Sermon: The Third Sunday in Advent (B) – 14th December 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11;  Psalm 126;  1 Thessalonians 5:12-28;  John 1:6-8, 19-28

In the reading from 1 Thessalonians Paul instructs his readers to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”. How do you pray without ceasing or rejoice in all circumstances? One person I know prays as she walks. That suits her it may not suit you.

Most of us would want to adjust Paul’s words, to qualify them. Perhaps we wish Paul to say “in some circumstances” or “in some things”. That would be more acceptable for our own practical tastes, more suitable for our own set of realities but in every circumstance? That has to be one of the most adventurous voyages of thought ever embarked on the rough waters of reason and logically, it seems destined for shipwreck.

Paul certainly does not qualify the circumstances. He means “all”. Has Paul asked his church to do the impossible? Can a person face a fresh set of abuses every day and give thanks? Can a person rise above the doubts left by years of abuse at the hands of a parent or a spouse and give thanks? “Give thanks in all circumstances?” In another place Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. They would seem easy words were they not also written from a prison cell. Such encouragements can be trusted. It should be understood that while Paul’s words may lack qualification, they are based upon at least two basic truths.

The first truth is that worship of God is the context for all of life, not just the part we devote to God during our time in church here each Sunday. In the words of Karl Rahner, a twentieth century Jesuit theologian, “Everyday life must become itself our prayer”. If all of life is worship for those who seek to do God’s will, then giving thanks is a necessary and inevitable product. Paul does not say thanks should be governed by circumstances. Whether good or bad be the lot, a life of worship, of seeking to please and honour God and of doing God’s will, means perpetual thanksgiving

The second truth is that life’s depths, not solely its surfaces, must receive our attention. Another theologian, Paul Tillich a Lutheran of the Twentieth century, speaks of the “depth of existence” as the “ground of our historical life … the ultimate depth of history”. Tillich’s words are not a call for living our lives near shallow waters, where thoughts are restricted to family and routine supports near the shore. Yet, most of us live near such shallow waters. Consequentially, we judge our lives by visible, surface and indeed superficial influences, that is, the occasional good things or bad things that happen to us.

There is a famous small Russian book, which is translated into English and is called called, “The Way of a Pilgrim”.

Readers of The Way of a Pilgrim quickly discover two levels of story in this simple and unassuming nineteenth-century religious classic. The first level presents silent prayer in the Orthodox Christian tradition, namely, the “ceaseless” prayer or the so-called Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The Way of a Pilgrim is imminently practical in its advice to simply start praying.

The second level of narration, which underlies the entire work, is the literal but subtle presentation of the hermit life. The narrator is a solitary and a wanderer calling himself a pilgrim. The wandering hermit’s example is presented as the model existence for those who would truly lead a spiritual life.

The origin of this spiritual classic is in many ways a mystery. No one knows for certain if it is a literally true story, or even a marvellously creative piece of spiritual fiction intended to propagate the prayer of the heart, particularly the Jesus Prayer.

The pilgrim is the universal person on a pilgrim’s journey without real destination on earth, a pilgrim journey in which “the way” is itself the whole point. The book is divided into four sections or chapters in which the narrator tells of his travels and experiences.

He writes, “By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. A knapsack and some dried bread in it, and a Bible in my breast pocket are my worldly goods. And that is all.”

Twenty-first century observers would scorn his habits and appearance but his contemporaries would have recognized a holy man on the brink between madness and sanctity, for even the narrator himself will tell us of the homeless along the way who are thieves, criminals, drunkards and lunatics.

Nowhere is it sensed in the pilgrim’s narrative that he is not fully conscious of himself and of his circumstances. He invites us to recognize how society has formed everyone he encounters, but that only spirituality and not society can redeem them.

The pilgrim recalls how he heard the Biblical admonition to “pray ceaselessly”. He has set out to discover how. “For a long time I wandered through many places,” he tells us, until he discovered a starets who advised him to learn how to pray ceaselessly. A starets is an elder of a Russian Orthodox monastery who functions as venerated adviser and teacher,

He was told to, “Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient and repeat the process very frequently”.

At first the pilgrim repeated the prayer 6,000 times a day, and upon the starets advice, increased to 12,000 a few weeks later. Soon, as the starets had suggested, the pilgrim found the prayer at his lips and in his mind every waking hour, as spontaneous and effortless as his breath itself.

