Among the many troubles brought about by the times of the coronavirus, came also unimaginable blessings. The online syntaxes are among them and we think, with amazement, that we never had so easy access to the Fathers of the Holy Mountain or of the Monastery of Essex, to such first-rate spiritual personalities, who now, to comfort the faithful, are willing to speak to us online.
Forgive me for daring to include Jonathan Jackson among these personalities. Who? A Hollywood actor! Why? Just because he is a famous convert, showing us that Orthodoxy is victorious no matter in which corner – and what “corner”! – of the world? No! Jonathan Jackson is – although married, with children – a living of grace and preacher of an asceticism that reminds us of the dawn of Christianity. Let’s follow him by interpreting Saint John the Baptist, in an online synaxis, in which he spoke with tears, and we, with tears, listened to him. (A.S.)
What does this mean? here are many things that come to my mind in contemplating this mystery. St. John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent is a profound starting point. As I was preparing for this talk, there were a few themes and words that continued to come to my heart and mind. It suddenly dawned on me that they were directly connected to Saint John’s Ladder. So, I decided to focus on the first three steps of the Ladder of Divine Ascent to help express the mystery of what it means to be “in the world, but not of the world.”
“On Renunciation of the World”
The First step on this Ladder is “On Renunciation of the World”. The Second step is “On Detachment”. The Third step is “On Exile”. Before we walk through these three steps, or I should say, begin to ascend them, I would like to read from chapter 17 of the Gospel of John: “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word…” John 17:13-20.
On Renunciation of the World
Christ says very clearly that the world has hated you, because you are not of the world, as He is not of the world. Love for Christ, which also means, loyalty to Him, puts one at odds with the “cosmic powers over this present darkness, and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12 Elsewhere, Christ says: “[The world] hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.” So, there is this cosmic reality that aligning oneself with Christ means enmity with the world. The Apostle James says this very clearly, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” James 4:4
But, what does this mean? The Scriptures also say, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” For God so loved the world! And yet, we are commanded not be “friends with the world”.
In His first epistle, St. John the Theologian writes, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I John 4:4-18
Obviously, there is a difference between God’s love for the world as it was created to exist in Him, and the fallen-world of sin and corruption. If Christ were “friends with the world,” He would never have been crucified. As Christians, we must enter into His life. This is why He says, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” His life includes the Cross—and we are only Christians, if we too, take up our cross and follow Him. “As He is, so also are we in this world”.
Somehow, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we enter into a divine paradox where we renounce the world and also give our lives for the life of the world. This mystery or paradox is seen most strikingly in the Lives of the Saints and Martyrs. Saint Joseph the Hesychast, for instance, renounced the world and chose to live in silence and prayer on the Holy Mountain. The strange miracle is that by renouncing the world, by not being friends with the world, but by putting himself at enmity with the world and its rulers, authorities, principalities and spiritual forces of evil, he began to love the world, as Christ loves the world. And Saint Joseph gave himself up, through prayer and asceticism—through an experience of the Cross—for the life of the world. Only those who renounce the fallen-world can truly begin to love the world. St. Silhoun says, “To Pray for the world is to shed blood.” You don’t shed blood for something or someone you hate. You shed your blood for someone you love—deeply and profoundly. This experience is beyond mere rationalism or ideology. This is Divine Eros. This is eternal life. Christ says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3
It is impossible to know God without renouncing the world. It is also impossible to renounce the world, without knowing God. I’ll leave it to the theologians to explain which comes first. My guess is a revelation of Beauty—a Theophany comes first—and from this Theophany, the natural result is the movement of the soul away from the fallen-world towards the Union with God. This is another way of describing repentance.
Living Without Offense and the Secret Light of Humility
Love is free from wrong attachments,
But a slave to compassion.
What is this love, that Christ Himself, lived out? That Christ Himself is by Nature. How did He (and how does He) approach relationships with other people? How did the Son of God respond to friction and accusations? How did He handle people’s misjudgments and insults? As I contemplate the nature of Christ’s love, what strikes me is His absolute and radical compassion for everyone, and yet his fierce detachment from allowing others to establish, validate, or discredit his Person. Jesus Christ was personally not offended by the lies, doubts, misjudgments and evil spoken against him. He was free from offense, because he lived from the Father unto the Father.
This does not mean that he was unaffected in totality. Jesus of Nazareth was no stoic. He wept, sweated blood and was grieved many times in the Scriptures. He was encountering sin—and every sin is personal to God—and this encounter, no doubt, grieves the heart of God. But, his grief is one of compassion for the other, not from his own wounded ego.
