|37 - Seventh Sunday of Pascha, May 16, 2010|
Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Drawing from Church doctrine, we understand that death occurs in two main phases. The first phase is the death of the soul. It occurred through self-will, when Adam and Eve chose to do their own will and not the will of God. This is the “inner death”, the death of the spirit, or of the self, centered in the heart, which becomes a tomb.
In the heart of man are the mystical doors that open creation onto the Kingdom of Heaven. When in Adam, man died the “inner death”, the whole of creation was shut off from the Kingdom of Heaven at its center, and it, too, died inwardly. We are born, now, into a world that is already dead in spirit. We exist in an inner darkness, ignorant of the true and living God. Our soul moves and exists, and it can for a time make our bodies move and exist. But, our soul is dead at its center, in the heart. And so, we live our life in this world in the darkness of this inner death.
We are ignorant of God to the point that our religiosity is darkness and so often, the god we worship is not the true and living God but an idol, the projection of our ego or of some aspect of our soul; it is a god we have fashioned in our mind from our own imagination, from the wisdom of our own opinion.
The second main phase of death is the death of the body, when it is separated from the soul that animates it. Let’s call this the “outer death”. The outer death is inevitable because the soul already is dead inwardly, in its spirit, because we are separated from God at the root of our being, in our heart. Our soul lives not on its own power but by virtue of the Spirit of God; and so it is not able to sustain our bodies, and so we grow old and feeble; we are subject to all kinds of sickness and maladies of the body and of the soul.
In this state, we are at odds with ourselves. Made in the Image of God, who is Love, the essential character of our nature is love. The love of our desire originates in God and wants to return to God; in other words, it originates in the eternal and wants to return to the eternal. It has a spiritual, eternal quality about it. We can see this for ourselves. While we get older and more feeble outwardly, inwardly our love does not grow old and feeble. Yet, in our ignorance of God, we give our love not to God or to the things of God, but to the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. All of these pass away. None is eternal, and so, as we unite ourselves to these, we become unsatisfied, depressed, bitter and angry, because our desire to unite ourselves in love to what is the eternal is always frustrated.
The Gospel proclaims the coming of the true and living God into this world of darkness who by His death has destroyed death both in its inward and outward aspects. When He was raised bodily from the tomb by the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t just the stone that was rolled away from the tomb outwardly. The inner stone that had covered the human heart also was rolled away; the inner doors that had been shut were broken down and in the heart of man the world was opened onto the Kingdom of Heaven.
In His glorious Ascension, Christ was taken up into the cloud, i.e. the Holy Spirit. He ascended into Heaven body and soul and so He united body and soul to God, He united earth to heaven, He united the desire of human love to the eternal Love of God. He raised space-time into the timeless realm of the Spirit and filled every moment of space-time with the eternal Present of the Kingdom of Heaven. Every moment of space-time has been united to Christ, and united to Christ, every moment of space-time has been taken up into heaven, so that in every moment of space-time, we can say, “Christ is in our midst!” and in every moment of space-time, we can call upon God, knowing that He hears us, because in the mystery of the Holy Spirit, Christ is everywhere present, filling all things, ready to give eternal life to those who call on Him in faith.
This mystery of the union of the world with Christ in God is centered in the region of the heart. The Church proclaims to us realities of the Spirit that are hidden in the heart. Man in his ignorance of God, is centered not in his heart but in his head or in his belly. To the one who is centered in the belly, the Spirit of the Church appears boring and uninteresting because it does not stimulate the lusts of the flesh or the lust of the eyes. Quite the contrary; it calls for the body to be crucified to the Spirit. And so the man centered in the belly dismisses the call of the Church and remains in his belly. To the one centered in his head, the Spirit of the Church sounds unreasonable because its doctrine speaks of realities that come from beyond the opening in the heart and which therefore infinitely transcend the mind. Who, after all, can understand the revelation of the Gospel that God is one nature in three persons; or that the eternal God was born of a Virgin Mother, or that He died in the flesh, and was raised bodily on the third day and ascended into heaven? And so the man centered in his mind rejects the Gospel of the Church because he thinks it fantastic or even foolish. In the belly or in the head, one is in darkness. One is dead inwardly because one is living not in his heart but in his belly or in his head.
Consider in light of this imagery the first commandment Christ gives to us. It is the command to repent: turn around and come away from the center of the belly or the head and make your way to your heart. Look away from the lusts of the belly and find the path that ascends to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha in the human heart; that is where you will find the eternal fulfillment the love of your desire seeks. Turn away from the abstract reasonings of the mind and find the path that descends to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha in the human heart; that is where you will find the Wisdom of God that surpasses all understanding.
Outwardly, we see the Savior making His way to Jerusalem, to the Cross and to the tomb of His Holy Pascha. But, this is the Christ whom we see. He is the icon of God and in Him all things have been united, including the outer and the inner. So, as He makes His way to the tomb, inwardly He is blazing the trail from the mind and the belly that leads to the heart, which He has opened onto Heaven and which He has established in the life of His Holy Spirit in the mysteries of His saving Pascha. This inward, mystical path is what the Gospel reveals to us. It is what the doctrines of the Church are directing us to; and it is through her ascetic disciplines that the Church shows us how to get on that path.
For, it is to the region of our heart where earth has been opened onto heaven and where the love of our desire has been united to the eternal Love of God that the ascetic disciplines of the Church lead. We are directed to take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church in the spirit of humility and in mindful, wakeful attention. Through mindful practice of the ascetic disciplines, we are shown how to keep a close and tight supervision over the thoughts and desires of our heart, to note when and how we are enticed in our heart away from God and towards the center of the belly or of the head to chase after the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. The doctrine of the Church teaches us that our desire originates in God and is fulfilled in God; and that behind the pleasant aspect of the lusts of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life lurks the shadow of evil, for the lusts of the world and the wisdom of man are but idols. They have no breath in their mouths, they have no life in them. If we unite ourselves to them, we will be eternally frustrated and deeply at odds with ourselves, for we are living in darkness and emptiness when we were made to live in the Light of God, that our “joy might be made full”.
Through the doctrines of the Church, then, and through the practice of her ascetic disciplines, we are illumined. We are made to see the path on which we must keep the feet of our desire so that we attain to God and to the fullness of joy in the love of God. This is the inner path in every human being that leads from the belly and from the mind to Jerusalem and to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha – the heart. Do what the Church tells you to do, and you will be led to your heart, the mystical bridal chamber. There, in the company of the saints, we wait patiently and faithfully and mindfully until the Bridegroom comes at Midnight.
In other words, tarry in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit when you will be clothed with power from on high. Center your mind and your desires on the eternal love of God for which your heart desires. And in humility, in the confession of your sins daily before God, guarding your heart and mind vigilantly against the subtle impulses of vanity and self-will that move in the depths of your soul, pray without ceasing. Tarry in Jerusalem, in your heart, and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost comes. Let this week be given to this inner watchfulness in the spirit of contrition and humility, in an inner attitude of unceasing prayer and let’s prepare ourselves for the Feast of Pentecost next Sunday. Amen.