Metropolitan Athanasios of Limosol, Cyprus

In today’s Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) we see our Lord stand up to and oppose the local religious authority. Out of compassion he heals a woman who had been sick for 18 years; but he did the healing on the Sabbath. The ruler of the synagogue sees this healing in terms of breaking a commandment. He puts the commandment first and the woman’s need for healing second. Our Lord becomes angry because the ruler has put “the observance of religion” on a higher level than taking care of someone out of love.

In one of those non-coincidences, I just today saw a link from a Facebook friend to a talk given by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limasol, Cyprus (this is the real person who is given the name Fr. Maximos in Kyiracos Markides excellent book, Mountain of Silence). In this talk, His Eminence talks about the scourge of “religious” people, that is, people who reduce Christianity to doing things, like going on pilgrimage or lighting candles or fasting, or to a moral code of commandments to make them “a better person.” As a commentary on today’s Gospel, I would like simply to quote a few passages from his talk. You can find the complete talk at http://www.oodegr.com/english/psyxotherap/curing_pharisaism.htm

Therefore, the first and only commandment by God is to love God Himself with all our heart. Subsequently, whatever we do in church, has that precise purpose.  And that is why we go to pilgrimages, why we fast, why we pray, why we go to confession, why we light candles, why we read the lives of saints, why we do everything: it is our way of loving Christ.

Now, where is the mistake? The mistake is that unfortunately, we say that we do all these things in order to just become good people…. to become better people….and that is where the big hoax lies. It is the step that we all stumble over.  Because, if the purpose of the church was just to make us better people, then there wouldn’t be any need for a personal relationship with Christ, nor would there be any reason for Christ to have come to the world.  Why do you think we aren’t able to understand the saints?  Or, to say something simpler, why we can’t understand those who love God.

We tend to say “is it necessary to do this thing in order to be saved – to be near to God?  Is it necessary -let’s say- to depart to the mountains? Must we go and do all these things?” Of course not.  It is not a necessity. If we could understand that our relationship with God is not only for the sake of salvation, but is a relationship of love, only then will we understand the saints also and why they did the things they did (which can’t be interpreted rationally). This is because love transcends logic.

Love cannot be forced into the molds of logic. Love is above logic. That is how God’s love is.  God’s love surpasses human logic. That is why we can’t judge with logical criteria those people who love God.  That is why the saints reacted with a logic of their own – they had a different kind of logic, and not the logic of humans; because their logic was the “logic” of love.  So, the church does not teach us just to become good people – not in the least.  It is only natural, that we have to become good people, because if we don’t, then what have we succeeded in doing?  These are nursery school things. Our Church teaches us to love Christ – to love the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Inside the church, a relationship develops. It is a personal relationship between man and Christ; not with the teaching of Christ – no – not with the Gospel.  The Gospel is something that helps us to reach the point of loving Christ. When we reach that point of loving Christ, the Gospel will no longer be needed. Nothing will be needed…all these things will cease…only man’s relationship with God will remain.  That is the difference between the church and religion.

Religion teaches you to do your duties, the way the idolaters did. An example: let’s say that we went to our pilgrimage sites, paid our respects, left some money in the charity box, left some lit candles, some oil, or even our entreaties, our names, our offering-bread, everything. All these things are religious duties, but our heart has not changed in the least. The hour of duty ends, and we are the same as we were before: we are ready to attack the other, ready to protest about the other, ready to be sour again, the way we were before…. Our heart doesn’t change. We do not acquire that relationship with Christ, because we simply confine ourselves to duties – to religious duties.

And you must know that such people – you know, “religious” people – are the most dangerous kind in the church. Those religious people are truly dangerous.  May God preserve us from them…  Once, when I was officiating in church and we were citing the words “Lord, save the pious…”, a Holy Mountain monk jokingly remarked: “Lord, save us from the pious…”… In other words, God save you from those “religious” types, because “religious person” implies a warped personality, which has never had a personal relationship with God. These types [of persons] merely perform their duties towards Him, but without any serious relationship involved and that is why God does not say anything about this type of person. And I too must confess that – from my own experience – I have never seen worse enemies of the church than “religious people”.

People who wouldn’t miss a homily – not a single homily… those who were always the first… at homilies, night-vigils, reading books.. I don’t know… at doing everything…. they would also bring their children along, but when the time came for the child to exercise its freedom – to decide by itself which path to choose – then those people would move to the extreme opposite camp, thus proving that Christ had never spoken to their hearts…. They were merely “religious people”.  That is why religious people are the toughest kind in the church.  Because you know what? Sometimes, people like these will never be cured, because they only think they are close to God.

Sinners, on the other hand – the “losers”, so to speak – at least they know they are sinners. That is why Christ said that publicans and whores will go to the Kingdom of God, whereas to the Pharisees He had said: “You, who are ‘religious’, shall not enter the Kingdom of God. Because the word of God had never changed your heart.”  They had merely adhered to the observance of religious formalities.

Therefore, we should all pay close attention and understand that the church is a hospital that cures us and helps us to love Christ, and our love for Christ is a flame that ignites inside our heart so that we can examine ourselves, to see if we are within God’s love. If we discern all those forms of malice and selfishness and wickedness inside us, then we should be concerned, because it is not possible for Christ to be in our heart when we are full of “vinegar” inside.  How can you be praying and at the same time be full of bile towards another person? How is it possible to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? How is it possible to say “I have been in the church for so many years” – either as a monk or a priest or whatever – nd yet, where is that alpha and omega, which is love?  Where is that patience – showing some patience towards your brother?  By not embracing that, it means you have accomplished nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.  We saw how Christ reached the point of telling those virgins that He would have nothing to do with them. He threw them out of the wedding hall even though they had all the virtues, because what they didn’t have was love.  Because He would have wanted to tell them that “you may have external virtues, you may have remained virgins, you may have done a thousand things, but you didn’t achieve the essence of that which is the most important.”  If you can’t achieve that, then what do you need the rest for?  What’s the use, whether I consume olive oil today, or I don’t?  I may [fast and] not eat olive oil – for example – but I devour my brother from morning to night…. They used to say on the Holy Mountain “don’t ask if I eat fish;  as long as one doesn’t eat the fisherman, he can eat fish“; or, “as long as you don’t eat the oil-bearer, you can have a drop of olive oil to eat“… To “devour” someone with a sharp tongue is far worse than consuming a spoonful of olive oil.  And yet, we focus on things like that: we eat oil – we don’t eat oil; we eat fish – we don’t eat fish…

The talk is much longer. It is well worth the time it takes to read through it and to meditate on the Metropolitan’s message. The bottom line is love which transforms. Without this love, everything we do is superstition.

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