(A talk given by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol at the University of Cyprus)
...we'll try to have a series of homilies as a base so that we can move on to the true knowledge of the spiritual life, as the Fathers of our Church placed a lot of importance and attention on this, that a person who is to begin the spiritual life will place things correctly inside of him right from the beginning; for the spiritual life, the life in Christ, is very delicate and very specific. For example, it's like a chemical equation, in which all the elements must be placed in the right way. Because if not placed correctly, then we will obtain erroneous results, and sometimes those results are very painful, especially in the spiritual sphere, in our spiritual course.
And so, they placed much importance on this, so that a person who's beginning would receive accurate knowledge, the correct knowledge. That's why I thought it appropriate for us to begin by talking about the first fundamental, this fundamental of the knowledge of man. The Holy Fathers, even though they were spiritual people and theologians―not in today's sense of the word, where we study in universities and attain a sheet of paper saying 'theologian', but were theologians who spoke with God and about God from their experiences―wrote works and things concerning man. Even more so, you know that the Holy Scriptures, the Old Testament, starts by speaking about the creation of the world and the creation of man. In this way, I too will try to say a few words about this great event, so that we can understand how important it is for someone to be human and how important it is that God became man and gave us the possibility to become gods. For this reason, I will say a few things, which you obviously know from school* from your childhood, but are necessary, so that on this we can build the rest of the edifice, which we will try to achieve by God's grace.
It is well-known to all of us that in the Church we say that God became man to deify man. We, the people of today, meaning the people after the fall of the first Adam, the first man, aren't unaware of how man was made from God's hands. Of course, we know from the Holy Scriptures that God made man in His image and according to His likeness. Holy Scripture is neither a scientific book, nor an anthropological nor geographical nor astronomical book nor any of that. And those fears that arise at times are ridiculous, the fear, let's say, that if fossils are found, or astronauts discover life on other planets, then what will happen to the Church, what will happen to the Scriptures, that in a way it's in danger of falling apart! There is no such danger, because the Holy Scriptures spoke of a different fact. The fact that concerns us Christians is that God, out of non-being, nothing, driven by endless love, created man. He created man in His image and according to His likeness. Meaning He gave him His image, all the gifts that He Himself has, meaning He created a copy of Himself, a photo of Himself, this is what 'in the image of' means; all that God has in His nature, He gave as gifts, free, to us. And in this way He shows the great value of man, because man is king over all creation and is the centre of all creation.
We know from the Book of Revelation that the first man, Adam, who acquired his main work in
Paradise, within this place that God placed him, all powers within him functioned normally. And in this way, all his love, all his desire, all his mind, his heart, his power, his strength functioned towards God and through God within the creation. Adam embraced all of creation in a natural way, because all his strengths were united; his personality had not been divided yet. We know, that after breaking God's commandment, communion with God was immediately interrupted, his personality was split and in this way we now have the invasion of passions and sin in the human being.
Sin and passions are nothing more than perversions of natural human actions―that is, those gifts that God gave people. That is, God gave man love, since He is love, and love was perverted into hate; from selfless love it turned into self-seeking love. God gave man's mind ceaseless prayer as its task. Ceaseless prayer is nothing other than the continuous contemplation of God. And yet, through his fall this good work ended and his mind turned towards matter, towards the world, to the creation and worshipped creation instead of the Creator. And so, we had the birth of idolatry, which of course did not take place only before Christ, but continues up to this day in different guises.
We have the course of man through the centuries. We have God's revelation to the chosen people of Israel, and after that God's entry into the world―the incarnation of the Divine Word. Christ came into the world, not to give us the Gospel as a body of truths; the Gospel is not a book like the Koran, which fell from the sky and talks about philosophies, so as to comprise a law and a code for people. The Gospel is nothing other than the experience of the Apostles, who lived with Christ.
