by Fr. Thomas Hopko (Orthodox)
Reprinted from podcast at Ancient Faith Radio
I recently received an email from a woman, a mother, who sent this email, and it’s a very wonderfully written email, very powerful. She says she’s a wife and a mother and she works. She has employment, that’s what she tells us, and she wrote this email, and she called it—in the email the subject was, “Why Does God Play Favorites?” And she writes, “Dear Fr. Thomas, the subject line of this email is the question that I hope you will be kind enough to address: why does God play favorites?” Then she continues, and I will read the entire letter. She says…
Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths, and, yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they’re also holy from their childhoods. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they have been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice and never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged.
If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain, while others go sailing up. Even in his human life, Jesus had his favorites: Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, James, and John, who were the only ones of the apostles allowed to witness the Transfiguration, while the rest of the apostles were left out with the rest of the schmucks.
Our churches are full of ordinary people who chatter in the communion line and quibble over petty parish issues as if their lives depend on them. Why aren’t they being showered with the kind of grace that made St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Sergius of Radonezh? Serial killers have no conscience. In most cases because their parents abused it out of them. What chance did they have?
St. Lucy was protected in the brothel, but unaccounted little girls are trained by their own fathers to be sexual accessories. A life of virginity was never a choice that they could make, as their chastity is torn from them by the very one whose job it is to protect it. I grew up in an alcoholic family. I never learned how to trust the people I can see and do talk to me, much less a God I can’t see and doesn’t talk to me. I’m not asking why evil things happen. Evil things happen because there are evil people doing them. What I’m asking is: why does God make people who don’t have a snowball’s chance on a hot plate of having a kind of relationship with God that the Church teaches we’re all supposed to have?
We’re all supposed to be saints, but there aren’t any examples for ordinary people who don’t have the option of abandoning their spouses and children and running off to a monastery or into the desert. We’re lucky if God answers a prayer for something ordinary, like “Help one of our young adult children find a job,” much less something extraordinary like a prayer for physical, mental, or emotional healing for a friend or a family member. We stumble along doing our best, and then we’re told, it’s dangerous to want a closer relationship with God. The devil can use that to lead us into delusion. For Pete’s sake, can we win for losing?
Where’s the totally ordinary lay woman, married to a lay man, who gets to have anything like a relationship with God? I keep trying, but I haven’t even had a moment of sweetness, just ordinarysweetness, in prayer, for 15 years. Heaven is silent, and I certainly don’t have anything I could even calla relationship with God. And people like me are the majority, stumbling along in the rocks at the foot of the mountain, no hope of ever ascending. Is God too busy with the few he really likes to bother with the rest of us? I know you’re a very busy man, but I’d really appreciate it if you would answer this, if it even can be answered. Thank you, if you have read this so far.
And then she signs her name. I’m going to try to say some things in response. I know it’s bold, but I’m going to try. Not on the basis of my own personal experiences, of course, but on the basis on the Holy Scriptures, and how I understand the witness of the saints and the Scriptures.
I can’t answer for God. God’s going to have answer for himself.
And why he deals with us the way he deals with us, he’s going to have answer himself. And I think it’s possible to say without simply reverting to pietisms and rationalizations, that [God] has answered us in the person of his Son, Jesus the Messiah—crucified, rejected, vilified, beaten, ridiculed, spit upon, slapped, whipped—who took all this upon himself, which might even be somehow, even we might say, what seems to be the injustices of God.
You know, there are some kind of wacky Russians—Russian thinkers, I call them wacky because they’re so bold and they’re so out there—that they even claimed that God had to justify himself for creating the world the way he created it, and he justifies himself in the crucifixion of Christ. So somehow, in the crucifixion of Christ, that is the way God himself gets “off the hook.” Now, I think there’s some truth to that, but I think that can be very misleading also. So what I’m going to do, I’m just going to go through the letter and try to respond to the specific questions at each point as well as I can. We pray that God will help me to do this and to do it right, but God himself is going to have to answer.
I would just begin with one theological affirmation. And here I can’t resist saying how there are some people out there who say, they say this: “What is a theologian? What is a Christian theologian? What particularly is a theologian or a teacher of dogmatic theology?” Dogmatic theology, because that’s what I used to teach when I was a teacher. In the course of dogmatic theology, we tried to answer these questions. In fact, I used to say in the class, “No question is out of order. What we’re trying to do in this class is to answer every possible question we can possibly think of in the light of the gospel of Christ. Some we are not going to be able to answer. Some are beyond the capability of being answered in the present state that we are, in this corrupted world.”
