The Holy Spirit addressing Issues in Today’s World

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
The Holy Spirit addressing Issues in Today’s World
(Words at the Eastern Church Seminar)
Notre Dame College of Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio
8-9 October, 2004

I have been given the challenge of speaking about the activity of the Holy Spirit in addressing concerns in “today’s world”. Although I will attempt to say something, my own perception of reality as a whole is limited, and you may well profit from an opportunity to nap as I speak.

The limited perspective to which I refer is this : I do not really perceive that what we are calling “today’s world” is so different from any other time, place, or situation in history. We often try to speak of today as being significantly different from any time before. I believe that this attitude is, in fact, modern snobbery. Perhaps it is different in some ways (and probably most noticeably so in technological ways) ; but fundamentally, with regard to the behaviour of human beings in general, I see no difference between how we are now, and how we were thousands of years ago. Indeed, I suppose I must be a pessimist, or even a cynic, because I don’t see how we are any better since the Fall of Adam ! We are slow learners, I am always saying, and I openly admit that I am chief of the slow.

Have human beings really changed in any positive direction in their relationship with each other over all the years ? We continually beat each other up ; often we kill each other. Always and everywhere there are wars. If we do not do this with weapons, we do it with our tongues. Frequently, we think this is the worst of times, and we think we hear the Holy Spirit saying that these are the last days. This is so much the case, that there are jokes and skits about it. Instead of repenting, as we might normally and properly respond to such a prod from the Holy Spirit, we prefer to develop systems to try to improve our situation, and then we overthrow these man-made systems. I think that the great social reforms of the nineteenth century are a good example of this. Propelled either by Christian principles (or by some derivative philosophical ideals), various laws to protect the poor, to abolish slavery, and to improve living conditions in general, were instituted, as well as various laws to improve the methods of international relationships. However, by the mid-twentieth century, we can see that many of these improvements had already been subverted in the never-ending drive to acquire money, and in being propelled by fear. Money and power have always been our weakest spot as human beings. Acquiring money and power are still driving almost everything. This acquisitiveness drives politics ; it drives our private lives, and it very severely affects our relationships with each other. Fear is the other dark hand here. We are now, far more than ever, making laws to protect ourselves from each other, because we are afraid of each other. We are fully oppressing ourselves with these laws, which are now so numerous that we cannot but be ignorant of the law, at least sometimes. This puts us into a difficult position, since we are told that ignorance of the law is no excuse. To add to our complex, we also, in our thinking, try to reduce God to a subject of our thought and logic, and even to make Him over in our own image, instead of allowing Him to remake us in His.

In addition to all this, I take the opportunity to use a favourite groaning pun. Despite protests or idealism to the contrary, we live in a world context of rebellion against God. In reaction to all the pain of this reality, we try desperately to make ourselves comfortable in the world. We pretend that the pain of this reality, and especially the pain of our separation from God, is not really there. Finally, not just members of twelve-step programmes, but all humans to some degree, find ourselves suffering from what I call the “Egyptian disease”, meaning “living in denial”.

I am cognisant of the exhortations in the Scriptures and the Fathers that we be aware of the signs of the times, and that we listen to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The exact meaning of this is a part of what I shall address. I will here address some scriptural background to this consideration, in the context of the tropar with which we usually begin our services : "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, everywhere present, and filling all things, Treasury of good things, and Provider of Life, come, and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One".

Related to this tropar is the hymn that we use to open all Councils, Synods, and Bishops’ meetings : "The Grace of the Holy Spirit has assembled us today. Having taken up Your Cross, we cry : blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest".

The Scriptures begin with these words :

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (1 Moses [Genesis] 1:1-2).

While the Father is creating, it is the Holy Spirit who is working together with the Word in bringing all things into being, in unison with the Father. Since Christ is the Truth, it is the Holy Spirit that works together with Christ, the Truth, as expressed in the previous tropar. The Holy Spirit provides life to all that is. Although creation can be said to stand apart from God, it is the Word who spoke it into being, and it is the Holy Spirit who sustains it, somehow. All this refers us to the words of Christ : “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).