Christ came into the world not to reveal ideas or give us a philosophy or a few principles, but came into the world to give us Himself, Who is given to the world daily, in the Church, in Holy Communion. This was the meaning of the incarnation of the Divine Word. And by giving Himself to the world, at the same time He took the world upon Himself; he became man, He sanctified human nature, took it into heaven, sat it at the right hand of God the Father and after that showed us that this path and place also belongs to us, of the glory of the human body, of man in his entirety. Man is no longer a soul or just an ethical concept, but human in his totality in all that he is. God having ascended into heaven, left man the Church, and this Church is precisely the spiritual sphere through which the knowledge of God has been passed down from generation to generation, now as an experience, the knowledge of God, of the true God. In this way, our Church, from the day Christ came, from the day of the Pentecost, was received as a trust, a treasure, as a gift, as an inheritance, this Grace of the Holy Spirit. And it passes on this Grace of the Holy Spirit from generation to generation to people, who follow this method of the Church, the method of the Apostles; and in this way, we have during this journey the body of saints, who are the confirmation of the Word of God, the confirmation of the Gospel.
Many times we all ask ourselves, and especially young adults, about the existence of sin, and why a particular deed is a sin and what does sin mean. This is of great importance for our subject, the person. Because, as we mentioned before, we do not know who man is according to nature. We didn't see the first man. We understand today's man, ourselves, those around us, about whom we can say, none of us is a normal person, a person according to nature. Meaning, we have Adam, who was created by God, who is a person according to nature. And there's man after his fall, who is us, who we understand, who is man not according to nature. We'll call him sub-man. So, after Christ's incarnation we have the new Adam, who is God-Man (Theanthropos). We have man, sub-man and God-Man (Theanthropos).
Now, the Church, Christ, calls on us all to make progress, to dedicate ourselves, to find ourself, to find our real self. This finding our real self is nothing more than the return course which heads backwards; that is, to return to our creation [which was] according to nature, where as God created us, and in continuation, after we work within this sphere, this state, we surpass this state as well and ascend towards the supernatural state, which is theosis. And this is neither ethics nor philosophy, but an experience. And glory be to God that in our Church, to this day, there are still people and will always be people who have reached this state of theosis, and in this state all their energies are now active, these energies which God gave us at the time of our creation. And they confirm that those things which Christ revealed to the world are realities and truth.
If we wanted today to categorize theology, the Church, for example at the university, in the university's sphere, it would be a big mistake to categorize it as it has been unfortunately categorized in the sphere of the school of philosophy, or law school, or the school of psychology, or that of sociological sciences, etc. The fact that in Greece the school of theology has been placed among the theoretical sciences is a result of an incorrect mindset, a Western influence, according to which theology and the experience of God was a matter of gnoseology, like philosophy and intellectualism. Today, an Orthodox person, a saint, would easily place the Church in the school of medicine, because the Church is nothing more than a spiritual sphere, where the spiritually sick are healed. And it does not heal him through magic or wishing, but it heals him through a precise method, which has been tested by the saints. And the truth of the method has been proved and has ended up an axiom and has now been reduced into a scientific path, since thousands, even millions of people, have found spiritual health and balance through this method, which is nothing other than the return of man to the sphere, to the way, to the axiom of his first creation by God and in continuation his ascension to the state of theosis.
So we have said that the Church belongs―according to the Orthodox view―within the area of medicine, because truly it is about healing. And in this hospital, this spiritual one, the doctor is not a person but God Himself, Who acts and ministers to a persons' needs through His saints, who are experienced in this therapeutic path. From my own little experience, my personal experience, as a feeble person and my experience as a priest and monk, I may say that it is a fact that we experience daily all this tragedy of the division of human personality and discover that sin is a person's greatest illness. Sometimes, I say to myself and to others that it would be nice―if we can say such a thing―if sin healed man; and today most people would be healthy or at least happy. Because today this concept has been renounced and sin has been made divine, and so if you do things that are infractions of your according-to-nature creation they are considered normal; while if you choose to be on the other side then it is considered against one's nature, and you must be sick not to do what everyone else does! But the paradox here is that the more man becomes free, the more man does things that were or are considered sins, the more he becomes entangled in this sick condition, and cannot then get out of it. And in the end, if his soul remains alive, then he will taste much bitterness through this path which he began, and afterwards many tears.
