St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Mindfulness and the Good Samaritan

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 13, 2011

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We learned last week from Elder Thaddeus that our thoughts determine our lives.  Have you ever tried to count or catalogue your thoughts?  Close your eyes and try to count them sometime.  There are so many!  They dovetail on one another so much that it is often difficult to tell one from another. They come in clumps, like a ball of yarn.  Just try and unravel them!  St. Theophan the Recluse compared what is going on inside our minds to the buzzing of flies.  To begin an authentic spiritual practice, we must begin here…with the mind and with our thoughts.  This is where repentance begins which is why the first sermon Jesus preached was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Repentance,  metanoia, means to change one’s minds. Specifically, it means to quiet the noise, to exterminate the flies.  “The door is before us,” writes Metropolitan KALLISTOS (Ware), “and the key is in our hands.”

And that is what prayer is supposed to be, a means of quieting the mind and bringing our thought-life under control, according to the Holy Fathers, like the great St. John of the Ladder who wrote, “Prayer is the laying aside of thoughts.”

“What is it then to be a fool for Christ? It is to control one’s thoughts when they stray out of line. It is to make the mind empty and free…to put it in a state of readiness to assimilate Christ’s teaching, swept clean for the words of God that it needs to welcome.” St. John  Chrysostom

The whole of the interior life, mind, heart, and spirit, needs to settle like calm water, like a calm lake in which the face of Christ can be seen.  His face cannot be seen when the water is troubled and the silt from the lake bottom is stirred up.  “Be still and know…” without stillness we cannot know God.

This silence calls for three activities. First, “flee from the company of men.”  There is a time and a place for being social, but as for prayer, there is no appropriate time and place, for all times and places are appropriate for prayer. Still there must be a time and place every day, at least once, when we are truly alone. Where we can “be still” and quiet and take stock of our troubled minds and hearts. Where we can apply the medicines necessary to bring healing, to promote peace, to nurture compassion in our lives.

Secondly, at those times when we start to practice interior silence and stillness the task of controlling thoughts becomes clear.  We see what a tremendous task it is, and why the grace of the Holy Spirit is essential to seeing it done. We must close our mouths and ears, and bring all our thoughts from their painful wandering outside the body back home in the body so that the work can begin.  

Thirdly, we must learn what is necessary to bring about interior silence.  Seeing the swirling silt in the pond of our hearts, the thoughts and emotions that whirl in us like tornadoes destroying the peace and beauty of the image of God within, is the first and necessary part.  Then we must learn how to minister to this, the primary cause of all our suffering, for it comes from within, not from without.

One of the Desert Fathers said, “In the same way as you cannot see your face in troubled water, the soul, if not emptied of foreign thoughts, cannot reflect God in contemplation.”

Today’s Gospel tells a story that relates well to this teaching.  For when we close our eyes and look within we see that the poor soul beaten up, robbed, and left to die by the side of the road is our very own soul, beaten and tormented by the vicissitudes of life.  And the one who sees this has a choice.  Will I choose to be like the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side of the road?  Or will I choose to be to myself the Good Samaritan who humbled himself to help?  We actually are both victim and  rescuer.  The resources for healing reside in us by the grace of God.  “Physician, heal yourself,” Jesus exclaimed.  The tools God has given us are within, powerful, and they are many.

One of them is so simple we seldom notice it unless we have a cold!  It is our breath.  “Anthony called his two companions…and said the them, ‘Always breathe Christ.’”

St. John of the Ladder said, “Let your calling to mind of Jesus be continually combined with your breathing and you will know the meaning of silence.”

In fact, as we have said in another sermon, we cannot breathe without saying his name, for the in-breath and the out-breath always speak the unpronounceable Name of God.

Science and psychology join us these days in promoting conscious breathing as a way of healing body and mind.

Conscious breathing, combined with either silence or quiet thoughtful contemplation of Christ, or scripture, or nature, or the idea of beauty, or compassion is the oil and wine the Good Samaritan used to heal the man and we can use to heal ourselves.

So, when we sit down for our daily moments of silence and stillness, the breath and the body becomes invaluable tools for centering and focusing the mind and heart.  Try it and you will see.  Be the Good Samaritan to your own woundedness, take a deep breath and let your heart-mind settle.  And look, you may well see the face of God looking up at you from the calm and peaceful lake.