Since March 4, 2020, His Eminence Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol has been conducting weekly conversations with the faithful, interpreting the Scriptures, delving into the needs of the faithful, and answering their questions.
We left off with the seventh chapter of the Second Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. At the very beginning of the chapter, the apostle says the following: Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). Then the apostle Paul speaks about the sorrows that the Corinthians had to endure. This is very useful for us to hear today, because thereby we see that the first Christians also faced life’s hardships, temptations, and sins, that their life was not angelic. However, it is important that they perceived them through a spiritual prism: through repentance, through the labor of self-correction.
In the previous chapter, the apostle Paul says that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that God lives in man. As our body is such a sanctuary, we must take care not to pollute the temple of God, as, for example, we treat any church building: We consider it a sacred place, and we don’t even think of committing any vile act there. It should be the same with our body, our soul, and our entire existence, which is the temple of God. For ye are the temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6:16), says the apostle. The Lord calls us to reject sin, evil, and every temptation, to truly become the people of God, so the Lord Almighty would become our Father, and we His sons and daughters (cf. 2 Cor. 6:18).
Thus, the beginning of the seventh chapter says: Having therefore these promises… He Who promises is the Lord Himself. He promises that He will be our Father, and we His children when we renounce sin and everything that contaminates our existence. And if God promises something, He never lies. The Lord’s promises are fulfilled; He is unlike us, who usually promise the moon and then can’t fulfill even half of it. Thus, the podvig we perform has the prospect of eternal life.
Receiving a promise from the Lord, we can’t always fully comprehend it. Usually we expect something from God that fits into the framework of our perception and understanding. However, everything that we receive from God is in reality much larger and broader that we can imagine. The promises of God work as a counterbalance. On one side of the scale: the weight of our spiritual labors, patience, expectation—everybody has something; and on the other side: the promises of God. The result is not just a balance, but the promises of God neutralize these hardships of our lives. The Lord is incomprehensible. It is impossible to truly understand and embrace anything that we receive from God. The Lord is rich. He is not like us, who have our own measures, our own limitations. God is generous in mercy; the love of God is boundless, and no single creature can fully contain it. A man who feels the love of God struggles to describe it, because it is indescribable.
I remember how St. Paisios told me about when he saw St. Euphemia. It was in Great Lent, as we are now [at the time of this talk], in about the second week. She appeared to him in the morning, in the Kallyva of the Precious Cross in Kapsala, and stayed with him the entire day. St. Euphemia described her entire life to him, because the Elder didn’t know her hagiography. He had heard that there was a St. Euphemia but didn’t know anything about her. She told him that as a young girl in the fourth century in the city of Chalcedon, she had to endure the most terrible sufferings for Christ. As she was telling him, the Elder saw her entire life before him, like a film on TV. Reaching the point of her sufferings, Elder Paisios was afraid of what he saw and asked: “How could you bear all of these sufferings?” After all, she was a young girl, and the sufferings were the most savage imaginable. And the saint answered him: “Geronda, had I known what glory the martyrs receive in Heaven for their sufferings, I would have tried to suffer even more, because it is all temporary, but the glory of God is eternal.”
Therefore, the apostles and the holy fathers always tell us that if we endure a certain trial for the sake of the love of Christ, then we should understand that the reward of Christ will be much greater. We should strive to receive this reward from the Lord and have eternal communion with Him. Yes, perhaps it may look self-serving that we’re thirsting for a reward, but we are weak people after all, and we simply need to see the prospect of our actions—such is our nature. The prospect of eternal life is the promise given us by God. Therefore, when difficult times come in our lives, we need to remember the promises of God; we have to reflect upon our ascent to the Heavenly Kingdom, that our life does not end with the passing of these few years that we are allotted to live here on Earth, but our life will continue in the eternal Kingdom. Thus, we will be able to overcome any difficulty we face, whether on a personal level, a social level, or a global level, as, for example, the danger from various viruses or the encroachment of enemies on our security and peace of mind. Of course, we are people, and it’s intrinsic within us to worry for our lives. But who can guarantee our safety? Who can tell us with certainty that we will not catch the coronavirus? Only God can give this world security. When a man gives his life over to God and says, “God’s will be done in all things,” then he truly begins to feel peace of soul. This is what our ancestors said, and they were peaceful people. They always said: “The Lord’s will be done,” and believed what they said. At the same time, they were ready to endure whatever happened in their lives, having faith that the Lord sees our entire life. And even if death comes, that is, the worst thing that can happen to a person, then it’s not so terrible, because Christ has overcome it.
