“Love is the seal of Truth”
Sermon by Fr. Ciprian Gradinaru to the “All Saints Parish”,
on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women, 26 April 2015,
one week after the dormition in Christ of our Spiritual Father Silouan Osseel
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
As the reading for today’s Divine Liturgy, the Church has chosen the part of Saint Mark's Gospel in which the Angel shows himself to the Myrrhbearing women, to bring them the news of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I will not talk to you about this today, but about another proof of the Resurrection. The Myrrhbearing women went to take care of a dead body and instead, they encountered the Resurrection. We have experienced the same thing a few days ago:we went to keep vigil and bid farewell to a beloved man, and came back reassuredof our own eternity, of the love of our Lord for us all, of the fact that love is as strong as the death (Song of Solomon 8:6),and that in Christ there is no separation. Reassured that in the Church, we can constantly livethat overwhelming moment recalled by today’s Gospel: that death has been beaten!
Last Sunday – the Sunday of St. Thomas – one of the greatest fathers of present timeswent to be with God: Father Silouan from Ghent, who was serving in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. I sayhe is a great Father because, although not much is known about Orthodoxy in the West, many people have heard about Father Silouan, both here, in Romania, and throughout the Orthodox world. This also because he was the disciple of Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex, the next in line on the list of proposals for sanctification proposed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Yet it is not so much these aspects which have made him so well known, but rather his entire life. That is why I would like to tell you some things about Father Silouan.
More than anything else, throughout his entire life, Father Silouan was searching for the Truth. He was a Catholic, trying to penetrate into the depth of the Christianity, but he was not content with the experiences he was living. This led him to prayer, to ask God to bring him to know God. At a certain moment, aftera long quest, and after reading a book about the life of St. Silouan, his thirst forthe Truth led him to meet Father Sophrony, the disciple of St. Silouan, in Essex, England. And at that moment he realized that he found what he had been looking for so many years, that he found the real – the only – Church, andhe decided to become Orthodox.
The first time when he visited our parish – because he came here twice, ashe loved us a lot and served the Divine Liturgy together with us, and also held two valuableconferences – how our faith can be relayed most authentically. It very rarely happens thatpeople get to know our Lord Jesus Christ through an extraordinary revelation. For most of us, thisoccurs instead through spiritual parenthood: faith is passed on from the spiritual father to the son. Iwas saying then that, one day, in search of the Truth, St. Silouan was praying with all his heart, and then Jesus Christ appeared to him alive, replacing the icon in front of which St. Silouan was praying. Christ’s gaze remained in his heart for the rest of his life, and following this brief exchange of piercing gazes, monk Silouan was to become the great Saint Silouan.
Some time later, in the courtyard of “Saint Panteleimon” Monastery on Mount Athos, two other “piercing gazes” met: those of Saint Silouan and of Father Sophrony (Father Sophrony even recalled the exact place where they met for the first time). And Father Sophrony, who himself had already lived the experience of uncreated light and had experienced the grace of God, obtained a different knowledge of spiritual life, and understood things that he didn’t understand before. His life then went in a different direction. After some years, two other gazes met: Father Sophrony's and Father Silouan's from Eindhoven. After that meeting, the latter was never the same again: hebecame Orthodox, and then a priest, living and nourishing himself from that experience of meeting theman of God, Father Sophrony. This has been seen and felt by all those who have met him. And I say all these things because it is important to remember that all the meetings in one's life are from God’s providence, and our work is to make them providential, to let God work through them. We never meet someone out of chance – something like “I’ve been lucky” or “look what a coincidence” – there’s no such thing. It depends on us if we bring Lord into this meeting or not, ifwe are born again through every person we meet in Christ – either by struggling to preserve the good things we obtained from him and through him, or by adopting a Christian attitude towards theone who lies to us, hurts us or betrays us. Even such meetings with people through whom evil is working can be bearers of the Resurrection in our souls if we live them in God.
“We will pray together”
What was very striking about Father Silouan was the fact that I have never heard him talking about ordinary things, nor of ever referring to himself outside of his relationship with Christ. He had in his heart a lot of love and understanding for people, a lot of repentancefor himself, and was also very firm regarding any straying from Truth and Love. He knew how to humble himself to a lower place than anyone, but he also knew how to strike his fist on the table if need be. He always offered repentance for his own life, and he always knew how to push you towards Heaven. And all this because Christ was alive in him. I have this conviction that he had the gift of unceasing prayer, the prayer of the heart – this was his dearest prayer. I say this based on the testimonies of two people who have met him.
