Guarding our Hearts

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Guarding our Hearts
18th Sunday after Pentecost
19 October, 2008
2 Corinthians 9:6-11 ; Luke 8:5-15

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

When the Apostle Paul in the Epistle that we heard today is speaking about a person’s giving freely, without restraint and without any conditions, he is referring to the general way of Christian life. Yes, it is true, he is talking about a particular collection for the poor, but he is also talking about the way of the Christian life. The way of the Christian life has to be open. It has to be generous. It has to be hospitable. It has to be welcoming. It has to be respectful of the other person. In other words, it has to be expressive of the love of Jesus Christ. This is how the love of Jesus Christ operates amongst us. He operates that way with you and with me, all the time. If we are living in Him, if we move in Him, and we have our being in Him, then everything about how we live has to express Him.

This morning, in the Parable of the Sower, our Saviour is saying to us that these different categories of soil on which the seed fell, refer to different sorts of persons. It is, of course, true. In our circumstances, we are in the same boat as those various sorts of persons. We are all various. How we receive the Word of the Lord is all various. So that parable always applies to you and to me. However, if we want to focus it, particularly, I think it is useful for us to focus this parable on our hearts. What sort of heart do we have to receive the Word of the Lord ? Is our heart hard, so that the Word of God cannot grow in it, or is our heart rich so that Word of God can multiply in it ? What sort of condition is our heart in ?

Orthodox believers, for 2,000 years, have been being reminded to pay attention to their hearts. We generally have difficulty with this, because we are so easily distracted by “Big Red” in one way or another. We very often have difficulty with this. Why do you think heresies developed ? It was because people were hard-hearted, stubborn, and thought they were more intelligent than God. They were disobedient. They chose for themselves instead of choosing what the Lord said to them. If we are in Christ, we cannot choose anything but Christ, and His way.

I am going to talk a little bit about how this applies to conflict-resolution. Yes, I admit, in conflict-resolution there might, indeed, be a certain amount of process. If other human beings are anything like I am with my stubborn heart, it takes time to get through my thick head that something else might be the case, and that I might even be wrong. That is why I really like being at Holy Synod meetings with Bishop Nikon, in particular. All the other bishops are good, and we get along together quite well ; but Bishop Nikon always is exceptional, and why ? He likes to remind us that he is a widower. In fact, he is the only one amongst us just now who is a widower. He says : “I am the only one amongst you who might think that someone else has an opinion”. He is right enough in saying so.

It is true that conflict-resolution is a matter of process. However, there is something much deeper than conflict-resolution which is more important than the process. If I, myself, get tangled up in processes which are for the most part works of the mind, I find myself at some point getting hit hard by the Lord with the usual two-by-four that I require in order to get my attention. I do not particularly like those occasions when I get the two-by-four treatment. However, I definitely deserve it when I do, because I have not been listening, and I need a wake-up call from time to time. The Lord, in His love, is merciful. He does not really hit me with an actual two-by-four. He sends someone to me to say to me : “Wake up, Vladyka ; wake up. What is the truth of this or that situation ?”

Have you ever noticed when it comes to relationships with other people how divisive things enter ? Where do they come from ? Do they not start coming from thoughts of one sort or another ? Suspicious thoughts, divisive thoughts enter ; and we begin to think : “So-and-so has something against me or does not like me (or whatever)”. I might believe that someone has developed a plot against me, or there are all sorts of other variations on such themes. Just because of some action or inaction, or because some person did or did not “look cross-eyed at me” at a particular time, I get the idea that there is something going on. Then I “stew with it” for a while, and turn over in my mind what it might be. Just last week I got caught with one of those false ideas. When the person about whom I had been thinking the false thought was speaking to me, I then understood that he was telling me the exact opposite of what I had thought. Of course, I could never say this to him. It was the Tempter who was tempting me with these lies. So I interiorly had to “eat crow”. I had to admit that I had misunderstood and misjudged someone.

This is the usual course of our lives. We all suffer very much from this in our lives. I understand that I am not so unique as all that. We all suffer from these sorts of temptations at one time or another, so much so that we might feel that it is all the time. Through the experience of my now sixty-two years, I have found that when things like this start developing in my mind, as soon as I have accepted this sort of thought-process, then I can feel myself saying to myself, as it were : “Oh-oh, even though I am engaging this thought, I know where this is going to end up, and I am going to ‘come a-cropper’”. This is exactly what happened to me last week. For some stupid reason I was accepting these thoughts that were coming into my mind about this other person, and, as a result, I had to “eat crow”. All the way along, I knew that this was what was going to happen, and I still did not stop. I still did not stop because it might have been so (except it was not). The whole history of the course of my experience of this person was the opposite of what I was thinking. What an idiot I was to accept those thoughts about the person. I forgot to take into context the whole life experience of that other person. I accepted these stupid, little, dividing thoughts. However, glory to God that He is so quick to wake me up. I am grateful to God that by this time I have learned a lesson or two.