We experience the victory of Christ over death every day in the Church. Death is destroyed through the death of Jesus Christ. And if we have hope in the Resurrected Lord, then we overcome death, corruption, fears, insecurity, etc. Christ promised to ever be with us. He asks but one thing of us—to cleanse ourselves from sin. How can we do this?
Of course, through the podvig that we all must perform: the podvig of purification from the passions, the podvig of fasting, prayer, spiritual reading, confession, participating in the Church Mysteries, alms, through any spiritual labor within the power of any individual man. Of course, we all have our own weaknesses, and we cannot overcome all of our sins. Our salvation does not consist in a sinless experience, but in repentance. We must learn to repent of our sins, to ask forgiveness from God, from men, from ourselves for all those sins and weaknesses we have. Thus, through repentance and prayer we receive the grace of God, and repentance becomes the cause of a man’s salvation. In the end, it’s not a sinless life that saves us (none of us lives our entire life without mistakes or without sins). And we will make mistakes and commit sins, all because of our weakness. Performing the podvig of battling with sin, we will realize that we are not able to cope with everything. And it is precisely when we feel our weakness, our inability to cope with sin, that we need to sincerely repent. Repentance is a sign of humility. A humble man is ever repenting, but a proud man—never, because he has a very high idea of himself and doesn’t feel the need to repent before God.
Great Lent, which we are currently going through, is the most beautiful time, filled with repentance and humility. If you listen to the Lenten prayers read daily in Church, then you will see that they are filled with the cry of repentance and humility, which does not lead a man into the darkness of despair and hopelessness, but gives courage, hope, patience, a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, which is nothing other than the love of God and His presence in our lives.
Thus, the apostle Paul says: Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit. Here he as if divides sin into physical and spiritual. In fact, there is no difference between them, because when a man sins, he sins in both soul and body. However, in order to better recognize all the facets of sin, the apostle separates them and calls them filthiness of the flesh and spirit. There are bodily sins, that is, those committed by the body, which we all know well and with which we fight. But the whole man is saved. For example, we say that we fast, that we abstain from food. Such a bodily fast undoubtedly has a beneficial effect on our soul as well, because man is the unity of soul and body. It’s one thing to eat a light soup, and another to eat a shish kebab. There’s a difference. In the same way, there’s a difference between a man who fasts and a man who does not fast, between a man who is vigilant and prays and a man who sleeps ten hours. Every movement of the soul or body has an effect on the other—for example, remembrance of wrongs, or holding a grudge. It’s a spiritual passion, but it also affects our body. Remembrance of wrongs is reflected on the whole body of a man, on his behavior, his appearance. But the appearance of a pure, virtuous person is completely different. His piety is imprinted on his face. Look at the saints, how beautiful their faces are.
I remember when a group of school teachers from Thessaloniki, about seven or eight of them, came to the Holy Mountain. Two of these teachers, who organized the trip, were believers, but the rest, unfortunately, did not believe in God. And looking at the monks the whole time, in the end they said: “The life of a monk deserves respect, of course; but are they really so difference from us who don’t live a Christian life?” One of the teachers who organized the trip replied: “I don’t know if you’ll be able to understand, but look at your faces and at the faces of the monks—how you look and how they look. Do you really not see the difference? What radiates from us and what radiates from these people is completely different.” And indeed, then I noticed it myself. If you look at the face of Christians who are spiritually laboring, you’ll see some special internal peace in them. A proud, cunning, evil, money-loving man has a completely different look. Of course, we shouldn’t judge someone by his appearance, but quite often our face broadcasts the whole truth about us.
When man labors spiritually, his whole being is sanctified, both soul and body, because man is a psychosomatic unity. We can’t divide a person and say here is where his soul ends and his body begins. No, take bread for an example. To make bread, you have to mix water and flour and knead the dough. When we’ve baked the bread, we can’t distinguish the water and the flour anymore. It’s already one whole. The same is true of the human body and soul. As long as a man is alive, he is an inseparable unity of soul and body; therefore death is the enemy of mankind, inasmuch as it destroys this unity. The body dies, and the soul departs for where souls live. But Christ will abolish death and man will rise again. Only the body will resurrect because the soul does not die. Then the soul and body will be united again. The body will become incorrupt, like the body of Christ after His Resurrection. Man will regain his psychosomatic unity.
