Pentecost II 2004
Well, you may recall last week that I mentioned the passing of an era. So it was, in a number of ways. For two weeks in a row, close to the time of our mass, we have now had someone pass on (we hope) to that life which we trust that we will all enjoy.
Two weeks ago it was my great aunt. Last week it was Mr Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States of America.
Mr Reagan served two terms in the Oval Office, from January 1981 until January 1989. He first entered the White House after triumphing over the luckless Mr Jimmy Carter, who had a number of misfortunes during his single presidential term.
Mr Carter started out with some promise. I well remember his campaign during 1976 – though for me my normal interest in such campaigns (which started in 1968) was distracted by the landing on Mars of the Voyager probes, and sitting School Certificate. However, Mr Carter became seriously damaged by the revolution in Iran and the subsequent taking of the US Embassy and staff by the student revolutionary forces.
You may recall the bungled effort by the US to release the captives. Mr Carter became somewhat mired by this, as well as the problems with the US economy which had be seriously damaged by the impact of the second “Oil shock” which followed the Iranian revolution (do you remember the “car less” days scheme which was introduced here?).
Mr Reagan had a “landslide” with a clear mandate to govern the United States. He ran for the presidency again in 1984. This time however, not against the hapless Mr Carter, but against Mr Carter's vice-president Mr Walter Mondale. Mr Mondale lost by an even bigger margin than he and Mr Carter had done in 1980!. Mr Mondale's running mate – the man who would have been the vice-president – was not a man, she was a woman, Ms Geraldine Ferraro, and would have been the first female vice-president in the history of the United States of America.
But conservatism was defintely still in vogue and Mr Reagan romped home.
On the whole Mr Reagan was a pretty successful president – despite some dirty laundry, the “Iran-Contra affair” in particular, though Colonel Oliver North took the blame for it.
Can you recall what his crowning achievement was? Or did he have several?
During his term as president of the United States? Or as Governor of California? What about when he was president of the actor's guild? Or even when he was an actor?
Of his film roles, he felt it was the character he played in the film “King's Row”. His character inherits a fortune, loses it and he goes working on the railroad. He has an accident and the surgeon (who doesn't like him) surgically removes his legs. Upon regaining consciousness Reagan's character says “where's the other half of me?”.
Isn't that a lot like us – where is the other part of me? How many parts are we made of? Body, Soul and Spirit. We often neglect the bit that makes us different – the Spirit.
Our spirit is not the Holy Spirit, but it can take on the Holy Spirit's characteristics by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us. But our spirit needs to be fed with spiritual food and exercised.
The secular world focuses so much on the “flesh” - the world of the body and soul – ignoring the spirit, that we often suddenly realise that there is something missing – just like Reagan's character.
More than this though is, just like Reagan's legs, we suddenly realise that what is missing is vitally important to us and that we cannot really be considered whole without it.
In corner-shops, libraries, supermarkets, GP's surgeries, just about anywhere, you can see posters advertising “Spiritual awakening” classes from yogi's of various Hindu or Buddhist factions. Why? Have we become so spiritually dysfunctional that we cannot see the depth and richness of Christian spirituality? The mystical spirituality of the Christian Church?
No! But the churches in the West have! The protestant West in particular has expunged any sense of spirituality and mysticism. However, in the Eastern Church it has been kept alive and well.
Since the early church, the Fathers and Mothers of the Church have taught and written about the mystical and spiritual aspects of the Christian faith and how they are to be practiced. The most famous compilation of the writings on this subject is probably the ΦΙΛΟΚΑΛΙΑ (“Philokalia”) and was first compiled by Macarius of Corinth and Nicodemus of Mount Athos in the eighteenth century.
The Philokalia brings together writings by extraordinary practitioners of the “prayer of the heart” from as early as the fourth century. For those who are mature enough to understand it, it provides the quickest and most effective conditions for training in what the Fathers called the “art of arts and science of sciences” and thus leading the practitioner towards the highest form of perfection available to a human being – the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and deification (theosis).
Saint Seraphim1 of Sarov is probably one of (if not the) most well known Orthodox saint of “modern” times. He lived in Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although he himself wrote down any of his teachings they have survived due to the dedication of his followers, in particular Nicholas Motovilov.
Motovilov had a unique conversation with Saint Seraphim concerning the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
“The Lord has revealed to me,” said the great Elder, “that in your childhood you had a great desire to know the aim of our Christian life, and that you continually asked many great spiritual persons about it. But no one, has given you a precise answer. They have said to you: 'Go to church, pray to God, do the commandments of God, do good – that is the aim of the Christian life.' ...Prayer fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”
It is only by the Holy Spirit that the spiritual part of us is energised, guided and strengthened. But for this to take place we must acquire the Holy Spirit. How receptive we are to receiving the Holy Spirit though is much dependent on how we are prepared. The bible and the writings of the Fathers teach us and provide us with the knowledge needed to acquire the Holy Spirit but they cannot give us our own individual faith. Knowledge is neither necessary nor sufficient for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, only one thing is – faith.
It is faith which prepares the ground for the seed of the Holy Spirit. Faith comes to us in many ways.
For some of the disciples in to-days Gospel reading (Matthew 4:18-23) it was listening to and following Saint John the Baptist. Saint John, prepared the way of faith for these men, so that when they encountered Christ they did as they were asked.
What is the setting?
Some poor subsistence fishermen are, out of the blue, asked by a complete stranger to follow him and be fishers of men.
What did they do?
“They immediately left their nets and followed Him” (Matthew 4:20, NKJV)
No hesitation, no questioning, they immediately stopped what they were doing and followed Jesus.
They were prepared. Eventually, at Pentecost they acquired the Holy Spirit.
What would you do?
What do I do?
“I'll drop everything for you. No worries about the mortgage, the family and how I'm going to clothe and feed everyone!”
Do we really respond like that when we are called?
I don't !
Often we ignore the call. Sometimes we hear it and try to avoid it – doing anything we can to put off acting on something or getting on with the task - until kicking and screaming we end up reluctantly doing what we've been asked to do. Very occasionally, for most of us, we do as we're asked.
For those who God poured out his Grace, those who we call the Saints and Martyrs, they had prepared themselves (or been prepared) to follow God. When the call came they obeyed.
How are we prepared? Are we complete? Or is part of us missing?
Have we nurtured the Holy Spirit?
Are we ready?
When the call comes, what will you do? Leave your nets and follow Him?
1Like many ascetics of the Orthodox Church, Saint Seraphim was a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer (see the WhitSunday article, 'Veni, Creator Spiritus').