Protopresbyter Georgios Dorbarakis
‘In an acceptable time I have heard you’ (2 Cor. 6, 2)
We often complain that God doesn’t listen to us. We pray, we cry aloud, we bleed, we weep, but it’s as if heaven is closed. No answer. It really seems as if God’s deaf to us. It calls to mind Saint Gregory the Theologian who, when he was Archbishop of Constantinople, poetically expressed such a state of deep pain over his personal problems, as well as those of the Church. What does he say in his letter? ‘You ask how I’m getting along. Well, very bitterly. I don’t have Basil, my brother in the spirit and I don’t have Caesarius, my brother in the flesh. “My father and mother have abandoned me”, I say, along with David. Bodily I’m in a bad way, old age is upon me, there are complications in my various duties, difficulties assail me, friends prove false, and the affairs of the Church are neglected. Everything wholesome has fled; woes are visited on us openly. The ship is sailing through the night, there’s no light anywhere, Christ’s asleep’.
A first response to this paradox might be to mention that it’s not uncommon for God to remain silent so that we learn to exercise patience. Patience is the virtue from which all the others are woven. Virtue which isn’t acquired through patience is no virtue at all, according to the saints. It soon disappears; it was just ‘skin-deep’. So God often doesn’t respond to our requests because he’s more interested in our higher spiritual state; he wants to bring us to the place where he is. This is why we’re beings made ‘in the image and likeness of God’.
And it’s self-evident that conscientious and real Christians bear this situation in mind. It’s only conscientious Christians, essentially saints, who strive constantly, without stumbling, and often receive ‘withdrawal’ from the Lord as a reward for their efforts, though they realize that this is, in fact, another way of demonstrating his powerful presence. In other words, when the Lord seems to be absent, even though we want nothing more than to go to him, that’s when he has us in his warmest embrace. He’s waiting for the best possible moment to reveal to us just how very close he is. This is a mystery which can be understood only by people who have really felt the love God has for his creatures, especially for us human beings. And while we’re on this subject, we should recall God himself in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross. Bearing the sin of the whole world throughout the ages, ‘he who takes away the sin of the world’ as the Messiah, ‘the servant of God’ according to the prophet Isaiah, expresses his pain as a human person: ‘Eli, Eli lama sabachthani?’. That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. This is abandonment by God leading to the greatest communion with him; the cross leading to the resurrection.
But Saint Paul, in his prophetic verse [‘In an acceptable time I have heard you’] has something else in mind: God says: ‘I heard you and watched over you at the right time, the time of grace and the hour of salvation’. It’s one of the most crucial truths of our faith, which most often we want to ignore and not to take any account of it. So what’s revealed here? That, apart from the pedagogical aspect we mentioned above, God listens to us when we’re trying to calibrate with him, to find the spiritual point where our ears are open to hear his voice. It’s rather like what happens with the radio or television where you have to find the station you want. With a surge of love in the soul, you have to turn to where God’s transmitting. And he’s transmitting in our heart, which has to be in a state where it’s seeking him, in literally a state of grace. Because there really isn’t any other greater grace for people than to have despaired over what’s binding them firmly to this world through their passions and still to seek and thirst for God. It’s the time of repentance, which the Lord declared at the beginning of his public ministry: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’. The kingdom of God, that is the presence of his grace, demands our repentance, as ceaseless return to him. ‘I will arise and go to my father’. Or, to put it in the special, simple and brilliant manner of Saint Païsios the Athonite: ‘You can’t smell anything if you’ve got a cold and your nose is blocked’.
Didn’t the Lord himself say as much elsewhere? Speaking of those who will listen to him he states: ‘Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice’. So people will not be heard by God if they address him, cry out to him, pray and weep, but all without repentance, that is without the desire to change, because they’re so firmly attached to their passions and have no intention of abandoning them. To them, God will be deaf. Or rather, God will speak to them, but if they’re tuned in to other things and not to him, they won’t hear him. It’s worth recalling the verse from Psalm 102, written by the prophet-king David, where he reveals this about God’s angels: ‘Praise the Lord you angels of his, who excel in strength, who do his word, heeding the voice of his word’. He calls upon the angels to praise God, which is their ceaseless task, because they have the power to hear and understand the voice of his words and are at the ready to implement them. And how do they have this power? By always doing his holy will. In other words, when people wish to submit to the will of God, when they continuously turn to him in repentance, then their spiritual ears are opened so that they can hear and understand his voice, which is his all-powerful energy. Or, to put it another way, God immediately pays attention to whatever petition such believing people make, and visits them.
And what does the holy apostle Paul have to say on this subject? That this time of grace, when a person is fully coordinated with God, isn’t yesterday, tomorrow, the following day, or some point in the distant future but only now, today. ‘Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation’. The present is the time of grace and of our salvation. Because what we fail to do now, what God has granted us as a gift, might escape us later and we won’t be able, in the end, to encounter our God. People who were sanctified, saints who repented and changed in the most astonishing manner, like Saint Paul, Saint Mary the Egyptian and countless others, did so because they understood the importance of ‘now’. ‘Now’ is a gift from God and one our soul must be ready to seize: it’s the seizing of the kingdom of God, which means our entry into eternity even in this life.