Thus, the pollution of the soul and body is any sin committed by the body or soul. Therefore, let us labor with fear of God for the sanctification of our souls and bodies. Holiness is a spiritual podvig. Everything that a man thinks he is doing for God, he is actually doing for himself. For example, we say: “I fast for the love of Christ,” “I give alms for the sake of Christ,” “I go to church for Christ.” In reality, Christ does not need all of this. If we don’t fast today, what is that to the Lord? Or, what does the Lord receive when we give alms? In fact, thanks to our spiritual work, it is we who benefit, we receive a blessing, we sanctify ourselves. The Lord gets nothing out of it. We labor in order to be with Christ. We strive to purify ourselves in order to become the very place where the Lord can come and abide. We need only to perform all these spiritual podvigs with fear of God, in order to have inner purity.
What does “with fear of God” mean? We often say this in church, or we say it about someone, that that man has the fear of God. We have to understand that this fear of God has nothing in common with our psychological fear, when, for example, we fear dogs, cats, airplanes, Turks, the coronavirus. We don’t fear like that. When our Church calls, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near…” it doesn’t mean that we should be immediately seized by fear, by worrying, and begin to quake with horror. But the fear of God means that we feel reverence, holy awe, that is, the feeling that God is Holy, that He is our Father, that He loves us, that He is the most sacred and precious thing in the world. And when a man feels awe, love, and reverence in his heart, all of this together is the fear of God.
The fear of God is essential to building our relationship with God. This is the most important work of our life. How should we build this relationship? Through keeping the commandments of God, through repentance for our sins and contrition for what we have done, through daily podvig, and through participating in the holy Mysteries of the Church, which are a necessary element of the life in Christ. Of course, all of this should happen with every man to the best of his ability. And so, thus laboring in the fear of God, we acquire Divine grace in our hearts.
I remember when I was the abbot of Machairas Monastery, about thirty years ago, and we went to a conference in Georgia organized by the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Georgian Church was only beginning to revive then after so many years of persecution. Everything was in ruins. Even when we landed at the airport in Tbilisi, I couldn’t believe it was an airport. It felt like we had just landed in an open field: There was wheat growing and cows walking all around. The airport building was one small room. There was a wooden cupboard with “Duty Free” written on it, where they were selling jars of jam and other canned foods! It was a very difficult situation in Georgia then. The Church was in decline. Many churches were in ruins. It was very similar to what we see today in the territory of Cyprus occupied by the Turks. On Sunday, we went to the patriarchal service. The Patriarch of Georgia is a holy man, still alive, but quite elderly. According to tradition, the Patriarch is vested during the service in the middle of the church. Deacons and subdeacons help him. I was standing there, watching this ceremony and thinking: “What is all of this for?” (who knew that it would wind up happening to me [as a bishop]?). And one hieromonk standing near me heard my thoughts and said to me:
“You see how they’re vesting the Patriarch?”
“Yes,” I said to him.
“Do you know why they dress him like this?”
“No idea. Can’t he dress himself?”
“Have you ever seen how an operation goes?”
“I’ve never been at an operation itself, but I saw one on television when I was little.”
“When a doctor is performing a complex operation, where his every move could be fatal, he doesn’t run around the operating room in search of a scalpel, needles, and other instruments. He just raises his hand and his assistants should immediately understand what he needs, or in an extreme case he can say the number of the instrument. The doctor should be completely concentrated on the operation. It’s the same with a presbyter or bishop when he celebrates the Divine Liturgy—he shouldn’t be distracted by what he is going to wear, or anything else. This is why deacons are called deacons (meaning “servant” or “assistant” in Greek—Ed.), because they serve and help the bishop, so he can wholly devote himself to prayer and the Divine Liturgy without distraction.
The apostle Paul himself tells us: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). That is, our salvation, our relationship with God, all of our spiritual work must be worked out with fear and trembling. Not hastily or carelessly, not as some side activity, but as the most important thing in our life. For example, when we’re driving, our eyes are fixed on the road, but as soon as we begin to look off to the side, then we get in an accident. In much the same way, we should follow the path of God, ascending to holiness with fear of God.