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Pride and Phronema

8th Sunday after Pentecost / 1 Cor. 1.10-18; Matthew 14.14-22 / Fathers of the Six Councils; Great-martyr Marina (Margaret)

F/S/HS Brothers and sisters, the heart of this morning’s Gospel story is that our Lord so loves us that He desires to multiply His grace and mercy within us, just as He multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand.  The sad reality, however, is that there are also circumstances where our Lord withholds His grace and mercy, in part because of how we Orthodox Christians conduct ourselves. 

Not two weeks ago I had an experience of both of these realities.  A young woman called me, barely in her twenties.  She was very hurt and troubled by a conversation that she had with a friend of hers, a young man who is newly married, whose wife is now pregnant.  This young man is new to the Orthodox faith.  He spends considerable time on line with a group of other young Orthodox men. 

What so hurt and troubled this young woman was what she called the Orthodox mindset of both her friend and his friends.  It was a mindset of judging non-Christians; a mindset legalistic in nature—there’s one way to be Orthodox, and, by extension, other paths are questionable or wrong; there was a strong whiff of self-righteous triumphalism in her friend and his friends—we Orthodox Christians are the torchbearers of the correct and right way, while all others walk in darkness.  She evoked St. Paisios, who speaks about a bunker mentality—where one hunkers down in self-protection against our pagan gentile world, who is the enemy and out to get us.

I ached for this young woman as I listened to her hurt for her friend and his friends; though I wasn’t entirely sure why I ached.  I found myself sympathizing with her; though I wasn’t entirely sure why I so sympathetic.  Adding to the confusion was that there was indeed shades of truth, and correct belief, and love for God and others accompanying the mindset of her friend and his friends.   

Especially difficult was one particular comment her friend made to her.  He stated with great confidence that he and his friends possessed the proper Orthodox phronema.  The term phronema refers to having the mind of our church fathers, the Eastern Orthodox mind, a mindset that practices the correct faith in the correct manner.  Why a young and new Orthodox Christian man would so boldly proclaim that his own and his friend’s phronema was godly and virtuous was itself something of a red flag.    

This young woman reached out to me because she was questioning her own faith; and she was scared for her friend and his friends.  Something was missing in their faith that she could not identify.  All she could say was that she did not experience God’s grace and mercy in the conversation with her friend. 

Then, only days after I spoke with her I stumbled upon a book of essays on the Orthodox spiritual life by St. Sophrony, titled On Prayer.  St. Sophrony, cell attendant to our patron saint, Saint Silouan; Saint Sophrony, who resided on Mount Athos and was one of the twentieth century’s great spiritual fathers and confessors, who founded Saint John the Baptist Orthodox Monastery in Essex, England in 1958. 

As I made my way through St. Sophrony’s essays, something about this great and beloved saint multiplied God’s grace and mercy within my own soul.  I called this young woman back and read her several passages from the book.  Like Jesus’ multiplying of the loaves and fishes, St. Sophrony’s words multiplied our Lord’s grace and mercy in her soul, just as it had mine.  

One of the most sobering truths noted by St. Sophrony is our Lord’s critique and judgment towards those who believe they are the standard bearers of true religious correctness.  Jesus’ various Woe unto you, he notes, are aimed not so much at secular pagans, or at the culture wars of his time, but rather at the pride and rigidity, and the coldness of heart of religious persons.   

The following words by Saint Sophrony shook me considerably:

Kingdoms [and persons] pretending to the name of “Christian” have worn the mask of piety.  They have lived, and live, like heathens.  Strange as it may be, it is [sometimes] Christian countries who keep the greater part of the universe in the iron grip of slavery.  In these latter years they have shrouded the world in a dark cloud of expectation of apocalyptic fire.

Saint Sophrony sites the Apostle Paul’s stinging words from 2 Timothy, ch. 3, v. 5 regarding the moral decline that will accompany the last days.  There Paul refers to religious persons having a form of godliness but denying its power.  And from such, people turn away!  In other words, persons within the church put on a form of godliness that lacks genuine Godly power.  At what cost?  At the cost of coming across as a hypocrite, thus turning others away from the things of God.

One particular theme time and again gripped my soul, and the soul of this young woman, as we read together various sentences from St. Sophrony.  His phronema, so different she said from the mindset of her friend and his friends, was a mindset filled through and through with a searing humility and contrition of heart, and repentance. 

