Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen)
His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah, then Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) in St Catherine’s, the OCA podvorie in Moscow, with His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations for the Moscow Patriarchate.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints of North America. We hear for a second time today, already in the service, the Beatitudes. Certainly the Beatitudes are an absolutely central part of the teaching of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ because they offer us a path to sanctity. Now we all know that we’re surrounded – just come into the church and we’re surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, of all of these Saints who have shone forth before us. Many who have shone forth in Russia, those who have shone forth in America. Their icons are on the walls and we have their icons in our homes and we venerate them, and we remember them. Not only that, but we establish relationships with them, and we know that they’re there for us and they will come to our aid and will help us if we ask. The Saints are our friends, the Saints are those who, having attained to the Kingdom of Heaven, live forever in Christ. But the Saints are not only those who have been canonised by the Church. The Church holds up the great examples of sanctity, of piety, of those who have fought the good fight and struggled with themselves, and overcome themselves, have overcome the world, have overcome the forces of evil.
Last week we talked about the Holy Martyrs and how it’s imperative for each of us to strive to maintain the full integrity of our lives, and not to give in to the pressures of this world—lust, the desire for power, the desire for gratification, etc. We see all of those Holy Martyrs as those who were willing to renounce their lives, their possessions, everything that they had, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the sake of maintaining their integrity in Christ. The Church gives us a whole discipline of life to live by, and that in itself is there to help sanctify our life. It’s a discipline of self-denial, it’s a discipline of prayer and fasting, of how we live. That discipline is there in order to strengthen us when we have to confront the world, and all of those powers, all of those forces, all of those temptations that constantly come at us from all directions.
The Martyrs were those who, no matter what the world offered them, believed—and knew— that their relationship with Christ was more important than anything else in this world, than family, than possessions, than position—anything. We are also called to that same confession, whether it is going to cost us our lives or it might cost us our jobs—whatever it is in this world. The Saints are those who, having renounced themselves, have found their true selves.
What we are called to do is to renounce ourselves, to get over ourselves, and to live with that life which is given to us by Christ in the Holy Spirit, which is the only place that we find our true identity. That true identity, that true person of the heart, that person that God has not only called us to be, but created us to be, is holy, is beautiful, and cannot be damaged by sin, it cannot be damaged by rejection; it cannot be damaged by anything of this world, because God made it true and pure and holy. This is who we are called to be and who we are called to rediscover, because the life in this world, the life of this world, draws us away from that and has us create this false identity by which we live, running around gratifying our passions and desires, living according to our anger and resentments and our lusts, our envy and our pride and vainglory, and our self-assertion over other people—and all of these things, which are not of God. Rather, that true person of the heart, whom God knows us to be, is what we are called to rediscover in our lives, and to know that that process – which on one hand looks like some pretty kind of difficult asceticism, some difficult self-denial, some cutting away of the things that we like and that we want to do – is ultimately the most important thing in our lives: to find that true person of the heart, and to live according to that true person that God created us to be. Let all the rest pass away.
The Saints are those who did that, who set that as first and foremost, to live according to Christ, to live according to His discipline, to live according to His Gospel, to live so that that true person that he has created might emerge and be manifest. We see this of course most clearly in the holy monastics, because that’s what monastic asceticism is all about. Indeed, anyone who strives according to the discipline and life of the Church to overcome themselves will, to one degree or another, find this kind of self-mastery.
We look at the Martyrs, we look at the Confessors, we look at all of those who gave up the things of this world for the sake of the Kingdom of God and have set themselves on that path to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, being strengthened by their discipline so that they might tread that path which is laid out in the Beatitudes, so that they might be poor in spirit, so that they might mourn and be comforted, so that they might be meek, so that they might be peacemakers, and so that they might be able to endure when men revile and persecute and say all manner of evil against them falsely for Christ’s sake. [Would] that we might rejoice.
On this day we celebrate all of those Saints who have shone forth in the American land; those that we know, those we do not know. There are a few that are not yet canonised that I know about, and what an incredible inspiration and what an incredible model they have been and they are to us who are still in this earthly battle.
I think of Mother Olga, who is being revealed as a Saint in Alaska; this very simple woman, the wife of a priest in a place that I do not think it’s possible to imagine a place or a life that’s more hidden – to be the wife of a priest in a Yupik village on the Kuskokwim River in south-western Alaska. And yet God has graced her to visit hundreds of people to bring them peace, to bring them consolation, to bring them joy. Just as she did during her lifetime in this world, so she does now after her death, visiting people who have never heard of Yupik Eskimos, who never imagined that they were Christians, and yet her sanctity shines forth.
I think of Elder Dimitri, who was in Santa Rosa. [He was] one of the most important figures for the establishment of monasticism in northern California. His patient endurance, his example. We all know of Metropolitan Philaret [of ROCOR], whose relics were found incorrupt. We all know of these others who have shone forth—some that are widely known and some that only maybe we know about, some people who lived in the most complete obscurity but pursued Christ with the totality of their life.
Each one of us is called to be a Saint in that same way. We are given all the tools by the Church to work out that sanctity, to work out that salvation. We are given the grace of the Holy Spirit in baptism and chrismation; that grace is renewed every time we receive communion. We are given the gift of confession to help us to overcome our sins and to keep striving for that life of the Kingdom which is to come. We are given the disciplines of piety in order that we might redirect our desires and our thoughts and ideas away from the things of this world and to the things of God. That is why all of this is here—that’s why we have the temples, the Liturgy, everything that’s here is to enable us to live that life of the Kingdom of God which is given to us freely by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So let us give thanks to God for all of those Saints that He has revealed, and those that He has not yet revealed, for all of those who love us, who pray for us, and who accompany us on our way to the Kingdom of God. Those we know, and those that we don’t.
There’s one final thought that I’d like to leave with you as to what real sanctity is about. This is from the thought of [Elder] Father Sophrony [of Essex], who was the one who revealed Saint Silouan [the Athonite]. Saint Silouan said that the task of the Christian is to expand our personal “I” so that “I” doesn’t just mean “me”. “I”—when we stand before God—not only includes me, but all of those whom I love, and all of those who love me, so that my “I”, as we grow spiritually, our personal identity expands so that when we stand before God we cannot think of ourselves alone, but with our wife, our husband, our children, our families, our friends, our parish, our people, our nation.
The Saints are those whose personal “I” expanded to embrace churches and peoples and nations. So let us expand that personal “I” by our love for one another, so that standing before God, we might give thanks to Him, truly, with one mind, with one heart, with one voice, as one mystical person in our Lord Jesus Christ, who has sanctified us and enabled us to be participants in His Kingdom.
[Singing and blessing the people with the Sign of the Cross] The blessing of the Lord be upon you through His grace and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.