Cultivating a Noble Soul: Learning from the Charleston Massacre

Cultivating a Noble Soul: Learning from the Charleston Massacre

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“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the nine people killed in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you [the killer]. And have mercy on your soul.”

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, the mother of 26-year​-​old Tywanza Sanders, who was killed when he tried to shield his elderly aunt, Susie Jackson​,​ from Dylann Roof. “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. But as we say in Bible study… may God have mercy on you.”

Many Americans are reflecting on the latest horror and tragedy of evil and violence in our country. And surely as we hear another story about racism and incomprehensible violence, people are tempted to respond to such evil hatred with anger and a desire for revenge. Hatred too easily begets hatred! Yet, the Emmanuel AME Church offers an inspiring lesson in Christian virtues! We saw how the Bible Study group first of all offered the divine virtue of Christian hospitality to a white stranger. No fear or concern to welcome a stranger, but only love and acceptance. And then even after this horrific and violent act of insane racism and hatred, we hear relatives and Church members offering forgiveness and mercy! Such Christ-centered love is truly incomprehensible for many people to even imagine, no less practice. And yet, what an amazing example of St. Paul’s words to “overcome evil with good,” to overcome dark hatred with a force that is even greater than the greatest evil, and that is divine love!

These divine traits we see from the Emmanuel AME Christians – hospitality to the stranger, and then forgiveness to the murderer – are truly incredible examples of following Jesus Christ’s witness of love and mercy. They reflect some of the greatest virtues we are called to live by in our Christian lives.

It’s interesting because this theme goes in line with the sermon I had planned to preach today on Father’s Day. I wanted to focus not simply on honoring fathers, but more so on highlighting the call that fathers have as the spiritual head of our families, and in fact a call that each of us have in cultivating a truly ‘noble soul” in our lives.

Too often in our contemporary society, we talk about “good” people, but by good we often imply people who are like us. Good means someone who does some kind or generous act. We too easily, however, relate goodness to only one part of someone’s life, ignoring other aspects of the person’s life. Goodness in the eyes of God implies a goodness of one’s soul, of one’s entire being, of every aspect in one’s life. Ultimately, the only truly “good” person is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the perfect human being and the standard by which we are called to judge all others good.

The goal of our lives should be to imitate Christ’s goodness, and thus to develop a truly “noble soul.” We are called to fulfill the divine potential that God has given us, and to constantly strive to cultivate the greatest virtues of life which Jesus showed – love, faith, kindness, compassion, generosity, joy, peace, goodness, patience, humility, and self-control among other virtues. Too often in life, we settle for simply being “good” according to society’s standards. And yet, to be “good” in society’s eyes is something quite different from being “good” in God’s eyes. Divine goodness encompasses all the virtues and is something limitless. We can never say we are truly good because we can always grow in each of the divine virtues. Our journey towards goodness is a never-​ending journey of growth!

The saints (both the official ones and the countless unofficial ones) are those who have truly understood this cultivation of a noble soul. And this saintliness, this holiness, is the culmination of striving to fulfill these virtues.

Maybe this is why St. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8) St​.​ Paul understood that this is the path towards helping ​us cultivate ​our souls and to become truly good. Keep your focus on all that is noble, just, pure, true, and lovely.

Open the internet and watch the news​,​ and see how we get inundated with the darkness of the world each and every day. We too often see utter evil, as in the actions of Dylann Roof in his massacre of the Christians in Charleston. Yet, in the midst of this darkness, we can also see beauty and goodness in the reaction of the victim’s relatives – Christians who are able to forgive in the midst of their deep pain and utter sorrow. They are able to ask for God’s mercy and grace to come upon a darkened and lost soul. This story is a great example of what we choose to take away from it. Will we only see the crazy and lost man filled with racism and hatred that led to violence and murder? Or will we see a struggle to “overcome evil with good,” to respond to hatred with love, to conquer violence with mercy!

It surely isn’t easy, and each person will battle with the darkness all around them in different ways. Yet our Lord Jesus gives all His followers the prime example of what true goodness is. On the Cross, after He suffered the worst evil and hatred, He could still say, “Father, forgive them [his murderers] for they know not what they do.” Or St. Stephen, who imitated and thus acquired this noble spirit of his Lord, could say as hate-filled fanatics were stoning him to death, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

“Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” May these words of the Apostle Paul always abide richly in our hearts, and remind us of the path we need to walk in order to cultivate and develop a truly noble soul.


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Fr Luke Veronis

Fr. Luke A. Veronis serves as the Director for the Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, pastors Sts Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Webster, MA, and teaches as an Adjunct Instructor at both Holy Cross and Hellenic College. He also taught at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (2005-2008). Fr. Luke has been involved in the Orthodox Church’s missionary movement since 1987. Together with his family, he served as a long-term cross-cultural missionary in Albania more than 10 years (1994-2004), and as a short-term missionary in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana for 18 months (1987-91). Since 2010, he teaches a summer missions class which he takes to Albania for two weeks every year. He has led four mission teams from his church to build homes for the desperately poor through Project Mexico. His published books include Go Forth: A Journal of Missions and Resurrection in Albania (2010); Lynette’s Hope: The Witness of Lynette Katherine Hoppe’s Life and Death (2008); and Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations (1994). Fr. Luke teaches the Preaching course at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, as well as numerous classes in Missiology and World Religions. His weekly sermons since January 2013 can be found at http://www.schwebster.org/sermons/ Fr. Luke is married to Presbytera Faith Veronis, and they have four children.