Youth Retreat : "Come and See" (2006-11-18)

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
"Come and See"
Youth Retreat
11 November, 2006

When we speak about “coming and seeing” in the Church, we are not speaking about coming to see some sort of performance. We are not speaking about coming to see anything, except Christ, ultimately. That is truly what we are coming to see. We are coming to see the believers worshipping Christ together. That is the meaning of the Church – believers worshipping Christ together. All our services express that. Yes, we are praying ; we are asking, and so forth. However, we are simply worshipping God. While we are worshipping God like this, we have our eyes on Christ. This is where joy comes in, joy in looking at and being in communion with Christ.

Father Alexander Schmemann, who was one of my teachers long ago, was a man who was joyful. He was simply an ordinary man, an ordinary sort of human being. However, he was a strong believer, and he had a big responsibility in the Church. Carrying this responsibility in the Church, he saw some of the worst things about human behaviour. He saw, and experienced on a regular basis the weaknesses of human behaviour that most of us do not get to see, do not want to see, and do not need to see and experience either. Even encountering all that, Father Alexander was always single-mindedly serving Christ, and speaking about Christ. He always kept his sense of direction, his vision, and his perspective. I would say about him that he was exemplifying what the Lord asked the Apostle Peter to do when this apostle came out of the boat onto the stormy sea to walk on the water to Christ. As long as his eyes were on Christ and his concentration was on Christ, the Apostle Peter was on the water. However, as soon as he paid attention to the wind and the waves, down he went. Of course, he said : “‘Save me’” (Matthew 14:30), and the Lord did save him, and picked him up.

This is how it is with us in our lives in Christ. Many times, I hear people complaining about the Church : “Oh ! People are doing this, and people are doing that, and they are behaving in such a bad way, and so forth”. Part of the problem is that people have an unrealistic idea that when we go to church, we are encountering a community of holy people, saints, perfect people. They think that the Christian community is supposed to be somehow perfect. However, it is not. The Church is called “a hospital for sinners”, and that is what it is. We are here because we are not well, and our wellness can only be found in our communion with Christ. That is why it is important for us to do as Father Alexander did – keep our eyes on Christ.

When we are in church, it is not our business what sort of things anyone else is doing. It is not our business. Our business is to be there, to look at Christ, and to worship Him. If someone is out of order, and it catches our attention, at least we can pray for that person. However, this is not our opportunity to put our hands on our hips, and to start judging this person or that person, or condemning this or that person for whatever weakness they are showing. When we are in church, the Tempter comes to tempt us, and he tempts us all in a multitude of different ways. It is important for us to keep our eyes on Christ, and our concentration on Christ, no matter what anyone else is doing or saying in church, because Christ is the reason we are there. Christ is the reason for everything. Next time we are in church, let us keep our eyes and our focus on the Lord, and not on anything else as much as we can. If we have difficulty, let us say : “Lord have mercy”, and ask the Lord to help us keep our focus.


Answer to Question One – On singing in the choir.

Ultimately, each of us, standing in the Temple of the Lord, has a gift from God to build up the Church. From the time we were baptised and chrismated, the Holy Spirit came to us, and we were given a gift or many gifts. Some people have a formidable number of these gifts, and some people have only a few. That is how the Lord chooses to work with us. We have to accept the gifts that He gives us, and try, listening with our hearts, to use these gifts in accordance with His will. If we are a singer, for instance, then our responsibility is to come prepared to sing. That does not mean that I come to make an operatic performance in the choir and let my voice stand out. The choir is a harmonious entity. It is a body of singers that have to sing together without voices sticking out. The choir has to try to sing as though it were one, even though it is in harmony. The person has to have warmed up the voice ahead of time. The person has to have warmed up the heart ahead of time. There is a famous saying in Church life that the devil’s door to the Church is the choir. Why is this? Because in the choir, people often let their pride in their own vocal abilities take over. They treat the choir as though it were an opera choir, or an oratorio choir, or even a solo of some sort : “Look at me ! Look at me ! Pay attention to me, and my beautiful voice !” This is not how Church singing is supposed to be done. Church singing is supposed to be the blending of voices so that no-one sticks out, but all together the sound is glorifying God. We cannot do that unless our heart is in the right place. Our heart has to be in order. Our voice has to be warmed up. Things have to be in order.