I have seen hundreds of people crying bitter tears for the fruit of sin. I have not seen anyone cry for having followed the footpaths of the saints' experiences. On the contrary, if they seemed miserable to people, their heart was filled with heavenly joy and inexpressible blessedness, which we often hope for people to have many times people, even if only some crumbs, so that they could finally understand where this happiness rests which they're looking for.
Since we've talked about sin and its consequences, we will say a few words about what sin means. Since we know that we are in the state of fall, of the inferior-human, of the divided man, the scattered man, the man who internally faces many selves and many desires and many actions and a variety of mindsets, we ask ourselves, “why should an action be a sin?”. And many young people come and tell us, “Why, Father, is this, which is so beautiful, which gives us joy, which is, so to say, shiny in our eyes, like for example nice clothing in shop windows, should the Church come and forbid us to try it, forbid us to enjoy it?” Is the Church so harsh? That is, it appears in people's eyes as an evil witch, who does not allow her little children to taste and enjoy their life? Why should the Church feel like saying, those acts are sins? Or did God sit and think, up there in Heaven, and said let me declare some acts as sins so that I can tyrannize people? Those perceptions were given during the Middle Ages in the West and can partly be found in Islam. Consequently these perceptions pervaded our people. In our Orthodox Tradition, this concept never existed. Sin is sin as a specific action because it is not part of a human's nature. Because man, the first man, Adam, being in Paradise, in his creation according to his nature, did not commit such actions, did not act in this way. So then, sin is nothing more than the symptoms and the sickness itself. And God's commandments, not to lie, not to steal, not to kill, not to desire, not to commit, let's say, sins of the flesh, those are nothing more than the antidote and the therapeutic treatment, which is given so that a person can expel this poison of the disease from inside of him and be able to act according to nature. And so, out of extensive philanthropy and much love God indicated sin, to make it easy on us. To be exact, God should not have had to give us the commandments; the commandments are an insult to human nature. That is, why when a person transcends and leaves the state of enslavement, then the commandments are abolished, because, as Apostle Paul says, the law is not intended for a righteous person (1 Timothy 1:9), to the righteous there is no law, because now the righteous person functions normally (according to nature). That is, God doesn't need to tell him not to steal, not to lie, not to sin, because his nature now functions harmoniously, and this virtuous life has become his nature and does not need commandments. Only three things remain: Faith in God, which is not a theory―well, it is not philosophy, let's say, because it is theory (from the Greek verb 'θεωρώ'=see), it is a vision of God, it is an experience of God; there remains hope in Christ's coming and man's entrance into God's kingdom; and most importantly love, meaning union, this union of love of man with God and under which man is made god and simultaneously embraces, in an absolute manner, all creation in a relationship of love, a correct relationship as a healthy person cured from sin.
Would you like to discuss anything? [A question is asked] Yes, it is a fact that man lives a tragedy inside of himself, and it's the tragedy of the divided personality. You see, let's say man has, as we have mentioned before, decided to perform a good deed. After a little while though, being pressured by external or internal factors he does different things from what he would have liked―he feels at fault, guilty. Inside him forms a division; he wants to do this but instead he does that. Those are symptoms of the illness, the sickness. But we need to know that our relationship with God is not a relationship of committing no sins, meaning that we will not immediately become sinless and perfect ethical personalities, producing a joy based on egoism and conceit.
Our relationship with God is a relationship of love, a relationship of children with their Father and a relationship, to use a term from the Church Fathers, a relationship of repentance. In the Orthodox Church there is no 'sinlessness'; there is repentance. That is, repentance is when man feels that he is breaking the law of God―which is his cure―and is acting perverse. When he feels the perversion of his nature, then he starts to pray. This prayer is the urging of God's mercy, of God's existence. Because God is a person, God is not an idea. God is a person and indeed the person par excellence on whom we were based at our creation. And if whichever personal relationship in this world has strength, imagine how much strength and intensity the personal relationship with God has! When man correctly enters into this sphere of his relationship with God, internally this powerful hope of God's love slowly dawns. He overlooks the fact of his sin, he overlooks the fact of his distancing, he overlooks the fact of his sickness and attains the joy of hope. It's like an ill person who is in hospital aches and suffers from his traumas, but knows that his doctor is very able, the hospital is well equipped, there were many other sick people that were all healed. And so, in the hope that all will go well, hope begins slowly dawning inside him.
