The Violent Love of God

by Fr. Thomas Hopko
(Commencement address delivered at St. Vladimir's Seminary 
May 19, 2007)


Glory to Jesus Christ!
I am delighted to speak to you at this commencement ceremony today. This
honor is especially significant for me since I came to this school as a
student exactly a half century ago, in September 1957.
For forty of the last fifty years I was officially connected with St.
Vladimir's. I was a student for six years, and, after five years as a pastor
in Ohio, I returned to the seminary where I served as a teacher and pastor
for thirty-four years until my retirement five years ago. This school gave
me my spiritual life and my spiritual family. It also gave me my wife, and
our children and grandchildren, for which I am inexpressibly grateful.
Father Erickson and the seminary faculty asked me to tell you today what I
believe to be the most important things that I learned in the last fifty
years. They asked me to do this in about twenty minutes. So what can I tell
you in my remaining nineteen?


The first and most important thing is that we are boundlessly loved by God
who blesses us to love Him boundlessly in return.


I can also tell you that we can love God as He loves us only by faith and
grace, by His own divine power, and that we prove our love for Him by loving
everyone and everything, beginning with our worst enemies, just as He does,
with the very same love with which He loves us, the very Love that He
Himself is.


And I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the
greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and
lasting happiness for humanity.
And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal
and bloody affair.


The God who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in
steadfast love and faithfulness, who gives us his divine life and peace and
joy forever, is first of all the Divine Lover who wounds His beloved, and
then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father who
chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper who cuts and
prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler who burns
His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities.
And He is the Potter who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His
muddy clay so that it can be the earthen vessel that He wants it to be,
capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.

I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scriptures and
the saints are real and true. And so I became convinced that God's Gospel in
His Son Jesus is really and truly God's final act on earth. It is the act in
which God's Word is now not simply inscribed in letters on pages of
parchment, but is personally incarnate as a human being in his own human
body and blood. And so I became convinced of the truth of all truths: that
the ultimate revelation of God as Love and the ultimate revelation of
humanity's love for God, are both to be found in the bloody corpse of a dead
Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of
Jerusalem, executed at the hands of Gentiles, by the instigation of his own
people's leaders, in the most painful, cursed, shameful and wretched death
that a human being -- and especially a Jew - can possibly die.


So to the measure that we are honest and faithful, and try to keep God's
commandments, and repent for our failures and sins, we come to know, and to
know ever more clearly and deeply as time goes by, what we have learned here
at St. Vladimir's. We come to know by experience that the Word of God (ho
logos tou theou) is always and necessarily the word of the Cross (ho logos
tou stavrou). And -- in language befitting a commencement ceremony at an
Orthodox graduate school of theology -- we come to see that true theologia
is always stavrologia. And real orthodoxia is always paradoxia. And that
there is no theosis without kenosis.


Theology is stavrology and Orthodoxy is paradoxy: the almighty God reveals
Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely
ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His
image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no
resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without
suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without
degradation; and no life without death. We learn, in a word, the truth of
the early Christian hymn recorded in Holy Scripture:
If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure with him, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful -
for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2.11-13).


According to the Gospel, therefore, those who wish to be wise are
constrained to be fools. Those who would be great become small. Those who
would be first put themselves last. Those who rule, serve as slaves. Those
who would be rich make themselves poor. Those who want to be strong become
weak. And those who desire to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny
and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel. And, finally, and most
important of all, those who want really to live have really to die. They
voluntarily die, in truth and in love, to everyone and everything that is
not God and of God.


And so, once again, if we have learned anything at all in our theological
education, spiritual formation and pastoral service, we have learned to
beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before
our co-crucifixion in love with Christ. We have learned that though we can
know about God through formal theological education, we can only come to
know God by taking up our daily crosses with patient endurance in love with
Jesus. And we can only do this by faith and grace through the Holy Spirit's
abiding power.


When we speak about "taking up our crosses" and "bearing our burdens" in
imitation of Christ, by the power of God's Holy Spirit, we also learn by
painful experience that the crosses we take up and the burdens we bear must
be those that God gives us, and not those that we ourselves choose and
desire. Thus we become convinced that when our burdens are unbearable and
our crosses crush us in joyless misery -- and we become dark, depressed,
despondent and desperate -- the reasons are evident. Either we are choosing
our own crosses and burdens, and rejecting those sent to us by our merciful
God whose thoughts and ways are not ours; or we are attempting to carry our
crosses and bear our burdens by our own powers, and not by God's grace and
strength given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church.