One of the testimonies is from a priest who, when he served once together with the Father, felt his heartstarting to “burn”, and his heart started saying the prayer “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” by itself, continuously and with no effort. And another testimony, truly worth believing: afriend, when he was not Orthodox yet, was very lost, and his soul was very ill. Hearing about Father Silouan, he went to meet him and to ask for his help. The Father told him he has to pray, and hereplied: “Father, I am as if made of stone, I cannot do anything anymore, I cannot pray.” Then, Father tookhis hand and said: “We will pray together.” And starting that day the man was resurrected - he prays andall those who know him bear witness that he emanates prayer. It is Christ’s work through our Father Silouan, who inspired in him the prayer of the heart. Someone was telling me how he askedthis person: “What are you doing when you cannot pray?” and he answered with a terrified look:“How could I not pray?” He could not imagine life without prayer, therefore he answered terrified:“How could I not pray?” And this was the consequence of meeting Fr. Silouan, who made him understand that, without prayer, although apparently alive we are dead spiritually; although our bodies are present in the church, we are nowhere if we don't pray; although'members' of the Church and observing formal traditions, if we don't pray with the desperation and the consciousness that without Christ we will be in hell, we won't find an exit, nor hope for salvation desperately, the dwelling of Christ in our hearts. And this cannot be achieved without prayer.
Fr. Rafail Noica used to say, referring to Fr. Sophrony, that he is one of the last Philokalic Fathers. I dare now say that Fr. Silouan is also among these last Philokalic Fathers: so many beautiful and meaningful words did I hear from him, so many sayings moved my heart. These words were not drawn from books, but inspired by his experience and the life he himself lived! When he heard confessions, for instance, he started with a personal prayer to Christ, in which heplaced himself below all of Creation and from there he started his own confession and helped thespiritual son to acknowledge the position he was in by saying: “Think deeply, it's just you and me andChrist in eternity, nothing and nobody matters, not even the things from the past. It is from now onthat we are starting”. With this attitude, he helped you not to slip into what we are ofteninclined to look for during confession – some psychological comfort or 'magical' solution to ourproblems (in the sense that our father confessor should give us 'a key' to solve our problem,without much effort and struggle on our side ) and thus fooling ourselves terribly, all the while tiring our spiritual fathers, “stealing” their time, and failing to grow spiritually. If it seems tous that years go by in vain, without being healed of our passions, let us try to find out first of all –before justifying ourselves and seeking all kind of explanations for our sins, accusing the others:the confessor, the brethren, Christ Himself – if we know how to make a good confession. Let us dare to ask our confessors, let us ask God.
Through confession, Father Silouan helped us to live out the theories we were reading about in books, namely that confession is not the place where we empty our bags full of sins so that afterwards we can continue with our lives as normal (and commit other sins), but it is rather the place wherewe go to be healed, to remove from our path anything that separates us from Christ and from our neighbors, and to find out God’s will in all the important aspects of our lives. Father Silouan’s attitude during confession helped you achieve this kind of consciousness. Actually, he would not hide himself at all; during confession he would continuously say: ‚Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!’. You would say what you had to say, he would pray and if he hadany word or announcement from God, he would say what came to him, and if not, he let you leave. But youwould leave truly free – through his prayer as an intermediary of reconciliation between you and God, and you would really feel healing taking place within your heart.
For us (I speak about those in our parish) Father Silouan was a prophet, since many times heuncovered God’s will. Many of the good things that we live together here – I speak for the parish- aredue to Father’s announcements, due to his prayers. Every time I was facing a hardship or every time we did not know how to proceed with a situation or another, I went and asked for a word from the Lord through Father Silouan and I always left with the certitude that the word received was from God. Because ‚the thing came to light’ (what Saint Siluan used to say) or because sometimes he would contradict his own experience (for 25 years he was a parish priest in Eindhoven, but he would sometimes give me a different piece of advice than that which he applied in his own parish). Through this it was evident that he was healed of his own mind, of his own experience, of this temptation to speak from his mind and that he would always seek wisdom from Above.
