Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost / Eighth Sunday of Luke, November 10, 2019
Galatians 2:16-20; Luke 10:25-37
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
A little over five years ago, the Patriarch of Antioch, John X, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece, that peninsula that is home to roughly 3,000 monks spread among twenty monasteries and various other monastic communities. While he was there, he gave a speech describing some of his thoughts about the Holy Mountain based on thirty years of experiences with the place, reflecting on its relationship with the Church of Antioch and with the whole Orthodox world. Among his words, he said the following:
The mountain is a prayer-rope for the entire world. At the same time, it is an oasis from which Orthodoxy throughout the world drinks. I drank from it myself personally and learned here and in the Athonite Monastery of Saint Paul that this mountain with its monasteries, sketes and cells is the place where the dough of theology is kneaded with prayer. I learned that the theologian is the one who prays and loves. He does not disdain the knowledge that he acquires in school and he does not disdain the piety and prayer that he sees in monasteries. Rather, he arrives at both in the symphony of his life in order to become a being who hymns God Most High, in every resting-place of the Spirit over the course of his life.
And although this is our patriarch reflecting on experience with a place most of us will never go and whose life is something we will not take up, I think it is exactly relevant and timely for the question before us today after our divine services, when we will gather together for our annual parish meeting and consider what it means for us to be an Orthodox Christian parish and what we do with that from here on out.
First, Patriarch John says that “the mountain is a prayer-rope for the entire world.” He is using the image of a prayer-rope, a simply cord of knots used to focus meditative prayer, to be an icon of what Mount Athos does for the world. One of the accusations often leveled at monks and nuns is that they are essentially useless people, because they spend so much time praying and not doing something “practical.” And that same accusation is sometimes leveled at parish churches, as well, that we do not really accomplish anything good because we are not social activists. Indeed, we may be considered to be bad for society, as our way of life is just parasitical on society and possibly even an attempt to control other people. Once someone gets a closer look at the vigorous life of prayer, fasting and obedience to a spiritual father, the accusations of this sort may well mount up.
But we are called to be that prayer-rope for the entire world, no matter what the world might think of us. The prayer that we accomplish here together is not only for our own spiritual benefit, though it is obviously to our benefit. But it is truly for the whole world, moving from the local to the global to the cosmic. In our common prayers, we pray for “this holy house,” but also for “this city and every city and countryside.” We also pray for “peace for the whole world.” And when we pray for “the whole world,” the Greek there for “world” is kosmos, which refers not just to this planet but for all creation—the universe. And in all these petitions, we pray not just for the places but for the people in them.
The prayer that we come together to offer to the Holy Trinity is the first element of our mission in this world. The reason that we make this first is because the sustenance and healing of the world is something that comes from God, the Source of all good things. We may be tempted to think that the “real work” will come from mankind, but that is not compatible with Christianity at all, and the state of our world should be enough to dispel the idea that we can be successful at this without God’s help. God is at work in this world, but His work is not yet complete. While He is working, we can participate first of all and most of all through prayer.
And the image of the prayer-rope is especially apt, because it is a steady, meditative prayer that, over and over again asks for mercy, with the quintessential prayer being offered on such ropes being the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” As he says, “the dough of theology is kneaded with prayer,” meaning that the teachings of Christ come to their fullness of presence and effect in this world through prayer, especially faithful, persistent prayer.
The second point from our patriarch I would like to mention is summarized in this sentence from him: “I learned that the theologian is the one who prays and loves.” This sentence may be seen as something of an expansion and commentary on the ancient saying from Evagrius of Pontus: “The true theologian is one who prays truly.” So we may see that the patriarch is perhaps telling us what it means to pray truly. To pray truly is to be one who prays and loves. And as Christians, we are all theologians and should seek to be theologians—those who bear the Word of God and words about God.
This is an area where I think we have some of the most work to do as Orthodox Christian Americans. For most of us, we come to church, pray together, eat together, and possibly do some work together—so there is indeed some prayer and love happening. But in most cases, when one of us has a need for love, we don’t have that need met by one another. There are of course some exceptions and they are beautiful.
But in more ways than just where we live, we are a “commuter parish.” We commute here, do some things together here, and that is the extent of our relationships. This is not wholly the case for all of us, and I commend those who connect with each other outside these walls. But that needs to be worked on intentionally and not just left to family ties or happenstance. Our network with each other is not very strong—not yet.
Finally, the patriarch says that the theologian—that is, the Christian—“does not disdain the knowledge that he acquires in school and he does not disdain the piety and prayer that he sees in monasteries.” He says very clearly here that there is no contradiction at all between the knowledge arrived at through education and piety and prayer. He speaks of monasteries, but he is on Mount Athos. He could just as easily speak of the piety and prayer of parish churches.
In our modern world, we sometimes believe that there is a contradiction and even conflict between these two—an educated person is not interested in prayer, and the prayerful person is not interested in education. But this is a distortion of the human person, who was gifted by God with so many capacities, including education and prayer. It is no more a contradiction to love both prayer and education than it is to love both education and physical health or both prayer and the preparation of food. Indeed, in an integrated, healed human person, all these things interpenetrate each other and inform each other.
More deeply, though, his observation about how education and prayer do not contradict each other teaches us something about one of our key problems in the modern world—if we do pray, we have put prayer into a box. Prayer is not something that accompanies us in all things. I recently acquired a prayer book that has prayers for moments like bathing and putting clothes on. If that sounds weird, it’s because we’ve put prayer into a box.
Finally, this beautiful paragraph from Patriarch John of Antioch concludes this way: “He arrives at both in the symphony of his life in order to become a being who hymns God Most High, in every resting-place of the Spirit over the course of his life.” This is what we as Christians are—beings who hymn God Most High, “in every resting-place of the Spirit” throughout the courses of our lives. In this way, we find our life consummated in our song to God.
As we consider who we are as Orthodox Christians and who we are together as a parish, I pray that this is where we would arrive together—that we are each and together a symphony of of life which culminates in a hymn to God. This is not merely poetic language—or rather, it is poetic language being used to attempt to express something difficult to express. But if we can at least begin to see that this is the purpose and true nature of our life as Christians, then our priorities and our actions will begin to be reordered.
We are fragmented. We are compartmentalized. If we will seek to reintegrate our lives by prayer being in everything and by everything being in prayer, then I believe that we will find new joy, a new song, new vitality in each of our lives and in our common life both as a parish and as the whole Orthodox Church.
To the One Who gives the song and to Whom we offer it, our Lord Jesus Christ, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.