And so we come to another conviction: The Church -- the communion of faith
and love (as St. Ignatius of Antioch defined it: henosis agapis kai
pisteos), the community of saints who are Christ's own very "members" as his
body and bride - is essential to our human being and life. We cannot be
human beings - still less, Christians and saints - by ourselves. We need God
and his wise and faithful servants. We need God's commandments and living
examples of their fulfillment. We need the Church's scriptures, sacraments,
services and saints. And we need one another. As Tertullian said centuries
ago, "One Christian is no Christian." And as the Russian proverb puts it,
"The only thing that a person can do alone is perish." Like it or not, we
are "members of one another" in God. If we like it, it is life and paradise.
If we reject it, it is death and hell.


So, in the end, because everything is about the true God and Christ and the
Holy Spirit, and the Church's scriptures, sacraments, services and saints,
and God's love, wisdom, truth and power, so too, therefore, is everything
about the most important and Godlike reality of all, what St. John Climakos
called "thrice-holy humility": the humility of God himself that cannot be
defined but can only be seen and adored in the crucified Christ, and in
those who, by faith and grace, are co-crucified with Him.


Thus, if we have become convinced of anything at all as Orthodox Christians,
we are convinced that human beings are not autonomous. The proclamation and
defense of human autonomy is the most insidious lie of our day, especially
here in North America, and in the Western and Westernized worlds generally.
Humans beings are by nature heteronomous. Another law (heteros nomos) is
always working in our minds and members. This "other law" is either the law
of God, the law of Christ, the law of the Holy Spirit, the law of liberty
and life that can only be recognized, received and realized by holy
humility, or it is the law of sin and death. (cf. Romans 7-8) When the law
within us is God's law, then we are who we really are, and we are sane and
free. But when that law is the law of sin and death, then we are not
ourselves, and we are insane, enslaved and sold to sin.


More than fifteen hundred years ago St. Anthony the Great declared that "a
time is coming when people will go mad, and when they see someone who is not
mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"
(Saying 25)


It may well be that the time that St. Anthony foresaw is now upon us, or at
least is rapidly approaching, at least in the West. And because of what we
have learned, we know what we have to do about it. The same St Anthony, with
all holy people, has told us. I urge you, and, if I could, I would command
you, to read St. Anthony's thirty-eight sayings in the Sayings of the Desert
Fathers. Everything we need to know in order to live is there for us in its
simplest and clearest form.


Abba Anthony first tells us that when we are plagued by whirling thoughts
(logismoi) and worn down by an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and
futility (akedia), which we will be in this sinful world, we must simply and
diligently work and pray, by pure devotion and sheer obedience. We must pay
attention to ourselves and mind our own business. We must do our work, and
let God -- and other people -- do theirs.


He also tells us that whoever we are, we should always have God before our
eyes; and whatever we do, we should always do according to the testimony of
the Holy Scriptures; and wherever we are, we should not easily leave that
place.


He further tells us (with his friend Abba Pambo) not to trust in our own
righteousness, not to worry about the past, and to guard our mouths and our
stomachs. He tells us to take responsibility for our own behavior, and to
expect to be ferociously tempted to our very last breath. He tells us that
there is no salvation for us without trial and temptation, and that without
being tested, no person can be healed, illumined and perfected. He tells us
that each one of us has our own unique life, that no two people are the
same, and that each of us has to be the person that God made us to be (as Fr
Paul Lazor, my dearest friend, so often says) where we are, when we are,
with whom we are, from whom we are, and such as we are, according to God's
inscrutable providence.


Anthony also tells us, as do all the saints, that our life and our death
begin and end with our fellow human beings. He insists that if we have
gained our neighbor, we have gained our God, but if we have scandalized our
neighbor, we have sinned against Christ. He says that all of our ascetical
disciplines, including our scholarly studies, are means to an end; they are
not ends in themselves. The end is discernment (diakrisis) and dispassion
(apatheia) and the knowledge (epignosis) of God through keeping His
commandments, the first and greatest of which is love (agape). And he
teaches that our only hope to escape the countless snares of this world that
seek to enslave us is found in one thing alone: Christ-like humility, with
"a broken, contrite and humble heart," as the psalmist says, being our sole
"sacrifice acceptable to God" (Psalm 51.17).


