11th Sunday after Pentecost / St. Dometius of Persia; St. Metrophanes of Voronezh / 1 Cor. 9.2-12; Matthew 18.23-35
F/S/HS Brothers and sisters, when that creepy snake slithered through the Garden Paradise and uttered his allures to Adam and Eve, who then succumbed to those temptations, a dark and evil energy permeated humanity from that time forward. Manifestations and iterations of that dark and evil energy have tempted us to this very day.
Christ’s death and Resurrection, His ransacking of hades, trampled down this snake. That snake’s ultimate victory—our death—is no longer! Christ is Risen, that we too may one day rise with Him! But between now and that rising there still exists that snake’s ways with us, and the many arrows he shoots our way, the tips of those arrows laced with the poison of temptation.
Over the course of this past week, on three different occasions, I experienced versions of these dark temptations. All three occasions share a common denominator. That common denominator was conversations with three of you. Each of you narrated very recent experiences with people you love—friends or family—experiences that left you in pain and confusion or anger. These friends or family members said things that hurt you. They conducted their lives towards you in ways troubling and offensive by any measure.
Some of you left these experiences staggered and rather speechless. Others of you were angry and scared, fearful that the choices your loved ones are making will take them down, down, and down. Some of you attempted to engage that person, without good results, regretting that you tried. All three of you were left wondering and worried about the future of your relationship with that person.
Yet another common denominator was that all three of you were troubled by your own thought life about the person you love. You were battling your thoughts. You love that person. You want to find prayer for them. You do not want to judge them. Yet that snake was whispering temptations in your ear, temptations to judge; temptations to get angry; temptations to nurse dark thought life towards that person.
I cannot tell you how thankful I was that all three of you called and wanted to talk about how best to battle your dark thoughts. These dark thoughts—we Orthodox call them logismoi (lo-gee-smee). Logismoi are thoughts and images that come to us, often about others, shot by the demons as those temptation-tipped arrows in an attempt to lead us away from Christ. They are a massive distraction to our spiritual life, a result of the fall of mankind in Paradise, the result of that slithering snake pestering us.
I do not know of an Orthodox Christian who does not do similar battle with their own dark thoughts. Our hope, and the counsel of our church fathers and mothers, is that we strive to cut off these thoughts through prayer and other Orthodox medicines. And often, the saints remind us, our Lord in the mystery of His providence allows such thoughts to come our way, so that we might better learn to do battle with them towards cutting them off. Like an athlete, like a musician or artist, like anyone seeking perfection in what they do, we have to train ourselves to master the cutting off of these logismoi. That mastering builds spiritual character.
But here’s what happened to me this past week as I listened to the first of you share about your dark thoughts, and then the second of you.
And then, after the third of you shared what you did, it was as if I was suddenly shocked into the self-awareness that I had been secretly nurturing a whole series of my own dark thoughts about these various people who had hurt the three of you. I found myself angry with each of them. On one occasion I wanted to lash out at a specific person. I found myself wishing them ill; that the universe would send a ton of bricks to land on top of them, to knock some sense into them.
And with this realization, immediately following it, came a stinging indictment. Father Daniel, you wretch, what are you doing, what are you thinking! You’ve been listening to that snake. You haven’t cut off your own dark and negative thought life towards these persons that have hurt the three of you.
Sisters and brothers, it was two things that helped me see my own sin, my own dark and negative thoughts. First, it was this morning’s Gospel reading. Friday morning I sat down to re-read our Gospel, having done so this past Monday morning. Only this time, by Friday—and after I had spoken with the three of you—our Gospel came to me refreshingly anew, different than when I had read it on Monday. And secondly, it was the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, and how that Feast landed on my soul this year, that helped me see the sin of my dark thought life.
In our Gospel story a king has compassion on one of his servants, who could not pay the king the immense debt owed him. And while that king did not have to forgive that servant’s debt, he nevertheless chose to forgive it. V. 27: Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
But look what then happened! This same servant turns around and does the opposite with his own servant, who owed him a tiny debt compared to what he once owed the king. So much forgiveness and grace and mercy had just visited him. Surely he had a heart of gratitude for having just experience the king’s expansive heart. So what in the world transpired in this man such that he did what he did to his own servant?
What transpired in him is what sometimes transpires in me, in us. His own logismoi could find no place for the very forgiveness, grace, and mercy that had just been granted him as a servant. Instead, shoving that forgiveness, grace, and mercy aside, he listened to those temptation-tipped arrows laced with ever darker thoughts about what his own servant owed him. So much so that he then threw his servant into jail, unto he could repay that outstanding debt. And when the king then discovers what his servant has done, he is outraged and delivers him to be tortured.
And the moral of the story? Because God forgives us, we in turn are obliged to grant this gift of forgiveness to others in the form of a similar grace and mercy.
And the effect on me Friday morning, reading this story anew with fresh eyes? Immediately I sought to find prayer for these persons who had hurt the three of you. And so I went to my altar and lifted each of them up in prayer, that God would watch over them and protect them from the snake’s ways in their own lives; that God in His mercy and love would help them see how they were hurting the three of you. Followed, over the course of several minutes, by a noticeable softening in my heart for these three persons. No longer was I angry. No longer did I wish for that ton of bricks to land on them. Conviction of my own sin washed over me, and I felt a cleansing purification unto finding peace of mind about these three persons.
And then, later that evening and into the next day (yesterday), came the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration. During our services, and especially during Matins, it came to me powerfully that the illumined and radiant life Christ was calling us to when He shone like the sun on Mount Tabor is a life that willingly battles dark thought life, that always finds prayer for those who hurt us, that seeks the good even of those who hurt the ones we love.
How, I found myself asking myself, would our Transfigured Lord have thought of these three persons who had hurt the three of you. And while I don’t exactly know how best to answer that question, what I do know is that, like the king in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus would have sought their good by way of prayer for them; that even if he too, like me, was angry with them, this anger would have been accompanied by lifting them up before the throne of God and the intercessions of the saints, that their hearts might soften and that God would work His mysterious and healing ways in them.
And so you can see dear ones what a gift was given me by the three of you! The gift of realizing the many ways that slithering snake tries to woo and tempt me unto dark and negative thought life about others; the gift of realizing the necessity of prayer and mercy and grace for those who anger or greatly trouble or hurt us. And the gift to aspire to live into the light and radiance that our Transfigured Lord calls us to as our truest and transfigured destiny. F/S/HS
I am consoled that our Lord, our Scriptures inform us, experienced every temptation we experience. He experienced the temptation of unrighteous anger, the temptation to unrighteous judgment of others.
Moreover, I am consoled that He did not succumb to these temptations. He rose above them by cutting them off before they rooted themselves. And now this Transfigured and Risen Lord lives in me, He lives in you. May we too be guided by His manner and His ways with us. F/S/HS