Orthodox America

Now is the Time to Come Closer to God  

Bishop Kyrill of Seattle

A talk given by His Grace, Bishop Kyrill of Seattle, at the opening of the Seventh Annual Church Music Conference in Seattle, October 8, 1993.

For the next few days you will immerse yourselves in an exchange of ideas and experiences related to sacred music.  The success of past conferences and the annually increasing attendance reflect a bond among Orthodox church singers, as well as the strength of the Orthodox choral tradition. I am not a trained musician, and I do not presume to speak about a subject in which I am hardly a specialist.  Rather, I should like to remind you of the important role you have to play in our Orthodox tradition, in helping to bring the Christian message, the essence of Christ's teaching to the hearts of the faithful.

It is at once a privilege and a grave responsibility to serve Christ as you do, to participate even in this small way in the spreading of the Holy Gospel. It means that each of you must internalize Christ's message in such a way as to make it ring true.  As you know, while musical quality is often the primary preoccupation of church choirs, it is far more important to feel the words deeply, to care about enunciating them clearly so as to deliver them-in all their beauty and complexity-straight to the hearts of the faithful.  Otherwise, the church service becomes a mere musical performance, something for the concert hall.  For this reason I should like to focus my remarks on some of the basic things which at times we lose sight of in our spiritual life.  Let the professionals among you guide the discussions along musical lines; I should like to set the stage for them by putting you into a frame of mind appropriate for making your work in these coming days-and your life after you leave this conference-more focused within the greater context of our faith and our relationship with Christ.

Let me begin by saying that this conference provides a wonderful opportunity for us to come together.  We live in such times that it is important to be aware of our unity.  It used to be that people spoke of themselves as one nation, or one family.  Today, when nations are dividing, families splintering, and there are so many concerns within the Church itself, we must reinforce in our hearts the conviction that what unites us, above all, is our shared experience. In Russia there is a vast sea of Orthodox souls, but here abroad we are still small in number, increasingly isolated from the un-Christian world in which we are immersed.  We have our own special experiences, sorrows and needs.  As our Church Abroad tries to minister to the needs of our brethren in Russia, it must not neglect the unique needs which we face as Orthodox Christians outside Russia.  Our Church focuses on the individual, on each soul's private and independent journey towards God. We all know that problems are best solved if approached individually, if solutions are tailored around each different set of circumstances. It does no good to give an infant sophisticated nourishment, just as an ailing adult is unlikely to do well on an exclusively milk diet.  Different problems require different solutions. Russia today is beset by a myriad of problems, but we cannot allow this to overshadow our own needs.  Our Holy Father Seraphim of Sarov said that if you save yourself, that if you work on your own salvation, on acquiring the Holy Spirit, a thousand around you will be saved. Without turning our backs on anyone, without dismissing anyone, without judging anyone, we must keep a clear perspective on our own spiritual priorities.  We cannot help anyone when we ourselves are in such dire need of help; we cannot teach anyone when we ourselves are in such need of being taught.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, when asked what was the greatest commandment, replied not with one but with two injunctions: first, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and with all thy strength, and secondly, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Let us not gloss over the profound significance of these beautiful instructions from our Saviour, whose every word and action and gesture and inflection were thoroughly steeped in the most sublime and divine wisdom.  Love God above all else.  We must not allow Russia and the Russian idea, or America and the American dream, or our family, or freedom, or justice, or wealth, or prestige, or music, or even the institution of the Church to claim our affections more than God.  We must love God above all else-above ourselves, above our own life and temporal happiness.  Love God.  Seek Him and cling to Him and think of Him and be with Him just as much as you seek and cling to and desire and think of those who are dearest to you in this life-only more so.  As much as an infant clings to its mother-only more so.  As much as a sick person tormented by pain, or a captive in prison, or a starving, thirsting creature longs for deliverance, for sustenance-only more so.  Let us contemplate those times in our lives when we experienced our strongest feelings of overwhelming need, and let us relive that need and turn it into a need for God, a need even more intense than we have felt for other people and other conditions of being.  And let that serve as a beginning of our understanding of just how we are enjoined to love God.  Then, let us learn gradually, step by step (for it is a difficult thing to do suddenly), to look upon our neighbor with love.

