From The Blog

Monthly Meditation – December 2010

“The soul is not refreshed by idleness and lying about like the body, but by good works, works of charity, works pleasing to God. This is true rest to the soul, for it strengthens the soul's health and increases its power and its joy.”

St. Nikolai Velimirovic

I have always loved the contrasting characteristics of the Gospel message. We are taught again and again how Christian life in this world demands that we look at things opposite to what seems natural. The question we must repeatedly ask ourselves is what really is “natural” in this life. According to nature first we must acknowledge that we live in a fallen world and in a fallen state, which consequently puts into question everything that is considered “natural” according to a secular worldview. Considering what is natural, therefore, must be seen only in comparison to life prior to the fall of Adam. While we do not know with absolute precision what this pre-fall state was like we certainly can affirm through Orthodox Christian Tradition and worldview the Truth at which we aim and the holiness for which we strive.

The book of 4 Maccabees in the Apocrypha has a very intriguing depiction of this conflict: “The tyrant Antiochus, sitting in state with his counselors on a certain high place, and with his armed soldiers standing about him, ordered the guards to seize each and every Hebrew and compel them to eat pork and food sacrificed to idols. If they were not willing to eat defiling food, they were to be broken on the wheel and killed. And when many persons had been rounded up, one man, Eleazar by name, leader of the flock, was brought before the king. He was a man of priestly family, learned in the law, advanced in age, and known to many in the tyrant's court because of his philosophy. When Antiochus saw him he said, 'Before I begin to torture you, old man, I would advise you to save yourself by eating pork, for I respect your age and your gray hairs. Although you have had them for so long a time, it does not seem to me that you are a philosopher when you observe the religion of the Jews. Why, when nature has granted to us, should you abhor eating the very excellent meat of this animal? It is senseless not to enjoy delicious things that are not shameful, and wrong to spurn the gifts of nature. It seems to me that you will something even more senseless if, by holding a vain opinion concerning the truth, you continue to despise me to your own hurt. Will you not awaken from your foolish philosophy?'” (5:1-11).

Eleazar responsed: “You scoff at our philosophy as though living by it were irrational, but it teaches us self-control, so that we master all pleasures and desires, and it also trains us in courage, so that we endure any suffering willingly; it instructs us in justice, so that in all our dealings we act impartially, and it teaches us piety, so that with proper reverence we worship the only real God” (5:22-24).

Self-control, courage, justice, piety—four qualities of character evidently lacking in men based on an apparent need (at least according to Eleazar) for instruction and training. I raise this point in an attempt to explain that in the “natural” state of man we must admit there is something lacking; and to increase our understanding and concern over the health of our soul, and how best to nurture it. The problem I see is confusion over several layers of this discussion, for example: the connection between health of soul and health of body—the body's need for rest and the soul's need for the body to be available, alert and active. One practical example is the temptation everyone faces at the end of a work day when an evening Liturgy is scheduled. The body is crying out for rest while the soul is crying out for the Eucharist. Which voice is going to win out most often? Antiochus says, It's not rational or necessary to spend so much time in church.” Eleazar responds, “It is only proper that we give extra time to the worship of God and nurture of the soul.” Apply this debate to all aspects of our life in Christ: prayer, fasting, charity, morality, ethics, etc., and we will always hear the secular, “natural” man say, “Don't worry about it, just be good and do what you can. Don't inconvenience yourself. It's not natural.” The spiritual man, however, should and must always respond, “If I do not adhere firmly and actively to my faith my soul will surely suffer.”

What a beautiful challenge we have before us, and what unseen blessings lay ahead when what is right is done for the strength and joy of the soul. It is counter-intuitive to the “natural” man that sacrifice equals strength, that good works equal rest, that activity for the soul brings refreshment for the body, but it is the content of everything Jesus taught, “Love your enemies, do good to those hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them”(Luke 5:27-31). May this season of preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ be one of increased understanding of why He came. St. Gregory Nazianzus summed it up like this, “What is this mystery that surrounds me? I received the likeness of God, but failed to keep it. He takes on my flesh, to bring salvation to the image and immortality to the flesh. He enters into a second union with us, a union far more wonderful than the first. Holiness had to be brought to man by the humanity assumed by God, so that God might overcome the tyrant by force and so deliver us and lead us back to himself.” Beloved, Christ is born! Glorify Him!