10 July 2009

‘God is love and the true man is love’

Punting on the River Cam or the Backs, behind Clare College and King’s College Chapel, on a lazy summer afternoon in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each year, participants in the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies go to Tolleshunt Knights in Essex to spend a day at the nearby Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist. On Wednesday [8 July 2009], we spent a day in the monastery, attending the liturgy in the monastery church, and listening to the spiritual wisdom of Sister Magdalen.

This morning, the monastery came to the Cambridge, when one of the best-known monks at Saint John’s, Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), spoke at the closing session of the summer school in Sidney Sussex College

Father Zacharias he is a senior member of the community at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, where he is much-loved as a spiritual director. He was born in Cyprus, earned his doctorate in Thessaloniki, and for 27 years worked closely with Father Sophrony until his death.

He is the author of Christ, Our Way and Our Life, The Enlargement of the Heart and of The Hidden Man of the Heart (2007). His latest book is a series of presentations on the place of the heart in the spiritual life of the Christian, with special reference to the writings of those two contemporary spiritual giants who have guided his life, Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) and his disciple and spiritual son, Elder Sophrony of Essex (1896-1993).

This morning, Father Zacharias spoke to us in two sessions on the topic “God is Love and the True Man is Love.” Throughout the week, we were told to expect that these were going to be meditations rather than lectures. But his heart-touching, deeply spiritual reflections on God’s self-less, absolute love were a fitting conclusion to a summer school that had “Love” as its theme, reminding us precisely why this is an important focus in theology and spirituality.

Throughout his talks, Father Zacharias showed how deeply he had been influenced and inspired by the teachings of Saint Silouan and Elder Sophrony.

Father Zacharias reminded us that our God is a revealed God, a Trinitarian God, and a God of love. We are made also in the image of this God and each of us is truly a person when we have love.

This love of God produces a vision of the greatness and the beauty of the love of God, while on the other hand it makes us conscious of our miserable state. The love of God leads to the state of prayer, which receives the love of God. It is God’s will that all should be saved. And so, the person of love becomes an intercessor for the whole world.

Love is the most excellent of all the gifts that God gives us, and invites us into eternal life in the living God. He did not fail to wrestle with the topic of holy “self-hatred,” which he said is necessary for regeneration and for restoring us to the image of God, who is holy and who is love. God is Love, so the truly human person is Love.

Drawing on Saint Gregory of Palamas, he said we can see the whole world in God, and feel love for the whole world in our deep heart, for there is an ontological unity of all people. It is for the praying Christian to pray lovingly for all of humanity, to live the tragedy of the whole human race, to have compassion and prayer for the whole human race and to suffer with all those who suffer.

Praying for the whole of humanity becomes participation in the redeeming work of Christ. Prayer for the whole world often meets with resistance and hatred. But in their prayer, the saints are pleasing to God and God’s blessing descends on the whole world, so that their prayer sustains the world and is a participation in a cosmic event.

We should not be dejected by the state of the world, but participate in its suffering by praying for the whole world.

Later we had a very engaging discussion on suffering and pain in the world, theodicy, and the potential for salvation of all.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

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