The pilgrim took a job on a farm, close to the starets, but the starets died and the farm work ended with the summer, so the pilgrim decides to move on. “I wandered about for a long time in different districts”, he writes, but eventually he determined to go to Siberia because there, “I should travel in greater silence”.

“I took to walking more by night and chose to spend my days reading the Philokalia sitting down under a tree in the forest. … When I came to a village I asked only for a bag of dried bread and a handful of salt. I filled my bark jar with water and soon set out for another sixty miles or so. The Philokalia, which translates lover of beauty”, is a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practise of the contemplative life”.

From the Philokalia he learned that true prayer worships in the Spirit, and that the kingdom of God is within us. To the pilgrim, the Jesus Prayer revealed the “inner secret of the heart” and the “knowledge of the speech of all creatures”. The wandering hermit life has brought the pilgrim the physical serenity and the detached independence of mind and heart to become receptive to a higher spirituality. The pilgrim quotes the Gospel passage of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, identifying himself with them as completely dependent on God, so that whatever happens nothing can separate him from God.

Typical of the pilgrim’s advice to those he meets on his journeying is a passage such as the following where the pilgrim stays a while with a pious family, but the pilgrim was not always so fortunate. Among the difficulties he experienced were two that might befall a homeless wanderer and hermit in Russia at the time.

Once he was attacked by a wolf but was turned away when he struck the wolf with his prayer beads. In another incident, the pilgrim advises a young woman who is about to be forced into marriage and is trying to flee her future husband and his cronies. The pilgrim is falsely accused of a crime, jailed overnight, released the next morning by the local judge when the charge is dismissed, but is flogged before being let go. Still, the pilgrim does not murmur but construes the whole incident as a lesson from God.

At this point in the narrative, the pilgrim reveals a little about his life. His parents had died in his childhood and a grandfather raised him together with his older brother. The older brother was a “madcap” who had pushed the younger brother from a height when the latter was only seven years old, crippling the child’s left arm and making him useless for serious manual labour.

The brother only worsened with age. He became a shiftless alcoholic.

When the pilgrim came of age, the grandfather found him a wife, but was unable to assuage the violent and jealous older brother. The pilgrim dearly loved his wife. Sensing his approaching end, the grandfather bequeathed the house to the couple and a thousand rubles, and then passed away. The older brother was furious, and in a drunken rage one night burned down the house, leaving the couple penniless. They eked out a subsistence, worsened by the pilgrim’s inability to secure work due to his bad arm. He read to her while she sewed garments for a little money. The wife died of a fever. The pilgrim found himself alone and impoverished.

He continues, “Since that time, for the last thirteen years, I have wandered from place to place. I made the rounds of many churches and monasteries but now I am taking to wandering over steppes and fields”.

He has come from Siberia, he says, to Kiev and now decided to travel to Odessa and embark for Jerusalem. It is fitting for a pilgrim, he concludes, especially in his thirty-third year of age.

“I do not know whether God will vouchsafe to let me go to Jerusalem. If it be His will, when the time comes, my sinful bones may be laid to rest there.”

And, so ends The Way of the Pilgrim. On the last page, the pilgrim is speaking to a starets, relating his latest adventures and his desire to go to Jerusalem. However, he admits, “I have already chatted far too much and the holy fathers call even spiritual talk mere babble if it lasts too long”.

The two levels of The Way of a Pilgrim, the prayer method and the life of the wandering hermit, give readers of either disposition entry to fresh approaches to prayer and to the hermits lifestyle. The authenticity of the homeless wanderer is well sustained by his simplicity of belief and practice. Whether we are prompted to incorporate the Philokalia into a short list of religious classics or to count the narrative as a heartfelt testimony of an hermit’s life, The Way of a Pilgrim has universal appeal. The work complements and extends the traditions of spiritual simplicity while confirming the simplicity and insightfulness of the hermit life.

Life is beautiful but each one of us has dark days and praying ceaselessly, however you carry that out, is the way to walking the way of the cross and living as a member of the Body of Christ.[1]

 

[1]This sermon composed using material from http://www.hermitary.com/articles/pilgrim.html, www.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philokalia, and www.sojo.net and “Advent in the Wilderness” by Conrad Hooper and “Celebrating Advent in a Prison Cell” by Bill Wylie-Kellermann.

 

The Reverend John Cornish