His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH’s Opening Remarks to the 2005 Southern California Antiochian Women’s Retreat
April 15, 2005
Frazier Park, California
"Be of One Heart and One Soul"
The Beloved Clergy, and the Beloved Sisters in Christ:
I am very pleased that all of you have come here to our Holy Mountain for this time of spiritual edification. Just as we care for our bodies with good food and rest, so we must also care for our spiritual selves, that part of us that is connected to God. If we are spiritually ill, our bodies and minds also become sick. This is why regular prayer and times of silent contemplation are necessary parts of our daily lives. Periodically, we must also take extra measures of self-examination and learning, that we might be ever-perfected in the grace of the infinite and perfect God.
Before I begin, I would like to thank Mother Michaela for coming to spend time with us. Mother Michaela is the abbess of St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Safford, AZ. This holy community of 20 nuns have dedicated themselves to the monastic life, creating a spiritual family full of joy in the Lord.
The Church’s monastic tradition has much to offer the faithful who live in the world. They are our ‘spiritual specialists,’ who have given themselves to the monastic vocation that they might not only save themselves, but serve the world through their constant prayers and the lessons they learn and share with us.
All of us have been called to serve God. We do this in our families, our parishes and our secular jobs. We serve God when we serve one another. Our acts of kindness and generosity, our prayers for our loved ones and our enemies, are all offerings to God which He receives from us and uses for the benefit of all mankind.
We cannot serve anyone with whom we have animosity. This is why the Gospels stress forgiveness. Our Lord even forgave those who crucified Him, crying out from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) If we are to serve the world, we must first be able to forgive everyone and anyone. The slightest amount of unforgiveness or anger towards anyone is enough to keep us from God, for in God there is only love.
The theme of this retreat is “Be of one heart and one soul.” Let us think about this as I read to you a passage from the Holy Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church of Philipi:
"So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain" (Philippians 2:1-16).
It is through the virtue of humility that we attain spiritual gifts. Humility is the acknowledgement that God has saved us, forgiven us and desires that we should do the same. God does not force us to do so, we must be willing. If we are not willing to be humble, the world will humiliate us. The humble person cannot be humiliated, for humiliation is nothing but a blow to our pride. The one who has no pride escapes such suffering.
Humble people have no needless or petty quarrels with others, because they have no egocentric desires to always have their own way. They are not self-seeking, for they know that it is God’s will, not their own, that they should strive for. Therefore, humility naturally brings with it unity, both with God and with our fellows.
In the Gospel of St. John, we read of how this unity is Jesus Christ’s hope for us all:
"And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one" (John 17:11).
The unity of God the Father and Jesus Christ is a perfect unity, and this perfect unity is what our Lord calls us to have with one another. If we act in the name of God, then the proof of our motivations will be revealed in our unity. Endless arguing and bickering is a sign that God is absent and that we have forgotten Him. The contentious person is outside God’s grace by his or her desires to dominate others.
If we dare to call ourselves Orthodox Christians, if we are bold enough to utter even a single prayer to God, then we must first examine ourselves and see if we are truly humble. We must carefully inspect our relationships at home, at work and in the parish. Where we see conflict, we know that we still lack humility The perfectly humble man or woman has no such animosities towards his or her brethren.
You may think it is impossible, but in God all things are possible. We must only be willing to humble ourselves. If we doubt, we need only remind ourselves that this Sunday we commemorate that great and glorious icon of humility, St. Mary of Egypt. Her humility was the fruit of many years of personal repentance for her sins. In return for her humble willingness to admit her sins to God, she received forgiveness and the crown of glory that God bestows upon those who do not give in to temptation.
Let us be inspired by the humility of St. Mary, and, like her, hear the calling of our Lord to peaceful unity with all our brethren. If we are willing, God will give us the healing and peace we so desperately need in our daily lives. May God continue to bless all of you and fill your heart and mind with His Holy presence and mercy.