St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 15, 2009

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Compassion is the key.  It always is. The attitude of the father towards his Prodigal Son is compassion.  In him there is no judgment, only love when he leaves and when the Son returns, joy!  

So it must be for us if we ever want to be whole.  

We are afraid of facing the parts of our lives that trouble us.  We avert our eyes.  We pretend to be happy but remain disconnected from the river of feelings that courses in the depths of our hearts.  The pain of loss, the trauma of rejection, the disappointments that come when life does not meet our expectations, the unmet longing for intimacy that makes us think we are not worthy of it and so many other things leave scars that need our attention.  Who among us does not bear such wounds?  But we fear to go there.

When our hearts are so in need of tender loving care, we pass by on the other side like the Levite and the priest who refused to help the injured man in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Truth is we do not want the Prodigal to return home.

The spiritual life takes courage.  Courage to look and courage to see just exactly what is moving us, just exactly who this stranger is who knocks at our door.  

I love the description James Joyce gives of one of his characters in DUBLINERS, "Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body."  The disconnection between mind and heart is at the center of Orthodox spirituality.  The Holy Fathers and Mothers developed a whole method of meditation and prayer intent on the healing of that insufferable rift.

A great psychologist and deeply spiritual man I admire wrote of what happens when we refuse to open the door.

"And if we don't choose to look, that which is unattended will come find us; the lost parts of ourselves will present themselves, knocking even louder if we don't listen to their cries."  

We must look!  We must!  A little yeast is all it takes to make dough rise.  One rotten apple in a barrel is enough to infect the whole lot.  Without attending to the cries of our hearts and opening the door to our wounded selves we will never find the peace we so desperately seek and the parts of our lives so resistant to change will continue to determine what we do, think and say like an invisible tyrant.  Repentance is about not living in denial.

Mahatma Gandhi once said:  "One cannot do right in one department of life while still occupied in doing wrong in any other department.  Life is an indivisible whole."

Is there something we have forgotten?  Something we might have ignored?  Something we have buried or tucked away hoping never to see again?

The Prodigal Son is us.  The Father of the Prodigal is also us.  We have barred the door against our poor, suffering selves that, having reached the breaking point, finally attempt to return home.  Repentance is when we welcome the unwelcome truth of how we have failed and the mistakes we have made.  Repentance said one wise man, "is giving up all hope of a better past."

There is an alternative to judgment, denial and rejection.  Instead we can embrace the truth of our lives with compassion, like the Father did for his Prodigal Son. We can tend to our wounds, feed our hungry souls and throw a great party!  We cannot change the past, but we can transfigure it with compassion.

If we run from our past, we will meet it at every turn.  If we turn to face it, with compassion, then we can put it to rest.  Our Ego (the jealous older Son) cries out from the field, "What is he doing here? He does not belong here!"  The answer, "Your brother was dead and is alive. He was lost and now is found!  Your brother has come home."  For many years St. Francis of Assisi would call himself, "Brother Ass," until he learned the truth of God's infinite compassion and re-named himself, "Brother Sun."

We are taught by our Lord the way of compassion. It is also known as the Way of the Cross.  Compassion for the great human tragedy moved God to become incarnate and to die.  Compassion for our own personal fallenness is the only appropriate response to the wounds we discover within as we enter upon "a spiritual manner of living", a manner so courageous that it dares to look with love and without fear on what lies under the surface of our lives, no matter what the cost.  

What remains to be confessed, or rather, what has yet to be revealed and brought to the light of day, we ask?  The heart is deep.  Fathomless.  It holds many secrets even from its bearer.  All of it must come to the surface.  It demands time, patience and courage. The Church prescribes meditation, fasting, prayer and active, conscious, selfless charity as a cure.

The heart opens and closes like a flower.  When the sun comes out the flower opens.  The light of compassion is like the warmth of a beautiful spring day.  The snow melts, the crocus emerge and the ground explodes with brilliant color. The inside of the cup longs to be clean.  As Gandalf says, "The ring wants to be found."  As compassion is applied the heart slowly opens and reveals its secrets, all that is positive and all that is not.  Only through compassion will we begin to understand what we must do to be saved.

An old Trappist monk told a story about a Magic Monastery where God dwelt among men.  All one needed to do to access God's wisdom was to ask and his voice would speak clearly.  One night, as the monk lay in his cell, he heard a voice saying, "What have you left out?"  He did not believe it at first and then tried to ignore it, but the voice became louder and more insistent troubling the monk so much that he went out to seek the company of others.  He was not sure he understood what God wanted from him. He knocked on the cell door of another monk and asked, "What have I left out?"  A sleepy voice answered from within saying, "Me."  He knocked on several other doors and each time heard the same reply, "Me."  Finally, as the sun began to rise after a troubled sleepless night he ran out into the courtyard, looked at the sun and cried, "What have I left out?"  The sun replied, "Me."  Frustrated he threw himself to the ground and the earth replied, "Me too."  

The point is that nothing can be left out, nothing ignored, nothing discounted when pursuing the spiritual life.  Whether it is the unacknowledged, forgotten, uncomfortable parts of our lives or the great created world peopled by our neighbors that we are called to love we cannot forever ignore the question, "What have I left out?"  Answering that question is the pathway home.

And when we open the door and allow our broken selves in we will discover the unfathomable truth as did St. Julian of Norwich, "All will be well.  All manner of things will be well."