Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, whom we commemorate today, was born on July 19, 1754 with the given name Prochorus Moshnin, and on November 20, 1778 he arrived at the Sarov wilderness monastery as a new monk. Prochorus was inclined towards solitude and asceticism, and with the blessings of the head of the monastery, Father Pachomius, he would spend Wednesday’s and Friday’s in isolation in the forest, practicing the Jesus Prayer.
Prochorus spent eight years as a novice, and was then given the name Seraphim, after the fiery angels of heaven, and referring to his fiery love for the Lord. After the death of Father Pachomius, Seraphim received the blessing of the new head of the monastery to live a solitary life in the forest a few miles away, returning only for Saturday evening Vigil and the Sunday Liturgy.
One day, a little boy was walking home from Sunday school, lost in thought. As he walked, he kept thinking about something the teacher had said, something that didn’t seem to make any sense. When the little boy got back to his house, he decided to visit his grandfather, whom the boy considered very wise. He found his grandfather working in the yard, pulling weeds from the garden, and, without any preamble, the little boy asked, “Grandpa, what’s hell like?”
The boy’s grandfather looked up from his work, wiping his brow with a gloved hand. “Why do you want to know,” he asked.
“Well, the teacher was talking about heaven and hell in school today, where good people and bad people go, and…. I was just wondering what hell is really like.”
His grandfather paused, and turning to face the boy, closed his eyes for a moment. “OK,” he said, opening his eyes, “it’s like this.”
“In hell, there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in hell are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”
Celebrating: The Nativity of Mary
When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas television shows was Frosty the Snowman. It was a short cartoon made in 1969, and narrated by Jimmy Durante; who also sang the song the story is based on. The song begins this way:
Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal
Frosty the snowman is a fairytale they say
He was made of snow but the children
Know how he came to life one day
What happens in the story is that some children build a snowman, and name him “Frosty.” While they’re admiring their new creation, a chance gust of wind carries a magical hat to the top of Frosty’s head, and suddenly Frosty comes to life. A number of adventures follow where the children foil the plans of an evil magician, intent on taking the magical hat for himself. During all this, Frosty sometimes loses the hat, and whenever the hat is placed on his head, including that first time, and as he springs to life, he lets out a joyous shout of: “Happy Birthday!”
And today we give a joyous shout of “Happy Birthday” for Mary, Jesus’ mother. Actually, we are a bit late, since the date in the church’s calendar was a couple of days ago, but a belated “Happy Birthday” is better than none at all. In some ways, though, and no offense to Mary, it’s not a very obvious choice to add to the church calendar. Many Christians don’t even celebrate Mary’s birthday, and we don’t have a biblical account of her birth to lend that kind of authority to the celebration. Still, the celebration of Mary’s birth is an ancient tradition going back to at least the sixth century.
Luke 1:57–80, Nativity of St. John the Baptist
On June 25th, 2010, nine years ago today, something amazing happed for which I’m eternally grateful. It was a Friday, around noonday, and even now I’m not sure what to call it. I’ve heard people talk about “conversion experiences,” but that never seemed to quite fit somehow. I started attending a church shortly after it happened, and the pastor there suggested it was a kind of “spiritual awakening,” which did sound a bit closer to the truth. But the description that felt most true, and came naturally as my mind tried to make sense of it, was that it felt like being born again. It felt like being utterly annihilated only to rise again as something new, simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. It was as if God, getting inpatient and tiring of being subtle, grabbed me by the ankles, held me upside down, and shook violently until… well, I’m still not sure, but let’s just say that a lot of spiritual and psychological loose change fell from my pockets.
I remember coming back to my senses slowly, and then carefully sitting up. Two very kind and helpful souls, were sitting to either side of me, and, looking very concerned, one of them asked if I was “OK.” My first reaction was spontaneous and tearful laughter, because “OK” seemed like a vast understatement if ever there was one. And then something curious happened…. I opened my mouth with every intention of giving some sort of answer, although not knowing what I was going to say. But when I opened my mouth nothing came out, and nothing would come out. I was struck completely dumb unable to speak or utter any sound at all, and even more curious, I didn’t feel any surprise or fear over this. I just tried to be helpful by pointing at my throat and shrugging. It’s probably because of this experience that when I read today’s gospel, I felt a strong kinship with Zechariah.
Years ago, I would often practice something called “authentic movement,” a kind of contemplative, movement-based exercise with similarities to Carl Jung’s active imagination. In authentic movement you typically have your eyes closed, cultivating an inner stillness of the heart from where you listen for subtle impulses and intuitions guiding spontaneous movement. There would also normally be an observer, whose role it was to witness your movement, and then together you would explore the experience.
I was introduced to the practice as part of a class taught by one of my instructors at the time, a woman with extensive skill and experience as a dance therapist, also trained as a psychological analyst. And I remember one class in particular when I was assigned the role of mover and she the witness.
Starting from a place of stillness, with my eyes closed, I very soon felt a kind of a pull toward what seemed like a source of light. I began reaching for it, orbiting it, losing track of it, then finding it again. In felt like a dance in which we sometimes made contact, and then the distinction between myself and the light would seem to blur. As the time of movement came to a close, I slowly opened my eyes, and found the instructor, my witness, gazing at me with an open, gentle expression.