In the Septuagint’s Third Book of Kingdoms (that is, 1 Kings in the Masoretic version), chapter 19, we see the Prophet Elias, in despair, on Mount Horeb. He is in a cave. There is a strong wind, which breaks rocks, but God is not in the wind. There is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. There is a fire, but God is not in the fire. There is a still, small, voice, which Elias recognises, to which he responds. In this case, and in the case of all the prophets, it may be said that it is the Holy Spirit who guides and enables these prophets. What do these prophets do ? They call the people to return to their senses, to return to true worship of the true God, to return to correct interpersonal behaviour, to stop oppressing one another, to be generous, to give alms, to care for one another as God has cared, and does care for, and tend His creatures in love. Indeed, the foundation of the Law is love of God, and love of neighbour, as Christ repeated. The result of this love is always found in reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, joy, kindness, long-suffering, goodness, beauty, and the like, as referred to by the Apostle Paul (see Galatians 5:22-23).

Our Saviour said to us that He would send to us the Comforter, or Counsellor, who would teach us everything, and remind us of His words, and that He would bear witness to Christ (see John 14 & 15). As a parenthetical comment, it should be known that “Comforter” here does not mean consoler, as we usually take it, but rather strengthener. It is this Comforter who has already appeared as a dove at the Baptism of Christ. It is this Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who comes to the Apostles and the Church on the Day of Pentecost. It is this Comforter who enables the repentance of the multitudes, and the rapid expansion of the Church in the Roman Empire. It is this same Comforter who strengthens all the martyrs over the centuries, and who enables them, as Christ promised, to confess the Lord well and effectively in the face of persecution.

I have to say that the Lord has been merciful to me in allowing me to meet not just one or two, but many such confessors in my lifetime. This is because, on Church business chiefly, I have had to go to eastern European countries and to Egypt a number of times. There, I have met many persons (both Church leaders and lay-persons) who have confessed Christ in Communist and Islamic environments. These persons have suffered much as a result of this confession, but they have remained faithful until now. With joy and power, they proclaim Christ by how they live. There is a certain joy and power about them, but chiefly a loving peace. Of course, not the least of these could be the well-known Priest-monk Arseny (Streltsov) in Soviet Russia, about whom two books have recently been written. The examples could also include a Bukovinian woman about whom I read this last summer in Romania, a woman who spent twenty years in exile in Siberia, by a river near the Arctic Ocean, along with her three sons.

It is this same Comforter who has inspired the multitude of persons who have been recognised as holy, and who are known as saints. These saints are persons who have passed through various trials and temptations, who have fallen and gotten up again, who have lived a life of repentance. They do not fit into any particular mould. Although there may be some similarities amongst them, the Lord nevertheless makes each human being a unique person, a unique being. Each holy person is one who has passed through fire, and who has grown up and matured in Christ. Each has become, in time, his or her own true self as God intended in creating each one. Following the supreme example of the Mother of God, such holy persons serve as examples to us. These holy persons are not professionals or technical specialists. Indeed, they show us that we, too, could become holy — as God in the Scriptures has directed us to be (see in 3 Moses [Leviticus] 20). The Lord is God. The Lord is our God. He expects us, and always has expected us, to imitate Him. Since we know that God is love (see 1 John 4:8), this imitation is to be found in how we love — first Him, and then our neighbour as ourselves.

