St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 4, 2007

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Soon Great Lent will begin. On the Sunday of Forgiveness we will hear hymns that depict the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. One of the most poignant of them envisions Adam mourning inconsolably as he sits outside the gates now guarded by angels with swords of fire. He is inconsolable because he knows what he has lost.

Eden, Paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven is our true home. It is the home of every human being. The fear, sadness, suffering and anxiety that flow beneath the surface of our lives stems from the great longing of every person for Eden, for security, peace and happiness that are to be found only in Paradise. We are in exile and we feel it.

The Prodigal Son is a story about the state of self-imposed exile in which all of us find ourselves. Everything he needed for security, peace and happiness was in his father’s house, but something happened to blur his vision. Was he tempted by an uneasy feeling within, perhaps fear or pain, as we are? A voice tells us to run, to deny, to avoid. A whole life can be spent running away, but what a sad life it would be! It would be, in truth, an unconscious life because in order to avoid what is real we have to cling to what is unreal.

Whatever it was that drove him he painfully, passionately tore himself out of Eden and became a fugitive in “a far country”. He exiled himself from Paradise. The Prodigal opted for a life lived unconsciously by grasping hold of everything he could to anesthetize himself and escape his pain. When we do this we become slaves to our thoughts, automatons moved and motivated by forces within that encourage us to stop asking the right questions and to “go with the flow” of our desires. Knowing that this only leads to more unhappiness, why do we choose to increase our dis-ease?

The spiritual life invites us to examine the fear within. Here is an image I read recently. It is like we are skating as fast as we can on a frozen lake with a very thin sheet of ice, afraid we might fall through. Instead, God asks us to stop running and let the ice break beneath us. We need to fall through so we can see what lies beneath, to see what it is that is motivating us, to face it with courage and move towards an honest, enlightened, fully conscious way of living.

Vladimir Lossky writes that only those who are fully conscious of all they think and do are free and have reached perfection. The road to consciousness, then, is an integral element on the narrow road to Eden. Hell, Lossky writes, is unconsciousness pushed to its furthest limit. The Prodigal Son was well on his way to hell as are we unless we accept the invitation to wake up to reality.

Becoming fully conscious is what lies behind the instructions of the Holy Fathers and Mothers to concentrate our attention in the present moment. Good instruction in the spiritual life often calls us to begin the process by paying attention to the simple act of breathing. Nothing can snap us out of our painful slumber quicker than to remember that we are breathing. You cannot breathe in the past or in the future. Each breath is taken in the present moment. To focus on each breath either in silence or as one recites the Holy Name of Jesus brings the mind and heart into the present reducing, even ending in time, the painful mental wandering that only increases suffering.

The result of such simple, spiritual work is that a wonderful thing occurs. Consciousness! We wake up and begin to see things as they really are. Something we can call “quality of presence” develops. We awaken to being conscious of life. The Orthodox spiritual writers often refer to this as “wakefulness”. Another word for it is “mindfulness”. We learn that the pain and fear within are not the monsters we thought them to be. It is, in fact, our own Prodigal Son, wounded, suffering and pounding on the door. The secret lies not in avoidance, but in acceptance. Our pain and fear can be faced, embraced and transformed with the grace of God and by nurturing in ourselves the divine attribute of compassion.

A main task in the spiritual life is to develop a strong quality of presence so when we are praying we know we are praying. When we buy raffle tickets it is not unusual to be told that you must be present to win. So it is in prayer. We cannot pray if we are not truly present, we cannot be present if we are not conscious and consciousness means being aware of the moment in which we are living. Developing a strong “quality of presence” is preliminary to true prayer. In fact, the point of Great Lent is to prepare us through conscious spiritual work to repent and pray. Perhaps the thing we need most to repent of is our desire to avoid reality.

The Prodigal Son, as most of us, chose to avoid reality by doing away with all restraint, but lack of restraint leads only to remorse, guilt and shame. The result is always more suffering! Where is the freedom in that?

Consciously choosing a life of restraint does not mean aversion or avoidance. It simply means recognizing what ways of thinking and acting lead to harmony and what do not. It is choosing a path of doing no harm to oneself or others, of honesty, of compassion, of consuming only what is necessary and healthy for life, of gently, but persistently saying no to strong passions, of conserving life’s energies in order to direct the mind and the body towards what is good, of training the mind to stay in the present and to stay undistracted by the cares and concerns of life, to turn away from the incessant internal noise, the unceasing inner dialogue, the uncontrolled habit of what is inaccurately called “stream of consciousness”, to nurture peace and silence within…all these lead to freedom of heart and mind. Inner conflict ceases. We become wholly transparent and trustworthy, filled with light and the energy of holiness. This is the path Great Lent calls us to take, the narrow path of living consciously as daughters and sons of the Living God.