The joy that the world gives is an external joy, because it depends on external factors. So, if we assume that our family is well and happy, our studies are going well, our work and actions are good and are going well, all those external factors affect us internally, usually, and create in us pleasant states, joy and happiness. If the external factors are not going well, usually our soul aligns and internally we don't feel well.
But in the spiritual world of the Church things don't work this way. Man becomes independent from the influence of his surroundings. He is free of his surroundings, even if everything external is not going well, and they threaten him and crush him and even if they make him disappear from the face of the earth, then this joy and peace remain inside of him, because they have become an internal fact, meaning internal to external, not external to internal. Precisely because God's Grace, the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has the power to enter into the deepest being of man. And this has been proven by the Saints, that despite being persecuted, despite being poor, despite being in deserts, in caves, the martyrs who were eaten by lions or slaughtered by executioners, those people were people of peace and joy, people who could embrace in absolute love even the people that hated them and were killing them. When man enters into the spiritual life correctly then right from the first instant the light of hope in God starts dawning inside him. However, we definitely have a path [to walk], and this path requires struggle, patience, endurance and most of all Faith that God, as a good doctor, retains in His hands our path, which is a collaboration of human freedom together with freedom and Grace of the Holy Spirit. A proof is that despite the fact that many times they tell us that we are not on the right path, and we are striving with no results, still we do not leave the Church. That is, regardless of what bad shape we're in, we remain in the spiritual sphere of the Church, because there is a secret attraction, a secret power that retains us despite all the opposition, that we come across in our every step.
Do you have anything else you want to talk about or should I keep thinking of things to talk about? Are you this silent in your lessons? If you are so silent... Yes. (Question asked) No, no. The contradiction we feel internally reveals we are people. And God forbid, if we did not have this contradiction, we would be 'bricks', that is to say. (Question) And the denial of God, why not? Look, God gave us the right to deny Him, but in a good way, so that we may discover Him. Certainly. Because, nothing is, how should we put it, a given and without objection. Certainly, and the existence of God itself. Because, how can someone accept God like that, without searching? This is what happened in the West. The Middle Ages did that and that is why they even burned them, you see heresies (sects), the diversion from the orthi doxa (orthodoxia = upright devotion) of God, does not tolerate objections. Galileo attempted to explain that the earth is not falt but round, and the pope wanted to burn him. Why? Because beforehand he himself fell from the perception, from the orthi doxa (upright devotion) of God!
In the Church there is research; the greatest researchers were the saints. The saints reached, tried all aspects, initiated from exactly that concept, “Does God exist?” If God exists, then let us try, let us explore Him. If not, then we can reject him. We would be very foolish and unfortunate if we go through all this struggle basing ourselves on a possibility, that possibly that God exists. If we are, not 100%, but 1,000,000% sure about God's existence, as an experience in our hearts, then who would be crazy enough to follow the Gospel and Christ? God forbid. Then we truly are crazy people, to follow Christ based on possibilities! That perhaps it is so! And if, of course, life according to the Gospel, life in the Church, was good and well, we didn't lose anything, if we were in some club or something, if it is not so correct, so what? But things are not that way; the Church is not an club to which we belong in part. We live wholly in the Church, as beings, who accept God inside of us in an absolute way.
So, we must certainly try to see if God does exist. And there is a way. And our Fathers, the saints of our Church, even showed us the tool with which we will discover if God exists. What is it? It's our heart! Christ said it. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8). Our visual organ, the organ with which we will detect, we will see God, is nothing other than but our heart. And the method is the cleansing of the heart. So, if someone is an atheist, he is very well; if he wants to see God he shouldn't look for Him using logical arguments, we'll show him the way through which all have seen Him. And this way and path is the cleansing of his heart. If he cleanses his heart and does not see God, then he has a right to decline Him. Because God does not exist based on logic. One saint, Saint Simeon the New Theologian, said God does not exist. And He does not exist because He does not exist in any of the ways we know of. And God is an inexistent existence. He exists, but not in an existential way that can be compared with this world. Namely, God cannot be perceived through logic, through philosophy, but through experience. When you attain experience of God, then the mind can express this experience.