Some may know that I am a convert to the Orthodox Faith. I was raised for twenty some years as an active Lutheran, and passed through the Anglican Church, en route. As a young Lutheran, I had felt that there was something missing. When I entered the Anglican Church, it was because I thought that what I had been missing was fulfilled there ; but I was wrong. In liturgical ways, it was fuller, but the Anglican Church seemed to suffer from an instability and fogginess about which they joked in those days, but now do not. It was not until the right time came (always the Lord’s time), that I was able to encounter clearly, and to accept, Orthodoxy. It was here, finally, that I understood the deep and true meaning behind the words of a verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews, words that I heard throughout my childhood and youth, cited by a pious, God-loving Lutheran Norwegian, who said always, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He did not and could not reaise that the Orthodox would translate literally the Greek, saying not just “forever”, but “unto the ages”, which actually has a deeper and more eternal implication. Ole would not object ! However, the point is that it was this stability that my heart had been looking for, true stability in Christ, Himself ; and it was, I firmly believe (because of the very many particular details that led to this conversion), the Holy Spirit that was leading me to where I ought to be, to the true home of my heart. On coming to the Orthodox Church, on the first day of my reception, I had the very strong sense of having come home, a sense that has not left me in nearly thirty years.

So far, I have gone through many examples that may not seem to be germane to the subject. However, the main point is the stability of God, Himself, the stability of His Being, and yet a stability in the context of an unimaginable dynamism. It is in the context of this stability that He has been, and is revealing Himself to us.

These days, when one hears talk about discerning the signs of the times, and about listening to the Holy Spirit, the impression one gets is that one should be expecting something really new from the Holy Spirit. After all, as we have been convincing ourselves, our times are different from all other times, and we know so much more than anyone did before. In fact, with the aid of very fast computers, there is so much knowledge available now, that even the biggest computers cannot hold it all yet. Technologically, we are light years ahead of the human beings of even a century ago. We are capable of travel in space, of microsurgery, and of genetic manipulation and engineering. Arising from all these things are very serious ethical and moral considerations. People are beginning to feel directionless and rudderless. Therefore, all these new situations are being interpreted by people as meaning that God, through the Holy Spirit, will say something new to us, something really new, to address all these unprecedented, fast-changing conditions.

My response is that I do not think so. It is true that we are required to address all these fast-changing conditions and situations, and to address them ethically. But how, and in what context ? I say that the context is, and has to be that of the stability of the Godhead, and of His eternal revelation of Himself to us. “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and unto the ages”. The Holy Spirit has been leading us and teaching us, reminding us of Christ’s words. Therefore, we are not looking for anything revolutionary here. What we can expect is a serious addressing of the present concerns in the context of what always has been the case, vis-à-vis our relationship with God. When we talk about tradition in the Orthodox Church, we do so, understanding that this Tradition is a capital “T” Tradition. This Tradition means everything that has to do with, everything in the context of, and everything that refers to Jesus Christ. Thus, facing the concerns of genetic engineering, cloning, and every sort of ethical concern that arises from our technological advances, everything has to be referred to, and be measured by this Tradition that is Jesus Christ. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, either.

In recent generations, and without giving any consideration to the Lord’s will, the world has thought that world-organisations might be able to overcome the scourge of war. Coercion is applied, economic sanctions applied, political manipulation applied, in order to keep nations from fighting one another. It has not been successful at all. In our nations, we are concerned about human rights and welfare, and we are concerned about drugs and violence. We legislate freely to protect rights and personal safety. We try to legislate fairness. However, the laws are so numerous now, and so complex, as to be difficult to enforce. The result is small compared to the effort. Again, this is an aspect of the perpetual denial disease from which we suffer. We want to keep God at a distance ; we want have control ourselves, and we consider ourselves to be independent. Then, when things don’t go right, we are ready to ask why it is that God allows such horrors in the world. In expending all this effort, we become busier and busier, because not only do our attempts to grapple with the impossibly huge and painful human situation take limitless energy and activity, but all of our technological advances require considerable attention. We are, as it were, very active slaves of our mechanical slaves which were designed to make life easier.... I remember reading a book by a twentieth century French economics professor, who was at the same time a philosopher. His thesis was that the greatest catastrophe ever for humans was the invention of the automobile. He said that before that, our dependence on the horse forced us out of ourselves, because we had to care – even albeit poorly — for the animal on which our work, life and sustenance depended. With the loss of this God-given relationship, he wrote, humans were free to turn completely inward, and to become completely selfish.

