From The Blog

Mission Monthly – February 2008

“If a deformed and extremely ugly soul has suddenly willed to do so, it can change itself, it can ascend to the summit of beauty and again become comely and graceful; if it again grows careless, it can again be swept down into the utmost ugliness.”

St. John Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instruction

Freedom is a topic on which I rarely tire contemplating. I am deeply grateful for the freedom our American forefathers have established. It is a freedom paid for with generations of conviction and blood, and I can barely fathom any other way of life. Despite all the past and present errors of our government and institutions, American citizenship is still one of the most widely sought after privileges in the world. And why is this? Because of freedom!

Here is a brief description of those who sat near me on the airplane during my recent return trip from Texas: a man covered with tattoos and adorned with earrings; two men in camouflage who talked hunting and sports the entire flight; a girl who looked like she was returning from Woodstock; a man who looked the part of a modern day socialist, who uttered no words while keeping his nose in a book about the Russian revolution; an obvious weightlifter; a couple who did not stop talking about their pleasure trip to Corpus Christi; several business people who kept their eyes glued to their computer screens; and me, an Orthodox priest. Ah, freedom; and this is the country we live in, Christian and non-Christian alike. Our greatest blessing, however, is the freedom to worship God, or not, without interference; a freedom which should never be taken for granted! Which begs the questions, “What, as an Orthodox Christian, am I doing with my freedom, religious or otherwise?” and “How am I to understand the spirituality of my free will within the context of a free society?”

St. John has placed here an amazingly high value on free will and freedom of the soul! In saying that a soul can “change itself” he in no way diminishes the role God’s grace plays in this transformation. In seeking a broader understanding of St. John through his writings I believe we can say that he would never teach anything contrary to this; rather, God’s grace is a basic assumption. However, as Dr. Paul Harkins, translator of Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instruction, states, “In many places Chrysostom maintains the freedom of man and the primacy of the will and free choice in the work of conversion and salvation.”We see this emphasized in a homily St. John preached during Holy Week. He declared that too many catechumens hesitate to take the step and receive baptism saying, “If God wills it, He will persuade me and I will be converted.” To this St. John replied,“You are right to call on the will of God. This is clear: He wills all men to be saved, but He forces no one. Hence, it depends on you to see that God’s will is fulfilled.”

Ultimately my thoughts turn to the all-important point of how each of us must choose to choose the process of transformation and enter seriously, strictly, and joyfully, into believing the dogmas of the Church, fixing them fast in our minds, that faith may be manifest in us, shining in the brilliance of our best manner of Christian life. We must all admit that certainly there are times when there appears to be a disconnect between what we profess to believe and our actual manner of living. This of course is nothing other than sin; however, the disconnect that exists today goes even deeper. It is such that even though one’s mind may understand the rational difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, light and dark, one’s heart may be far from the readiness to make Godly choices. It is this lack of readiness that I fear most in my life, in all our lives, as we are faced day after day, hour after hour, with the false notion that there are no boundaries to our freedom and that we will be fulfilled by all manner of vain and sensual pursuits. How can a sinful soul, even with a rational understanding of what is good, ever “change itself” when it is surrounded by and maybe even immersed in vain sensuality? I am always amazed when I hear of an alcoholic who just decides and succeeds to quit drinking, or a smoker who just decides and succeeds to quit smoking, or an obese person who just decides and succeeds to quit over-eating. Could we say this is possible for overcoming any particular sin? I believe it is, but it is me, us, who have to choose to do so!

Some might argue that the societal freedom we enjoy is detrimental to the soul’s free ability to choose a Godly way of life. Sadly we see this played out more often than not in the lives of today’s youth when they reach the age of independence and fight more to preserve their freedom to do what they want to do: be with friends, go to movies, play video games, talk on the phone, hang out, rather than preserve the Godly lives their parents have tried to instill in them throughout their childhood. But in all fairness it is not just the youth; adults struggle too in choosing the strict courses of faith. The old saying, “You are what you eat.” can be applied to all areas of our lives; “We are what we choose.” The fact is that we are free and that God forces no one! His will has already been fulfilled in the sense that all that is necessary for our salvation (transformation): His death, His Resurrection, His grace, His Church, has been made available to us. If this does not truly persuade us then our societal freedom is truly a detriment and we are in trouble, because now is the time for us to care—and to choose!