Tag Archives: Gospels

A monk learns a lesson.

A story I found in my files:

The Importance of Reading
the Gospels Every Day

A Monk’s Story

During my initial monastic service at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow, there was a period when I stopped reading the Gospel. At that time I had a lot of work, and there was not enough time to concentrate, open the Holy Scriptures, plunge into the meaning of words. I did not attach much importance to this, but simply continued to perform obediences, working from four in the morning until late at night. There were no external changes, but I gradually began to notice that I was more and more burdened by a feeling of strong spiritual and bodily fatigue, which I could not “throw off” neither with sleep, nor food, nor rest. I fell asleep and woke up, went to services, worked, but the feeling that someone seemed to be digging into my neck and sucking all the strength out of me did not leave. I walk – my legs buckle, I sit behind the wheel – my hands are shaking. Body and soul were exhausted every day, and I still could not understand the reason.

Once, in this state, I came to the office of the abbot, father Agaphodor, to discuss some labor issues. He, as an insightful person, as soon as I started a conversation, asks me: “What is happening to you?” In an almost exhausted voice, I quietly answer: “I don’t know … Something is wrong with me, it’s hard.” He fixed his gaze on me, as if in a couple of seconds he could see my soul and find the source of the disease, and suddenly asked the question: “Have you been reading the Gospel?” I began to think: indeed, I had stopped reading the Gospel. How could this have happened? How long have I been living without the main spiritual food? I began to remember and with horror discovered that I did not remember the last time I took the Bible in my hands.

With the strongest inner excitement, I ran to my cell, grabbed the Gospel and began to read. I opened it and, like a man dying of thirst, I read and read, read and read… An amazing impression: the more I read, the more acutely I felt that I was getting better. The teeth, which dug into my neck and sucked my strength, gradually unclenched, I breathed more freely. With each new chapter (and I read about ten at once) it became easier and easier. I turned page after page until I realized that I was completely free of the disease. The feeling of depression is gone. The enslavement that I was in all that time was a great lesson for me, which does not need to be repeated twice. Since then, I read 365 chapters a year – that is, I read one chapter every morning.

Man consists of two parts – soul and body. We saturate our flesh, but the soul remains hungry. The main food for the soul is the Gospel. We do not forget to charge our cell phone in the evening, but we forget about the soul. When we read the Gospel, we receive grace. In the morning we read the chapter – grace for the whole day. And the day will go in a completely different way – with grace. We will also reflect on what we have read, and some of this will come true, although the Gospel is not a fortune-telling book. This is the book of life that every Christian should live by.

We sometimes do not even think about what great power is hidden in this book. If we ever saw how the devil shies away, like from fire, when we take the Gospel in our hands, we would hug it and never let it go. For my confessor, Father Kirill (Pavlov), the Gospel has always been in the first place: he found it in the ruins of Stalingrad during the Great Patriotic War and went through the whole war with it. So I too, but much later, had to visit my battlefield to understand: without the Gospel you cannot win.

Ivan was not ready.

This month our women’s book club at church read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Sunday afternoon we met at my house to discuss it. That day on the liturgical calendar happened to be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In that passage, before we come to the day’s reading, Christ has been speaking privately to His disciples about the end times, and telling parables. One is about virgins getting enough oil for their lamps, and the other about servants making good use of the gifts they were given. Both parables end with someone arriving and some people not being prepared.

Ivan Ilyich was most certainly not ready for the arrival of his death. He and his friends were like many people in that they avoided thinking about that inevitability. The story opens with the fact of it, and his funeral, which doesn’t affect his friends very much, because thank goodness, it wasn’t their death, so they can go on as they were before. Then the author takes us back to see Ivan’s life over the years, and close to the end when he could no longer avoid suffering, and had to face a reality that didn’t fit into his life’s theme of doing what was pleasant.

The Gospel for the day is sobering, and our pastor reminded us of what his late father, also our priest, used to say, that the task of the preacher is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This passage continues in the thread of being about Someone’s return. Christ, the Son of Man, begins to talk to His friends more directly, if metaphorically:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And by what criteria exactly does He sort them? If you haven’t read that account recently you might want to look at it; the whole process is laid out with much detail in Matthew 25. Our preacher said it is like getting the answers before the final exam.

I was teaching my usual church school class afterward, and read in preparation a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I liked very well; I shared it with the students, too. A quote:

“We are told that when the Day of Judgment comes, those who will stand before God – and those are all of us – will not be asked about their creed, about their theological knowledge, about their theoretical convictions. They will be asked direct and concrete questions, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not?”

