Mindfulness in the Garden of our Souls: Homily for the Sunday of Holy Fathers of Seventh Ecumenical Council & Fourth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15

           If the Lord’s disciples had trouble grasping the meaning of the parable of the sower, we should not be surprised if we do also.  Unlike them, we do not live in an agricultural society in which people were familiar with planting seeds and growing crops.  In that time and place, there was no doubt that life itself depended on the success of raising plants to maturity.  That is still the case today, of course, but most of us are far removed from the actual production of our food. We probably have more experience with trying to keep grass alive and green during our hot and dry summers than with growing crops to eat.    As frustrating as lawn care can be, just imagine how the common people of first-century Palestine felt when they cast their seed on the dry, rocky ground.  They knew that their lives depended on at least some of those seeds taking root and growing to fruitful maturity.

Though we usually do our best to ignore it, the same matters are at stake for us in the Christian life.  Jesus Christ is the Word of God become flesh for our salvation.  As the God-Man, He has restored and fulfilled the unique glory of the human person in God’s image and likeness.  He has shared His life with us such that we may become radiant with the divine glory through personal union with Him.  The Savior was born into the same world we inhabit with all its corruptions, distractions, and sorrows.  His ministry drew large crowds at times, yet all but a handful of His closest followers had abandoned Him by the time of the crucifixion.  Christ’s preaching and healing had touched so many, but only a few remained faithful to the end, especially the women who stood at the foot of the Cross and then went to anoint His dead body on Sunday morning.  That was when they saw the stone rolled away from the tomb and heard the unbelievably good news of His resurrection. In their steadfast faithfulness, they were in a unique position to bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God.

Our challenge is to respond to Christ like those myrrh-bearing women whose obedience made it possible for them to become the first recipients of the news that the Lord had conquered death.  This is a high calling, for left to our own devices, we would remain like dry, rocky soil that grows only weeds.  Had the Savior come simply with a set of religious instructions, we would surely have misinterpreted and disobeyed them.  Even if we followed them, we would still be enslaved to death.  But since He has vanquished the grave and made us participants in His life by grace, the Lord has enabled us to flourish in His image and likeness as we become our true selves by sharing in the divine life.

Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in 787.  The Council defended the practice of venerating icons, distinguishing between the worship given only to God and the honor given to images of our Lord, His Mother, and the Saints.  The honor given to the image ultimately goes to the one represented in the icon.  The Council’s decrees concern not only the use of religious imagery, but also the deepest truths of our salvation.  Apart from the mystery of the Word made flesh, there would be no icons.  For the Son of God had to become a human person with a body like ours in order to be seen and touched, in order to inhabit our world.  He had to have a real human body in order to be born, die, and leave an empty tomb after His resurrection.  His icon reminds us not only of the truth of the incarnation, but of how He has made it possible for us to fulfill our basic human calling to become like Him in holiness.

Farmers do not harvest a bumper crop by accident, for they must remain vigilant against threats of all kinds as they prepare the soil, plant the seeds, provide them water and fertilizer, and protect them from weeds, pests, and bad weather.  The same will be true for us as we seek to grow to fruitful maturity in the Christian life.  The healing of our souls will not happen by accident, but requires a daily struggle against temptation in all its forms, especially those associated with “the cares and riches and pleasures of life.”  It is so easy to direct our desire for fulfillment to anything except God.  The results of doing so for the health of our souls, however, will be as disastrous as those for a crop when farmers decide they have something better to do than to stay on guard.  Even if we initially made a good beginning, we can easily fall away, wither, and die.

In order to bear good fruit for the Kingdom, we must remain focused on sharing more fully in the life of Christ.  That is how we become better icons of Him, how we embrace the fulfillment of our humanity in God’s likeness that He has brought to the world.  Mindfulness is essential, for unless we keep a close watch on our thoughts, we will easily fall prey to distractions that turn our attention away from “the one thing needful” of hearing and obeying the Word of God. (Lk 10:42)  We do not want to become like those St. Paul mentioned in today’s epistle reading, inclined to fill their minds with “stupid controversies…[that] are unprofitable and futile.”  Instead of wasting their time, energy, and attention, he teaches that they should “apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.”

Mindfulness is simply staying focused so that we see clearly what we are thinking, desiring, saying, and doing.  It is entirely possible to live in the world with all our daily cares, but nonetheless to recognize the truth about our thoughts as we turn our attention away from those that are contrary to sharing more fully in the life of Christ.  We face the same challenge with what we say and do, but our thoughts and desires should be our most fundamental concern for they lead to our words and deeds.  As we cultivate the habit of recognizing that pride or anger, for example, is rearing its ugly head in what we think or want, we should turn our attention and energy to the Lord in a humble prayer for strength in rejecting the temptation.  Instead of being shocked or upset that we have any thought or desire, we should simply refocus on doing what we know we should be doing for the healing of our souls in the service of God and neighbor.

If we do not grow in mindfulness, we risk having unholy thoughts and desires grow like weeds in our hearts.  They can easily choke the spiritual life out of us as they lead to deeds and words that make it impossible for us to become better icons of Christ, unless we later come to our senses and turn away from them.  As with a garden, it is much better, of course, to keep a clear eye on the weeds from the beginning, mindfully doing what it takes to prevent them from becoming a serious threat.  Once they have taken over, the job is much more difficult.

Focused prayer from the heart in silence fuels mindfulness, for it is through being fully present before the Lord that we gain the spiritual vision to know the truth about ourselves.  We must turn off our media and screens, shut our mouths, and stand before Him without distraction on a daily basis. That is the first step in gaining the spiritual clarity to discern the particulars of how to become “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  Mindfulness is essential for cultivating the garden of our souls for the Kingdom as we become more fully ourselves in the image and likeness of God.

 

 

 

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