But some people would always say not only that dogmatic theology teachers are very boring—H.L. Mencken said “as boring as a teacher of dogmatic theology,”—but some people say a dogmatic theologian is a person who can rationalize anything, can explain away anything. You bring any problem, and they’ll find a way to get out of it, to explain their way out of it, even to justify God and to try to defend Christianity by their rationalizations. So the listener and the auditor has to decide—I hope the woman who wrote the email is listening, I will certainly email her back and ask her to listen. I haven’t done that yet—but I would ask you to decide whether or not this is a rationalization. Is this just some kind of guy who spent his whole life teaching theology which is to explain away all the difficult problems and to get Christianity off the hook and to try to make sense of Christianity and the Christian teaching where no sense can possibly be made? Well, you have to decide that, again, the ball is in your court. You have to decide.
But I’ll go through the letter, and I’ll try to respond as I can. But I do want to begin with one clear theological affirmation and that is that God—I’ve said this many times on the radio, but I’ll say it again. I believe it is a Christian teaching that God, in deciding to create and particularly in deciding to create a world of human beings, and, even, I would say, deciding to create a world of angelic beings, bodiless powers, what the Greek fathers called kosmos noetos, God decided to create a purely spiritual world—the world of what we call, generally speaking, the angels, cherubim, seraphim, and so on—but he decided also to create a world, at least on the planet Earth, you know people always discuss what God is doing in other places of the universe with the hundred thousand billion stars and all that, but we don’t know. But if we ever run into somebody from out there, I guess we’ll find out.
But right now, we’re just concerned with humanity on the planet Earth, and that is what this woman, this wonderful woman, who wrote this wonderful letter, that is what she’s asking. She’s asking about human beings on the planet Earth. And why is it that God plays favorites? Does God play favorites? It looks like he plays favorites. But we want to say from the beginning, again, that God decided to create. He decided to create humanity, and he decided to create it the way it is. Or, to be more accurate, he decided to create it, knowing what creatures—and here we’re talking about human beings—what human beings would do with it. And God, in creating, decided to create human beings who are all deeply, inextricably interconnected, that we are all—you know there used to be a telephone ad in New York State: “We’re all connected: New York Telephone.”—but I think Christians would say we’re all connected human beings, human race.
Every single human being is connected to every single human being on the planet Earth, and we’re even connected to all the plants, all the animals. We’re connected with everyone and everything. We’re connected with the angels. The whole of creation is interconnected. We’re interconnected with demons. We’re interconnected with everything. And, therefore, each one of us is who we are in interconnection with other people as they are. Therefore, we’re not only members, one of another, as Scripture says, but we are victims of other people’s sins and evils. We are recipients of other people’s graces and blessings. And we are who we are in the exact relationship that we have with all the other creatures, and beginning with those closest to us. We are who we are because of our parents and their parents and their parents. We are who we are in our relationship with the people we meet in life. We are who we are with, if we’re married, with the persons that we’re married to. We are who we are in relationship to our children. Our children are who they are in relationship to us.
Now, this theological affirmation would say that God created us this way knowing that we would all mess it up, and the theological meaning of this so-called “original sin,” which is actually a Western concept, a Western— it’s St. Augustine who used that expression. In the Eastern Tradition, we usually call it the “forefather’s sin” or “the ancestral sin, or whatever, but what that means theologically—you know we’ll talk other places about what it might mean biologically, historically, maybe in the Darwin talks—but here we have to say, in responding to this letter, that God created us knowing that humanity would mess it up from the beginning, and that there would be evil, there would be injustice, there would be alcoholic families, there would be abused children, there would be all these things, and there would not be justice in the universe. There would not be justice, certainly from a human perspective.
We could certainly say it’s just plain not fair. Just not fair the way things are. And there’s not one word in the Holy Scripture that God said that it is fair. In fact, even Jesus has teachings like, to whom much is given, much is expected. He has teachings like about the talents, one gets one talent, one gets three talents, one gets five talents, two talents, whatever. Certainly Jesus, on the earth, was able to interact and to choose some people who were capable of following him. He even chose one who he knew would betray him. You know, so this story is kind of complicated, but I think the point I want to make from the beginning is a point made clearly by St. John of Damascus when he synthesized the Scripture and the Church Fathers’ teaching somewhere there in the 8th century, maybe the beginning of the ninth, I’m not sure, right around the time of iconoclasm, he lived. But in his treatise on the Orthodox faith—that’s what he called it, On the Orthodox Faith: Complete Exposition of the Orthodox Faith—he said that when we think of the will of God, we have to think of two aspects of the will of God.