As Christians, we must be watchful that our love for each other never eclipses our love for God, even in subtle ways. But remains in the correct order—always loving and valuing God first in our hearts. This holy order frees us from wrong attachments and drenches us in the waters of the Divine.
We care so much about each other, but we must not care from the brokenness of our humanity, which fundamentally means, our attachment to this world. There are many things with which we burden ourselves, that are not ours to carry. What someone thinks of us… what so and so said… what they did two years ago, and so on. There is a liberation available to us as we enter into the Fear of the Lord—and this right alignment safeguards our hearts from the fear of man—even those close to us. If we fear others, we will never be able to love them with purity of heart. The opposite however, can be said of our relationship with God. If we do not fear Him, we will never enter into His Love.
Are we living for man, or for God? We cannot live for both.
We must bring everything into God’s presence, placing every relational burden in the burning light of who He is—run to Him, rest in Him, and abide in Him. Keeping our eyes strained on Him as we seek to imitate the Lord and do the impossible—walk on water, as Peter did.
The waves and the wind of what people say or judge are the very things that will cause us to lose our focus on what is Beautiful, Good and True—the Face of God—and begin to sink. But if we hold fast to the face of Christ, always looking upon Grace and Truth, then we will be infused with freedom and compassion for others: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends”. Proverbs 17:9
The only time we should allow others to shape our identity is when they are speaking from the heart of God, such as a spiritual father, a godly parent or a close trusted friend. In these moments, it is not the other person, but the Holy Spirit Who is speaking through them for our salvation. It is the Lord speaking through one child for the sake of another. We must listen, and heed what is being spoken with the utmost humility and grace. This is not the fear of man, but the Fear of the Lord, and it leads to life.
When his beloved disciple Peter spoke urgently against Christ’s mission of the Cross, the Lord did not respond with offense towards Peter personally—He said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Mathew 16:23 Christ understood whom he was battling. In His spirit, he addressed the Enemy, not the other person. He didn’t say, “Peter, how can you be saying this? You’re one of my disciples. I’m going to leave you in charge of my flock when I’m gone! I need you to understand what I’m talking about here!” He also didn’t say, “Maybe your right, Peter… maybe the Cross is a bit too much… I don’t want to offend you, or have you stop believing in Me. I’ll think about what you’re saying.” No, He neither took offense, nor acquiesced to his friend’s “rebuke.” He understood that His battle was with the Enemy. He loved Peter completely, with absolute grace and compassion, but he was entirely detached from Peter’s brokenness, in the sense of it being a reflection on him. “As he is, so also are we in this world.” I John 4:17
We must look deeply and meditate on the life of Christ. He is inviting us to partake of His Divine Nature. He is inviting us into his relationship with the Father and his relationship with humanity. Christ’s epic prayer was that we might be One with him and the Father, just as they are One. John 17 He loved people to the uttermost, but he chose to never take offense at their sins against him. How is this possible? The Lord revealed this secret to us when He said, “I do not receive glory from people.” John 5:41
The mystery of humility and forgiveness
All of us live with relational wounds that come from living in vulnerability. All of us weigh and judge ourselves in the light of human reasoning. But we must let go of ourselves! We must experience enough repentance and silence to hear the Holy Spirit say to us in our hearts, “I am taking away your right to condemn or be negative or about anyone. I am taking away your right to take offense.” We must take this seriously. Holy liberation and spiritual triumph await the soul who is willing by God’s grace to detach from the world and what others think about them. Our goal in life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Communion with the Holy Spirit certainly includes living without offence, and loving others with Grace and Truth. The only way this is possible is to untie earthly attachments, which are so full of fear and pride, and to bind even tighter the heavenly attachments, which are free from those vices and full of unselfish love, compassion, confidence and humility.
The wisdom of the Church emboldens us towards the freedom of authentic love. The love we have for each other in its human form is murky and frayed. It is full of fear, envy, protectionism and pride. But God’s love in us is free, humble and safe.
In relationships, what do we need the most? Love and trust. Love and trust are connected to each other as Saint Paul says in I Corinthians, “Love hopes all things and believes all things.” In order to trust each other, we must live without attachments.
There is something else quite fascinating that the Lord says in the Gospel of John, in regards to faith and trust. He says that we will never be able to trust, if we are seeking the approval of one another. “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” John 5:44
How was Christ able to remain peaceful and even silent when attacks were raging against him? How was He able to not strike back when others were mocking Him and spitting on Him? It was not because he was jaded or hard-hearted—on the contrary; his love was stronger than the fallen-realm and was overflowing with selfless grace. He was living in the secret light of humility. His love and glory and loyalty were reserved for the Father—he was unconcerned for Himself.
