Dear brothers and sisters,
Here we are on the eve of the Great Fast, at the end of a week which would have normally had a festive character, but this year, few of us have even given a thought to Maslenitsa.
The life of the past week has been blurred by the tears of our communities, and the urgency of prayer has banished other concerns, as our supplications for the suffering Ukrainian people have been focussed by the personal lives and plights of the family members and friends of our parishioners: in Kiev, in Kharkov, in Mariupol, in Odessa and throughout Ukraine.
Doubts may enter our heads in the face of violence, tragedy and suffering, as we question the effectiveness or usefulness of our individual prayers in the geo-political turmoil of the present.
The spider’s web of doubt is the snare to catch us and stop us praying; to stop us struggling; to stop us turning Godwards; at a time when we should struggle through our human weakness by praying as we have never prayed before.
Each of us should pray as if we were the only soul in the world interceding for the Ukrainian people; and each of us should pray as if the whole weight of the Ukrainian land was on our shoulders.
When we pray with such zeal, and urgency, when our prayers are joined with those who pray in Ukraine and throughout the world, then a truly unimaginable force joins earth to heaven, and the power of this prayer is also manifested in how it can change each of us.
The human capacity to love is immense, but so too is the human capacity to hate, and in circumstances like those of today, it is so easy for hate to blind our spiritual eyes, and to deafen our ears to Christ’s command to love.
Hate dehumanises, and consequentially causes us to dehumanise, so that we no longer see the image and likeness of God in others, and it is in this dehumanised blindness and deafness that human beings simply become ‘collateral damage’.
The passions may boil and rise, so that we are subtly but effectively penetrated by the same dark, sinful forces manifest in the violent actions of others. We simply hide our violence and murderous feelings within our thoughts and in a darkening and hardening heart, in which the Light of Christ is smothered by hate, vengeance and intolerance.
As we see great suffering, as strong feelings and reactions are stirred within us, in praying for all caught up in the present tragedy, we must surrender ourselves to God, to allow Him to take us on what may seem an impossible journey to forgiveness, mercy and compassion, as the present events and our fallen instincts pull us in contrary directions.
We must heed the holy fathers in the strict custody of the mind and thoughts, knowing and understanding how easy it is to be drawn away from the path of prayer by what may seem justified and necessary thought, fact finding and analysis – when the greatest, most-powerful and most-loving thing we can do is to abandon ourselves to the Lord in prayer.
If we are honest, we are sometimes reluctant to pray, knowing that prayer will challenge our emotional and psycho-spiritual status quo, and may take us somewhere we do not wish to go or be, when we simply want our decided opinions and adopted position confirmed and approved, even if they are at odds with the radical and challenging demands of the Gospel.
As we see violence and aggression, we face the Gospel-challenge to recognise and affirm that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and that our shared humanity is the robe of God Incarnate.
Prayer is vital for this realisation, and we must pray recognising that prayer is the place and time in which we must surrender to God in the struggle not to hate; in the struggle to refrain from anger and violent thoughts; in the struggle to understand how it is possible to forgive inhumanity and tyranny, when we see indescribable suffering and cruelty.
We must pray, believing in the power of prayer and believing that faith may move mountains, but also pray so that Christ may work in us, making the seemingly impossible possible, and for the power of the Holy Spirit to enter and abide in us as the Comforter, the Giver of Life and Treasury of Blessings – to cleanse us of every impurity and grant us the spiritual gifts to counter anger, hate, intolerance, and violent and murderous thoughts.
Even as the war rages in Ukraine, the age-old cosmic battle between good and evil potentially rages within each of us, as the devil seeks to steal our souls through anger, hate, the inner lust for vengeance, and the clamorous scream for retribution in a rebellion against Christ and the counter-intuitive upside-downess of the Gospel of love.
So, as we begin the Fast, through prayer, we must seek the strength and capacity to love those who hate; to be merciful to the merciless; to forgive the unforgiving; to be gentle to the cruel; to face cruelty with compassion; to fight hate with tolerance; to face evil with good; to make our hearts overflow with God’s superabundant mercy.
Yet again, I think of the much-repeated and often-quoted words of Abba Isaac the Syrian:
“What is a merciful heart? It is a heart which is burning with a loving charity for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons – for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes being filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion which seizes his heart; a heart which is so softened and can no longer bear to hear or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain, being inflicted upon any creature. This is why such a man never ceases to pray also for the animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, that they may be preserved and purified. He will pray even for the lizards and reptiles, moved by the infinite pity which reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united with God.”
These beautiful words are closely mirrored by Dostoevsky, on the lips of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov:
“Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day, and you will come at last to love the world with an all-embracing love.”
These words challenge us to the podvig of struggling to love by allowing Christ to love in us and through us, no matter how impossible it may seem for us to love and forgive.
On this Sunday of Forgiveness, many will be shaking their heads asking how they can possibly forgive; how to love, how to even consider loving enemies, and how God can expect us to do so.
The answer is for us to abandon ourselves to God as we immerse ourselves in prayer, so that by His working in us, the seemingly impossible may become not only possible, but a reality, and that like St Isaac we may feel love and compassion for the whole creation, even the offender and transgressor, who has been ensnared by the enemy of mankind.
Bereft of love, we must surrender ourselves to God, bowing down in fervent prayer and asking God to kindle love within our cold hearts, so that they may not only be warmed, but become enflamed with His love, that we may seek God in all things and all places, and see God in all things and all places, no matter how ugly, how broken, how dysfunctional or dangerous.
We must surrender ourselves to God and seek to begin the journey to love and forgiveness, holding our hands out to Christ when we are sinking into the depths that threaten to swallow us, so that He may lead us hand-in-hand over the waves to safety.
Brothers and sisters, let us be united in prayer during the Great Fast, as we have been united in the past sorrowful week, weaving our prayers together as an offering to the Lord, and in these prayers, let us beg Him to help us to forgive and love – becoming mirrors of the great, selfless outpouring of His mercy on mankind, heeding the unequivocal challenge of the Gospel:
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
… words that are not easy, but the key to the Kingdom of Heaven.
If we believe that Christ is risen from the dead; if we believe that he changed water into wine; if we believe that He healed the blind and deaf, the possessed, the halt and lame; if we believe that He walked upon the waves; if we believe that He raised the dead… we must believe that He can lead each of us to forgiveness and love, against all the odds and every obstacle, and that as the Creator He is able to make us anew and renew a right spirit within us.
As we enter the Great Fast, let prayer be the path to this renewal and the radiant reflection of Christ, in each and every one of us.
Asking your forgiveness, for Christ’s sake.
With love in Christ – Hieromonk Mark