There’s the will of God that God really wants from the beginning that will ultimately triumph for those who want it at the end, and you might call that the “essential” or “ontological” will of God, the fundamental, primary will of God, and that would be that God does not want injustice, he does not want suffering, he does not want death, he does not want abused children, he does not want gulags, he does not want holocaust, he does not want Haitian earthquakes. God does not want that at all. But in order to have the kind of world that would be a human world, where there would be human beings who are really free, and really responsible, and really have to decide do they want God or do they want the devil or themselves? In other words, God creates it knowing that there can be a choice for evil. And certainly one of the things that is connected with the doctrine that human beings are made according to the image and likeness of God is that that gives us the possibility to sin. It gives us the possibility to try to destroy ourselves as made in God’s image, not to want to be in God’s image, not to use God’s image to grow in the divine likeness as the Holy Fathers say, but use that very image to grow in un-likeness, contrary to God, and to make the world more unjust, more unhappy, more sinful, more evil.
So, St. John of Damascus, summarizing Orthodoxy, Orthodox Christianity, said God does not want that. He didn’t create it for that, and the whole Adam and Eve story is proof of that, but the greater proof is the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, because Jesus says, God does not want that. And Jesus takes it all upon himself, expiates it on the cross, dies the death of crazy, corrupted, apostate, ridiculous unjust creatures to recreate the whole creation and to create a creation where justice will reign, where righteousness will reign, where everything will be fair, where everything will finally be the way God wants it to be, and that, according to Christians, is the age to come. That is when Christ comes again in glory. I’m making this recording just after the Sunday when we read in Church the parable of the Last Judgment. It wasn’t a parable; it was a teaching about the Last Judgment. Of course, it’s defined parabolically: the king sits upon his throne and that king is the Son of Man who is crucified. They all come before him, everybody gives an answer, you know. And then, we answer why what we did with our life, how we lived it. And God knows what that is, and God knows what to expect from each creature.
So, it, in the end, there will be peace, joy, justice, glory, holiness. Everyone from the least to the greatest will share the divine holiness, and here it would be the teaching that in the kingdom of God, everybody has the same kingdom. The lowliest person and the greatest person. Everyone will have what the Theotokos has. Everyone will have what St. Seraphim of Sarov has. Everyone will have what St. Sergius of Radonezh has. Everyone will have everything exactly the same, at the end, according to Jesus’ parable, everyone gets the same reward if they work from the first hour, the third hour, the sixth hour, the eleventh hour, and they will all, everyone will get their reward by how they used what was given them, how they dealt with the situations of their life. And of course, some people’s situations of their life are really horrid. Alcoholic fathers, abused in childhood, sexually abused, sexually molested, you know, all my life I’ve interacted with people who were sexually molested as children, both boys and girls, and that marked their whole life and it led them to be very sexually profligate themselves, because they figured “I’m ruined anyway” and so on.
So, it’s a horrid, horrid thing. So, John of Damascus says this is not God’s will from the beginning, and it will notbe what God wants at the end, and it will all be cleared up by the blood of Christ.
But then he also says there is a kind of existential providence, a providential will of God, and here—this would be a Christian teaching—that God deals with the world according to how human beings deal. God doesn’t ask everything the same from every person. God knows who’s been abused. God knows And you could say, well why didn’t God stop that abuse in the first place? And the answer would be: because he’s not a magician. And that abused person would not be the person who they are unless they had that abusive father. That’s who they are. That’s their cross. That’s what they have to bear. That’s the way it is. And you could say, “Gee, who wants that?” Well, there’s plenty of people who say, “I don’t want that, that’s crazy, that’s nonsensical,” but I’m afraid if we believe in the gospel, we have to say, not only we don’t want that, God doesn’t want that. But God can’t do anything about it except redeem it, save it, and recreate it. He can’t make us act differently than we act if we have our freedom, and he can’t just clean up this particular part of humanity or that particular part of humanity.
I think that you can even say that God created a humanity and a world that was beyond repair, once it has fallen. It had to die, and it had to be started all over. It had to be recreated. It could not be patched up. And God can intervene, and God does intervene, and he does intervene as he knows how, and that’s probably where the biggest mystery lies. Why doesn’t God intervene this way in certain cases and that way in other cases? But one thing is for sure, God cannot intervene by transgressing the realities that we actually live in. God cannot simply intervene and make an abused child, or let’s say a child who was born with brain defects and so on, God can’t turn that child into St. Paul or St. Seraphim. He can’t. He’s got to save that child by his blood for everlasting life. But in this world, he can’t miraculously come in and heal that person. Well, he probably could and maybe even in some rare cases, in some sense, he may even do such a thing, but that’s not God’s normal nor normative way of behavior. And even when that happens, that person who would be healed still has to live. Then they have to use their freedom in order to be holy.
