This week we celebrated the feast of the Prophet Elijah, ranked second only to John the Baptist among the prophets. Elijah was a man full of God’s grace who manifested the power of God in his prophetic witness to Israel and the peoples surrounding them. He healed the sick, defeated the priests of Baal through prayer, brought drought and then rain upon the land, and even raised the dead.
At the end of his life, God tells Elijah to find a young man named Elisha to become his successor. When Elijah finds Elisha, he throws him his mantle or cloak as a sign that he is being called to follow in Elijah’s footsteps. And even though Elisha doesn’t quite have the humility or grace yet needed to become a prophet, he devotes himself utterly to Elijah and learns all he can from him.
When Elijah is taken up to heaven in the chariot of fire, he drops his mantle down to Elisha. Elisha picks it up, and immediately it becomes his time to act. Just a few verses later, Elisha heals the bitter waters of Jericho.
On the same day as Elijah, we keep the memory of another great saint, St. Maria of Paris. If you’ve never heard of St. Maria, you should read her short biography, Pearl of Great Price. St. Maria had a complicated journey, one that ultimately found her as a Russian émigré turned nun in Paris serving the destitute Russians and street people. She was fearless and bold in her love for the poor in a manner only grace provides–the same sort of boldness that let Elijah demand that water be poured on his sacrifice before he prayed for it to be consumed by fire–a sort of reckless abandonment to the will of God and His mercy and love toward those who fear Him. Ultimately, St. Maria was imprisoned by the Nazis in WWII for assisting and hiding Jews, and it was there that she died in a gas chamber.
So what does St. Maria of Paris have to do with Elijah and Elisha?
When Elijah dropped his mantle down to the young Elisha as he departed in glory, he passed on more than a fancy cloak. He passed to Elisha his “spirit”–the calling, the grace, and the power that God had given him.
And Elisha, unworthy as he was, picked it up.
Now, St. Maria may not have left behind her monastic veil for us to put on, but she has left behind a legacy that we need to pick up and continue. Who among you will pick up the mantle of St. Maria and ask for a double portion of her spirit to serve the poor, the lonely, and the persecuted?
St. Maria of Paris. Image from Jim Forest on Flickr
Or how about Fr. Andrés Giron of Guatemala who, before he recently died, stood up to the Guatemalan government on behalf of the native Mayan people? Who among you will continue to stand up for the poor and oppressed as a witness to God’s love?
Or what about Fr. Themi Adamopoulos in Sierra Leone? When one day God calls him into His kingdom, who among you will pick up his mantle to love and care for the lepers and the outcasts?
Who among you will take up the mantle of Archbishop Iakovos who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and stood at his side to proclaim that racial division are not of God and that justice for the oppressed is His will?
Who among you will ask for even a portion of the grace of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania who has improved education, health, social care, and infrastructure for the people of Albania, both Christians and Muslims alike?
Our world may be plagued with wars and hunger and illness and much suffering, but we have been called to be ambassadors for Christ, offering His healing grace and the soothing balm of His love and mercy to all in this hurting world. Let’s not leave the mantles of the great prophets and saints of our own era to lie on the ground gathering dirt.
Go, take one up. Soon our great lovers of mankind will all be called up to heaven, and we will be asked to heal the bitter waters of our world by God’s grace and power.
When we see a person commit sin, we often feel compelled to point it out to them. We may feel that they need us to recognize the sin for them so that they can correct it or we may want to shame them into changing or perhaps we have been hurt and we want retribution. Maybe we have good intentions and desire simply to see our brother turn away from destruction and get on a healthier path. What can we do?
Perhaps if God’s commandments were arbitrary and without consequence, then He would need the righteous (those who followed the arbitrary rules) to point out the sins of the unrighteous (those who ignored them). But that’s just not the case. God’s laws are not without purpose or meaning. They are given to us to shape us into persons of love, to draw us away from the stinking death that is the consequence of a life of sin and to lead us instead along God’s path of freedom and communion to the loving embrace of the Father Himself. He even endows each of us with a conscience to lead us on this path, if only we will listen to it. When a person chooses to disobey the commandments of God, the natural consequences are emptiness, fear, isolation, and spiritual death.
It is also often the case that sin begets sin and suffering begets suffering. Life is a complicated matter, an intricate web of relationships, experiences, and decisions, and the path that leads a person to commit the most grievous sins may be a path that was riddled with suffering, pain, and loneliness caused by the sins of others. A person who has only known brokenness may feel trapped and their actions may be a reflection of their own abuse and an imitation of the examples they have been given. He may lash out against being broken by others by adding to the brokenness of the world, and he may start to believe that he is unworthy of any other mode of existence–even when his conscience tells him that sin and death are tearing him apart.
The sinner starts to forget that he is loved by God and that he is made in His image and likeness. Instead, a person who has fallen into sin finds himself drawn back to the dust from which he was formed–though he may not reveal it on the outside–he stands at the edge of the abyss.
It is mercy, not judgement, that pulls our neighbor out of the abyss.
When a person expects or even deserves justice, it is precisely mercy that offers a space for repentance. Think St. Dionysios and the murderer or Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean. Mercy, in all its forms–silence when one could point out another’s sin, ignoring a desire to exact retribution, making light of a situation by which another is burdened by guilt, assuming good intentions–transcend earthly justice and draw us, and more importantly, our neighbor toward the heavenly realm. Mercy, more than pointing out another’s faults, invites a sinner to turn around, to change his ways. Mercy, more than judgement, recognizes Christ in our neighbor and reveals Christ in us.