In Russian this "neighbor" is translated by a beautiful word, blizhni, i.e., someone close to us.  Today it is fashionable to defend causes and to exert ourselves on behalf of strangers, of people we have never met and never shall meet.  We collect money and clothes for children suffering halfway around the world-a worthy cause, of course-yet we walk by the homeless on our own streets with hardened hearts.  We do not ask ourselves: "Would Christ walk by?  Would St. John of Kronstadt walk by?" Why is this? Is it because they are not of our race, or do not go to our Church?  In the Gospel Christ gives us the example of the Samaritan, who was an alien, a pariah in the Jewish society.  It does not satisfy Christ's teaching to be kind to people who live halfway around the world, no matter how terrible their plight, while we persist in treating those living right next to us, even under our own roof, harshly, maliciously, and unjustly.  Every life with which we come in contact, each cry for help within our compass, is there for a reason, and is, in a most real sense, a test of our spiritual condition.

It is presumptuous and wrong of us to question God's judgment and motives, when everything around us attests to the beauty, harmony, and brilliant, even endearing ingenuity of His design.  People often question why God allows misfortunes, sufferings, tragedies.  That is foolish.  We are like little children listening to a story; before we are even halfway through, we become frightened by some detail, and do not want to listen patiently to the wonderful outcome.  Once we begin to learn how to love God, how to really love Him, we will become so focused in experiencing what is happening in the world from a vantage point by His side, that we will stop being alarmed by all the noise and strange, seemingly incongruous occurrences which lead the blind of this world into a state of such confusion.  Rather, like a small child cuddled by its parent, we will be drawn into God's embrace, and will feel secure in the knowledge that our loving Father is holding us close and will make everything right in the end.

That is the kind of love relationship I wish each and every one of you to develop with God.  But that can only happen if you cast aside all the other, extraneous things in your life and get serious.  How do you get serious about God?  Not by increasing the number of hours you spend in church, or by making more prostrations or by intensifying your fasting-although these would certainly not hurt the process. You get serious about God first of all by getting to know Him better through a more thorough and complete understanding of His words and actions as set forth in the Gospels.  Read the New Testament. Memorize as much of it as you can. Think about Him.  Talk to Him in your heart.  Above all, believe that He will answer, and be attentive and start listening for His response.  It will come as a familiar voice in your heart, the voice you have been used to calling your conscience.  Latch on to it, trust in it, and you will find that it is, in fact, possible to have a two-way dialogue with God.  But you have to want to hear Him.  You have to stop running away when He criticizes you.  You have to be willing to become His child.  You have to make God important to you, not just as an image on an icon but as a living, active, real Presence.  You have to recognize that Presence as your dear Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  If you do this, if you really seek Him, He will reveal Himself to you. For He promised in the Gospel: If a man love me, he will keep my words: and My Father will love him, and we will come unto Him, and make our abode with him (John 14:23).

Our own Bishop Nektary of Seattle, of blessed memory, used to emphasize this point frequently, reminding us of this wonderful promise given to us by Our Lord on the very eve of His suffering.  And only then, when you have put God first in your life, when you have developed this proper relationship with God and when the people around you become as dear and as precious to you as they are meant to be, only then will you be ready to complete the third and final part of the injunction: "...as yourself." This is very tricky, for it is easy to confuse mere vanity and pride for the proper kind of love which God intends for us to have.  It is all too common to adopt a posture of false humility, and to say that you have no love for yourself.  But that is a lie in every case, and the enormity of that lie only compounds the spiritual crime.  There is, however, a sound and appropriate way of loving yourself. How?  Not by putting yourself above God.  Not by putting yourself on a pedestal with your neighbors at your feet.  We are to love ourselves as children of God.  Like a little child which rejoices and is secure in the love of its parents.  This means, again, that we must cherish our personal relationship with God above all else, and flee any and everything which can distance us from our loving, heavenly Father. When we hurt, we cry out for God and know He will make it better.  When we disobey, we run to Him, ashamed, and beg forgiveness, accepting His admonishment and instruction as a necessary remedy.  Like a child, we forget our tears quickly and rejoice in a renewed closeness with God.  We never doubt that He will protect us and receive us gladly.  No one and nothing else really matters except to be restored to His good graces. To be a child of God does not mean claiming to be His friend or even His servant, it does not mean making much of our status in the Church or in the world.  It does mean having an easy and uncomplicated access to God, and enjoying an intimate relationship with Him.

