“Sin itself leads us unto God,” says St. John of Karpathos, the great consoler of monks and all those who despair, but he quickly adds, “if we repent.” This is a bold saying, but everyone who has fed themselves on the swine-food of filthy passions, arrogant sins and wretched thoughts, knows this to be true. But only when they feel suffocated and starved, betrayed and deceived by the false shimmering beauty and quickly-passing pleasure of sin, and from such a wretched state cast their eyes to heaven and call upon God in utter humility, confessing their sinful apostasy from Him, their blatant and ungrateful rejection of His infinite gifts and their demonic delusion which sought to live and enjoy itself apart from Life Himself.
We are very well aware of what the famine is which the prodigal son in today’s Gospel experienced. We are very well aware of the starvation he experienced and the swine food which he wanted to eat. But let us also be aware of what the “coming to himself” is. And let us realize that at any moment, we can do this. Sometimes it takes a long time to wake up from the delusion and dream world of sin. And many times we go about in a forgetful, inattentive state of mind and soul, and we watch as we unwillingly give ourselves over to distraction, a thousand different thoughts, confusion, idleness and spiritual poverty. Many times we watch ourselves in such a state, and we desire to snap out of it, but we can’t right away. We must come to ourselves. We must leave an external manner of life. We must cut off the many distractions of mind, the flights of fancy, the unreal imaginations, the wandering thoughts.
How? Fall down in mind and soul, and if alone, in body too. Fall down as a prisoner—for this is what we are in such a state. We are, as St. Paul says, desiring God in our inward man, in our mind delighting in the spiritual law and life of God, but we yet engage in sin, doing those things we do not want to do, doing those things which we despise and hate. St. Paul says this state is one where it is not us, but sin which dwells within us. However, this does not excuse us from blaming ourselves. This does not justify continuance in such a state. God forbid! For the same Apostle explains that whatsoever we serve—whatever we offer the members of body and soul, and all the powers and energies of our livelihood—whether to the doing of sin, or to the doing of repentance and righteousness—whichever we serve, we are a slave thereto, a prisoner. This same Apostle was—using his own words—“addicted to the ministry of the saints” and always refers to himself as a slave and prisoner of God and His Christ, one wholly chained, fixated and attached in his whole man to the Godhead, to His worship, His service, His life.
We are all slaves, whether we know it or not. Every man in the world is a slave and prisoner. But to what? To whom? Many in the world say along with the Jews, understanding Christ’s words and the words of the Gospel in a carnal manner, “we are free men, we are slaves to know one.” To such we might reply, “Fools and blind—wake up you self-deluded ones! You are the worst slave!” “But I am free,” they protest, “I serve no one!” “No,” we respond, “you are a deluded and deluding liar, you are a complete slave to your own will, to the devil, a coward and a weak man bereft of spiritual strength and the firm directing of yourself by grace-illumined reason.”
Let such a worldly state be far from us! Let none of us delude ourselves. If we are prisoners and slaves to our passions, then let us at least not hide it—for whatever is exposed to the Physician can be diagnosed and healed. But whatever is hidden through self-deceit and false shame will devour one worse than cancer in the innermost depths of the soul.
Are we slaves and prisoners to swinish thoughts, raging feelings, inattention and distraction? Then let us at least cry out with whatever part of our spiritual mouth is not overfilled with swine food, with whatever part of our mind and desire that is left and has a small inclination to God; with this small part of our mind and heart; no matter how small these two mites are, let us use them. The humble, honest, sincere and fervent prayer of such a one as this is the prayer of the publican: “Lord Jesus, my God, have mercy on me a sinner!” This is the prayer of the prodigal: “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned against heaven, against all that is holy, against Thee, and I am unworthy to be called Thy son!” This humble prayer cries out: “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief! I have a small tiny mustard seed of faith and love for Thee, lay hold of this within me and make it to become a giant and fruitful tree of spiritual fruit and respite, a living paradise wherein Thou canst dwell. Whether I want it, whether I desire it, whether I will it, or not, O Lord, save me!”
This is how the Church teaches us who are weak to pray for deliverance. When we notice the great abyss of our spiritual poverty and the depths of our delusion, sin and madness and separation from God, then we turn, if only a little, to Him, and as it says in the Gospel, straightway God the Father sees us who are afar off. Then what? It says that He runs to us. Runs! Not only this, the Father falls upon the neck of our soul, embraces us with His tender love which is not wounded as the self-seeking and proud love of fallen men, and He kisses our soul. He breathes within us the sweet fragrance of life, of forgiveness, of purity, light, holiness, renewal. This is who the Father is. For the Only Son of this Father has told us. There is no other perfect image of the mercy and love of the Father than this, aside from the great revelation of such love which has been revealed to us in His perfect Image, Christ our Lord, Who, while crucified, forsaken and bleeding upon the Cross, cried out: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
O Lord, cover our ignorance; free us from our delusion. We have a tiny portion which has not been given over to passion, lust, hatred, worldliness, vainglory and sin, enter this part and expand it, make it to grow.
He alone can do this. Our small part is to incline ourselves as much as we can to Him. Our conscience, that living light and voice of God within us, reveals our poor state, our famine, starvation and swine-like state.