-Yes, my child.
-(It is sad if we think about how these things, which you have mentioned at the beginning are naturally well-known, are not known to us in the perspective you put it. I think the reason for it is that around secondary education level religious studies is already being taught but is not all that careful. This is, of course, a personal observation of mine, but it seems that many would agree with me. Unfortunately the people that have vowed to go deeper into the meaning of our religion, Orthodoxy, persist with equations.)
-Yes. You see my child, it is not a matter of people, they are all good people. The problem, you know, is a historical issue. Let me explain briefly why it's a historical problem. Because just as history, which we learn in our schools, is highly erroneous and written by Westerners, who have written it in a way convenient for them, and we have translated it and study it now, in that same way theology is affected by the West, to a large extent. Because after Greece's liberation, when it was liberated from the Turks but enslaved to the Bavarians―and the enslavement to the Westerners was worse than the enslavement to the Turks―the University of Athens was founded. The University of Athens founded the Philosophical and Theological School. And so, the ones that founded it were Bavarians, Westerners, with a Westerner's way of thinking, who considered Orthodoxy to be for gypsies. This is what they thought, that Orthodoxy is gypsy, while the philosophy of rationalism and the theology of rationalism belongs to an aristocratic spirit. And so, everyone went and studied in Western universities, they studied history, theology and philosophy through the Westerners, brought it to us and started producing our professors through the University of Athens. And they were, let's say, in a way, the supposed 'lights', and so we had many sick symptoms in the sphere of the Church and generally in our way of thinking.
Of course, it is neither easy nor possible to make changes from one moment to the next. But it is a great blessing from God that for a few years now some of the works of the Fathers have started to be published, meaning the sources of our Orthodox Tradition and at the same time historical sources and works of older philosophers, and so now, slowly the return to authenticity is on the way. Because we can say―we'll say for the West, we shouldn't say it about ourselves―the atheism of the West was a result of theology, and the Western Church bore atheism as its genuine children. Because when someone lives, when someone enters inside the Western sphere of piety, he cannot become anything else other than an atheist or a religiously perverse person. And in this way, they also created the model of a religious person, and for a while we ended up also having a model religious person. That is, to be a man of the Church you need to wear those dresses, those trousers, this hair, those glasses, those socks and those shoes. If you did not wear those socks, for example, then you wouldn't enter Paradise.
Fortunately, in Cyprus we did not have many of those symptoms; we are far from that sphere. But it is not a matter of people. My child, it is not people's fault. It's a historical fact. Our enslavement, for example, to the West is a historical fact. That is why, you know in the end God, in His providence, subjected us to the Turks and not the Franks. Because if the Franks had continued occupying Cyprus and the Greek lands, the Roman Empire, Byzantium―so-called Byzantium, which was never named Byzantium, but the Westerners called it Byzantium, and we call it that too―nothing would be left.
Of course, at times the Turks cut our heads off, humiliated us, but we did not lose our Orthodox Tradition and our history, whereas the Franks would have destroyed everything; we wouldn't exist at all. And for this reason it is a big responsibility, your responsibility, you that are young adults and are studying, to learn to search thoroughly for your roots, traditions, this place. Because if you research correctly, you're good scientists, then you will surely discover this great richness of Orthodoxy, which today is fortunately being discovered by Westerners as well, and today it's fashionable for someone to talk about Orthodoxy to Westerners! And a monk, an ascetic, an Orthodox person is a fact in the West, is an object of many observations and great research. Because they have finally discovered that Orthodoxy is an experience and the Church of Christ is an experience. Why do you think some other Eastern religions have passed on to the West today? Even those that are hostile? The religion could be vastly hostile, but because it offers experience, even of that hostility, people go there. Because people today look for experience not philosophy, reflection; while up until now the picture given to the world was that the Church is something contemplative, philosophical, and you must go somewhere to concentrate, and meditate about God―sick states which have substituted the prayer of repentance with hearing romantic classical music, which is foreign to our people.