St. John Chrysostom says if anyone in this life feels that God has intervened and miraculously healed them and made their life happy—let’s say gave them a good job or something, or healed them of a physical disease—thenthey have to answer to God for how they use that. And he says, when that happens, it always happens for more crosses, for greater suffering, for more service, for greater repentance, but it doesn’t have anything to do with who goes to heaven at the end, as such. And it doesn’t have to do with who may have some kind of experiences of God on earth before they die, as such. I don’t think that we can say that. I don’t think that that’s warranted to be said according to the Holy Scripture. And we do believe that God cannot save one individual person without saving the whole thing because we’re interconnected. That’s why when we say in church, things like “he came to save Adam,” it means he saves the whole of humanity and that’s why the saints say, “if anyone is saved, everyone is saved with them and in them,” somehow, interconnected, but then they have to deal with that fact. That’s why the prayers of holy people and the actions of holy people, they either contribute to the salvation of others, or, to use a scriptural expression, they pour more burning coals on their head because that person does not accept it.
So what we have to say is that there’s a fundamental will of God, but there’s a providential will of God. And the providential will of God is exactly what this letter is about. Because this wonderful woman is saying, why is myprovidential will of God this way and someone else’s providential will of God the other way? And why does God deal with this person this way and that person that way? And I think, again, the rationalization answer—God forgive me, I don’t think it’s a rationalization—but I think the truth of the matter is because you are you and I am me and he is he and she is she. And, you know, I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, Fr. Tom, why couldn’t I have been your child? Why was I someone else’s child and my own father was so horrid? And I didn’t have a nice father like you are, and you’re a nice father for your children.” “Well, I would say two things. Number one is: because you’re not my child. If you were my child, you wouldn’t be you. You are who you are because you are that guy’s child and that woman’s child, and you are produced by them, and they were produced by their parents and produced by their parents. I would also say, ask my kids how nice it was to be my child. I’m sure you’ll get an answer that will blow your mind what it meant to be my child.”
I mean, but still as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, life for every human being on this earth is: how do we deal with what we’ve been dealt, and what we’ve been dealt makes us who we are; it makes us how we are. I am who I am, what I am, how I am, why I am, with whom I am, from whom I am because I was born from John and Anna Hopko on the north side of Endicott in 1939. That’s who I am. And then God will ask me at the last judgment, “What did you do with what you’ve been given?” But God also may ask that, will ask that same question in some sense—we heard it in the Liturgy on Meatfare Sunday—he’ll ask that same question to some—let’s try to think of somebody—son of a communist in the Soviet Union or some child of a mafia worker in the Bronx or something.
But God is not going to ask the same thing from each one. How could he? He wouldn’t. And my guess is that God is not even going to ask anything of certain people on this earth because their life was so damaged that he’s just going to love them, embrace them, and take them to paradise; and so the very fact that you just simply survived and endured, even though you yourself did lots of evils yourself perhaps—because as the saying goes “hurt people hurt people”; if you’ve been hurt, you’re going to hurt others; if you’ve been loved, you’re going to probably have a better chance to love others. But in the sight of God, the one who has had what you might consider a lucky or fortunate birthright—let’s say born into people who are basically sane, virtuous and believing, and who are trying to keep God’s commandments. Yeah, if that happens, that’s great! But then God still asks that person what they did with that. But that person is not better or worse or more gifted or treated more wonderfully by God. That’s not the teaching, not the teaching at all.
It doesn’t at all mean that if a person is born, like the woman writes in the letter, in an alcoholic family where there was just rage and abuse and sadness, it doesn’t mean that that person is worse in the eyes of God. And that person would not be asked by God to go out into the desert like St. Seraphim and kneel on a rock for 15 years. That’s not their calling. That’s not their vocation. They have to do something else with what they’ve been given. And maybe the best that that person can do is endure it, and endure it with some kind of faith, hope, and love. And even maybe endure it without too much faith, hope, and love, but still endure it. And maybe they’ll do lots of sins, but they’ll still be pretty good in God’s eyes compared to some other person who is greatly gifted. So I think that we have to deal with this issue of God’s basic will and God’s providential will. And the providential will, I agree totally, is a great mystery.
But one thing’s for sure that we must really, I think, just accept: you can’t say, “Why couldn’t I have been that other person? Why couldn’t I have had some other parents? Why couldn’t I have lived in some other time? Why couldn’t I have lived in some other place? Why couldn’t I have lived with other conditions?” Well, the simplistic answer would be: because if you did, you wouldn’t be you! You would be somebody else. That was not your vocation. That was not your cross. That was not what you have to bear in your earthly life, and we should remember how fleeting earthly life is. That’s one of the teachings of Scripture, too.
The Apostle Paul says that the glory of the age to come can’t even be compared to the afflictions that we suffer on this earth. Now, I know you could say, tell that to someone who is suffering, tell that to someone who wants to be St. Seraphim but is in fact a struggling mom with a difficult situation. Well, I would be careful not to say it so easily and glibly, but I think what would have to be said to that mom in a difficult situation is: you really must believe that God didn’t call you to be St. Seraphim—or St. Seraphima, if you’re a lady. He didn’t. He called you to be who you are and to enter into what you have to do. But what about sweetness in prayer, what about those kind of things?
