In the life of Discipleship, according to the Orthodox spiritual life, we need to focus on ourselves. Much of our time and attention can be taken up with looking at other people, judging their words and behaviour, comparing ourselves with them. This prevents us making progress ourselves. What stands in the way of our taking steps in the journey of Discipleship is not the words and behaviour of others, even when this causes us harm and distress. It is our own thoughts, attitudes and behaviour which become obstacles to growth.
We cannot see all at once what needs to be done. Discipleship is the journey of a lifetime. But we can see where we have to begin. It begins with the words and teachings of the Lord Jesus in the Gospel here. Do not judge! Yet we find it so easy to judge others. Not only in the big things, but in almost every small thing. We find ourselves having to judge others. But when we judge others we are acting hypocritically. This means that we are not being honest with ourselves, and if we are not honest with ourselves then we cannot move forward in Discipleship.
There are two aspects to this. In the first place we need to find a greater understanding and compassion for others, even those who hurt us. This does not mean that the things others might do are always good. We do not need to call things that are evil anything but what they are. But we do need to find a way, with God’s help, to avoid leaping to judgemental conclusions. When someone uses angry words towards us, for instance, the Disciple will try to understand that others can be stressed, others might have much on their mind that is not known to us, others are sick with the same burdens of weakness which we are struggling to overcome. We should not leap to judgement. It is a failure to recognise our own need to change.
In the second place, if we wish to be a Disciple, we must have a much greater focus on our own thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. This should not be in a negative or despairing manner. But there is not possibility for our healing when we do not bring our sickness into the open. It is not those who are weak and know their weakness that God speaks against. But those who refuse to be honest with themselves and with God.
The little things in our life matter, and we learn to overcome judgementalism when we judge ourselves more often and more accurately. How have I spoken to this person and that person? What have I watched on TV or the internet that does not help my spiritual growth? How have I acted when asked to help someone? In every thought and action we should try to become more observant of ourselves, and this will lead to greater honesty with God, and an increase of compassion towards others.
Scripture – Matthew 7
1 “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. 2 For with whatever judgement you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye? 4 Or how will you tell your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ and behold, the beam is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye. 6 “Don’t give that which is holy to the dogs, neither throw your pearls before the pigs, lest perhaps they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. 7 “Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or who is there amongst you who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 12 Therefore, whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets. 13 “Enter in by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter in by it. 14 How narrow is the gate and the way is restricted that leads to life! There are few who find it.
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. 16 By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree produces good fruit, but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ 23 Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity.’
24 “Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on a rock. 25 The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell—and its fall was great.” 28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he taught them with authority, and not like the scribes.
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
However, Jesus did not simply command us to ask but to ask with great concern and concentration—for this is the meaning of the word he used for “seek.” For those who are seeking put aside everything else from their minds. They become concerned only with the thing that they are seeking and pay no attention at all to the circumstances. Even those who are looking for gold or servants that have been lost understand what I am saying. So this is what he meant by seeking. But by knocking Jesus meant that we approach God with intensity and passion. Therefore, O mortal, do not give up. Do not show less eagerness for virtue than desire for possessions. For you frequently sought possessions but did not find them. Nevertheless, although you knew that you could not guarantee that you would find them, you used every means of searching for them. Yet even though in this case you have a promise that you surely will receive, you do not even demonstrate the smallest fraction of that same eagerness. But if you do not receive immediately, do not despair in this way. For it is because of this that Jesus said “knock” to show that even if he does not open the door immediately we should remain at the door knocking.
[This wonderful passage from St John Chrysostom sums up so much of the path of Discipleship and the Orthodox understanding of the spiritual life. It is a helpful passage to reflect on after one week of this course. It describes that eagerness and attention with which the Disciple must commit to the life in Christ. Seeking with concern and concentration. Knocking with intensity and passion. Not giving up when things don’t turn out immediately as we ask. Having our desire for virtue, and for the life that God gives, rather than simply for material gain. At the beginning of our own journey we must be sure not to despair, but to continue seeking and knocking with the same warmth of heart.]
This passage in the Gospel about asking, seeking and knocking has a connection with the practice of the Jesus Prayer, which we have just introduced. When we understand that the Jesus Prayer is not a mantra, and is not a religious act, as if repeating it will somehow in itself please God, then we can appreciate that it is intended to be always prayer. Always the heart entering into the divine presence of God. We pray it often, beginning with the little we have introduced into our daily activity. But the intention is to pray always as far as is possible.
This is one of the most important means by which Orthodox spirituality teaches us to ask, to seek, and to knock without ceasing and without giving up. God does not wait for us to produce many words, or to try to tell him exactly what he should do for us. The turning of our heart towards God, with intensity, passion, concentration and warmth is the true meaning of prayer, and the essence of the Orthodox Christian life of a Disciple.
Hearing and doing is another important and necessary aspect of the life of Discipleship. Our Lord Jesus describes it in his words about the man who builds a house. What makes a difference between the two people, who build on rock or on sand, is that one listens to the teaching of the Lord Jesus and puts it into practice, while the other hears the same teaching but does not put it into practice. Discipleship can never be about just listening, or just learning about life with God and the Orthodox Christian spirituality. It has to be about putting it into practice. This is why the Daily Activities in this course are as important, and even more important, than anything else, because we cannot become a Disciple by merely hearing. Only by doing what we hear.
1. Continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening. Pray with warmth and attention.
2. Try to pray the Jesus Prayer for ten times in the morning and evening. Quietly, prayerfully, with attention and warmth. Find a place to be still and give focus to this activity.
3. Continue to intercede for those on your list of names. Pray with warmth for each one, especially those with pressing needs known to you. Try to remember to pray for some of them through the day.
4. Read the Gospel again. Read prayerfully and write down in your notebook whatever comes to mind in a strong way as you read.
5. Reflect on the way we judge other people hastily. Try to produce a list of things which cause you to be judgemental of others. Try to produce a list of things which you often excuse in yourself.
We are fortunate to have many written testimonies from the earliest centuries, which allow us to understand the life and teachings of the earliest Christians, those who knew the Apostles themselves. They provide a living continuity from the first century to the Orthodox Church of the 21st century. Orthodox Christianity is not just something that appeared in previous centuries, but it is the same Church as that which was established by Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, in the Apostolic community.
This passage is from the Martyrdom of St Polycarp in 156 A.D. He was the bishop of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, and had been a disciple of St John the Apostle. We have the record of this event, written at the time. In the time of persecution he was betrayed and arrested and then brought to the stadium. We read,
Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp !” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
He was threatened with death, by wild animals and then by fire, but he boldly spoke out,
The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.” But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”
And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals,–a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good. Immediately then they surrounded him with those substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”
We need to remember that this is not something written a long time afterwards, but was written by those who were there and saw and heard what happened. We read,
They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast fore-ordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”
Then they set the bonfire alight, but we read that he was preserved from harm, according to the eye-witnesses, and it was necessary for him to be stabbed to death.
When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour coming from the pile as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.
At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.
And then we read that the faithful believers gathered up his precious remains, burned by fire, and honoured them in the way that we still honour the remains of the saints, and would keep a feast on the date of his martyrdom.
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.
We still preserve the memory of St Polycarp. His relics are venerated in a Church in Rome. His feast is still kept in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and in the other Orthodox Churches, together with the Catholic and Anglican Churches. This is not a sentimental reverence but is based on the testimony of those who witnessed the events and knew this saintly man for themselves..