St. Sophrony, like her friend and his friends, knows well how to speak about the demonic darkness of current times.  Like her friends, he does not hesitate to judge this darkness.  Like her friends, he encourages Orthodox Christians to set themselves apart from the darkness, to guard and protect themselves, and especially to protect our young children.  He too proclaims the Orthodox Church as the one true church and the way to communion with God.  

St. Sophrony’s entire phronema, however, is permeated by something that this young woman felt was so lacking in her friend and his friends, namely that spirit of searing humility and contrition of heart, and repentance.  Most especially, his phronema is permeated by loving compassion and prayer for those who are lost and without God, and even for those who are his enemies. 

I want to close by sharing a series of redacted sentences from the second essay of St. Sophrony’s book, words that helped multiply God’s grace and mercy in this young woman’s heart; words that she wants to share with her friend in the hopes that St. Sophrony’s phronema will make a deep impression on him and his friends.

Unable to glimpse the divine truth in the destinies of mankind, of people in general, and tormented by my own dark ignorance, I was like a small, utterly helpless child…. I writhed impatiently and looked to God for help.  And the Lord took pity on my ignorance …, like a mother He had compassion on me and was quick to respond.

I wept and prayed to God: “Find a way to save the world—to save all of us, we are all defiled and cruel.  I would pray with particular fervor for the “little ones,” the poor and oppressed.

 At first I was all bitter shame for my mad pride—as though I were more compassionate than God!  Shame led to abject self-condemnation…. Now I realize that although superficially… I was leading an apparently blameless life, in my depths—spiritually—I was, and am, darkness itself…. To discover [such things] in those blessed days I was both the most wretched creature on earth and the most utterly blessed.

 Later, things became clear to me: the Lord had granted me the grace of repentance.  Yes, it was a grace…. I do not know how to label the infinity that embraced me…. One point was strikingly clear to me—everything was to be found in Christ…. Grief and joy flowed, diluting each other…. And is not this sacred pain one of the channels through which the Supreme God communicates with His creature?

 When the living God appeared to Blessed Staretz Silouan it was given to the Staretz to know with his whole being the “inexpressible humility of God.”… Thanks to him I saw clearly that the fall into pride lay at the root of all the tragedies of mankind.  Pride is the very essence of hell. A hell of satanic depths.  As I write, I remember with bitter shame Satan once tempting me with the thought—this was long before I met the Staretz—“Why is Christ the only-begotten, and not me?”  Merely a flash—but the flames of hell scorched my heart.  God saved me.  Furthermore, I caught a glimpse of the mystery of all falls…. Thanks to the Staretz there came a definitive turning-point in my inner life.  He explained to me about “keeping my mind in hell and not despairing.”… Thanks to the Staretz, I began to be acquainted with the ways of the Lord, and in fear and trembling I bless His name.

 The pain that the Christian feels in his heart is not a pathological symptom: it occurs “organically,” having its origin in compassionate love … [our part is to] follow up with a prolonged prayer of repentance…. When we are in blessed awe before the vision of God’s holiness, and at the same time in despair at our extreme unworthiness of such a God, our prayer becomes a mighty uprush of the spirit that bursts through the tight ring of heavy matter.

 The moment we are invaded by a false feeling of self-satisfaction, the Spirit of Life proceeding from the Father forsakes us…. The fountain of all spiritual progress is an exhausting sense of our “poverty.”… Yet even I am the work of His hands.

 Convinced by my own case of the instability of human nature, I live in a constant state of fear.  It is known as fear of God and is not animal fear.  It contains wisdom and knowledge, love and power…. Confirmed by His strength, we can behold all kinds of evil in the created world but the evil loses its power over us…. Thus said, thus wrote Staretz Silouan—that in praying for those [in the world] who have cut themselves off from God he wept more than for himself…. In repentant prayer for our [own] sins we learn to experience the tragedy of all humankind through ourselves … it is natural that my personal sufferings should acquaint me existentially with the sufferings of all mankind.  But the converse is also possible—in my joy I may behold the joy of the whole world.

 God reveals Himself to us as “Light in which there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1.5).  He showed Himself as having loved us “unto the end” (John 13.1).  But He does not impose Himself on us by force: it depends on us whether to accept or reject His gift of love…. Many decline the Father’s gift of love precisely because the utmost effort is required to assimilate it…. It became clear to me that the Kingdom is only to be taken “by force (Matthew 11.12); that I, too, must travel the way that likens man to Christ, who is “the way” (John 14.6).

Such amazing words dear ones—words uttered by a phronema possessed by humility and contrition of heart, deep repentance and love for God and unending compassion for others, and a desire to pray that everyone would come to know the way and the truth and the life that is Jesus Christ.  F/S/HS