THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Psalm 46 (45 LXX):10, which reads: “Be still, and know that I am God.” This brief but powerful assertion, applicable to virtually any age in history, speaks to the uneasiness and distress every person or group experiences throughout life. Specifically, the Psalm addresses signs of violence in nature and the tumults that exist between nations which seek dominion over one another. Man is reminded that he does not have the final word in an age of injustice or affliction – God does. If the Psalm is studied through the prism of Christian interpretation, it appears then as a commentary on the defeat of such intimidating conditions as sickness and death by virtue of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. And where God and man share each other’s company, bound by love, man finds the internal peace he requires to feel fulfilled and at peace with everyone and everything around him.
Yet, this idealistic expectation seems so out of place in today’s day and age. We are all so busy with our work, with our families, with school. Realistically it seems we only make “time for God” on Sundays or for a few minutes in the morning or evening, if we are truly pious. But what does it mean to make “time for God?” Most people are inclined to think it means to pray or to read the Bible or to sing hymns, to situate “holy activities” into a particular slot in our day. “God time” is one of our many activities … and it is precisely in this manner of thinking that, dolefully, we lose the whole meaning behind what it means to have a relationship with God. If we pray to God, attend church, incense our homes, and fast, we are called religious. These are all religious activities, and truly there is nothing wrong with doing them … so long as we do them in the hope of appreciating the time we have to spend with God.
So long as we act in the hope of being with God. I have often thought, time and time again, that we have created a culture of doing but have deprived ourselves of participating in a culture of being. Very often our religious activities are performed mechanically, without a sense of understanding what it is we are doing and, most importantly, why we are doing them. I fast. Why? Because that is what we do on Wednesdays and Fridays and Lent. Fine, but insufficient. OK, let’s try again. I fast because I learn obedience to the teachings of the Church because the Church seeks both my physical and spiritual welfare. A little better, but still lacking. I fast because I love God and want to be with Him and learn that by being with Him, it is clear that my whole existence depends on Him. Bingo! All of our activities related to God culminate – or should culminate, anyway! – in an ardent desire to be with Him. Nothing more, nothing less.
I submit to you that our furiously busy lifestyles are, to a large degree, co-responsible for this culture of doing rather than being. We are task-oriented, even in our familial relationships, almost to the extent that infants see their mothers as, well, milk factories! We have needs and so see one another in a utilitarian manner because we trust in their abilities to provide services or goods that will appease our immediate or long-term physical needs. It is true that so long as we live in the body, yes, we will have bodily needs. But there is also within each human person a mind and a soul that also need nurturing and, given the state of the world today, it seems these other two areas of human life are neglected altogether. In fact – and I truly believe this – one of the primary factors why people become physically ill today is because they are deprived of receiving and giving love to one another. When one’s morale and self-confidence cave in, the body’s defense mechanism also begins to gradually break down. In a vast majority of cases, in order to effectively “fix the body,” we really need to first fix the mind and heart of man.
Recently, a woman shared with me a series of endearing stories of how she feels called by God to spend time with elderly men and women in nursing homes, whose only hope and joy is a smile or hug or good word. But more than such acts is the presence of another person in their lives who simply listens and stands by them in their suffering. Now some may complain: “But you really don’t do anything.” Well, that’s precisely the problem: not her problem but the one who asks the question. We don’t need to do anything to do something; we can do far more for a human heart by simply being with them. It is here, in the realm of being, that we discover true growth and real happiness that is everlasting.
Even in the Divine Liturgy, many of our people attend because they want to get something out of it. They want God to fulfill a need they have, to answer a prayer, to provide help. After all, He is God and that is what He does, is it not? So, if a need is fulfilled and we are pleased with how God responded, we feel even closer to Him. This is natural, to be sure. However, what happens if another more serious need arises, and we pray to God again, but He does not respond as we expected, do we then hold something against Him? Are we angry at Him? Do we never again approach Him in prayer or, if we do, is it because we fear His punishment or repercussions due to our faithlessness or doubt? Can we see the illogical nature of our thinking here? Do we understand that we are using God rather than loving Him for who He is? Do we see that we only want to be with Him, that we love Him, only because He can give us something? Is this not conditional love? Do not our pets at home, on the whole, behave similarly?
Sadly, we human beings forget God’s beneficences too quickly. It is because we have been conditioned to relate to the Lord only on the basis of need, but not on the basis of love. We must learn to be with other people and so love them and be loved by them for the right reasons. Not enough of this happens and so our relationships are artificial and strained – to put it bluntly, outrightly fake. This is why in Psalm 45, the Lord commands us to “be still” and not worry. We must stop being gods and doing things. We must start being more and doing less. We must become more like Mary and less like Martha (cf. Luke 10:38-42), enjoying our time with God and one another rather than bustling about and performing tasks that will always be with us and will naturally be repeated in this life. But the ability to be with God and with one another is priceless, and one day we may have neither if we don’t appreciate that which we do have!
As parents, we told our children when they were toddlers or very young to sit still and be quiet, because oftentimes their childlike noises were loudly disruptive. But they were disruptive to the work that we were busy performing. What if our children were beckoning to us to be with them? What if God was sending us a message through our earthly angels to do less and be more? What if they were trying to parent us and correct our own immaturities and weaknesses? Have we ever thought about how God can work in mysterious ways in this regard? When the Lord God decided to create woman, His rationale was: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18). Personal companionship and fellowship precede any functional relationship.
My dear people, let us likewise learn the magnanimity of being with God and with one another. In our iconographic tradition, the majority of the depictions of the saints show them graced with the presence of God as they look solemnly and nobly through the window of the icon toward us. Their serene faces are proof that they are in the presence of God. Their successful activities for the glory of God – be they martyrdom, confession, asceticism, teaching, or writing – all flow from their being with the Lord. When one possesses the joy of fellowship with God, he is already in heaven; what he does afterwards is simply a doxological commentary on that which he celebrates continuously throughout his life. Let the activities of our lives then also be doxologies of that treasure of fellowship we share with God first and foremost.
May God always be with us, and may we always be with God. Amen. (+)
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