" I saw all the snares the enemy spreads out over all the world" Abba
Anthony said, "and I cried out groaning, 'What can get through from such
snares?' Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility'" (Saying 7).
An extended explanation of St. Anthony's teachings, and those of our
Christian saints generally, may be found in a book published in 1867 in
Russia. It is by St. Ignaty Brianchaninoff, and is called in English "The
Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism". I am convinced that every
committed Christian, surely every seminary graduate, should feel obliged to
read this book, meditating especially on its first part about the absolute
necessity of keeping God's evangelical commandments (evangelskii zapovedy),
accompanied by St Ignaty's dire warnings to religious people -- especially
those with theological educations and ascetical inclinations and mystical
desires-- who may fail to keep the commandments of the Gospel because they
accept the lie that they are "not like other people" as they surrender to
the delusion -- the fiercest and most destructive of all delusions for
religious people -- that they are especially gifted, zealous and illumined.
For, as my beloved Professor Serge Verhovskoy never tired of warning: "The
worst of all sins is the lie, and the worst of all lies is the lie about
God, and worst of all lies about God is the lie about God and me."
I would also recommend today, and, again, if I could, I would also insist
that all thinking Christians, and surely all seminary students and
graduates, be required to read one other book that contains, in my view, the
most incisive analysis of what has happened to humanity in the last fifty
years. It is C. S. Lewis's prophetic masterpiece written in 1944 called "The
Abolition of Man". This slender volume should be read slowly, methodically
and carefully many times over. Parts of it, which I have read more than ten
times, are still unclear to me. But its main point is crystal clear.


Lewis says that for human beings to see, know, love, adore and offer fitting
thanksgiving for all that is good, true and beautiful in human life, and so
to remain fully and truly human, they must possess and cultivate the
uniquely human faculty that differentiates them from angels and beasts, and,
we must also add today, from the artificial intelligence of electronic
technology. Lewis calls this faculty the "Tao." He says that it may also be
called the "image of God" or the "spark of divinity" or the Law or the Logos
or the Heart. (Today, if he knew Orthodox literature, he might have also
said that it may be called the Nous.) Whatever one calls it, it is the
faculty whereby human beings intuit and contemplate the basic truths of
human being and life that ground all ratiocination, discourse, conversation
and disputation. Lewis claimed in 1944 that if the methods of education
prevailing in the schools of his day prove to be successful, this uniquely
human faculty will be obliterated, and human beings as we have known them
will no longer exist. It will literally be "the abolition of man."


I am convinced that what Lewis foresaw has happened, and is still happening
with ever more catastrophic consequences, in our Western and Westernized
worlds. It happens that men and women who once were human are simply no
longer so. They have become nothing but minds and matter, brains and bodies,
computers and consumers, calculators and copulators, constructers and
cloners who believe that they are free and powerful but who are in fact
being destroyed by the very "Nature" that they wish to conquer as they are
enslaved to an oligarchy of "Conditioners" who are themselves enslaved and
destroyed by their insane strivings to define, design, manage and manipulate
a world and a humanity bereft of the God who boundlessly loves them.
Others have seen and said similar things to what C. S. Lewis saw and said:
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Karl Stern, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Merton, the
alleged atheist Anton Chekhov, and my most beloved Flannery O'Connor are
among my personal favorites.


The challenge and joy - and the pain and discomfort - of reading such
extraordinarily gifted people as these, whom the members of the Class of
2007 have most likely not read for their courses at St. Vladimir's (but who
knows what the new curriculum will bring?), still lies before them. And this
tells us why this present graduation ceremony is called a "commencement." It
is a beginning of new things -- many wonderful and challenging and
convincing new things -- that we wish for the men and women completing their
studies at St. Vladimir's Seminary this day.


And this brings us to the last conviction that I may share with you today:
Every day, by God's grace, brings us a new beginning. We are all always
"commencing" a new spiritual adventure in living and loving as God lives and
loves. It is never over. And it is never too late to start anew.


I congratulate the Class of 2007 for their remarkable achievements. I
congratulate their families, friends and teachers, and all who cared for
them during their time at the seminary. I pray that the Merciful Lord will
bless, guide and protect them in every way as they "commence" this new stage
of their lives. And I thank God and the seminary faculty for the privilege
and honor of addressing them, and you all, here today.

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