Well, let’s now just go through the letter and try to answer what the woman writes, line by line, so to speak, almost, paragraph by paragraph. First of all, she says,
Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths. Yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they also are holy from their childhood. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they’ve been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice. And never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged. If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people to get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain?
First of all, I think a couple things could be said. The saints aren’t only those who are canonized. That’s really important. There are millions of more saints than those who are in the Menaion in church. The ones who are in theMenaion in church are particular people who used what they had in the best way that they could. Some of themwere born with, you might say, a spiritual silver spoon in their mouth. The Theotokos was. I think you can say that. To be the child of Joachim and Anna is better than being the child of Jezebel, or some prostitute somewhere. Sure. But then, they have to be what God wanted them to be and St. Silouan on Mt. Athos, he said this. He said, “the greater the love, the greater the knowledge, the greater the suffering.” So, those who are saints in the Menaion, they just didn’t have more trials, they had greater suffering. And many times, they suffered even feeling the absence of God.
Our Lord Jesus Christ screamed from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The feeling of abandonment, of temptation, of being lost, of being in the devil’s hand, of being in hell, many of the canonized saints, even those born with the silver spoon in their mouth—and St. Silouan had a pretty good father, it’s reported. You know, he did. He loved his father. His father was a very good Christian. He was very humble, but once he saw him eating meat on a fasting day and he didn’t tell him for a whole year, and a year later, he said be careful what you prepare and try to remember what day of the week it is. If you’re a good Christian, you want to fast.—but, he had a good father, but he went to Mt. Athos and suffered from every kind of demons, and God told him the only way he could endure was to keep his mind in hell and not to despair.
So, you could have saints who had mystical visions and so on, but they’ve also had the taste of Gehenna. Isaac of Syria speaks about the “taste of Gehenna,” of having been in hell, the sense of self-loathing, the sense of the injustice of God, the sense of how people suffer even when they don’t, all this is tremendous suffering. But one thing we should know though, still, is that the great majority of the saints—way-great majority, huge, you know 99%, probably—we never even know who they are. They’re the hidden people. They’re the small people. They’re the wives and the husbands who work like heck and go to work and suffer all kinds of things and try to take care of their family. And they’re the kids who have to put up with troubled parents and maybe alcoholic parents, and they went to church one day, and they heard the gospel and they said, “I have to endure this. I have to suffer my father how he is. I have to forgive my father. I have to forgive my mother. I have to make the best of my life as I can,” and a person can hear the gospel and that can happen, but maybe sometimes they’re so abused and misused that they don’t have the antenna even to hear. Maybe they’re never even brought to the church in their life even to hear that there is a God who loves them.
Or they may be brought and say, like one guy said to me once up in Canada, western Canada, I was giving a retreat, and he says, “Father Tom, when you say, ‘God loves us, God loves us.’ You know there’s a lot of people out there who say, ‘Yeah, he loves other people, but he doesn’t love me. If he loved me, then he wouldn’t give me this life.’ Or: ‘I’m a loser. I’m at the foot of the mountain. I’m one of the schmucks, you know? I don’t have a chance for anything and I’m certainly not going to be known for anything. Boy, I’d love to have my icon on the icon screen, but that ain’t never gonna happen.’ ” Yeah, well, that’s possible, but God will know what to do with that person. But I do believe there are lots of people in the lives of the saints who didn’t have exactly such terrific parents either.
St. Barbara was killed by her father. You know, those things happen. St. Theodosius of the Kievan Caves, his mother bugged him and didn’t want him to be a monk, whereas St. Seraphim’s mother and St. Sergius’ mother sent their boys off to become monks, but that was their calling. But it’s very interesting that the parents of St. Sergius and the parents of St. Seraphim or the parents of St. Silouan, they were not called to be monks, but I’m sure that they’re in heaven with God. In fact the Church even canonized—I don’t know how many years later, 700 years later—they canonized the parents of St. Sergius. They were canonized in the 20th century although St. Sergius lived in the 14th. But canonization in that sense doesn’t mean these people are better and the other people areworse. It doesn’t mean that God decided to “play favorites” and choose these folks and reject other folks. The other folks aren’t rejected. They had just different vocations.
Now, when the woman writes that “all we can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain,” I would dare to say, maybe that’s the vocation. And if a person still stumbles around the foot of the mountain, and they’re still at the foot of the mountain, and they still have enough sense to know that they’re never going to make it up, my guess is that that person is a saint. That person will be saved. Man, according to the Holy Fathers, if you know that you’re a sinner and you can’t do anything, you’re already saved. You’re saved. If you’re stumbling around the foot of the mountain, you’re saved. You’re a saint. Who knows, maybe you’ll get on an icon one day. Probably not, but that doesn’t matter. It really does not matter. It shouldn’t matter in any case, and if it does matter, then 99.9% of us are in hugetrouble if that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter.