This grace is given to all men, Christian or not, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, righteous and sinner, Jew and pagan. But how do each and everyone of us respond to this realization of our spiritual poverty and beckoning call to heaven? Our part is very small in the great plan of our salvation, but we nonetheless have our part. We may not have much freedom, but we have a speck. And this is enough, as long as we offer it to God as best as we can and as best as we know how. A responsive heart—this is all that is needed. The wise man says, in the person of God, “My son, give me thy heart.” St. Benedict, and every spiritual father who loves us with the love of Christ, says, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.” If these are the words of man, how much more loving can the heart be of God Who speaks these things?
St. Catherine the great-martyr, when she was suffering her martyric torments, had God appear to her. She asked Him, “Lord, where were you during these trials?” He responded, “I was here all along, in your heart.” Humble Catherine responds, “Lord, how could you have been here in my heart, when it is so unclean and full of pride?” He states, “True it is, but even though it is unclean and proud, yet you nonetheless left a small little space in it for Me.” What a word of consolation for those of us who are consumed by the weight of our sins. What a miracle-working and grace-giving revelation this is for us who see and feel nothing within ourselves that is good. “My son, give Me thy heart,” says the Lord. Why do you run away from Me? Why do you enjoy a lawless existence? Why don’t you realize that I dwell within you since your Baptism, and My Spirit is enthroned within you since your Chrismation? I feed you with My Very Self, My most holy Body and precious Blood countless times, again and again. Why do you seek consolation outside your heart? I am here, I always am. You are a temple of the Holy Spirit. My Son, My Christ, has been planted within you, that you might through My grace become a son of God by grace. Why do you love vanity and distraction, idleness and laziness, lust and anger, pride and position? Why do you not commune with Me? For I always dwell within your heart, no matter how impure it might be! What is better? What is greater than this?”
These are the words of the One and Only Father Who truly loves us all. Let us hear them! Let us beg to always hear and feel such words. To never lose the consciousness of our separation from God, our imperfection, yet the unconquerable ability He has to deliver us and to embrace us, and to take us into a new life in Him.
On the other hand, some of us might not be the prodigal son of today’s Gospel. We may rather be the self-righteous, envious, and ungrateful son. God forbid. But if we are, let us not envy the progress of sinners who have been smitten with heavenly love and have become great lovers of God. For many of the saints were also such ones.
For us who dwell in the Church, our Father and all things of His are always with us and always ours. We have the Church’s many services, the lives of the Saints, the beautiful God-inspired hymns, the guidance of the Holy Fathers, repentance, confession, Holy Communion. Let us not be insensible to this, and let us try to rouse our hearts to an ever-increasing awareness and responsive love to such love and grace as this. Let us call to mind at all times the great gift of God calling us into existence, endowing us with a conscious mind, a free-will, the ability to enjoy life in Him which has no end, but rather ever-ascends into incomprehensible joyous rapture. Let us call to mind the gifts of being a member of the Church, the Body of Christ, the Body of God. Let us call to mind the loftiness and great grace and soul-profiting vocation of the monastic state. Let us call to mind the many times we sinned against others, and they forgave us. Let us call to mind the many times we have been oppressed by darkness, trial, confusion and pain, and God has brought us out into a most-spacious place of heart. Let us call to mind the many universal and personal gifts of God: both this world and the next, both visible creation and invisible, both temporal joys and consolations and ones which are incorruptible. Let us actively call these to mind at the beginning of all our prayers, even as the Church teaches us to set glorification and thanksgiving at the head of all our prayers.
When we do this, and when we meditate on these great and beautiful things in the stillness of our cells and prayer-corners—as we bow down in body, mind and soul to God—then the awareness of all these good things will arouse us to a disgust and hatred of our sinful ways, and to a mighty love and desire and thankfulness to God; and this responsive love will move us to a feeling and strong recognition of our complete unworthiness of being God’s sons, of being sons of the Church. Then true compunction is born, then true prayer flows forth, then true heartfelt thanksgiving will burst forth from our hearts with the sincerity of the little children of God the Father. For we must see our sins in the light of God’s mercy and long-suffering, lest we despair, or cut ourselves apart by self-hatred and impersonal analyzation. We must see our sins in the face of God Who never changes from His grace of love. He does not change because we sin against Him. But we must change in the face of such unconditional love.
However, He will arrange our lives in the best manner for our salvation. He will allow us to feel the dryness and emptiness of sin and the world. He will leave us in a famished state of soul. He will not quickly come to us until we realize our need for Him. But other times, as Isaiah says, “He is found by them who seek Him not.” This is how we can come to ourselves as the prodigal. This is how we can always make a beginning. This is how we can start crawling to God as spiritual cripples, or little babes, and call upon Him with simplicity, humility, stuttering words for help. This is our part. God’s part is the loving fatherhood, the compassionate and irrepressible running to us, the embracing, the kissing, the renewing, the saving, the healing, the re-instating to sonship and the re-gifting of all His gifts of grace, the partaking of His spotless, holy, most pure and beautiful and incomprehensibly-joyful, sweet life.
May we make a beginning towards this incorruptible life, both here and now; and may we, by the prayers of our most humble and sweet Mother, all the angels and saints, be counted amidst their company as they worship, rejoice in, praise and love God for all the ages—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.