Seeking God Above All Else
How serious are we in our pursuit for the Kingdom of God? Before we answer that question, let’s reflect on the lives of a few of the saints we commemorate this month.
Let me tell you of the story of St. Paul of Thebes. When the father of St Paul of Thebes died, he left an inheritance to be divided between his two sons. Paul’s brother Peter took the larger share, leaving St. Paul feeling slighted. So he complained, “Why don’t you give me my rightful share of the inheritance?” To which the brother responded, “You’re young, and I’m afraid you’ll squander it.”
Since the two brothers didn’t agree, they decided to go before a judge to determine their fate. On their way there, however, Paul saw a funeral procession of one of the town’s wealthy noblemen. Seeing this rich man leave behind all his wealth as he was put in a grave, St. Paul sighed and thought to himself, “What will I do with all the money of this temporal world, which I too, one day, shall leave behind naked and in a tomb.”
With that revelation, he told his brother he could have the entire inheritance. Instead, St. Paul went off into the desert of Egypt and lived there for the next 70 years in solitude, praying and seeking after God.
Imagine, fleeing the world in order to seek out God in solitude. During the month of January, our Church calendar lifts up a number of desert ascetics who did similar things as St. Paul of Thebes.
St. Anthony the Great heard the Gospel story where Jesus said to the rich ruler, “sell all that you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.” St. Anthony immediately gave all his parents’ inheritance to the poor, and then went into the desert for 85 years seeking out God – through prayer, asceticism, and wrestling with the demons and the devil.
St Euthymios the Great spent 65 years in a cave in the mountains of Jerusalem, praying unceasingly and seeking out God. Then there’s St John the Hut-Dweller, who left his parents home at age 12 to go into the desert. He left a very comfortable home since his father was a Roman Senator. Yet he fled the comforts of this life in order to seek out something greater, something eternal, and he ended up spending the majority of his life as a pauper in a simple hut right outside his parents’ home, communing with God through his prayers and good deeds to others.
St Maximos the Confessor was another person who left a place of comfort. As a well-educated man of a high position in the imperial court of the Emperor, he chose to leave his high rank in society to become a simple monk, holding on to the truth even when it was dangerous to do so. He was so adamant in proclaiming the truth of the Gospel that his adversaries eventually cut off his tongue and chopped off his right hand so that he could no longer speak or write the truth.
Finally, St Makarios of Egypt lived in the desert for 60 years, building a monastery with 4000 monks. Once he was accused by an unmarried pregnant girl of being the father of her child. The pious saint never protested the false accusation, even when he was attacked and beaten by the girl’s family and the local villagers. He quietly accepted the responsibility to support the girl, selling the baskets he wove and giving all the money to the girl’s parents. When the time came for the girl to give birth, however, in the midst of her labor pains she confessed that it wasn’t St. Makarios’ baby, but another man’s. St. Makarios’ humility led him to even greater heights in his journey to God.
All these saints we remember this month - St. Paul of Thebes, St. Anthony the Great, St. John the Hut-Dweller, St. Maximus the Confessor, St Euthymios, and St. Makarios the Great - each of them stand out as extreme in their asceticism because they were so serious in their pursuit for God and His kingdom. These were surely not people of lukewarm faith. They were not casual or cavalier in their pursuit for God.
What can we learn from them and how can they inspire us? Whenever we celebrate the lives of saints, we need to ask ourselves, “How serious am I in my pursuit for God? How much do I truly desire eternal life? What am I willing to sacrifice, to suffer, to endure for the sake of Jesus Christ?
We live in a society that promotes comfort and ease. Even much of contemporary Christianity deceptively instills in us an attitude that the Christian life is an easy journey. God loves everyone, and since He loved everyone, we all will be saved. We can do whatever we want, and live however we like just like everyone else all around us, as long as we hold on to some casual belief in a loving God.
Of course, it is true that God is love, and His divine love for us is unconditional. Yes, Holy Scriptures does say that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
Yet, if our faith is so easy, and our union with God so simple, then why did these great ascetics pursue God in such extreme ways? Why give away your inheritance, go off into the desert and live in solitude fighting the demons for 80 years? Why allow your tongue and hand to be chopped off because you won’t deny the truth? Why reject your parent’s home and live the life of a pauper for God’s sake? Were these men simply crazy in their pursuit for God, or did they understand something deeper and want something more authentic in relation to their faith?
They took to heart Jesus’ teaching that we must “Enter by the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. But narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14)
God’s love is surely unconditional and He does desire that all people come to a saving knowledge of the truth. Yet He can’t force his divine love on us. He offers but we must accept. We have to decide to prioritize the “pearl of great price” above all else in our lives. The ascetic struggles of the saints were not efforts to earn God’s love. They were desperate struggles against their passions and against the demons that hinder us from drawing closer to God. All our lives are filled with many passions and habits and inner demons that constantly pull us away from the Divine, that hinder us from experiencing His love in its fullness. Every day we have to make a serious effort, we have to struggle to crucify our egocentric desires, denying ourselves and overcoming our passions in order to receive God’s love in its fullness.
So today, let us reflect on the lives of St. Paul of Thebes, St. Anthony the Great, St. Euthymios, St. Makarios, and the other great desert fathers we remember this month. Think about their soberness of life, their serious effort, their struggle to defeat their inner demons, their attempt to crucify their passions, and their pursuit to open up their hearts to receive God’s Spirit in abundance. May we try to increase our own desire even a little bit and strive to become most serious in our effort to seek after God and put His kingdom above all else.
Facing Our Uncertain Future
LEARNING FROM ST NICHOLAS
Our Orthodox Faith
History: The Great Epochs of Orthodoxy