And even for a while in catechism (instructive lessons given at church) some time ago, the value of classical music was stressed. “It's so nice to sit and listen to classical music!” And we're trying, us poor kids, to go to catechism and discover where the beauty of this classical music is? But we're Easterners and Orthodox people and do not function in that way, we try to enter [that mindset] and say, how lovely classical music is, how lovely those statues are, and those paintings of Michelangelo, or I don't know what else. In the end, all those things were lies to us, because they weren't beautiful. We did not have anything to do with any of it. It was as if you took a Cypriot granny and you put her in blue jeans, let's say, and made her look like a clown. And in the end, in Cyprus the grannies wore it and even more so the old men!
-Yes, my child. (Question asked).
...Well, let me tell you, my child. To start with, I am a monk, right? In the Church there are no classes of people; all people stands before God and every person regulates his attitude towards God, according to his love, right? And just as someone who wants to marry a girl, for example, one may go slowly to her father and mother and wait, say, until they reply and is patient and is engaged and say, he stays engaged two three years and continues in order to reach marriage in a few years, and another from all the love he has for the girl he loved, in a night he steals her and leaves, the same thing happens to monks! Meaning the motive, that we became monks was not to go to the monastery, to paint icons, read and pray all day. But this richness of God's love was so intense so that we could not do otherwise. That is, when man is filled with God's love, then everything else vanishes. This does not happen to everyone, it is a personal matter, right? Monasticism, certainly is a life of perfection, it is a life that fills, say fulfills the person who loves a lot. But in the end, it is not monastic life as a way that fulfills us, but Church life, Christ is the fulfillment of our existence. And we, who are monks, understand that it is not monastic life, not life in the mountains nor life in the cities that is important, but Christ, Who is the centre of our love, the centre of our existence, the fulfillment of our being. The way in which we head to conquer this Christ, this fulfillment of love, is a matter of personal freedom. One person through becoming a monk, another person living as a member of the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, not monasticism. Monasticism is a part of Church; the Church is the whole. Now, the fact that you live in the world, let's say, and you face more temptations, this is certainly praise worthy, but I can say that in the monastery or in the desert we face many more temptations. And when we say temptations we don't mean to see or hear something, but the spiritual war, which takes part in the desert is huge, so huge it cannot be described. That is why we have giants of sainthood who emerged out of the desert.
(Question asked) Look, it is good when every person knows that he is very glad when he keeps to his natural state. Just like a man does not become a mother, and it would be against his nature if he sought to become a mother, but rather is a father. The same thing goes for a woman, let's say. She needs to know that she is a woman, a mother. She has her areas, her ways; the same is true for a man. And if in Church it seems that externally there are some temptations, those are not to remove woman but to value her and help her stand correctly. Besides it's also known historically that the Gospel gave woman her right place, at a time when women were considered an object. And today, the ones that think they are exalting women by turning her into an advertisement even for spaghetti, are actually... if we loved women, and if you loved yourselves, you should have campaigned against this degradation, which is happening to the female gender. Because let us assume that someone is not embarrassed to be advertised, say even for soaps, and dishwasher powders and toilet papers, let's say, and everywhere the female body. And if there was a correct female conscience it should wonder not why they do not accept women at Stavrovouni Monastery but why are women advertised in the streets and magazines and are sold. You see, for a magazine to sell today, they must place a woman on its front cover, otherwise it does not sell. So there are many fronts on which you women must fight, stand upright, because you are mothers. God made you mothers and gave you as a perfect example the Theotokos, who is an example of virginity, of purity, of the value of woman. And today we live in an age where woman is being continuously degraded. So it is there we should ache, this [other matter] is unimportant. Besides what is Stavrovouni? It's a monastery, nothing else.
...and so, good night and I hope to see you again.
*In both Cyprus and Greece, Orthodox religion is taught in schools as a basic subject. However, as of recently the Ministry of Education has been changing the nature of the lesson, making it more about comparative religion or making it an optional subject.