The only way to live like Christ, the only way to live without offense, is to forgive. This is love—supernatural grace. If we are to live in authentic spiritual freedom, we must embrace the mystery of Humility and Forgiveness.
God is love: Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful (it is not touchy); it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends. (I Corinthians 13:4-8)
It’s okay to be different than your peers. Growing up in Hollywood, I always felt a bit different—a bit detached. I was okay in silence, observing people. I began to realize that when I don’t judge others in my heart, I worry much less about what others think of me. It’s a strange thing, but as soon as I begin to judge someone else, I open myself up to judgment. When Christ said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1-2 this became personal for me. I could feel the difference inside of me when I judged someone else or chose to see Christ in them. Being in the world but not of the world means experiencing the mystery that “Christ is all and in all.”
It’s our job, our vocation, or privilege and honor to see Christ in everyone we meet. To speak to Christ in them and God willing, awaken who they truly are—not by pressure or coercion—but through love and belief in who they truly are. Saint John of Damascus says: “For, that which is done by force is not virtue.” Orthodox Christians respect the freedom of others and we do not judge. We speak the truth in love believing that all others will be saved, it is only I who am in danger of being lost. Saint Silhoun the Athonite spoke the prophetic words for our times. What does the world need to see? To taste? To experience? “Christ-like humility and love for one’s enemies.” My Beloved Christ, what does it mean to be a true man? To be in the world, but not of the world? To possess Christ-like humility and love for one’s enemies.
So, the third step is exile. These steps are all deeply connected to one another and in many ways, the beginning of an authentic spiritual life is the experience of exile. This world is not our home. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”. Philippians 3:20 “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Hebrews 13:14
Falling in love with Christ brings an apocalypse to the soul. The meaning of apocalypse is a revelation. An authentic revelation from God will always bring with it, the end of the world. It’s the end of the world, as we had previously known and experienced. That world is over now. There is no going back. The soul has been captivated by Divine Eros. Christ, is experienced as “the Fulfillment of Every Good Thing…” and without Him, there is no longer any possible way for the soul to pursue anything or anyone else. You can imagine as a picture, or icon of this apocalypse, a young, ambitious man, falling in love with a woman and suddenly realizing that nothing else in his life has meaning, without her by his side—without becoming one in the sacrament of marriage and journeying through life together. What is the point of career ambitions without her love? What is the point of pursuing the pleasures of life, enjoying food, drink, travel or vocational accomplishments, if the love of his life is not mystically joined to him? Because of the revelation of her love—he is now exiled. I grew up with a tangible experience of exile, living in Hollywood. A song and poem I wrote called “Under the Skies of Babylon” expresses some of this.
When I was young, they brought me to Babylon
And the night hung over my head
The smoke came into my dreams
In a valley of dry bones
It was under the skies of Babylon
Where my soul fell in love with God
My eyes were seared and my blood was bruised
But I was hidden within a song
All around were the sounds of Babylon
But all I heard, were the hymns of heaven
It was under the skies of Babylon
Where my soul fell in love with her
I was barely coming clean and she had already seen
A war on her innocence
I spoke of the Christ underneath those clouds
And woke her from the sleep of death
And she took my hand and walked me through the crowd
Why, is anybody’s guess?
All around, was the gold of Babylon
But all I saw, was an angel of heaven
You can shut me up but you cannot quiet
The silence of the Mystic Church
Truly, we are exiles in this world. But, Christ has come and He will come again—and when He does, we will finally be home. Until then, we live with the mystery of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of Heaven in our hearts. But, this experience of the kingdom of heaven brings a flood of tears for the world. We long for the world to know God, to experience His ineffable grace and love towards mankind. We long for the consummation of all things. For the time (or I should say, for the end of time) when “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes…” when we share St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse or Revelation of Jesus Christ:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21:1-5
So, by God’s grace, when we Renounce the World, Detach ourselves from the fallen-cosmos and accept that we are in Exile, we begin to climb the Ladder of Divine Ascent and experience the purifying mystery of repentance, compunction, humility and Divine Eros. We begin to experience the godly-sorrow, the bright sadness and also the unspeakable joy of intimacy with God—of being in the world, but not of the world—as He is not of this world. We see Christ as “all and in all” and we seek to “Become all things to all men, that we might by all means save some. Doing it all for the sake of the gospel, that we may share in its blessings.” I Corinthians 9:22-23