Here is a beautiful story, inspired straight from the Philokalia, that someone shared with me. A beautiful word inspired from the life of the Holy Fathers that someone dear shared with me. He met Father Silouan at one point, and he was preoccupied with the familiar problem, “I am unmarried. What to do? Become a monk or to try to establish a family?’Father Silouan answered to him in an entirely unexpected, shocking manner: ‚Say the prayer of the heart and master it, and this will help you to distinguish the image of God sealed within your heart; then it will not matter what you choose’. This is indeed the essence and if I understand this, the social form in which I will live is a lot less relevant: I will put my life into God’s hands; He will arrange things and show me the path to my salvation.We can have a successful family, with ‚accomplished’ children and all the classical recipe of social happiness, but our unfulfilled heart still craving eternity. We can be in a monastery, puppets dressed in black, failing to fulfill existence, if we do not understand the essence of monastic life. Whether we are married, whether we live alone in the world, whether we are monastics, our struggleis to discover, to work the image of God put within us in the day of our making and to yearn toreach the likeness e of the One Who has made us. Without this struggle, without living an authentic spiritual life in the Church, in obedience, with vigilance, we have no chance of any realhappiness: neither here on earth, nor there in the Kingdom of Heaven. This was Father Silouan. He did not have a manual with notes from what he had read I-don't-know-where, nor would he say “let me tell you what I've been reading lately”, but he always had a word born out of prayer. This understanding thatwithout prayer, without Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:4), helped him to build together with his wife, Matushka Oda, a beautiful family, but in particular helped him to build one of themost beautiful parishes that I have ever met – the one in Eindhoven, which he founded in 1990. As one brother from this parish told me, Father Silouan‘s love for the members of his parish was unimaginable. Christ's love was alive, it was visible in him; he would seem to rejoice at your presence in church in particular. This was felt by every parishioner, regardless of their nationality or of their spiritual state. Through his love, Father could join people together. As he often liked to say, one was under the impression that it was Pentecost every Sunday in the Orthodox church from Eindhoven: there werepeople of seven different nationalities (Dutch, Romanian, Belgian, American, English, Russian, Greek and Armenian). Nevertheless, the message of Christ’s love was one and it could be understood by everyone.
„The quality of your relationships with those around you is determined by the quality of your elationship with God”, Father Silouan used to say, urging us to offer repentance for ourselves and prayer for others, as toolsfor goodwill and understanding among the brethren of the Church. He would always urge the parishioners not to let differences of nationality, culture, or education separate them, nor distance them, but to use these differences in order to add value and beauty to the fraternal bond between them. He would helpthem to understand the problems that arose as being opportunities of healing oneself, of growing in love, of seeing the image of Christ, a living icon, in the “other”, an icon that people have to strive to learn to love. You cannot reach such a state unless you understand that you have to respect your brother’s freedom, as the LordHimself respects it.
The attitude to which he urged his parishioners was not different from that which he himself had towards co-celebrant priests whenever any temptation or any tension wouldarise between them: he would struggle for a quick peace, he would pray for them, he would humble himself, he would repent for what was said or done; as one of these co-celebrant priests had told me, he had a wonderful power to forgive’. Then I asked him: is this not an evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart? Is this not a fulfillment of the word of the Gospel, when Christ breathed on the disciples and said to them: ‚Receive the Holy Spirit, to whom you forgive their sins, they shall be forgiven and to whom you retain, they shall be retained’? In addition, when it was necessary, Father Silouan asked for the prayers of the parishioners, because for him the parish was a large family, where parents can and must share the problems that arise with their older children. Proceeding in this way, Father Silouan dispelled the idea commonly met in the Church- according to which the priests must always pretend that all always goes well, that we liveangelically, in a continuous flotation, that between us there are only smiles and flowers...I do not know who is the father of this strange idea that even at the cost of lying we should pretend that all is well even when it is not, because otherwise the parishioners will easily fall into judgmental thinking. Father Silouan repeated many times that priests are also imperfect people in their struggle against demons and against the passions and that they must be strengthened through the prayers of those to whom they pastor. He used to often say that ‚love is the seal of Truth’, showing that love is the criterion whichwe should use to find out if our ascetic effort pleases God, if our life is lived in the Truth, to find out whether our ascetic effort is not heretic, according to the word of Father Rafail. Speaking with Father Zacharias from Essex about Father Silouan, he told me that he embodied the definition of what a real priest should be like: a man who burns with love for God and for the people. At one point, diseases began to come over him. When I met him, about five years ago, aclose friend of his asked me to pray for him, as he was very ill and dying (for the umpteenth time!). With the passing of time, getting to know Father Silouan but in particular now, when hisperfection has come about, I often recall the words of Saint Paul who says to the Philippians: ‚For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh this will mean fruitful labour for me and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard pressed from bothdirections having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better, yet toremain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake’. (Philippians 1:21-24).