Another thing about saints is this. In the New Testament, everyone is made a saint by Christ. We are klitoi agioi, called to be saints. But we are called “saints,” not only called to be saints, but called “saints.” “To the saints in Corinth,” “to the saints here”—we’ve been made holy by God. And those who are canonized are only people whoknow they were made holy by the grace of God, who use their human conditions in the best possible way, hopefully for his glory and for the good of other people like you and me and the lady who wrote the letter. I’m so happy that there’s a St. Seraphim and St. Sergius and a St. Silouan. I’ll never be one and I’m not one. For sure. Just ask my wife and kids, if you don’t believe me. But, I can honor them, I can emulate them, I can try to be like them. I can try to consecrate my little stinky life as well as I can. I can’t fast like one hundredth of what they did. I don’t pray at all the way they do. I don’t do anything. But the Holy Scripture also says that if I honor them, if I recognize who they are and what they do, that’ll be enough. God will give me their reward.
You know, Jesus says, “he who honors a prophet because he is a prophet will receive the prophet’s reward” [Matthew 10:41]. So if I could go through life honoring St. Silouan, St. Seraphim, St. Sergius, and telling people what they said and what they did, I believe God’s going to give me their reward. He said that he would. Now, I can’t do it to get the reward. That would be impure and that would be yucky. But I at least have to hope that if I can’t do it myself and that’s not my vocation, it can be part of my vocation to honor them, and to try to tell people what they taught and what they said. And St. Seraphim himself, he called every jerky Russian “my joy, my treasure,” and he said to everyone, if you say “Our Father” three times a day, “Rejoice, Theotokos” three times a day, say the Nicene Creed every day to remember you’re baptized and try to remember God in between times, you will be saved, and you will be a saint. Because if you’re saved, you’re a saint, and if you’re saved and a saint, then you get what every saint gets, and then the justice rules. Then the justice reigns in God’s kingdom, no doubt about it.
Now, when the woman writes that Jesus only took Peter, James, and John, they were the only ones “allowed,” as she writes, “to witness the Transfiguration.” The rest were left “with the schmucks.” It’s not because they wereallowed to witness it. That’s not the way we understand it. Now, they had to be able to be those who could bear it. They had to be those who ultimately would come to understand it. They had to be those who were ready to preach it and to die for it—and they all got killed, every single one of them, Peter James and John all got killed, so I don’t know where the fairness is there because evil people are living long, and the apostles get killed—but they had a hard time because they saw that too. Peter ended up denying him after beholding the Transfiguration. Holy smokes! Then he had to be reinstated, but God, Lord Jesus Christ, took those three because that was part of the providential plan for the salvation of all the rest of us. There had to be a Transfiguration, and there had to be someone who saw it. There had to be someone who bore witness to it so that we could all understand it and be with it and believe in it and be saved by it, but it’s not because they were better. It’s not because the others were schmucks. That’s not the case at all.
In fact, in the gospel, you have a woman who was a prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet. And Jesus said about her, she just loved much in this little act and wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she did would be said about her. Yeah. I don’t know if she had any mystical visions at all. I don’t know if she knew the uncreated light of Tabor. And of course, we don’t even know which one it was, because the gospels have different stories about the woman washing the feet. In John’s gospel, it’s Mary, the sister of Lazarus, whom the woman refers to in the letter: Mary, Martha, Lazarus. Some Scriptures say it was Mary, but in Luke 7, it’s not Mary, it’s a whore. And I don’t think Mary, the sister of Lazarus, was a whore. She washed his feet for his passion, but there was another woman who washed his feet, too, and watered them with her tears and wiped them with her hair, and she’s in the Kingdom of God. That woman is in the Kingdom of God, and she was not Mary or Martha. She wasn’t. We don’t even know her name. But she’s in the Kingdom of God with Mary and Martha.
So, the woman continues in her letter, “our churches are full of ordinary people who chatter in the communion line, quibble, and so on, why aren’t they being showered with the kind of grace that made Seraphim of Sarov and Sergius of Radonezh.” The answer’s very simple. They were incompetent for doing that. They wouldn’t have received it even if it were given. God doesn’t waste his graces and his energies on people that are not capable of using them. Take the example of the conversion of St. Paul. He didn’t just decide, “I think I’ll convert Saul/Paul and make him the great Christian evangelizer and apostle.” No. Paul had to have all the capabilities of being called and of being an evangelizer and of completing the task that [God] called him to do, and he was capable and willing to do it, otherwise God would never have knocked him down on the Damascus Road. You can’t say to me—
You know, we had a guy in the seminary who used to make booze in his room and read porno when I was a student—he got kicked out, by the way. Freddy, his name was. I’m sure he’s with the angels now, God rest his soul—But Freddy used to say, “If God wants to convert me like St. Paul, he can just convert me, but in the meantime…” Well, there ain’t no meantime. Freddy wasn’t able to be St. Paul. In fact, Freddy was not able to even become a priest, actually. That wasn’t his vocation. I hope he’s saved, but in any case, you can’t sit around watching porno books and drinking booze and say, “If God wants to change me, he can change me.” That’s not Christianity. God is not a magician. He’s not a mechanic. He’s not a fairy godmother. No! He has to deal with us as we are.
