Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
The bark of the Christian Church sails through troubled waters these days. Mega-scandals have assaulted Christian communities throughout the United States and the world, scandals of a grave dimension, scandals which can only be described as sin, as the pervasiveness of evil, and as the failure of Christians and their leaders to live up to the Church’s nature and ministry about which St. Paul wrote in Ephesians.
“…to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ and to make known to all men the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known.” (Ephesians 3:8-10)
Presently, even the Orthodox Church stands close to the brink of a new schism and that scandal of possible disunity and rancor is yet another signal that all is far from well in the household of the faith.
No Christian community can wash its hands of these scandals and their wanton violations of servant leadership and pastoral solicitude. For despite our theological differences which are, for us Orthodox Christians, clear and certain, we are disciples of the same Lord. There are not “many Christs.” Again, St. Paul reminds us, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is over all, through all, and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
The sin of one brings darkness upon all. Just as we, by human nature, share the consequences of the ancestral sin of Adam, so too, the sins and scandals associated with various ecclesial bodies today must be “owned” by all Christians. The burden rests on all our hearts. We can be complicit, if even by apathy or mediocrity—or denial. None can run from the great betrayal. How do we, as holders of the Apostolic faith, protect the koinonia—the communion of belief—from those forces seeking to destroy it, dilute it, or compromise it. We must not look to an institution or an organization. It is pointless to see the real problem somewhere “out there.” The fact is, we must look to our own hearts, it is there that the deceiver seeks to capture our attention (logismoi) and to spin his lethal yarn.
Our holy Father, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, provides guidance in his writings for safeguarding Christ’s Church. He wrote, “All our troubles come from pride. If we would have humility, then God would show us all His secrets because He loves us. As the Lord said, “Learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you will find rest unto your souls.”
To learn from Christ is to learn to discipline and transform our egos—the seat of pride. Ego is the source of spiritual unhappiness, dryness, and a nagging feeling of estrangement from God. Egotism can also be a contributing factor to unrest and scandal in the Church. God revealed to Schema-Monk Silouan that the root of all human sin is pride/self-centeredness. He taught Silouan that God is humility, and that the man who would “put on” Christ, the man who would be truly happy in life, the Church that would be the most fulfilled, must learn the way of the humble.
Because each believer can yield to egotism and control, the Church, the ekklesia, can itself become tarnished and lose its purpose and focus. Humility is certainly not a fashionable or popular virtue in our “me first—go drives all—I’m so impressed with myself” culture. Yet it is the greatest antidote to living with an unbridled sense of one’s own importance in the struggle of my will versus God’s will for me. Humility is the proper spirit for Bishops, priests, and lay persons to have if they want to stave off the evil one from causing scandal, disunity, or schism. Left unchecked, these can end in emptiness of soul, being spiritually dead. We begin to listen to the sordid voices of this world and get caught up in the vortex. How do we get to that humble place?
In his book The Mountain of Silence, Kyriacos Markides quotes Geronda Maximos, the Athonite Elder by saying, “When human beings completely obliterate their own egotism and reach for union with God, then whatever they wish is what God wishes, and it is given.”
To find these dangers to our soul and therefore to the Church, we must first search our heart and soul honestly. St. Silouan wrote that “Pride and self-centeredness entail every disaster and downfall, grace departs, the heart grows cold, prayer is feeble.”
Is this true in my life? Have I allowed pride and ego to take over in my person, in my marriage, my family and relationships, in my work in the world? In the battle of wills between me and God (the definition of pride), do I seek to prevail or to surrender? Do I demand the control of my life?
These questions require tough discernment. A doctor can’t treat a disease without a diagnosis. Pride and ego cannot be healed without first recognizing them, honestly, in our souls and in our daily living—and in our Church.
Second, embrace the pain. Make no mistake, the effort to transform pride/ego into genuine humility will go against our natural impulses. The ego is a greedy and voracious thing. Once we submit to it, once we give it what it wants, it wants more and more of us. Redirecting our will to the will of God goes against that natural and intuitive reaction of our ego towards the self. After all, it is easier not to live as a Christian than to live as Christ lived. Yet St. Silouan assures us that “keeping our souls in hell” is the true path to humility. We need to know that our discipleship will cost us.
As St. Silouan wrote of Adam’s battle with God, “There is an aching and deep regret in the soul. Adam pined on earth and wept bitterly, and the earth was not pleasing to him. He was heartsick for God and this was his cry, “My soul wearies for the Lord and I seek Him in tears.”
Lived as a destiny everyday, our personal ego, our battle to wrest control from God rather than surrender to Him, will supply us with an endless font of tears and regret.
Lastly, never give up hope. St. Silouan suffered acutely in the spiritual and psychological struggle for some 15 years, but he never gave up. That was the key. He kept focused on the struggle, on the process of personal spiritual change. He kept hope in his suffering because Christ suffered. Hope was a way out of pain, a way out of despair and discouragement, a way out of spiritual death and its trap of the ego.
No matter what you find in your soul-searching or how painful taming your inflated ego and embracing the way of the humble Christ can be, hold on, always hold on. Pray for yourself and pray for the Church that it, too, might be faithful to its nature and call to service—not power and control; to spiritual truth and authentic asceticism—not the creation of comfortable self-serving theories of belief. The Lord Jesus promised “rest for our souls,” and he will deliver on His promise! May the Humble Lord touch our hearts and the heart of His Church with His abiding peace and humble way.
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