True Faith Makes You Outward FocusedFr. Barnabas Powell
The myth of Narcissus is legendary. Narcissus was a man who was exceptionally handsome and knew it. And his actions reflected his utter disdain for those who loved him. He walked through life proud of his appearance and dismissive of those who admired him. Nemesis watched Narcissus and how he treated those around him and lured Narcissus to a pool where Narcissus could see his reflection. Narcissus fell in love with his image and couldn’t tear himself away from the reflection in the water. He eventually drowned loving himself.
Is the moral of the story that we shouldn’t pay attention to our outward appearance? Perhaps, but the deeper revelation is the heart of a narcissist is too small to love others more than himself. This is the deepest soul sickness that this story reveals. And it is an all too common illness in all of us. This illness will even hide in the one who seems to be too hard on himself. I have known folks so proud of their “humility” that they make a great show of just how humble they are!
Of course, there is a healthy self-focus, but that can only happen when we are first focused outside ourselves and labor to know God. That knowing God makes us more like Him and He is always focused, not on Himself, but outwardly on us!
Look at our Gospel Lesson in Luke 15:1-10:
At that time, the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The religious folks of the Lord’s day had grown so ingrown in their practice of the faith handed down to them that they simply dismissed the “great unwashed” around them. They were meticulous in their religious observances but had forgotten that this faithfulness to the purposeful practice of the faith was supposed to be a light to all around them, drawing others to the faith as well. They had forgotten the purpose of the wisdom of their faith and it had turned them into “proud” practitioners of the Law. And this pride had hardened their hearts against those who didn’t know the faith and stumbled through life. Instead of creating hearts of mercy and love towards “outsiders” their serious attention to the details of the faith had turned them into folks gripped by “prelest” (spiritual pride). And this caused them to miss the power of the Lord’s kindness and presence with “sinners.”
The Lord, being God in the flesh, spent His time, not with the folks who mistakenly thought they were OK. He chose to be with the folks who already sensed they were headed in the wrong direction. But those who thought they knew the way of God weren’t loving these others, these outsiders, enough to show them the way. Their religious pride made them sicker than the sinners they dismissed! But Jesus didn’t ignore these religious folks either. He confronted them with the same message He brought to the “sinners” He spent His time with – “Go and sin no more.”
As we begin the Nativity Fast or “Winter Lent” today, let us focus outwardly on the power of the spiritual disciplines to set us free from the narcissistic slavery to our passions and an unhealthy indulgence of our desires. The Winter Lent is one of four main fasting periods of the Church Year. This fasting period goes from today, the 15th to December 24. The ancient way we know when the Fat ends is when the first star appears on Christmas Eve! So, every fasting season we hear the common question “What can’t I eat?” and I understand that, but too often this focus on the mere rule-keeping aspect of the discipline means we are wrongly focused on “performance” rather than the true spiritual goals of the Fast. Fasting destroys the power of forgetfulness that keeps our thoughts scattered, susceptible to thinking only of what “I” want, and forgetting that God is the real Source of our very life. Fasting overcomes forgetfulness by drawing us to think outside ourselves by forming our physical diet to improve our spiritual diet! If I am ever going to escape the spiritual destructiveness of inward-focused selfishness, I have to attentively learn to discipline my desires through the gift of fasting! Oh, and you may be wondering about the Thanksgiving holiday – Ask Your Priest!
Today, does your serious practice of the Faith make you more loving towards outsiders or more fearful? Is your parish a place of welcome to the stranger or do the faces in the congregation reflect suspicion and disdain? These “symptoms” reveal a spiritual illness that will be fatal for your spiritual life and the life of your parish. The love of God makes a person more apt to be welcoming, loving, and sharing their spiritual treasures with others. The counterfeit spirituality only feeds the false notion of our own “specialness” to ourselves. Perhaps it’s time to insist that we seek the lost sheep and search out the lost coin instead of simply being satisfied with our “little” group. Living a Normal Orthodox Life means we are Outward focused!
P.S. O Lord Of Mercy And Grace, bless these Days of the Fast as we prepare to receive You, the King of Glory, at Your holy Nativity. Fill me with love for You and others as I labor during the Fast to continually submit my desires and my passions to You for healing and forgiveness. Grant me a spiritually profitable Fast for the glory of Your Name and my salvation! Amen.