So, some people are capable and other people are not, but that does not mean that the capable people are apples in the eye of God and the incapable people are not. That doesn’t mean that those who are capable of being a Paul are favorites in God’s eyes, where other people who are not capable of doing what Paul did are not favorable in God’s eyes. We used to say in seminary, “The Last Judgment’s not on a curve.” God doesn’t compare people. It’s not like the top 50 percent of favorites go to heaven. No. That’s not the teaching. Everyone is absolutely unique and just have to be and do what God would want them to be and do, and Dostoyevsky even has a story about how a woman just gave someone an onion and she was brought out of hell because of that onion. But when she screamed, “That was my onion, not your onion,” she’d fall back into hell. You may know the story. Bishop Kallistos Ware loves to tell that story. It’s wonderful. But in any case, you can’t say this one was protected, this one was not, but there is an openness to God. But I still will say, there is a mystery how it works. I can’t explain the mystery of how it actually works, practically, you know, but we do have to believe that it is how it works.
Now, I’ll read the next sentence. She writes, “St. Lucy was protected in the brothel, but uncounted little girls are trained by their own fathers to be sexual accessories. A life of virginity is never a choice they could make as their chastity was torn from them. I grew up in an alcoholic family. I never learned how to trust people, the people I can see and do talk to me, much less a God I can’t see and doesn’t talk to me.” Well, here I would ask the lady a question. If that’s the case, why are you writing me this letter? And why are you talking about being in a communion line in church? Somehow or other, you’re in the Church. Somehow or other, you’re struggling with these issues, God bless you, it’ll make you a saint. That’s your vocation. But you’re still there, somehow. So you can say, “I was brought up by an alcoholic, but I somehow made it into the Church.”
Am I a favorite in God’s eyes because my friend Josie across the street was also raised by an alcoholic father and was abused as a child, and she never made it into the Church, and she never wrote a letter to a priest over at Ancient Faith Radio. I don’t even know where she is now. Well, all I can say is this: God knows. And God will have mercy on her, and God has saved her by the blood of Jesus, and you aren’t any more favored or better because you made it into Church into a communion line capable of criticizing the ordinary people who chatter and quibble, where another person didn’t. God knows all of that, but it’s certainly not because you’re a favorite and the other one is not a favorite. It’s just that by the circumstances of your life, by one way or another, with the freedom that was given to you and the possibility that you had, which is different for every other person, you somehow ended up in the communion line. You did.
Now, to be a saint—in this next paragraph, I won’t read it because I’m going on here too long—but I think that you have to say, “We’re all supposed to be saints. But there aren’t any examples for ordinary people who don’t have the option of abandoning their spouses and children and running off to a monastery.” Well, maybe there are no examples because maybe that’s not how exemplary saints work. But I don’t know. Should the Church go looking around for exemplary married people and so on? The chances are a married person, I would even go so far to say I believe that it’s the truth: that a married person cannot have the mystical experience of a Seraphim or a Sergius, because we’re too caught up in things, and that’s our vocation. God is not going to say to me, “Fr. Tom why did you never see the uncreated light?” I do hope that he’ll say to me, “Fr. Tom, you did the best you could with what you had, and it was pretty tough, but you did the best with what you got. Enter into the Kingdom of God.” And I’ll say to the Lord, “I’m not worthy. I’m a sinner,” and he will say, “Your sins are forgiven for the blood of Christ.” That’s what I hope in, but I don’t think that we can say— I had a student in class once who said, “If you don’t see the uncreated light in this life, you’re not going to go to heaven, you’re lost.” That’s simply not true! Whoever could get such a kind of an idea?
You wouldn’t get it from the people who saw the uncreated light because they don’t say that. They say something completely different. They say if you are who you are and say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day and think about Jesus in between and try to do what you gotta do, you will have the rewards of the Theotokos. That’swhat they tell us. And only they could tell us because they were in the desert. If I told that to someone, they’d say, “Who are you to say that, Fr. Tom? You’re a schmuck.” I’d say, “Okay, I’m a spiritual schmuck, but the guys whoweren’t said it. The women who weren’t said it, and I trust them.” And I trust also that when they tell me, “You’re not a schmuck, you’re loved by God. It’s just not your vocation to be that kind of a person,” I have to humbly accept it, and humility is everything. Humility is everything. But when we get into the area of we’re lucky if God answers a prayer for something ordinary like help for a young adult or for children to find a job, or prayer for physical, mental, emotional healing for a friend, here we can get into the whole issue of prayer, and I’ll take that up at another time: the issue of petitionary prayer and divine providence. I’ve been preparing a talk called “petitionary prayer and divine providence.” How do those two things interrelate?
