Now Jesus told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come, and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I come from a family of educators. My father was an elementary school principal, as was his father before him. My mother had also worked as a second grade teacher prior to marriage. I received some of the teaching bug. What a gift it is to share that moment when the light of a student’s mind ignites in understanding!
One thing that I learned early on is that true teachers are perpetual students. They never lose the student mind. The person who has a love for learning, a yearning to master a subject combined with the realization that this mastery never quite comes, makes the best teacher. Who in his right mind would want to be under the tutelage of someone who refuses to be under tutelage?
Thank God that the Christian life is not ultimately about abstract knowledge! Rather, it is about faith; about faithfulness. The vision of God is granted to the pure heart,1Matthew 5:8. but is hidden from the cluttered mind. Still, this does not render what I have said above meaningless. Indeed, since God is both the subject and the object (if we can say it this way) of the Christian life, and since God transcends all human understanding and knowing, Christian discipleship compels us to remain in the humble receptivity of the eager student to a maximum degree. The catechumenate has a beginning, but it does not have an end.2A catechumen is literally a “learner.” We never master God, and the person who claims to have done so is deeply in error. Humbled, awed silence is the most sincere way to speak of God. For the Orthodox Christian, it is not the one who can talk about God who is the theologian, but the one who contemplates God in a heart purified by renunciation, self-forgetfulness, and prayer. Every doctrine of the Orthodox faith arises directly from, and leads us into, the contemplation of God in Christ.
We live in a culture that is generally well read. Information and a massive array of factoids are at our fingertips. Despite having a great deal of knowledge about a great deal of things, the truth is that we still have very few masters of any given subject. What we have is a whole lot of dabblers.
This situation deeply affects the Church and the Christian spiritual life. Once again, ultimately the Christian life is not about information. Rather, it is a way of being and perceiving, of rooting one’s life in the life of God. The early Christians referred to their faith as “the way.”3Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. Christian life and practice consists of a lifelong struggle engaged in the context of prayer, by which the faithful person roots out the disfiguring passions from her heart in cooperation with the grace of God in union with Jesus Christ. The chief of these passions is pride: a stubborn willfulness, a hardness of heart, being stiff-necked, a charge so often leveled on his people by God.4See, for example, Exodus 32:9, Acts 7:51.
The Church, being a particular, visible body, is comprised of many members. The visible harmony of the Church is a paramount consideration in every apostolic letter of the New Testament. When we read the word “you” in the New Testament, it is more likely than not translating the Greek plural “you,” a distinction that the Greek language makes (as do the older forms of English). It is “you all” or, if you are a Southerner, “y’all.” The Apostles speak to the gathered Church, not to isolated individuals.
Salvation is corporate, not private, and the corporate life of the Church is the test and the fruit of the individual’s growth in grace. Barring oneself from the Church and the things she asks of us is a symptom of sin. The person who deeply cares about becoming Christlike must take these symptoms seriously. Indeed, if we truly love God, we will not be interested in minimum requirements for salvation (which is a lawyer’s or an accountant’s concern), but in giving our all. Imagine if I asked my wife what the minimum requirement is for her to stay with me! If she were smart, she would leave me there and then.
Very often, I have heard a claim made from various persons that goes something like the following: “I love God and my neighbor, but I do not need ‘organized religion;’ I can read the Bible and pray on my own. I do not need anyone telling me what to do.” To such persons I can only answer that, quite obviously, he or she has not been reading the Bible at all. In both testaments, the community is everything. It is only in the Church, the sacramental Body of Christ that continues his visible presence on earth, that the love of Christ can be manifest to the world. The manifest example of individual persons practicing self-forgetful, supple love in the Church is the only witness we have of the truth of the Gospel, for this is what the Gospel teaches us to do. Do we fail at this? Of course we do! After all, the Church is also a hospital for sinners. What is the sickness being treated? Willful pride and all of the distortions and disfigurements that follow in soul, body, human community, and creation as a whole. If healing this disease at its root is not the Christian’s work, the work he or she is doing is not Christian.
It is not my intention here to make an argument for the Church. Rather, I say all of this in order to help interpret what we at Cloud-Bearing Mountain Christian Retreat and Training Center and Saint Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church are up to. While we hold many classes of a more academic nature, the heart of what we are doing has little to do with imparting information to people. What we are doing is helping Christian people remain serious, or get serious, about their salvation. To be serious about salvation is to be serious about sin. To get serious about sin is to know ourselves as sinners in need of deep healing, and to be willing to take whatever medicine is necessary to restore us to the fullness of life Jesus calls us into.5John 10:10. It is to answer the call of our Master to root out the very foundations of pride within us and “take the lowest seat,” even if doing so insults our own estimation of our importance and knowledge. Only then can God raise us up.
We are commanded to have the mind of Christ, who emptied himself and became a servant unto death.6Phillipians 2. Cloud-Bearing Mountain Christian Retreat Center, which also houses Saint Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church, is a place where disciples of Jesus Christ can experiment with such a dangerous practice. Indeed, to practice this mind is expected, according to the ability of each individual, that those who here engage the Christian life might begin to demonstrate the fruits of repentance and the cleansing of their souls of the scourge of pride. This is what the Church expects of her people, for she knows, as she has been taught by her Lord and her saints, that it is only through such self-emptying that we can partake of the exaltation of God.
Knowledge puffs up, says the Apostle, for “if anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.”71 Corinthians 8:1–2. To read about a thing and to do it are two very different animals; to read about a thing and to realize it in one’s life are as far apart as one’s first step from one’s last. Indeed, there is no final step in the Christian life, for we always go deeper as disciples, from glory to glory.82 Corinthians 3:18.
Beloved people, if you are not being led into this humility for the sake of your own salvation, the harmony of the Church, and, indeed, the integrity of society and the world, then you are being led astray. Do not follow false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing,9Matthew 7:15–16. who scramble for the highest places, who flatter and indulge that they may be flattered, who promise all manner of earthly successes, who entertain and impress, and who refuse the lowest seat. Seek instead the fruits of humility and repentance, and a willing learner for a guide. He who cannot follow is unfit to lead; he who cannot be a student, cannot be a teacher. In fact, we never attain the heavens as teachers and leaders, but always as disciples and as those who follow.
Growth in the Christian life is not about growing. It is not an accumulation of anything, be it knowledge or something else. Rather, it is about shrinking, that “He increase, and I decrease”10John 3:30. so “it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.”11Galatians 2:20. This is the adventure of discipleship; this is the blossoming of love. May we who call ourselves Christian take care of this most important work, for faith without this work is dead.12James 2:17–18.
|￪2||A catechumen is literally a “learner.”|
|￪3||Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22.|
|￪4||See, for example, Exodus 32:9, Acts 7:51.|
|￪7||1 Corinthians 8:1–2.|
|￪8||2 Corinthians 3:18.|