Most of us never even get that far in our spiritual development.  Too many of us today are spiritually stillborn.  In such a state it is unwise for us to aspire to great spiritual heights.  Better to achieve a few simple things well.  Some people, while still lacking a proper Orthodox foundation, rush headlong into reading advanced spiritual texts and undertaking special feats, fasting like the ancient fathers, for example. In some contexts, a monastery, for example, where there is close and proper guidance, such choices may be fitting.  But it is first necessary to get the simple things right.  Like loving your neighbor.  This is, in fact, not so very simple, as you will readily discover when you try to put this commandment into practice.  But it is of immeasurably greater benefit than tickling your vanity with mere displays of piety.  Nothing is higher, nothing is more exalted-and, if I may add, nothing is more difficult-than real, deep, faithful love.

We are living in dread times.  ...  Nowadays, a woman about to bear a child is often treated like a fool, almost a criminal, for having been "so stupid" as to conceive or to refuse an abortion.  All around us, multitudes of people are consumed with an urgent desire to flee, to migrate, almost as if they would like to escape their own destinies.  Earth-shattering changes are occurring.  The unthinkable daily becomes real.  Consider the phenomenon of virtual reality, of genetic engineering.  Consider the mass machinery of abortion, the use of fetal tissue for medical and scientific experiments.  Consider the cataclysmic state of Russia, the events which all the world just witnessed and which portend perhaps even more dreadful conflagrations.  Consider the agony of Serbia, for many years a bastion of Orthodoxy.

I am convinced that we have entered the final stages of God's war against Satan.  Christ is destined ultimately to triumph, but it will be terrifying to experience.  Nothing we can imagine or predict will necessarily match what God, in His infinite wisdom, might see fit to send down upon our rebellious and arrogant race.  That is why, after considering all the things I could say to you-about music and fellowship and your service to God-I have chosen to emphasize this matter.  As a servant of Christ, as a shepherd of my Master's flock, I am compelled to take this occasion to remind you, and myself, of this surpassing truth:  Now is the time to come to a closer union with our Lord!  We have heard this all our lives, and it is easy to say, "Yes, yes, I know.  I'll go to Communion next Christmas, or on my Saint's day; I'll be a little better with my children, my parents; I'll do fifty prostrations a day-starting next week..."  That is not what I mean.  Now is the time. Let's face it.  The most incredible things are happening all over the world.  Terrible earthquakes, devastating floods and other disasters afflict every corner of the globe.  The World Trade Center is bombed, Russia teeters on the verge of civil war, Israel announces a Palestinian homeland and the PLO recognizes Israel; Islam is on the warpath; moral corruption reaches new levels, the earth itself is dying... The presence of God is palpable as Christ draws near, bringing this time a sword.  I am reminded of the well-known song by Harriet Beecher Stowe: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling down the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored..."

Now is the time to come to a closer union with our Lord.  Now is the time to shake ourselves spiritually awake and flee to the saving embrace of Jesus Christ.  Please, don't postpone it.  Get serious. Nothing is certain anymore.  I earnestly urge you all in the words of St. Herman of Alaska: "From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all."  Love God as if your life depended on it. Because it does.  Maybe you think you already love Him.  That is the first sign that you do not, for love is a process, not a state which can be defined as having been attained.  Let me ask you this: How many of you are truly, unconditionally happy at this very moment?  How many of you genuinely want nothing better out of life?  To experience discomfort in our lives means that we have not yet completed our journey to Christ.  And now there is very little time left-less than our parents had, less than there was a year ago, less than there was yesterday.  It is closer than we realize.  So drop everything. Forget about the secondary things which preoccupy you. Find Christ.  Find Him in your life.  Meet Him, cling to Him.  Nothing else matters. For He is the Truth which shall set us all free.   Amen.