If our hearts are burning with disappointment or anger or suspicion, if our hearts are darkened and hardened towards anyone (and especially those we know well), you know what the parable said : the Word of God is not growing there. We do not want those consequences – the Word not growing in our heart. We want the Lord’s love to be growing in our hearts. We have experienced His love. We know His love. We want to live in Truth, in Him who is the Truth. There is only one Truth. We have to live in the Truth, not in suspicions, not in insinuations, not in insidious thoughts and half-truths, but in the Truth.

In the course of the various sorts of investigations that have been taking place in The Orthodox Church in America about the financial mess in which we have found ourselves, there has been a lot of speculation about one person or another. However, there has been very little direct asking of questions in a human, Christian manner. I have heard in this community that people have various sorts of ideas about what I might, or might not have done or why I did this or that. Nevertheless, I have yet to have more than two or three people address me in any way about this if they have any questions. Therefore, I would say that if anyone has such questions, then why not ask them instead of stewing about them ? Ask, but I am not going to go around defending myself about anything. I am simply who I am, doing what I have to do, under obedience. My whole life is under obedience, and I am doing what I have to do under obedience. Thus, if you trust that I really love you, and I do (but if you do not trust, then it is harder to come to me), then ask me a question, and I will answer the question as well as I can. Some questions are not very answerable, but I would do the best I could. However, I will only do it in a normal, Christian, one-to-one basis.

Brothers and sisters, if there is any division between or amongst anyone in any Orthodox community anywhere, it is because “Big Red” has gotten in, and sown his poison. We have taken the bait. The question always is : “I feel so angry about this or that ; I feel so bitter towards this or that person about whatever it is, what am I supposed to do ?” The more I pay attention to this bitterness, the bitterer I get, the angrier I get, the darker I get in my heart. There is only one way out of that. Archimandrite Sophrony, of blessed memory, whom we should be calling a saint already by this time (but we are so slow), said that the strict application of the Beatitudes is the only way out. I have to pray for the person about whom I am feeling bitter, angry or whatever, or about whom I have doubts or any negative or divisive thoughts.

“How do I do that” is the question that comes up immediately. It is simple, he said (although it is not so easy, perhaps). Many of you have heard me say this time and again. We begin to say for the person : “Lord, have mercy”. We say the “Lord, have mercy” in whichever language is the language of our heart. If a person speaks Chinese, or prays in Chinese as the language of one’s heart, that person had better pray in that language, and not in English. We pray “Lord, have mercy” in the language of our heart for the person about whom we have bad feelings – over and over and over again, day after day, month after month sometimes, depending on the situation. We pray : “Lord, have mercy” over and over again for the person who is so difficult for us. In praying “Lord, have mercy” for this person, in due course the heart begins to get warmed up, as Saint Sophrony said, and as I have experienced, and many others have also experienced. The heart begins to get warmed up, and eventually the poison of the anger dissipates, because the Lord’s presence in the heart carried by that prayer heals the wounded and poisoned heart. Eventually, we will find ourselves being able to look the other person in the eye, and feel no bubbling nastiness or whatever coming up. Instead, there is peace. When there is peace in the heart, then we know that the Lord is there, and that Christ is truly in our midst. We will very honestly and truthfully be able to say : “Christ is in our midst. He is, and ever shall be”. The Truth, Himself, is in our midst.

We, in this particular building, in this particular part of the city, have been given a huge responsibility. It is no wonder that we suffer from time to time with these sorts of divisive ideas, and, as it were, splintering that occasionally occur amongst us. However, we can never excuse it, and we can never co-operate with it and nurture it. Instead, we must engage in the real spiritual warfare, which is applying the Lord’s love, His light, and His truth to my heart – not to someone else, but to me. Everything begins with me. I cannot speak anything about anyone else or think anything about anyone else until my heart is right with the Lord, and I am at peace, and I am able to address anything about my brother or sister in the peace of the Lord’s love. The peace of the Lord and His love can sometimes correct us rather sharply ; but the correction is always with life-giving love, hope, unity, harmony, which exemplify life in the Kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, let us guard our hearts. Let us pay attention to our hearts, making sure that our hearts are always focussed on, connected to, and alive in Christ, and only in Him. There cannot be anything else for you or for me, Orthodox Christians. We stand for Him who is the Truth, and we present Him, who is the Truth, by saying that we are Orthodox Christians. That is who we are. Let us guard our hearts. Let us pay attention to our hearts. Let us ask the Lord to reign in our confused, conflicting, and foggy thoughts. Let them be ruled from the heart, where He reigns. Let us obey and live out and pray every day, too, the exhortation that Saint Herman the Elder and Wonder-worker of Alaska gives to us out of his experience of the love of Jesus Christ : “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all, and do His holy will”, and glorify the all-holy Trinity : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.