So I’m not going to address it right now, but what I have to say here is, again, it’s a mystery, and we don’t know how it works. But you can pray for a person who may want to be healed, you can pray for a person who doesn’twant to, at least spiritually and emotionally. And you can pray for a person, and God simply says, “It’s not my will. I want that person to suffer. I even want that person to die, because if that person doesn’t die, some other people aren’t going to be saved.” So that person’s got to die. That person’s got to suffer, and I can’t tell God what he’s going to do with that. I really can’t, but we’ll talk about that some other time. But the tough one that we still have to try to say a few words about is: “I haven’t even had a moment of sweetness, just ordinary sweetness in prayer for 15 years. Heaven is silent, and I certainly don’t have anything I could even call a relationship with God. And people like me are the majority: stumbling around the rocks at the foot of the mountain, no hope of ever ascending. Is God too busy with the few than to bother with the rest of us?”
No. I would say God is bothering with you just as much as them. I already said that maybe your vocation is to just stumble around the bottom of the mountain and to write an email to Fr. Thomas on Ancient Faith Radio. Maybe that’s your vocation. Why God doesn’t give you sweetness, I don’t know. But then again, it might be because we’re looking for sweetness. Some woman once said to St. Ambrose of Optina, “I go to Holy Communion and I pray and I never have any feeling.” Do you know what he said to her? He said, “Stop looking for the feeling. Stop looking for the sweetness. Just go there and say to Christ with the prayer of St. Macarius the Great: ‘Lord, as you know and you will, have mercy on me.’ And then whatever sweetness you need, you’ll get.” And when this woman, this nice woman says, “I don’t have anything I could even call a relationship with God,” I would simply say, that’s just plain not true. You have a relationship to God, but this is the relationship: the relationship is the struggle with him, fight with him, question him, write emails to Ancient Faith Radio. That’s maybe what God wants you to do.
And of course, in our time, we have a terrific example that Mother Theresa of Calcutta—admittedly a Roman Catholic, but certainly a holy woman—she said that she had very great experiences of God as a young woman. She claimed even to see Jesus and to see the light, and then when she finally got permission to make the Missionaries of Charity and to start her order and then she said, “I’m going to love God more than anybody, I’m going to serve the poorest of the poor, I’m going to do this and that,” you know what happened? She had no sense of sweetness from God for the rest of her life. And if you don’t believe it, just read the book that was written about her just recently:Come Be My Light. Where God took away the sweetness from her, and I guess maybe that was what her vocation was: to do all these things without ever feeling the sweetness of God. But maybe also the way she was trained and formed in the Roman Catholicism of her day, and maybe even in her kind of boldness of saying, “I’m going to offer myself as a holocaust and nobody’s going to love God as I love God and I’m going to love God more than anybody,” maybe that’s why God did it. I don’t know. You have to ask God, but Mother Theresa said that was her life. She did not have the sweetness.
But I think at some point, we have to say, it ain’t about the sweetness. It’s not about the sweetness. It’s about the Cross. It’s about being who we are. It’s about accepting our own vocation. It is about being a schmuck if God wants us to be a schmuck and that’s what we think of ourselves. That’s what it’s about. It’s about stumbling around at the foot of the mountain, if that’s what God wants from us. But one thing is for certain, that doesn’t mean that he loves the Theotokos and St. Seraphim and St. Sergius more than you. It doesn’t mean that. More than us, I should say. I’ll include myself with the woman. It doesn’t mean that. It doesn’t mean that if I don’t have some euphoria and mystical experience of the presence of God, which many saints had but then was taken away from them and then they had to suffer. St. Silouan had that. St. Simeon the New Theologian had that. No, and we don’t know always what was in the interior heart of many of the saints.
No one would have said that Mother Theresa was experiencing inner darkness when she was doing what she was doing, because her presence was so full of light and joy and peace, and that’s all she was thinking and speaking about, and witnessing in her act. Whereas she had to bear the cross, and she even died with the words: “Jesus, my love, you ask too much from us. You ask too much from us.” But God asks what he asks because of who we are, who our parents were, who their parents were, what our providence is, and so we’ve got to be the one God created us to be. We can’t say, “I want to be somebody else.” But once we accept who God wants us to be, then we can be at peace. And then also, we will really come to know that the truth of the matter is that God does not play favorites. In God’s eyes, each schmucky-yucky person is his favorite as much as any of the greatest of the saints that we know about.