Matthew 25 and Hesychasm
by one who is simply a beginner in these things- Bill “Ephrem” Gall
“Hesychasm (from Greek word “hesychia” – silence, peace, quietness) – teaching and practice aimed for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and deification of human soul and body. The ultimate goal of hesychasm is human transfiguration and theosis after the likeness of the risen Christ.”
In St. Matthew 25:31-46 the Great Judgment is depicted; the “sheep,” who have served “the least of these” are welcomed into the glory of the Kingdom, and the “goats,” who have neglected them, are directed to the fire that awaits all who have rejected participation in the love of God.
It is a passage of ultimate significance; Jesus is giving us the basis of our judgment.
Serving others who in human terms are counted “the least of these” brings joy to God’s heart as well as ours.’ St. John Chrysostom expresses it well: http://ocdresources.wordpress.com/chrysostom/.
But there are also times that it can be difficult; and while humility and the Lord’s great mercy is a sure path to Life, these folks can often also have an extra share of troubles and habits that tend to complicate the Lord’s intent to “lead [them] in the land of uprightness.” (Psalms 142, LXX)
And as we strive to love our family, friends, neighbors, “the least of these,” and even our enemies, they probably will, either some of the time or all of the time, reject our efforts on their behalf. All human beings have free will, and the personal responsibility to freely choose to respond to God. God does not coerce, so we also must prayerfully give all those we love and serve to God that He may transform their hearts and wills by providential circumstances of His choosing. For even when we seek to love both God and our neighbor with all our hearts, minds, and strength, our notions of what’s good for them may actually be mistaken.
Also, our efforts on others’ behalf may be stymied when injustices occur. A friend and fellow parishioner, Sameh Khouzam, spent 8 years in ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) detention until he was freed by a federal district court on the grounds that he would have been tortured in Egypt were he sent back, on the basis of CAT: Conventions Against Torture. I visited him as an associate chaplain under our parish priest, Fr. Peter Pier. He and Sameh directed me to other Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian detainees to visit as well.
One detainee, George Mathelier, who came to the U.S. at the age of 2, was to be deported to Haiti on charges of possession of $10 worth of cocaine that he says he was never even convicted of. Detainees deported to Haiti often land in jails where food, drink, and medicine (George is a diabetic) are not provided; relatives may possibly be allowed to do so, after they pay a sum of money (a bribe) . (See http://alternativechance.org/ ) Does this outcome fit the alleged transgression?
George expressed much anguish as he anticipated being sent to a Haitian jail. He was moved from the York (PA) Prison to Haiti in late May 2009, but not to a jail; he was released to the street, not a jail. He made a friend who took him in, thank God. But Haiti is a difficult place to start over at age 53.
There are many like George who are embittered at the unjust treatment they are receiving. I ask myself, how can I help them? We are to weep with those who weep, but avoid becoming embittered at a system which is ultimately in the hands of the Judge of all, despite apparently horrendous outcomes. This is difficult.
Jesus said, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing.” (St. John 15:5)
Who can I help if, in relying on my own empathy and fortitude, I yield to the temptation to be discouraged and cynical in response to such outcomes? I will be not be in a position to help anyone. My anguish for George and those in desperate circumstances like his must find its resolution in firm trust in the loving plan of God through Jesus Christ, whether or not I understand it.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a Thousand Souls Around You Shall Be Saved.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (St. Matthew 5:8)
Peace and purity of heart, a stilling of all fearful thoughts and imaginations, self-control over my body’s impatient demands, a life of frequent, even continual prayer to the Lord of my life- these I can acquire in Christ, but not without effort on my part. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the ascetic disciplines outlined in the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew 6, prepare our hearts- as the farmer prepares the soil for seed- to receive these gifts freely given to those baptized into Christ. In Him, the mysteries of the Church- baptism, chrismation, communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, confession and repentance, holy unction, and for some, marriage and ordination- are the primary means He employs to effect our growth into His Likeness. But there are many more; only God knows how many. As St. Paul writes,
“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
But unlike Hollywood movies, these blessings do not come upon us as we sit watching for two hours. The ascetic disciplines have to be practiced, and we will not necessarily recognize progress, since our conscience will become increasingly sensitive to our failures. We are called, every moment, decade upon decade, to prayer, fasting, almsgiving (serving). With Christ we are to pick up our cross and carry it daily.
And as St. Antony the Great, who is called the Father of monasticism says, “expect temptation to [your] last breath . . . without temptations no one can be saved.”