On any given day it is more than likely that at least some members of the choir have been tripped up. Therefore, there are always some glitches. On a few miraculous occasions, everything is beautiful, but more often than not, there are little glitches. There are glitches in serving, too. There are glitches in everything in the course of worship because people are not all at the same stage of being in focus and in order, at the same time. That is how the Tempter works with us. However, if we are living in repentance, and if we are trying to get over these things (even if we do have glitches), we can at least say we are sorry, and not pretend that we did not make a mistake. If we get corrected, we do not have to be offended or all bent out of shape. It is important for us to accept the correction (and the fact that we could actually make a mistake), and try to do better.

Answer to Question Two – On fasting.

When it comes to the fasting periods, try to find the way to change your way of thinking about it, if you can. Usually with the fasting period, we say that it is a rule. When it is a rule, we have to do it. However, that is not exactly the right spirit with which to approach these things. If we do something just because it is a rule, and we have to do it, that is not good enough. It is good for us to be abstaining the way we do on these days, and in these periods. Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days, and there are also these periods where we are abstaining in one way or the other. We do it in preparation for Holy Communion on regular occasions or in preparation for a bigger feast. If we are going to be abstaining in these periods, let us at least undertake these things in the right spirit, which is to make an offering of my abstinence to the Lord. To do it voluntarily is the most important part. It is not that we absolutely have to fast, and lightning is going to strike if we do not. That does not happen.

Fasting is good for us. There are lots of people who are saying, as they are passing through their lives, that they really look forward to these periods of abstinence because they actually feel better during these Lenten periods. It takes more time to cook some things, but they feel better. However, it is not just because it is good for our health. It is good for our soul. We are doing this as an offering to Christ. We are doing it because we love Christ and we want to be pleasing to Him, and in harmony with Him.

I think that the first thing in terms of being practical is to try to change our attitude, with God’s help, always with God’s help, from thinking : “I have to”, to thinking : “What sort of an offering can I make to the Lord in my way of eating or not eating, in my way of doing this or not doing that ? What can I do ?” Sometimes people, for instance, because of their health, can hardly abstain from many things at all because their health is weak. However, they still want to make an offering to the Lord. Under those circumstances, they do something else. They do more of something else or they do less of something else according to the nature of their lives. However, they still do it as an offering to the Lord.

Christian mentality is concerned with being pleasing to the Lord, and how to offer something pleasing to the Lord in my life. If you are thinking about it as rules, rules, rules, human beings always look for a way around them. Some time ago I was told that in Imperial Russia before Communism there used to be a saying in the Faculty of Law : “The Law is a lighthouse on which there is a balcony to get around it”. That is how we are with laws. We are always looking for ways to get around them. “How much can we bend the speed limit ?” “Can we go ten or twenty kilometres over that speed limit before the police will stop us ?” “How far can we bend a Montreal stop sign ?” Do we slow down even at all ? It depends. Rules are always difficult for human beings because we are resisting them all the time. If we keep imposing rules on ourselves all the time, we beat ourselves up for not obeying the rules. Then we fall into disobeying the rules even more, and being negative about ourselves, judging ourselves, and condemning ourselves. It is important for us to try to keep a proper disposition. Let us avoid the mentality of rules, and maintain as much as possible the mentality of voluntary offering.

Answer to Question Three – On spiritual training.

One of the things about abstinence, fasting, and so forth that is characteristic for people who are outside the Christian community is that these things are often done to a certain extent for some sort of training, but mostly because it is good for the body. This sort of training is not for the same reasons, nor does it have the same effect as the exercises that we in the Church undertake. The Apostle Paul is speaking about this training also because the spiritual life in itself is similar to being an athlete (see 1 Corinthians 9:25-27). We have to work at it. It is important for us to be careful not to do too much “self-training”, because if we do it all by ourselves, we will become confused and lost. We all must have a spiritual “personal trainer” to help us know where we are going with this training. The principle is similar to that of physical exercises. People have an advisor to help them do it right. All these various systems have to be fine-tuned to suit the person.

It is exactly the same thing with spiritual development. The training is a reality. There has to be another person outside who has more experience to help us to do what is better, and right for us. If I simply make my own determination : “Well, I am going to do this fast this way, or I am going to do this or that by myself because I read it in a book, and it looks good, and it feels good, and it is convenient” – then perhaps it is not at all the right thing for me. Maybe I should do something rather different. Maybe what I decide to do for myself is in fact poisonous for me. That is why I am always cautious about training myself or making determinations for myself because in the course of my life I have made many, many determinations about myself by myself, and it always results in a mess.

It is much better to try to determine what God is telling us to do through someone else, rather than just thinking that we are plugged in directly to the Lord, and that we ourselves have all the answers about ourselves. Do not make the same mistakes that I have made if you can avoid it.

