I can think of no Church Father who spoke more forcefully or critically about the moral failings of his time than St. John Chrysostom. He did not hesitate to call out the Emperor, or problems within the larger Church. Eventually, his words brought about his exile. Banished to the very edge of the empire, he died in isolation. Writing to the Deaconness Olympia, his closest friend and confidant, he expressed the very heart of Orthodoxy in troubled times:
“Therefore, do not be cast down, I beseech you. For there is only one thing, Olympia, to fear, only one real temptation, and that is sin. This is the refrain that I keep chanting to you ceaselessly. For everything else is ultimately a fable – whether you speak of plots, or enmities, or deceptions, or slanders, or abuses, or accusations, or confiscations, or banishments, or sharpened swords, or high seas, or war engulfing the entire world. Whichever of these you point to, they are transitory and perishable, and they only affect mortal bodies; they cannot in any way injure the watchful soul. This is why, wishing to express the paltriness of both the good and the bad things of this present life, the blessed Paul stated the matter in one phrase, saying, ‘For the things that are seen are transient’ (2 Cor. 4:18).”
From Letter 7, Saint John Chrysostom’s Letters to Saint Olympia.
From Fr. Stephen Freeman’s recent post: Into the Heart of the Capitol
Father Stephen writes about how we don’t often follow the Apostle Paul’s example of glorying in our weakness. The title of his blog post is “Your Weakness Saves You.” We need to pray out of our weakness and not when we are feeling strong; but Fr. Stephen observes that many of us would prefer to glory in our strength:
At some level, we believe that we are not saved through our weakness, but will be saved through our strength, and that the whole life of grace is God’s effort to make us stronger – never suspecting that God’s grace may actually be purposefully developing our weaknesses.
I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican. We often want to pray from strength – to approach God when we at least feel spiritually alive. The Publican refuses to lift his eyes to heaven. The contradiction of his life and the goodness of God are more than he can bear. And yet he prays. And, ironically, it is he who goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.
I find that the Orthodox prayer book cultivates this awareness of my weakness with its many cries of “Lord, have mercy.” Sometimes I am engaged in some activity that doesn’t allow me to give my full attention to prayer, but I am still burdened over a difficult situation or the need of a friend. I can express my helplessness to do anything by human strength, my inability to even think about what a solution might be, by praying “Lord, have mercy,” as many times as necessary to reach a place of quietness of heart.
As Psalm 103 reminds us weekly, “He remembers that we are dust.” When I pray that, I feel the love and tenderness of the Lord. He knows our weakness, and when we know it too, and pray with that understanding, we are near to Him.