As Christianity was being legalized, the robust character of the previously persecuted Church seemed to be diluted somewhat by the many who entered the Church because it became the respectible thing to do. But many earnest Christians sought a more consecrated life and some, following St. Antony, withdrew to the desert to undertake prayerful spiritual warfare. They are referred to as the Desert Fathers. If you would read The Life of St. Antony, you would realize that this was not what we understand as a retreat. St. Antony’s faced a ferocious inner battle. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/VITA-ANTONY.html
A good number of men and women also took this path. Later, the Holy Spirit guided St. Pachomius the Great to pioneer a kind of monastic community which had a somewhat different approach than that of the Desert Fathers. And since most Christians do not have the inner strength to undertake spiritual warfare as solitaries, this gave them the opportunity to consecrate themselves to God in a community.
In the Christian East, St. Basil the Great’s vision of this way of life involved both prayer and service. He developed a city in which monastics would devote themselves to prayerful repentance, worship, and also service to those in need.
In movements such as these the Holy Spirit has effected the Church’s reformation from within.
As the centuries passed, monasteries in the Christian East came to be focused on repentance and prayer, the inner battle against the passions that wage war against our souls, and for the realization of the Kingdom of God within us. Orthodox monasticism became a most profound resource on the inner workings of the very core of the human person, which is referred to as the “nous” in Greek, comprised of what we understand as both the heart and the mind in English. The goal for each person is purification, illumination, and theosis (union with God).
As to social ministries, there are a few monasteries which conduct them, but most are based in Orthodox Christian local parishes (see http://www.focusnorthamerica.org/)or are simply efforts by individual lay people to serve people they encounter in their daily lives. (see Ephesians 5:12)
Given the great needs we all find around us, and the lack of access to the kind of Orthodox Christian monastic elders that have traditionally served as spiritual guides to seekers, how shall we proceed to the divine health that will be contagious to those we love and seek to serve?
We can begin by taking the planks out of our own eyes before we presume to deal with the speck in others’ eyes. Our spiritual fathers the parish priests are there for us, to hear our confessions, and for counsel toward amendment of our lives. Healing happens as we practice the basic ascetic disciplines: fasting toward confession and repentance, heartfelt, frequent prayer, and almsgiving of all kinds- money, encouragement, help- whatever the personal situation call for. As Isaiah says,
to loose every bond of wrongdoing, untie the knot of violent dealings; cancel the debts of the oppressed; . . . Break your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house . . . your healing shall spring forth quickly . . . (58:6-8)
Our fathers in the Faith who are hesychasts seek not merely frequent prayer, but the constant prayer of which St. Paul spoke (1 Thes. 5:17). The human tendency, which I have experienced countless times, is to pray earnestly when troubled, and infrequently and indifferently when life is going smoothly. The Old Testament book of Judges shows this tendency in the people of Israel; they would serve nations’ gods, be given over to be ruled by oppressive neighbors, cry to the Lord, Who would send a Judge (Samson, for instance) to deliver them. And then they would grow lax and the cycle- beginning with idolatry- would begin again. Fervent unceasing prayer breaks this cycle!
The Holy Fathers say that unceasing prayer is a gift of God; it cannot be grasped by mere human discipline. But they also say that the way to pure prayer is possible not only in monasteries, but also in the world. St. Antony was shown by God such a man- a cobbler in the city.
The holy Fathers encourage the use of short prayers that express the heart of the matter. The Desert Fathers would pray, “O Lord, make haste to help me, O God make haste to deliver me.” (Psalms 69:1) But the Jesus Prayer- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” -has become the standard in the Orthodox Church. See http://www.svots.edu/Faculty/Albert-Rossi/Articles/Saying-the-Jesus-Prayer.html
But there is freedom to choose other prayers. St. Silouan the Athonite, sorrowful for the lost world, would also pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me and on Thy whole world.” He would also, as a monastic steward, pray earnestly for the lay workers under his charge.
The Psalms offer many prayers which can complement the Jesus Prayer, both portions and whole psalms. Many short psalms can easily be memorized. They bring substance to our understanding of the Lord’s mercy.
I personally find that at times, in my relationships and in ministry efforts, a fiery storm of imaginary scenarios and fears presses heavily upon me. The tree of ministry must have strong roots of prayer for such times. Under the guidance of our spiritual fathers, the practices of the hesychasts are tried and true approaches that can inform and enrich our prayer lives, as we are ready for them. Abiding in Christ and in His Church’s proven Traditions, we shall patiently await the fulfillment of the promise of God proclaimed by Isaiah:
But those who wait on God shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not hunger. (40:31)
This promise our Lord Jesus confirms, saying, “For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” (St. Matthew 11:30) Surely we will find rest and strength for our efforts as we trust in Him.