Wouldn’t it be nice to find a place of sanctuary, a retreat from the uncertain world that we live in. Finding a sanctuary is an essential element for a healthy spiritual life. The word “sanctuary” comes from the Latin word “Sanctus” which means holy. A sanctuary is a holy place where we can go to find peace and commune with God and with others who also want the same thing. The spiritual life in some ways is a search for sanctuary.
The demoniacs in today’s Gospel were driven by dark forces to choose an unholy place to live in. Tombs were considered to be a place of demons and dark forces. They were not considered wholesome places. There the demoniacs isolated themselves from other people attacking those who attempted to come close to them. The bottom line is that these poor men were miserable. Their choice of dwelling reflected the chaos in their souls. People today try to isolate themselves from others. Many people live like this. They may not be possessed by demons, but by passions and fears that enslave in the same way. Ironically, many come to prefer misery to happiness and they think they will never find a way out. This way of life is the one we are trying to avoid.
There are two kinds of sanctuaries. One is what we see all around us in these four walls. Orthodox Christians build churches as sanctuaries they are filled with holy things, icons, chanting, incense and holy actions: liturgies, sacraments and prayers. We surround ourselves with holy things in order to support us in our journey to the kingdom. Our homes should be sanctuaries as well. In order to keep this place holy we have to keep it clean, pay the bills and improve and beautify it as best we can. But first we have to understand and accept that such places exist.
In this place…our unity in Christ is celebrated and the beauty of the image of God in everyone is celebrated as we gather at the chalice. This place is a true sanctuary of the first kind. Still if the hearts that inhabit the church are filled with hatred and pride even the most beautiful temple will become an unholy place.
The other kind of sanctuary is interior. We call this sanctuary the “heart.” (Nous) “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” The problem is that our hearts also need to be cleaned, maintained and beautified like this building and the surrounding property so that to it can become the sanctuary it was meant to be. It’s why we do not let certain things into our hearts. It’s why we take advantage of the sacrament of repentance. Without proper maintenance the heart cannot clearly reflect the truth that it is the very place where God dwells. The heart is where the struggle that St. Paul describes in Romans 7 is played out: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil that I will not to do, that I practice.” This mental conflict causes internal suffering; a painful division between the image of God in us and the often unwise choices we make. The spiritual life is designed to bring an end to this suffering by removing this mental conflict. Another problem is that most people think we can create our sanctuaries by just wishing it to be so.
Our church teaches that it is through bringing the heart and the mind together that we are able to create a true sanctuary within where we can go whenever we want to. “There is a time coming,” Jesus said to the Samaritan Woman, “and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23) This does not mean that physical sanctuaries will vanish, but that sanctuaries of the heart/mind will be strengthened in the faithful by cooperating with the Holy Spirit. This is how the martyrs were able to be so peaceful as they gave their lives for Christ. We will be recognized as Christians by everyone because our hearts will be filled with the light of God. We will love our enemies, not because God said we have a moral obligation to do so, but because we are filled with God’s love and will not know how else to live.
One of the things in this Gospel that always makes me think is the reaction of the people. They come face to face with the living God and they ask Him to leave.
Did you ever wonder what kind of people they must have been?
The truth is they are just like you and me. When God entered their world it was very inconvenient. We are much the same. We come to church and we expect to encounter God to hear a homily that says love those around you, be nice, God is supposed to be here in church where He belongs, and the priest should only be involved in the aspect of my life that we call spiritual, but what happens when God invades the rest of our lives? The places that we work, and our homes?
We talk a lot about doctrines, church history, tradition and not much about the practical ins and outs of the spiritual life which, if practiced, will revolutionize how we live. Real change is possible from the inside out! The peace that passes understanding, this gift is something we literally can begin to work towards. It works best if we do this together. If we fast as individuals we miss everything. If we do not go through lent together it becomes just a change in our diet. We must struggle for unity in everything. We should be doing everything together. We have been conditioned and trained by our society to be individuals, not persons, So if one person wants to follow a strict fast or wear a head covering we think good for them, but we do not believe that the churches’ wisdom has anything relevant to say to us today and we will never submit or change anything that requires a sacrifice on our part. We are usually willing to change our ideas especially if we see an advantage because we like being right, but we will not change who we are at the core of our being, we live in the 21st Century and we can decide everything for ourselves. In my mind this is the definition of hell.
By the grace of God, we have not been left as orphans to decide on our own what is true and to be enslaved like the demoniacs. The Gift of the Holy Spirit revitalizes the gifts granted to all human beings and together we cooperate with Him in the purpose of our life…deification.
Life is not a test; it is not given to us to see if we come to a correct doctrinal position, or live up to a sliding scale of some arbitrary moral standard. Life is given in order to restore our souls to its original design- to choose life who is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and where do we find this life?—-only in the Church. And only in the sacraments, the life of the Church.
We have to want our lives to be transformed and healed. Authentic spirituality is not extreme or unreasonable but if we pursue a life that imitates Christ we will begin to feel and look different than the world around us. This kind of life can be practiced quietly with as simple an aim as the pursuit of inner peace. We don’t have to become “crazy fanatics” to practice the spiritual life we just have to embrace becoming who we really are. But, I would say, that if we do pursue this goal, most of the people we know will consider us “crazy fanatics..”
So what should we do? We start by taking a little time to learn the beauty of silence, to pay attention to the present moment, to learn how to quiet the constant and meaningless dialogue in our mind, say a little prayer now and then with full attention. Care for our neighbor a little more than our self.
Notice that there is beauty all around if we are willing to see it. Choose wisely what we will think, say and do. Don’t worry what people will think if we kiss the hand of a priest in public. Slowly, but surely, with such simple practices, our minds awaken, our hearts becomes pure, the love of Christ reveals itself and the light of the kingdom begins to illumine our souls. It is a slow process and it will cost our very lives. But this is the only way to create our inner sanctuary and avoid living in the tombs of this world and live where we worship our Lord in spirit and in truth.
Fr. Gregory Owen