Orthodox America

   Love God Above All

As reported in the March issue of Religion Watch, a survey by two Moscow social scientists "found that Russians are very religious but not very Christian, although they remain attached to the Russian Orthodox Church as a cultural institution. Only 29 percent of the population hold the Christian faith....Strangely, large numbers of those identifying themselves as non-Christians attend Russian Orthodox services. Twenty-four percent of self-identified atheists, 30 percent of those belonging to non-Christian folk religions, and 25 percent of 'doubters' say they attend Orthodox services because of the beauty and solemnity of the liturgy.

Without debating the accuracy of these figures, they are at least plausible in a country which has but recently emerged from seventy years of enforced atheism and where people are now searching for their spiritual bearings. Under the circumstances such anomalies are understandable. But what results would a survey reveal among Orthodox Church-goers here in United States? How many would admit to an attachment to the Church primarily as a "cultural institution"? What percent attend services as an aesthetic experience? What, in fact, is our motivation for going to church? Is it a desire to be with God, to be drawn closer to God through worship of Him, to be intimately united with Him through partaking of His most precious Body and Blood? Simply put, do we love God? It is a challenging question.

A six-year-old said to me recently: "I really love Jesu more than anything in the whole world." I was about to respond to this spontaneous pronouncement with similar conviction, "So do I"; but I realized it would be dishonest as there dashed to mind an incident from the life of St. Herman of Alaska:

One day the captain and officers of a Russian man-of-war invited Father Herman on board to dine with them. In the course of conversation he put this question to them. "What do you gentlemen, regard is most worthy of love and what do you most wish for your happiness?" One man said he desired riches, a second glory, a third a beautiful wife, a fourth the command of a fine ship. The others expressed themselves in some similar manner. Is it not true." said Father Herman, "that all your wishes can be summarized in this short sentence: each of you desires that which he thinks is most worthy of love?" To this statement they all agreed. If this is true," he continued, "what an there be better, higher; nobler, and more worthy of love than the Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of heaven and earth and Author of all living beings, Who provides for all, Who loves all, and Who is the incarnation of love? Should we not above all love God, seek Him and desire Him. The officers were quite confused and a said that what he said was true, was self-evident. He then asked them if they loved God. To be sure," said they, "we Love God. How could anyone not love Him!" Hearing these words the old man bowed his had and said: 'I. a poor sinner, for forty years have tried to love God and I cannot say that I love Him as I should. To love God is to think of Him always, to serve Him day and night, and to do His will. Do you, gentlemen, love God in this manner, do you often pray to Him, do you always do His wi11?" With shame they acknowledged their shortcomings.

(Father Herman: Alaska’s Saint by F. A. Golder; Orthodox Christian Books and Icons, 1968.)

In many ways children are more readily capable of loving God than adults: they are more trusting, more receptive to God's love. By the time we are adults, the prevailing secularism of our society, in league with our own failings, has conspired to rob us of these precious qualities of childhood and plant in their stead an overwhelming self-interest and self-reliance. Unless we are trained and succeed from our youth in battling these forces, we will find that the love of God is no longer resident in our hearts. It is a frightening discovery.

It is tempting to reason: love is a feeling over which we have little control: you have it or you don't. And this is partly true. Love is a gift from God, it is a fruit of the Spirit. But it is also a commandment, the first and principal commandment, and failure to fulfill it is a sin worthy of repentance.

In preparing for confession, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) advises that the penitent examine his soul against the Ten Commandments. He suggests a number of questions:

Do you constantly have the thought of God in mind and the far of God in your hart? Do you pray to God every day morning and night? Is Your prayer zealous? Do you always attend divine services whenever possible? Do you miss them without good mason? Does God take first place with you? Or something else-the accumulation of money, amusements, food and drink, clothes the urge to devote attention to yourself, to play the leading part, to receive praise? Are you distracted from God by a passion for television, movies or other pastimes?

An honest appraisal will force us to acknowledge that we am divided in our affections, we are fickle; claiming membership in the Church, which is the Bride of Christ, we allow our hearts to linger in worldly attachments, justly incurring charges of adultery. We love ourselves--even our friends-more than we love God.

True Christian love is divine energy. Without it, our spiritual progress is sluggish, stalled. We must acquire this love, we must cultivate it in our hearts. But how? We can begin by warming our hearts with Lives of the Saints: empowered by their love for God, they performed exploits inspiring awe and amazement. Their examples can help us to concentrate our minds on the world above, to wean ourselves from our earthly inclinations and desires, and to critically distinguish between the two realms. It would Likewise serve us to reflect more often on God's unfailing goodness and the wickedness which defines His absence. Above all we must pray that God grant us to love Him as we ought, for God Himself is love and He bestows love as a gift of Himself. We cannot manufacture love ourselves; we an only attract it through our efforts.

St. Herman advised the gentlemen on the ship, "Let me beseech you, my friends, that from this day forth, from this hour, from this minute, you will love God above all."

And so should we, for this alone provides the energy and the motivation necessary if we are to progress on the path to salvation. And this alone makes us worthy to identify ourselves as being Christians.