Slaying the Serpent of Anger - Sermon for the Synaxis of the Optina Elders (2022)

Slaying the Serpent of Anger - Sermon for the Synaxis of the Optina Elders (2022) - Holy Cross Monastery

When Fr. David and I visited Optina Skete some years back, we were shown the waiting room of Elder Ambrose. On his desk there was a copy of a letter he had written during his lifetime. Now, this particular letter was chosen, out of the vast and voluminous correspondence of the Elder, to be that which sits on his desk. It seems this letter is taken as a precious representation and summation of the entire soul and life of Elder Ambrose and all the Elders. It regards judgment and condemnation of others—sins and wicked habits of mind, thought, soul, and tongue which kill the soul’s love and reverence for God, others, and holy things.

A certain man addressed Elder Ambrose, judging and condemning someone else. The Elder responded: “The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God Himself, declares in the Gospel: ‘The Father judges no man, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.’ Therefore, who are you, O man, to judge another man?”

The Elder is saying: The God and Father of all, the Source of the Godhead, He from Whom the Son is begotten before all time, and from Whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally—this God Himself judges no man, but has entrusted it in all humility to His Son Who became man. Do you think yourself greater than Him!? This is what you are saying when you judge another person. This is what you declare when you condemn others. You think yourself greater than the Father, and are usurping the prerogative of the Son and Judge of all men, which is insane pride!

O, if only we had such constant comprehension of the Lord’s words within our mind and soul! If only our thinking was so immersed in the powerful inner meanings and principles of the words of God Himself that we would be shielded from all sin, passion, pain, and torment!

Judgment and condemnation of mind are born of proud conceit. Pride is born of self-trust, which comes from ignorance of our own weakness and forgetfulness of our sinfulness before the Holy God. Judgment of thought gives birth to heated condemnation which darkens our whole mind. These two—judgment and condemnation—then seek to pour themselves out of soul and body in order to destroy us and everyone around us.

It is often seen in the visions of those who have seen the torments of hell, that those whose chief sin in this life is that of an evil tongue—whether through gossip, slander, complaining, murmuring, deriding, insults, mockery, judgment, condemnation, swearing, or verbal abuse—all of these suffer torment because of their own selves. This is seen by the fact that their torment is one where multiple evil serpents are coming forth from their mouth and lashing back to continuously bite and devour them.

Do there exist such physical serpents, as some sort of creatures made by the All-Loving God, which exist in the next life? The Holy Fathers counsel us to understand by “fire” and “worm” and such other things spiritual realities. If these are interpreted in a fleshly way we cannot escape attributing the substantial existence of such things as specific devices of torture created by God in order to gruesomely punish and torment sinners.

The Holy Fathers are very clear: all torments are of a spiritual nature, and their source and cause are sinners themselves and not the God Who is Love. But listen to me very well at this point! The Fathers are clear that such spiritual torments are more painful and severe and difficult than the visible images which portray them! Just because they say there are no actual physical worms or serpents, does not mean that they think these torments to be less tormenting than how they are portrayed, nor less painful and agonizing to both soul and body.

Who does not know that anger, hatred, fierce judgment and condemnation, grudges, the harboring of wrath, the incessant revolving of the soul around another person in evil thoughts and feelings, and all such sins—who, that has experienced such things in this life, does not know that these burn and devour and destroy not only the soul and mind but also the entire body, much more than physical fire or venomous serpents?

It is the serpent of anger and wrathful condemnation that St. Joseph the Hesychast counsels us, in one of his letters, to suffocate through silence. When irritation and anger flare up in the soul, he says to shut the mouth of both body and soul in order that this serpent might suffocate and die.

But this serpent does not die easily! It will not be suffocated without a fight. It is this fight which often causes us to eventually open the mouths of our thoughts and bodies, spewing them forth on all the world. Anger and judgment scorch and devour the soul and body of their victims. If we try to cut them off, they flare up in wrath and bite and devour our inward parts, trying to escape and overcome us. If we put up a fight and forcefully silence our mind and tongue through painful prayer which begs the Word of God Himself, Jesus Christ, to slay them by His power, then these will eventually suffocate and die in us, and we will feel great freedom and refreshment of soul and body.

However, if we give up, and allow these venomous serpents to crawl out of our thoughts and words, we will be devoured by them, as will others. Then we will truly experience in spirit that which is seen visibly in the visions of the torments: serpents which have been conceived in our minds through our lawless union with demons, coming forth from our mouths in evil words, biting and devouring ourselves and others.

Let us turn away from these things! Let us seek prayer, the blessing of others, thankfulness, praise, psalmody, and every good and sweet and edifying thought, meditation, and word. Let us take as an example the Holy Elder Ambrose who had such penetrating perception into the simple and humble, but thunderously-powerful, words of our Meek and Loving Lord Jesus Christ. He extracts powerful medicine from the healing words of the Physician of bodies and souls, the Transformer of our nature!

Anger and judgment and every manner of sin kill us, but as long as we repent and beg God through humility to save and raise us up, we will live again! Every sin in this life, says St. Herman of Alaska, is not a mortal blow but a wound which can be healed, as long as we repent. St. Isaac the Syrian says that no sin is unforgiveable except the unrepented one. Let us seek repentance. Let us get back up even if we fall a million times in one day. If we stand up again and again, we will manifest ourselves as courageous and indefatigable warriors, no matter how weak we are or feel.

Has excess in food or drink overcome you? Reproach yourself, don’t allow pride to cast you into despair. Cast your body down before Christ, the Bread of Life, asking forgiveness, renewed sobriety, warmth of soul, and protection in the future from these things which darken the mind and make the body sluggish.

Has lust infiltrated your thoughts, feelings, and body? Forcefully wrench your mind away from their delusive titillations. Counsel your soul to look upon them as defiling worms which blaspheme the beautiful creation of God, cutting it up into various body parts and making the soul worship them in and of themselves as idolatrous gods. Beg Christ, the peaceful Virgin, to still your soul and body with His very own heavenly pleasure.

Have certain possessions or money or vainglory taken your mind over into their enslavement? Remember that all things are dust, and that they will be incinerated and disappear with all of heaven and earth when God, the All-Consuming Fire, is fully revealed to all in the Person of Christ, when He comes to transform and resurrect and judge all people and all things.

Is anger, or hatred, or sorrow, or despondency, or self-pity, or anxiety, or fear, or shame, or guilt, or pride, or any other oppressive passion tormenting you? Cry out to Christ: “Lord Jesus Christ, save me, heal me, deliver me, renew me!” Cry out to the Theotokos: “O my most holy Lady Theotokos, take this from me, for I am too weak to fight!” Cry out to you’re Angel: “Holy and blessed Angel, my Guardian, soothe my soul and body by thy gentle touch and impart unto me the peace which fills thee!”

Let us cast aside every weight and oppression and sin and stumbling-block and every barrier and wall which cut us off from the unity of love and reverence for God and others. The purpose of our struggle is to become human again, and then to become divine. To be human means to live naturally, seeing and interacting with the world of people, things, and ourselves, as God intended. To be divine means to enter into God through these encounters, but above all, through secret and fervent prayer.

May God help us to make a good beginning, through the name of His Beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the grace and power of His All-Holy Spirit, to Whom be glory, love, honor, and worship, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen!

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