Steve Robinson wrote similarly: “The separation is this: Who was paying attention to life itself, our Life in a constant icon before us, and fulfilling the Image in which we are created? Who is, in love and sometimes even in ignorance of the Name of the Image, paying attention to what is ultimately our Salvation now, and ever, and unto the ages, even though we do not know it.”

It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?” but nevertheless: “Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.” 

He begins to consider that perhaps “he had spent his life not as he ought….” Eventually, Ivan “saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death.”

This idea of the right thing ties in to what we heard in the homily at church, that God’s judgment is not of the sort we exercise and endure by the same name in the world. His judgment is essentially what happens when the One Who understands everything and is perfect Love sets things right. It would appear that as soon as Ivan prayed the feeblest prayer, his Father began this process.

The end, when it came for Ivan, leads us to believe that he passed from death to life. It did not come without agonizing struggles. He had missed life while appearing to be alive, all the while not preparing for death, which turns out to be the beginning of his true life.

Until they were separated, the sheep and goats had been in the flock together, being cared for by the Shepherd. Steve Robinson points out that sheep and goats alike were clueless about how their fate had been decided; it wasn’t fear of judgment that made the sheep love their fellows and act like sheep — or leaving the metaphor, as the humans God created them to be. Neither did they see Christ in the needy person whom they clothed or fed or took into their homes, but they loved that person anyway.

Metropolitan Anthony ends his sermon with this exhortation: “One day we will stand before Him. He will meet us with His infinite love, but looking at Him we will see that He has been our victim throughout life in the person of every one whom He loved and whom we have neglected, humiliated, rejected, allowed or caused to suffer. And how terrible it will be at that moment to look at Him and know that there is no anger, no hatred in Him, but deep, deep pain. Let us think of that, and remember… if you want to be divine, first be truly human.”

I taste morsels of all that He is.

This morning I was able to attend Divine Liturgy for a special parish commemoration. Everything about the service spoke of Christ, gave us Christ, but what I heard in the homily in particular is pertinent to what I had already wanted to write here today.christ good shepherd lg

Our human nature is good, our rector reminded us, but we have a virus called sin and death that has made us all very sick. Christ in His love took on our human nature in the Incarnation, and walked among us showing us what human life was intended to be, teaching us about the Father, and about Himself.

Then He “became sin” and defeated death, and gives us His own Life to live by. Those are the bare and necessarily dry bones of that part of the homily, and of the living Word Who was lovingly expressed in hymns and prayers and communed in bread and wine.

At home, I’ve been reading the Gospel of John. It might as well be for the first time, I am that surprised by the immediacy of it. I felt that in my heart and psyche I became the Samaritan woman, rejoicing with tears when she caught on to Who was talking to her, and her life was transformed. She had encountered God, and left behind not only her water pot, but all that was rotten and decaying of her old life.

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When He Who holds the cosmos together was mocked and spat upon, I was aghast. As I read the words of Jesus clearly explaining how He had come from the Father and was the Bread of Life, I couldn’t see how anyone could read this book and not come to faith. But of course — we all have that virus, to a greater or lesser degree. It causes blindness, it makes us distracted, and dull of mind or heart. I have read these words of Christ many times and I assented in my mind, I have clung to the truth of the Gospel, but was never struck so deeply before. Certainly I hadn’t done anything to make this happen; it was a gift.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,  (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. -John 1:14

At the same time I am reading On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, by Lev Gillet, on prayer, and have been greatly helped by the author’s gentle exhortations. It is all about God With Us. Because Jesus wasn’t only here on earth for three years, changing the lives of people He met face-to-face, but by the Holy Spirit He is present with anyone who prays. Here is an excerpt:

Jesus Himself is the supreme satisfaction of all men’s needs. And He is that now, as we pray. Let us not regard our prayer in relation to fulfillment in the future, but in relation to fulfillment in Jesus now. He is more than the giver of what we and others need. He is also the gift. He is both giver and gift, containing in Himself all good things.christ pantokrator st catherines 16th cent

If I hunger he is my food. If am cold he is my warmth. If I am ill he is my health. If I am persecuted he is my deliverance. If I am impure he becomes my purity. He “is made unto us…righteousness, and sanctification and redemption.” (I Cor. 1:30) This is quite another thing than if he had merely given them to us. Now we may find in his name all that he is. Therefore the Name of Jesus, in so far as it links us with Jesus Himself, is already a mystery of salvation.

Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. -Romans 10:13

Amen, Lord Jesus!