Today is Palm Sunday. The Lenten period is nearing its end and we Orthodox Christians stand on the doorstep of Holy Week. Christ enters Jerusaleum and the people are joyous. As St. Paul tells us in the Epistle reading for today: "Brethern, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand." Unfortunately, not everyone is joyful in our modern world or in the world when Jesus walked the earth. The pharisees were certainly not and neither was Judas. Within a short time they would inflict their sadness and anger on the rest.
Our Holy Orthodox Church is familiar with anger, controversy, conflict and persecution. It is always with us because the Church is a hospital for sinners and as is often evident, we bring our baggage with us. The outside world is never far away. There are two things the Church offers: healing and resurrection. Those that have no need of either therefore have no need of the Church. If we want to live a superficial life, in isolation and alone, without true satisfaction or spiritual healing you have no need of the Church or the things that it teaches. Unfortunately, no one is handed healing and life eternal on a silver platter. We have to struggle for it. Metropolitan Lauras of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad writes the following:
"The situation of an Orthodox person, an Orthodox Christian who lives in the contemporary world, may be described, without any exaggeration, as extremely difficult. The whole of present-day life, in all its tendencies, in one way or another is directed against a person who is trying to live according to the teachings of the Orthodox Church. In life around us, in our environment, in our heterodox surroundings, everything is essentially a total denial of Christianity. If, in the beginning of the Christian era, Christ's beloved disciple, St. John the Theologian, could write, "... the whole world lieth in wickedness" (I John 5:19), then how much more justified we are in speaking thus of our times.
Being a true Orthodox Christian, prepared to preserve unto death one's faith in Christ our Saviour, is much more difficult in our day than it was in the first centuries of Christianity. It's true there were persecutions then and Christians were tormented, but the Christians well remembered the Saviour's words, " ... fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Matt. 11:28). Being fortified by God's grace, they joyfully went to their martyrdom and gave up their lives for Christ. This was also the case in Russia during the torture and persecutions. Now nobody threatens us, living here in freedom, with persecution and torture, but in spite of this, a persecution in its most diverse forms is being carried on against Christianity and against the Christian way of life. Today we see that everything connected with faith in God, with the teaching of God's Word, with Christ's teachings and the teachings of the Orthodox Church, in one way or another is being driven out of a person's life. This process that is taking place in the contemporary world is a process of apostasy, and it can be detected in every aspect of life."
Living in such an inhospitable, not to mention fallen, world, how are we to find our way? I believe we have to do it within the body of the Church. Only within our Holy Orthodox Church will we discover the uncorrupted teachings of Christ as handed down by his Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the example of His Saints. Only within the Church can we find a community of believers that can help each other in our spiritual journey. Keep in mind however, that within the Church, different people are at different stages of that journey. Like the Ladder of Ascent we are all at different levels, some barely holding on and some hovering perilously above the abyss. Occasionally we meet Holy people within the Church. Yes, I said "holy." These are people who radiate a tranquil feeling of joy, love, humility and piety. All qualities exemplified by our Lord. You want to be around them and you listen hard to what they have to say.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet a priest-monk who spent ten years in a monastery in Greece. He was brought to the United States to establish a monastery by Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver. He was invited to our community by our parish priest to conduct a Lenten retreat. I arrived late that day to find a group of parishioners sitting together listening to him. I tried sneaking in like a truant returning to school but he turned towards me, smiled, welcomed me, and asked my name. I told him my name was Stavros. His eyes lit up and he said quietly, what a blessing to be named after the holy, life-giving Cross. I grabbed a seat and listened to him speak for the next five hours, enthralled by his simple homilies and stories. By the end of the day, my entire family along with many others urged on by those of us at the retreat had gathered at our priest's home. The atmosphere can only be described as joyful. Adults were eating, conversing , children were playing happily, while we waited our turn for confession in a little prayer room upstairs. One by one folks descended the stairs smiling. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. We were truly blessed that day in our little corner of the world.
He left the next day after the Divine Liturgy. Those who met were left with an indelible impression. To a man and woman, every one of those who met him wanted to spend more time with him. The ascetic life is an integral part of Orthodoxy. Monastics are the Evzones of our Church and they have much to offer those of us struggling in the world. I'd like to share two counsels he gave me. I asked him about a problem that has troubled me for sometime now and that is what approach we should take to disagreements we have within our families, in our parishes and even in our respective countries. He paused for awhile, as he often did and said, "sometimes we just have to say 'you're right' and leave it at that. Most arguments aren't worth the effort or the animosities they create." I also queried him regarding what I should study to gain a better appreciation of my Orthodox faith. His simple answer surprised me. "Don't worry about the Theology," he said. "Concentrate on the most important things for us as Orthodox Christians: cultivating an inner quiet (hesychia), prayer, especially repeating the Jesus Prayer, Fasting, Confession, recognizing, admitting and asking God's forgiveness for our sins, being vigilant to one's inner thoughts and opposing the bad ones, almsgiving or good works and avoiding occupying our lives around the acquirement of worldly goods."
For more information go to the Living an Orthodox Life pages at the Orthodox Christian Information Center, here.
MAY WE ALL HAVE A BLESSED HOLY WEEK FILLED WITH PRAYER AND REFLECTION.