indignation…bitter hatred and disgust; for whom? For God incarnate.
What is greater to marvel at? The healing which took place, or the blind hardness of heart which remained unfeeling and grew wrathful against such a miracle.
St. Isaac says that “once an elder was asked…‘what is a merciful heart?’ And he answered: “it is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation…for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart, and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy…because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.” (End of Quote).
Christ points out that the ruler of the synagogue had more compassion for his irrational beasts than God-like human nature. He pretended to have zeal for the outward rubrics of the law, and for the keeping of the Sabbath, but he is put to shame by the Law-Giver, Christ the Living Law, and his sin of neglecting the spiritual law was pointed out to all the people—and he could not answer back.
We are not told if he repented of this when he felt shame. We are simply left with the very same fiery and convicting words of the divine reproach, and their personal value for us. Do they enter our heart? Were they even received by the understanding? Were we perhaps engaged in mental judgment or remembrance of wrongs or vain imaginations at the time of their being spoken, and therefore left completely ignorant of, not only their force, but of their existence altogether?
Christ speaks to the proud and hardened heart: “When you follow the outward rites of the Church—the bows, the fasting, the set prayers, the veneration of the holy icons—do you feel anything beyond the physical realm?”
“Do you know to Whom you bow—He Who is in heaven surrounded by countless angels and saints? Do you know why you sacrifice tasty and fattening foods? Do you behold God when you pray, or are you taken up with the beauty of your own voice or your perfect bodily posture? Do you kiss My sacred countenance and that of My most pure Mother and My saints, and do you still speak and act rudely to your brothers, those living icons of Me?”
It is good to conform our outward lives to the forms of worship and the rites of the Holy Church—but it is a great sin to be proud and satisfied with this only, and never, through faith in the enlightening power of God, to raise our minds to the invisible, and to conform our inner man with its Archetype and Model.
When we see someone bowed down in agony of soul, or sick or tormented by corrupting disease, or downcast by their many passions and sins and the heavy burden of the spiritual war, do we pass them by?
Joy in Christ is a great gift; but if it is not sacrificed in order to feel burning sympathy and to co-suffer with those who suffer bodily or spiritually, then it is incomplete; for, to suffer with those who suffer is a higher virtue; because it imitates Christ Who came down from the peace of heaven in order to suffer our earthly afflictions and to offer Himself as the Sacrifice for our sins, and thus effect our healing.
Maybe we do not even notice the pain of others. Maybe we do notice, and we subtly and unconsciously look down on them, or somehow judge them and think that they deserve this. Maybe we are absolutely disgusted and upset with their behavior or sorrow, never entertaining even the slightest thought that they hate their sins incomprehensibly more than we do.
Maybe we are content to be at peace, to be healthy, to be filled even with spiritual and pure joy; yet, we are not moved in the slightest at the pain of others.
It is one thing to not notice others’ suffering; it is even worse to notice, and not care; even worse than this, is to notice, and feel disgust or repulsion for them; and the vile and ungodly crown to all of this, is to still think ourselves righteous and godly, blinded by our own pride.
Such was the ruler who is reproached by Christ in today’s Gospel. And such is every hardened heart which cannot feel another’s sorrow or pain. If these things are found in us, then we have not understood what it means that we are all one Body.
If we begin to force ourselves to actively and consciously notice, understand, sympathize with and pray for others’ pain and sorrow, then we are making a beginning. If we continue in this blessed practice, and it becomes a deeply-rooted habit of virtue within our soul, then we are close to spiritual health.
If we come to the point where we forget ourselves completely, and through prayer and love our soul pours itself out into every heart and experiences their joys and sorrows as its own joys and sorrows, then we are graced by God to have begun to become like Him.
It is said that supernatural healing is a gift which is imparted to a man who is filled with natural compassion and love. It is as if a man is not content with only identifying with another’s blessedness and affliction to the point of forgetting himself, but wants to somehow pour himself out spiritually upon this person and wholly wrap them up in grace, loving-kindness and spiritual and bodily peace and well-being. Seeing this fervent desire of the soul of the saint, the Lord Christ, the only Lover of mankind and the Most-Compassionate One, anoints this blessed person with His very grace and supernatural healing power.