While working as a psychotherapist I would occasionally receive a profound gift, witnessing someone in the very moment of a miraculous transformation. I would watch, always amazed and humbled, as they seemed to physically lighten, their countenance brightening, their posture shifting to being more alive and vital and present, their tears often taking on a baptismal glisten. Sometimes, spontaneous laughter and joy sprung forth, and other times they simply rested in a lingering sense of surprise and fragility, as if just getting acquainted with a new way of being. But what I remember most is a particular look flashing briefly in their eyes, the look of recognition. It was the look you might see if you paid an unexpected visit with a friend. Imagine knocking on their door, and when they open it, in that very first instant, you catch a brief sparkle of recognition in their eyes.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here, and say that true healing always has a spiritual component, an experience of knowing something to be true, not with our minds but with our hearts. And this heart knowing is not like learning anything new, but more like remembering something forgotten, something that has always been true, and we realize that a part of us deep within always knew this. Maybe that’s the kind of knowing or healing those religious leaders were hoping for when they demanded Jesus tell them if he were the Christ or not. Like most of us, they may have felt a nagging, perhaps unarticulated suspicion that something very important was missing in their lives. They knew the law, they kept all the commandments, they were successful, but still something didn’t feel quite right. Their minds tried to articulate what they wanted, but their hearts weren’t ready to accept it, to recognize who Jesus was by accepting who they themselves were.
Once upon a time there was a young Elm tree, and, sadly, he was miserable most of his days. The weather was so fickle, often just plain awful; one day, too much rain, another snow and hail; ice and cold, burning heat, or terrible winds. Sometimes cloudy days would go on forever with no hint of Sun. And the young Elm would lament bitterly.
Nearby, their lived an old Oak tree, standing silently by as the weather did what it did. Hot or cold, dark or sunny, windy or calm, wet or dry, the old Oak just stood content and still, wearing a smile more often than not.
The young Elm would spy the old Oak, baffled and, increasingly, annoyed. It’s cold and snowing, for God’s sake, what could that old Oak be smiling about? Until one day, the young Elm could stand it no longer, and he said to the old Oak, “Why on earth are you smiling? The weather is horrible… why aren’t you miserable like I am? What do you know that I don’t know?”
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
Rachel refused. She refused to be consoled. Wailing and weeping bitterly, she refused to be consoled.
And, yet, the very next line in Jeremiah has the Lord saying “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;” “there is hope in your future.” Don’t cry, God says, don’t be sad, it’s OK. My immediate reaction on reading that was, “Are you kidding me?”
I’ve imagined Rachel’s response, and let’s just say I’ll refrain from sharing it in polite company. What I can say, is that a perfectly natural reaction would be for her sadness to blossom into anger, even a righteous rage. How dare God offer any kind of consolation in the depth of her anguish. How dare God say anything at all. Where was God when children were being mercilessly slaughtered? How could God allow that to happen?
I can still remember as a young boy watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. I remember being awe-struck by the amazing miracles depicted on screen, especially the parting of the Red Sea, even with 1956 special effects. But what I also remember is wondering, why ten? Why ten commandments as opposed to, say, 8, 12, or 15? How many do we really need? And for that matter, why have any at all?
Well, I don’t know if this answers the question, but we humans do seem mightily attracted to lists of all kinds, especially numbered ones. Marketing research has even shown that you’re more likely to click on an article or a video online if the headline references a numbered list. “Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight Fast,” “6 Cutest Animals on Earth,” “5 New Theories for Game of Thrones,” etc. And then besides their ability to peak our curiosity, a numbered list can serve as a practical way of remembering something.
So probably for both these reasons, numbered lists are very popular in most faith traditions.
For our part, we begin with the ten commandments, although, as I found out quite a while after watching Charlton Heston, it could depend on who’s doing the counting. The coveting commandments, for example, are most often counted as one, but Lutherans single out the one about your neighbor’s house, while Catholics single out the one about your neighbor’s wife. And besides different ways of numbering them, we could easily decide to add a few more commandments that seem particularly relevant. I mean, if we’re going into enough detail to mention coveting our neighbor’s ox or donkey, why not include some other specific, and maybe even more helpful prohibitions.
I found inspiration recently, in of all things, The Edicts of Ashoka, ancient inscriptions written by Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century before the common era. They represent some of the oldest examples we have of what today we might call interfaith dialogue. For the most part, Emperor Ashoka is waxing eloquent on a newly arrived faith tradition called “Buddhism.” However, he also spends some time speaking about other religious traditions. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“The beloved of the gods… [he referred to himself in the third person that way] values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause… it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others… The beloved of the gods… desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions… And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows…”
With these words, Emperor Ashoka provides one of our first references to religious pluralism, suggesting a relationship beyond peaceful coexistence, towards finding essential wisdom in traditions not one’s own, and perhaps finding an underlying truth common to all traditions. Whatever his precise intention, the relationship between diverse faith traditions and their various truth claims has remained an important issue throughout our history.