The Holy Spirit is, and has been speaking to all of the current concerns. The Holy Spirit has been doing what is needed. The Holy Spirit has been offering us the solutions. However, as always, we are not ready to hear, largely because, to begin with, that would require that we be silent. This silence is difficult for us, since we are so accustomed to every sort of noise, day and night. We have to learn to be silent, to be still. Like the Prophet Elias, in this silence we will be able to hear the still, small, voice. This still, small voice is that of the Lord, who speaks to our hearts and in our hearts. Hearing this voice, if we are able, we are going to understand that the answers are (as they always have been) simple and clear. The root consideration will always be : how would God’s self-emptying and selfless love act in this situation ? The only solution to war, for instance, is ultimately forgiveness and repentance, combined with intercessory prayer. God gave us intelligence, and it was designed to be used in complete harmony with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. We can come to a good and correct understanding about how each of the many complex questions may be answered, but it has to be done by looking inward and listening. Listening, we must be living within the Orthodox Christian Tradition in our addressing the problems. This is not by way of slavery, but by way of freedom. It is in living in this harmony that true life is found. We cannot possibly dare to let ourselves think that the solutions to huge problems are to be found in our own so-called bright ideas which are apart from Him.

Let us not forget that God does answer prayer. I recently had the blessing to be a participant in the delegation returning the Tikhvin Wonder-working Icon of the Mother of God to Russia from the USA. During those blessed days, I many times had the opportunity to hear once again not only the stories of past interventions for the good, but of present healings in the lives of people whom I encountered. It is true that, similar to Pochaiv and other places, the Tikhvin Monastery was saved from destruction by the Swedes by the intercessions of the Theotokos. At the time of an invasion, the icon was, at her inspiration, processed around the monastery, and the Swedes went home. This happened more than once. I met a priest in Chicago this last June who, as a child, had been in a terrible accident and had been left incurably blind. This, at any rate, was what the physicians had said. His mother pleaded with Archbishop John to bring the icon to him and to pray, which he did. His blindness was healed, and remains so to this day. In the 1960s, the prayers of Saint Herman and of the Aboriginals in Alaska stopped tsunamis from causing great destruction. Fires and great storms have been diverted by these prayers as well. Other great things have been accomplished by prayer, including the saving from certain death of those having to fight in wars. I have heard many a story about such persons, protected especially by their mothers’ prayers. This is yet another aspect of the addressing of concerns in “today’s world”.

What really matters most is the person-by-person and case-by-case involvement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of human beings, and at the same time in creation itself. The main concern is what happens in my own life, and how the Loving God cares for me, and addresses my personal needs. How does the Lord affect the relationship between me and the person before me at any given moment ? How we are able, on a person-by-person basis, to live in harmony with the Tradition of Christ, and to live in a harmonious and life-giving relationship with our overall environment, will affect all those around us for good, and spread beyond that to nature itself. It is my firm opinion that the deep spiritual illness of humans is producing the greatly disturbed weather in the whole world. The whole earth is suffering because of our suffering, confusion, disturbance and rebellion. By the Grace of the Holy Spirit, our repentance, and our intercessory prayer can help to change these conditions.

In general, the small details of human history may change somewhat, but overall, the French saying applies well : “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same). That is because we human beings seem to insist on making the same mistakes over and over again. However, as the twelve-steppers like to say, cycles of evil in a family will continue until someone in a family will say “enough”, and stop evil and reactionary behaviours. This can only be done by embracing the love of Christ, by forgiving, by turning about towards the life-giving Way of the Gospel. Only then can life-giving and healing love spread throughout the world. Only then will we be able truly to hear the still, small voice in our hearts. Only then will we be able to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us, and be able truly to address the complex mess of our present lives. Only then will we be able to understand and to do what is the “right thing” in accordance with God’s holy Will. Only then will a lasting change in our behaviour be able to begin. Only then will true freedom be able to be known, and lived.