Answer to Question Four – On confession.

Confession in early times was public. People confessed their sins in the presence of each other. It was not like a common confession today where we never admit anything specifically, in which we merely hear a list of sins or a general meditation on repentance, and everything is generic. I was told that one of the reasons why we stopped this sort of public confession that was characteristic of the earliest times, is that people fell into the temptation of gossip. That is why customarily when people are going to confession, it is audible only to the priest and not to anyone else. The priest, standing there on behalf of everyone else, is witnessing the confession the person is making to Christ. He is somehow the representative. He is also the representative of the Lord, because the Lord often speaks through the person who is hearing the confession. We have to make a distinction, too, between the person who is hearing a confession, and a spiritual father (or spiritual mother), because those are two different things. Spiritual paternity, in the way that we customarily use that term, is something that we usually find only in a monastic community because it involves discussing our thoughts and all sorts of things in detail, even on a daily basis. I like to avoid “spiritual parenthood” as a term. People often assume that anyone who is hearing a confession is therefore a spiritual father, but that is not necessarily so. Sometimes a person who is hearing a confession is only capable of hearing the confession, and discerning a few things about what can be done in terms of helping the person, somehow. One person is not “one size fits all” when it comes to confession, either, just as a spiritual father is not as well.

Answer to Question Five – On spiritual gifts.

When we are trying to discover what our gifts are, well, that is very subtle. From what I remember, whatever gifts I have had, or sense of direction also (because the two things are often connected), these were usually suggested to me by other people who could see something in me. They would say : “We see that you have this particular ability. You should go in that particular direction with your life”. Those are ways in which the Lord has tended to direct me in the past. Sometimes I have been very stubborn about those things, listened to other advice, and got myself diverted. When I went in the right direction, the doors opened. When I went in the wrong direction, the doors closed. That does not mean that if any one meets an obstacle, the Lord is saying “no”. We have to pay attention, because some obstacles are temptations. It takes a bit of discernment.

Answer to Question Six – More on gifts.

There is another thing about gifts worth remembering, and that is : what truly constitutes a gift ? The answer is that a gift is something that is given freely. If it is truly a gift, we do not have to give anything back. It is just given. And why is it given ? It is given because of the thought, because of the love. It is freely given. That is what makes it a gift. There are no strings attached. It is important for us, having been freely given these gifts (if we are living in the same sort of love which produces all these gifts, the love of Christ), that we share these gifts freely in the same way. The Lord said : “‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). Receiving is very nice, but giving is even better. However, giving always has to be without strings attached. It seems that North America is really bad these days in the gift department (and visiting, too) : if we get a gift, then we have to give a gift back. However, then it is not really a gift : we are extorting a gift from someone else. If we give something and then say : “Well then, where’s mine ?” that is not giving ; that is not really a gift. If I invite you to dinner, then you have to invite me to dinner. Well, what is this ? This is not hospitality at all. This is extorting invitations from one another. We are upside down. It is for us to do things in a Christian way, which means that everything is open and free. We empty ourselves in love.

Answer to Question Seven – On being an Orthodox Christian.

To be an Orthodox Christian means that we have to dare to be different in a good way – not just rebelliously different, but positively different, healthily different. What makes those monks holy (the monks of Mount Athos that you mentioned) is that they have become true human beings. They are truly, truly whole human beings as God created them to be. That is the meaning of our life. Our purpose in life is to find our true selves in the love of Christ. Who are we truly in the love of Christ ? In that environment, anything is possible. All those Star Wars movies, and all those other things are nothing compared to what can be accomplished in Christ. Although those movies are fun, they still pale compared to what sorts of things are possible in Christ.

Answer to Question Eight – On dealing with negative people.

People who are discouraging, are generally trying to do their discouraging as a result of jealousy, or envy, or just plain nastiness, because they are broken people. They have a worldly mentality. There are three things we have to do as a Christian. Always, when people say something negative to us, there is a possibility that there could be an element of truth in it. We have to see. We should not just look at it ourselves. We have to check with someone else, and also ask ourselves : “Is there any truth in this negative comment, or is it only grumpiness or something else negative ?” If there is an element of truth, then perhaps we could make a change, and that would be good. However, if it is not true, then we just dismiss it. When a person is trying to discourage us from following what is the right path, it is important that we forgive the person. That is necessary, because the way of Christ is the way of forgiveness. A closely related element to this is that it is important to pray for the person who is trying to discourage us from following what is the right path, because that person is suffering from a temptation.