From the Heart: Resting in the Ascension
By Douglas Cramer
Summer is almost here. It’s a good time to just take a deep breath, and relax. You know, go to the beach if you live close to it, have a barbeque, invite some friends over. I remember doing this on a grand scale as a child growing up in New Jersey. But how often do most of us do this anymore? We’re so busy, we’ve forgotten that true rest and relaxation, the kind that really restores you, is vital to our survival.
This week the Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord, and our worship since Pascha has been rooted in our joy in the Resurrection. In the light of this glorious, peaceful and fulfilling period of the calendar of our Church we should be totally relaxed and fully in the presence of our Lord. But we still struggle to relax and unclench, to be at peace.
Why? In part, because we live our lives in a kind of emotional and spiritual shallows. We’re so busy, we don’t pause to reflect, to listen, to understand our motivations. We are busy for busyness’s sake. We allow others to set our timetable. We often aren’t aware of the reasons we have for doing what we do. We all act a little crazy sometimes, bustling about with all our tasks and projects and responsibilities. It’s important for us to act. But it’s just as important for us to relax, to quietly find our center, to understand what’s driving us to do what we do, to make sure that our choices and actions flow from our deepest values.
How do we turn this around? We start from the heart!
The Psalms focus this teaching in to a single verse: “Seek peace and pursue it.” We need peace, but we must be active to find it—we must seek and pursue. What does this mean? What is this pursuit? St. Isaac of Syria teaches us the answer: “Enter eagerly into the treasure house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure house of heaven. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend.”
Seek. Pursue. Enter. Ascend. I’m winded just reading this list. However, this is the language of peace. Jesus Christ proclaims: “The kingdom of heaven is within.” We are called to go within, to find our heart, our center, our soul. And to begin our journey there.
The classical philosophers of Greece understood this basic truth of our humanity even before the birth of Christ. The central teaching of Plato, of Socrates, is “Know Thyself.” We must get out of our inner shallows, our superficial sleepwalking through life. We’re called to wake up, to dive deep.
This isn’t easy. Indeed, it’s the work of a life time. So, we just start wherever we are, and work through our stumblings. St. Isaac also said, “There is no virtue which does not have continual struggle yoked to it.” Or consider how the abbot of a monastery once answered a question about what the monks do all day: “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up...”
We’re all swamped by too much information. There’s an Orthodox saying that through most of the 20th century the devil tried to overcome the Church by repressing information, by making it impossible for people to hear God’s Word. And sadly, this is still happening in many places. But, the saying goes, today the devil has changed his strategy—he’s trying to flood us with words and ideas, with too much information, trying to make it impossible for us to find God’s Word amidst all the distraction.
But this doesn’t have to stop us. Elder Paisios, a great 20th century teacher of Mt. Athos, taught that we must be like bees. A bee will find the one flower in a field of dung, Paisios said. The problem is we often act like flies instead, who find the one pile of dung in a field of flowers. God’s will is our flower. We need to question and seek within ourselves, and find Him.
It’s Easy To Go Wrong
The reading from the Gospel of St. John for the Sunday of the Blind Man (John 9:1-38), the Sunday before Ascension, lay out just how easy it is to get caught in the thickets of bad motivations, of how lost people become by trying to do the right things for the wrong reasons. And of how the solution is to remain centered in the peace of Christ.
Why are we doing what we are doing? Know thyself, find the treasure house, and you will find the source of right reasons.
The story of the Blind Man shows us the contrast between being centered in the peace of Jesus Christ, and being lost in a confusion of thoughts and unquestioned assumptions and motivations. Christ corrects his disciples misunderstanding that the man was born blind as a punishment from God. Christ teaches them the plain truth: “I must work the works of Him who sent Me ... I am the light of the world.” He is light. He is clarity. He is our center and source, the rock on which we can stand firm.
He restores the blind man’s sight. And immediately, in rushes more confusion as the crowds try to figure out what happened, finally getting the Pharisees involved. You can hear the arguments running thick and heavy, the raised voices and the lack of peace among all the parties involved—even the blind man’s parents, who try to avoid getting drawn in to the courtroom drama over Christ’s miracle. Yet the man born blind ultimately triumphs by remaining centered in Christ. He knows himself. He knows the truth—that he was born blind, and that Christ healed him. And in knowing himself, he finds himself on the path of Christ. With no one standing with him, he speaks from his heart and tells the Pharisees: “If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.” The final scene is of his victory, worshipping Christ and proclaiming “Lord, I believe!”
We so often don’t know why we do what we do. We’re distracted by too much information. We haven’t ventured deep in to ourselves. We may be doing good works, but are we doing them for the right reasons? Our salvation depends on the answer. So we all need to relax. To unclench. To seek peace.
Once we turn our attention towards seeking peace in our hearts, we can take that seeking with us to Church. Pursue your peace there. The Church is your gateway. We need community, yet we are fractured by loneliness. But we were not meant to be alone. The whole New Testament is built around the work of the Holy Spirit to create this new community, the Church, to show the world just how people are supposed to be community together. A person who puts his or her best energies into knowing God will discover that God, as Trinity, is the model for community. But knowing God isn’t the same as knowing about God. A relationship with God is not simply an intellectual pursuit. It requires opening your heart to an intimate knowledge of God founded on personal communion with God Himself.
The Church is the gateway to the Kingdom. It is also the image of the Kingdom—it is our treasure house. So draw on the treasures in our worship, our Scripture, our icons, our music, our prayer, our theology. Use these treasures on your journey, on your pursuit to peace. Come to this refuge, and depart refreshed.
This reflection is adapted from a speech originally written for Fr. Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and SCOBA's Orthodox Christian Network. Learn more about the powerful ministries of OCN on their website, www.myocn.net.