I am convinced that the Lord decided that in his last few years that Father Silouan would keep living despite of a long string of illnesses, each more serious than the other, and despite many operations, all for thebenefit of those around him. Before dying, Father Sophrony had told his close spiritual son: ‚I can go to God, I finished what I had to say to Him, I have nothing else to tell Him’. I consider that Father Silouan could also have said this a few years ago, however he remained on earth to continue healing others and to win more people for Christ. Two weeks ago, on the third day of Easter, Father felt sick and had to go to the hospital. His health condition had deteriorated rapidly and Friday evening he went into a coma. By Saturday afternoon, he had not moved for 24 hours, and the doctors were saying the end was near, so his eldest son, who was keeping me informed about Father’s condition, called me to go and bid him farewell. When I entered the salon, they told Father (who was in a coma) that I have arrived and he flinched at the news. I went and spoke to him in whisper, but the devices to which he was connected sensed the Father’s love and began to go off (Matushka told me that this would normally happen when Father would become emotional); we all wept, we prayed together for a while, while I held his hand, saying the Jesus prayer as he had taught us. Afterwards I asked him: ‘Father, do you want me to read a prayer to you? In French? Or in Romanian?’ Father nodded his head slightly as a form of agreement andthe family told me: ‘Read in Romanian’! Then I asked him: ‘Would you like to receive the Communion? I brought you the Holy Communion.' Father, the one who was in a coma, the one who have not been moving for so much time, in thecondition he was, with his eyes closed, made an effort to sit up. His children came immediately and helped him and Father managed to do something, which I, as a healthy person, do notthink I would have been capable of: despite the three, four tubes he had in his mouth, he lifted a corner of his mouth so that he could receive the Eucharist. After he swallowed it, the devices became quiet and Father felt asleep, tired from the tension with which he lived his last meeting with Christ in the Communion. There was no more place for words – and anyway they were no longer necessary. Time began to flow again and I left, mindful of Elder Joseph’s words when he received the Holy Communion for the last time: ‚nourishment for eternal life.’ I believe that all of us who were witnesses to what happened left the place with this same thought. (I told you all of these in order to remind you that in the final hours beforedeath, until the soul does not separate from the body, there is still a whole person in there and it isnot only a motionless body; the coma is just an appearance. Do not be fooled by this appearance, do not discuss nonsense or administrative matters near a person who is struggling between life and death,but talk to him, pray for him, with him, because a person who is in coma can hear you very well; I tell you this with certitude, since God gave me this chance to be witness to this many times as a priest so thatI would be able to be fully convinced that the one who is in coma knows, hears and sees everything happening around him.On Sunday he waited until the family came to visit, because in that hospital the visiting hours were very strict. He waited for his beloved ones, they prayed for half an hour together and afterwards he slowly, tenderly, went to the Lord Whom he loved so much. He had confirmed the Resurrection to his children. One of them, that had certain doubts regarding Christ’s Resurrection, later told me that from the very moment of his father’s death, all of his doubts ceased; he was very impressed by how death which is lived rightly brings us to God instead of separating us, as unfortunately happens so often. Father spent the night before the funeral in the church and there were several people from our parish as well as from his family who kept a vigil and prayed together with him. In Romanian, we have the word ‚vigil’, but you all know what unfortunately happens at most Christian vigils – they are, in fact, more pagan rather than Christian..I tell you this because our grandparents and parents begin to go to Heaven and people are going to die around us and we are going to die too, one by one. Hence, it is important to know that what occured at Father Silouan's beside should occur at the bedside of any Christian: people should read continously, near the coffin of the deceased, either from the psalms or from the New Testament, and we should pray for the one who goes to meet God. Everyone who spent the night with Father had felt that state of grace and peace, the samestate that we experience on the night of Resurrection. Therefore, when in the morning, one of Father’sboys thanked those who stayed overnight to keep vigil, I couldn't help but smile, and so, I said to him: ‚For meit was a great privilege!’ Father Silouan was so precious to us, he had such a busy schedule, he was elderly and sick and therefore all our meetings were limited. Finally, that night I had time totalk at length to my Father. It is important to not forget that the soul is there, although the only thing remaining of our dearly departed that we can physically see is the dead body, the cadaver, the image of death. Man is immortal. Perhaps you recall the story when someone came to Avva Evagrius, a hermit of the first Christian centuries, and said: ‚ Avva,your father died!’ What did he answer?: ‚You say blasphemy! My father is immortal’. If we had this faith and this conviction, we would live the days between death and burial feeling comforted, feeling strong, in a more Christian like manner, to the benefit ofthe one who is leaving as well as for our own sake. It is important to learn to speak in silence which is far beyond words, to the one who is leaving, using the love that connects us to him as a bridge, a means of intercession, to God. . Most great people have talked about the silence that is full of words, of sense... The Holy Fathers, who have tasted of Heaven, say that silence is the language of the age to come. We ought to learn to be quiet while speaking, to be quiet while praying at the bedside of the sick or atthe bedside of the one who has just departed from this earth.
As I said when Madam Andrée went to the Lord, it is through the lives of those well-pleasing to God that we must understand that our salvation is at hand, that holiness is a relevant and timely theme, that there is no context – historical, political, or otherwise – which impede us from being saved, from being holy. Our choices define us, they formus, they lead us to Heaven or not. After the last Liturgy that I celebrated together with Father (before the funeral), a brother wanted to comfort me, telling me that we must not to be sad more than necessary because Father left us a rich legacy. Since then, these words keep ringing in my heart, it sustains and nourishes me. Indeed, Father Silouan has given us so much: he has given us everything.