Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, M.Div., M.A.A.Th., is the Rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia Orthodox Church in Mulino, Oregon (Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church).
The Joy of a Life in Christ, Part 1 of 3
When we speak about spiritual or religious things, all too often we use words without truly understanding their meaning. We speak of love, for example, but how many pause to ponder what it actually is? As priests, we repeat Christ’s commandments like a mantra to our parishioners: “Love God, love your neighbor, and love your enemies.” And our parishioners get the hint; they come back to us during confession and confess the sin of not having enough love. How many priests and parishioners ever stop to wonder just how one is to get more love? By being ‘nice’ (whatever this means)? No, this is not love, this is just being ‘nice.’ By being kind? No, kindness is very good, but it is different from love. By being polite? This very useful trait seems even further from the nature of love than is kindness. Perhaps by helping others? This also is not love, per se. What kind of commandment is it–to love–when there does not seem to be a good way to fulfill it, let alone an “easy and light” one (cf. Matt. 11:30)?
Love is a strange, irrational, and illogical thing. I love a close relative, whom I do not necessarily like, with whom I am neither particularly kind or polite, and toward whom I do not even try to be ‘nice.’ Yet, I love him. And then there is my neighbor. He is a nice guy; I do try to be both ‘nice’ and polite–even kind, given an opportunity–and I would most certainly help him if he ever needed my help. But I do not love him. And he is not even my enemy!
Now, about loving my enemies… Having dabbled enough in theology, I think I know what this commandment actually means– to love one’s enemy. I can even explain it to other people. But how many people actually think about what it means? And so, they come back time and time again, confessing in one breath the sins of accidentally (?!) eating cheese during Lent and not having enough love for their enemies, or anyone else, for that matter, without understanding what this means or how to improve the situation.
Joy may be another one of those words that we use but rarely understand. What is joy? Is it that feeling when one wants to jump, and dance, and laugh, and sing, and hug everyone, and skip around with arms flailing in the air as if one has just won a lottery? Perhaps this could be part of it, but why, then, are most of our saints not known for this type of behavior? In fact, on the surface, they may be mistaken for feeling the exact opposite of what makes one jump, laugh, sing, and the rest. So, are we to be joyful or sorrowful? After all, those that mourn are blessed. And yet, joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, along with love (Gal. 5:22); the state into which the righteous will enter is referred to as ‘the joy of the Master’ (Matt. 25:21); and the sorrow of Christ’s disciples living in the world is to turn into joy (John 16:20). What is this joy? Can we have any understanding of it that is a bit more clear than “that feeling when one wants to jump”?
One of the simplest examples of what we call ‘joy’ is, in fact, “that feeling.” It is the feeling of very basic emotional excitement, which can be easily mistaken for a spiritual state. One can get goose-bumps during the singing of “Christ is Risen” on Pascha and assume that this feeling is spiritual joy–an assumption which may be just as false as one that assigns spiritual meaning to the lump in the throat and teary eyes during the “burial of Christ” on Great Friday. Emotions are part of our human nature, and we should not think of them as bad, but neither should we see them as indicative of anything spiritual.
An emotional response to church hymns is just as natural as one that is evoked by Tchaikovsky’s “1812” symphony or by a beautiful sunrise. Our emotions are to be sanctified by our faith and the life of the Church, along with our minds, bodies, will, etc. But emotions are fleeting, ever-changing, easily manipulated even by other people, and, I suspect, more so by the “enemies invisible.” This makes our joyful emotions an unlikely candidate for the full meaning of the joy which comes from communion with Christ.
Watch for The Joy of a Life in Christ, Part 2 next week.
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