How can we be miracle-workers and all-merciful healers, even if we do not attain to such gifts of God in this life? If we, by the grace of God, gather ourselves from passionate cravings and feelings, useless and illusory imaginations and evil thoughts into attentiveness of mind, and we seek by the grace of God to enter within ourselves away from the tumult and violence of the scattered senses into our heart.
Through silence and speaking only what is profitable, through sober recollection, through meditating on the words of the Scriptures, through inner prayer, through temperance in all our bodily needs, through devotion to God, through heartfelt and conscious confession of our sins and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, through a desire to be healed…through all these things, we come to be more attentive to ourselves, to our thoughts, to our sins and weaknesses, and to our need for the saving healing of our Savior and Healer.
Then, and only then, and only by the grace of God, when we strike up our cold hearts with even the slightest movement of desire to enter into a more spiritual mode of being, and with contrition for our negligence and heartfelt repentance for our hard-heartedness, then, God will grant us to enter into the quietness of our hearts established in His peace.
From there, our mind not only has the grace to dwell within our heart and its own refined state of purity, calm and spiritual vision and understanding, but it is able to enter into the heart and soul of other men.
When it moves out of itself toward God, it meets other souls on the way. The feeling of isolation and individuality becomes transformed into a conscious perception that we are all a part of one another; which is not just an accidental occurrence or arrangement of things, but a fully conscious, deliberate and purposeful design of God—a beautiful and wondrous, living, active and ever-growing eternal reality in God.
How far is the hardened heart of that ruler in today’s Gospel from these blessed things?—these things which we can only call heaven-on-earth, and a dwelling of the spiritual man in heaven while still on earth.
Have we even begun to notice others? Have we even begun to fuel and perfect our inner prayer life with mercy, love and compassion? Have we entered within ourselves, and from there into the hearts of others? Have we cared and prayed for them with at least as much love as we have for our own souls? Have we been raised by the grace of God into God?
Have we tasted that union with God which transforms us into His likeness? Have our wordless cries and contrite groans reached the ears of God Who bows Himself down to meet us, to embrace us, to fill us and heal us, and to raise us up into His divine mode of life?
Have we ever been granted access to that beginning of the perfection and fulfillment, that crown and reason, of our inner prayer? Have we ever been so filled with humility and love upon being aware of God’s divine love overlooking all our wickedness, passions, sins, ignorance, carelessness and hard-heartedness?
Have we ever been so moved to this repentance, that we are over-filled with God’s love and with God Himself, that our heart aches and breaks and cannot contain His love? Have we been so over-filled with sweet sorrow and consoling compunction of heart by the heartfelt consciousness of the personal activity of God’s living and penetrating mercy upon and within us?
Have we come to these things? Have we come to the point where we are gathered upon the wings of this divine omnipresent mercy, love and providence which looks down on all things, fills all things, upholds all the world, and desires to unite all things, all creation and every poor soul and body, to Itself?
When this divine mercy over-fills us, and when this God-gifted state is bestowed on us—according to the judgment, will and timing of God—at the time of our most heartfelt prayers and repentance, then we are, as it were, taken up into God, into His mode of existence, into His mind, His heart, the likeness of His very person—we partake in part already of heaven.
Then we somehow come to embrace all the world and everyone in it, both collectively and particularly conscious of each and every unique person. Then our spirit is somehow united to the Spirit of God, and we feel ourselves as one body with all men, especially those of the household of the Orthodox Faith, the Body of Christ. Then we dwell in God, and God in us; then we dwell in every soul and they in us.
These things are only granted here at certain times and in a particular measure; but there, in the unending kingdom of heaven, they know no limit nor measure. Forgive me and pray for my lazy and insensible soul; forgive me for daring to speak about such things;
And may God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, over-fill us all with these good things here, and keep us forever in them, ever increasing them in us unto His eternal glory, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
+Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us! Amen.