St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

If the Eye is Sound

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, June 17, 2007

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

Lamps give light when they are turned on, if the bulb is good, if the electrical connection is unimpeded; that is, if the lamp is in working order all will be well and the room will be filled with light. If something is wrong, then either the light will be dim or absent altogether.

When the Lord speaks of the “eye” he is speaking of more than those spherical organs on both sides of our noses. He means the whole system we have of perceiving the world around us. Not the eyes only, but the brain as well and the other senses, but even more. Orthodox spiritual writers speak of a spiritual eye, a locus of spiritual perception called the “nous” which in most of us remains closed and must be opened by the Holy Spirit and our spiritual effort. St. Ephraim speaks of the soul “shining forth through the eyes.” There is more to this “eye” than meets the eye. It is a rich topic.

I read to you a wonderful quote from WAY OF THE PILGRIM last week that I want to repeat today. Listen carefully again. This is an Orthodox description of enlightenment.

I felt there was no happier person on earth than I, and I doubted if there could be greater and fuller happiness in the kingdom of heaven. The whole outside world also seemed to me full of charm and delight. Everything drew me to love and thank God: people, trees, plants and animals. I saw them all as my kinfolk; I found in all of them the magic of the name of Jesus.

This pilgrim’s eye was healthy. His perspective was full of light and joy. If you have read WAY OF THE PILGRIM you will know that he came to this way of seeing after assiduous and continual recitation of the Jesus Prayer by which his senses were set free to understand the truth that God is “everywhere, filling all things.”

There is another wonderful story of a man whose senses had been cleansed and whose “eye” was in working order. His name was Bishop Nonnus. The story is told that during a church conference held in Antioch in the great cathedral he and a group of monks stood on the porch of the church during a break in the proceedings. As they rested there they saw a parade approaching at whose center was a beautiful woman whose name was Pelagia. Pelagia was a celebrated temple prostitute known for her extreme beauty. On this day she was decked in the finest garments, dripping with pearls and gemstones. Around her were young men and women playing instruments and singing her praises. The monks groaned and turned their eyes away, but Bishop Nonnus looked at her and said, “Does her beauty not astound you?”

The monks were horrified to hear these words from the Bishop. They protested loudly. But undeterred Bishop Nonnus once again exclaimed, “Brothers, does her beauty not astound you?” This threw the monks into a rage (as the self-righteous often do). Standing calmly and unaffected by this display Bishop Nonnus continued, “Does her beauty not astound you? This remarkable woman spends hours to make herself beautiful for her lovers and yet we do not spend even a few moments making ourselves beautiful for the King of Kings.” Such compassion, such wisdom! The story goes that Pelagia heard his gracious words and later found him at the cathedral and repented. Pelagia died a nun living the last years of her life in a little cell on the Mount of Olives.

The Bishop not only recognized her beauty (for she was beautiful), but he properly analyzed what his pure eyes saw and recognized an opportunity to improve his own life and to teach others. His eye was sound and his body was filled with light. That is why he was able to see light where the others only saw darkness. This story is an example of enlightenment in action. His brilliant soul shone forth through his physical eyes. This reminds me of the words of St. Symeon the New theologian who wrote:

“…we must hasten as children of the light to ascend to the light which is above. So shall we also, possessing the sun of righteousness shining within us, provide for our neighbors the example of the immaterial day, the new earth and new heaven.”

Through meditation, prayer, fasting and the conscious nurturing of virtue with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can repair our lamps by cleansing our hearts. The eye of the soul will be opened. The mind becomes a tool rather than the master. Our thoughts and emotions become still and radiant. Then our “eye” will be sound and the light of Christ in us will be free to shine forth as it did in both Pilgrim and the Bishop.

The result is enlightenment, that is, to see things as they really are objectively perceiving and interpreting reality with compassion and wisdom. This is liberation from sin and darkness. It is the way of peace, the road to true happiness, the pathway to unending joy and a necessary plateau on the road to the ultimate Divine Gift, theosis.