Love covers a multitude of sins means not only that when we love another person, we are less inclined to see their sins against us, though that is certainly true, too. Love covers another’s sin like a soothing, healing balm covers a burning, festering wound. Why deepen the wound that sin causes with our own infectious judgement or “righteous” commentary? Love and mercy are the salves we can offer each others’ brokenness. Love and mercy shed Light in the abyss.
Does this mean that we have no voice against sin in the world? In an age when moral relativism tells us that we are expected to accept what is done as what should be done, this is a legitimate concern. We often get tongue-tied when it comes to morality even when we know clearly the commandments of God: in order to avoid offending anyone, we accept anything and everything anyone ever does (or at least we pretend we do).
There is a way of life and a way of death and between the two ways there is a great difference. –Didache
Being merciful, abstaining from judgement, doesn’t mean losing our moral compass. We don’t have to pretend there is no way of darkness. You don’t have to think stealing is an ok thing to do to have mercy on a thief. You don’t have to buy into the culture’s image of sexuality to love your friends who do buy into it.
Sounds like the common adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Right? Well, not quite. I’d like to amend that statement to say, “Love the sinner, hate your own sin.” What spiritual benefit can come from hating an abstract sin? Hate the sin you commit. Hate the moments when you contribute to the brokenness of the world. Hate the times that you have thrown yourself or your brother into the abyss. Hate the thoughts that you have that slash open the already bleeding wounds of others. Hate your own denials of Christ, and do not condemn Peter.
It’s a hard task to be merciful to others when we think we ourselves are righteous. But if you don’t make time to contemplate and point out the sins of others and spend your time rather working out your own salvation, you’ll find that you yourself are in desperate need of mercy and love. If you look to yourself in the instant you are tempted to look at another, you will encounter your own brokenness and can ask for God’s mercy. Make an effort to remember that you, too, stand on the edge of the abyss and, but for the love and mercy of Christ, would plummet downward. Run to embrace the source of Light and Life.
Do not be disgusted by the sin of your brother–be disgusted by the darkness that lurks within your own heart. Do not find opportunities to convict your neighbor–find opportunities to convict your own wayward soul. Do not deepen the wounds of those suffering from sin–uncover your own hidden wounds, and while you allow God’s mercy to bandage and heal your broken life, be His healing hands on earth by learning to love your neighbor. For God desires mercy and not sacrifice, and He desires it of you.
College is a challenge. A challenge to your mind, a challenge to your body (who needs sleep??), and often a challenge to your faith, your morals, your standards of right and wrong.
So how do you respond to these challenges? Do you hide under a rock for four years and hope nothing sneaks up on you? Do you throw yourself into the college culture with abandon and hope you can sort the tough stuff out later? How will you decide when to engage and when to take a pass?
I think some times when we face a difficult moral decision, we’d all like it to be as simple as sending in a permission slip to God, “Check ‘yes’ if this is allowed; check ‘no’ if this is a sin.” Sorry, not gonna happen. But if you’re doubting your moral compass, here are some ways to check yourself:
Everything matters. First off, let’s get one thing clear: everything we think, say, and do affects who we are and how we relate to God and others. Now, you can look at this as an onerous cloud hanging over you or you can think of it as a blessing that every single breath you take is an opportunity to love, ask forgiveness, show mercy, spread joy, offer prayer, be patient, give thanks, promote peace, stand up for the oppressed, and dedicate yourself more fully to God.
Some things are pretty clear-cut. We may struggle with the idea, but some things are simply forbidden by God because, like a good Father, he really does know what’s best for us. The limits placed on our actions are laid out for us in Scripture and throughout the Tradition of our Church and are there to lead us on a path that allows us to be freed from the bonds of sin and able to love truly. I find the opening list from the Didache (a first century Church document) helpful for learning to integrate God’s commandments into my own heart and actions.
Accountability to others helps. Whether it’s through confession and counsel with a priest, which we can’t encourage enough, or through your OCF peers who know you and your Orthodox standards well, accountability for your actions helps you make decisions more clearly. If you’re not sure if going to some party is a good idea or being in a particular situation will be healthy, having someone who loves you and whom you trust to call upon can be invaluable.
Prayer is always the key. Having a regular and rich prayer life which includes both communal and personal prayer time and the reading of Scripture is the sure way to develop a discerning heart. Letting Christ dwell within you will let you see with His eyes and desire with the will of His Father. A nun once suggested to us in a College Conference workshop that we make a commitment to pray, “Lord bless this,” before everything we did. Her advice was that if we couldn’t ask for a blessing on our actions, then it probably wasn’t the right decision.
You’ll be faced with all kinds of challenges and moral decisions in college and throughout your life–sometimes you’ll make the right decision, sometimes the wrong one. When you go the wrong way, come to your senses quickly, run to God, and sincerely repent. Sin is missing the mark which means when you mess up that you’re in need of more target practice (prayer) and a good coach (a spiritual guide). Always remember that as you learn and grow, fall and get back up, God is with you, He loves you, He desires your salvation, and His Church always opens Her arms to you.