Return from Exile

EXILE. Imagine what it means to be exiled? To be sent away from your home, away from family and friends, separated from any support and encouragement. Typically to be exiled means to punished and sent to a place of loneliness, struggle and suffering.

Saint John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, was sent into exile when he criticized the sinful life of Empress Eudoxia. Infuriated, she had her husband Emperor Arcadias exile Chrysostom far from Constantinople into the wild backwater town of Cucusus in Armenia. He suffered for three years in extreme deprivation, from sickness, from extreme climate, and through this punishment died far away from his home.

To be exiled is a terrible punishment. Yet, sometimes our exile is self-imposed. We make certain choices that turn us away, that separate us, that lead us far from the security and love of our home, that lead us away from our family and even tempt us to lose our true identity.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann uses this idea of exile to describe the condition of the Prodigal Son in today’s Gospel story, as well as to describe the condition that each one of us needs to understand and act upon in our own relationship with God.

The younger son became an exile from his father’s house. Of course, he exiled himself by his poor choices in life. He turned away from his father’s love. He offended and disgraced his father by demanding his inheritance long before the father would die. He chose material prosperity over any relationship of love which his father offered him. The younger son cut off his relations with his family and arrogantly went on his own path to a far away country. He exiled himself from the Source of life and after a period of self-indulging pleasure, ended up alone, afraid, in desperate need, losing his humanity as he sat among the pigs.

In exile, he eventually realized his poor choices in life separated him from his father and from his father’s house. Thus, he came to himself. Self-awareness is one of the central virtues we need to cultivate in our lives. Sincere, honest self-awareness. Last week, we discussed the Gospel Story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and showed how the Pharisee, despite all his good deeds, didn’t truly know himself. He lacked honest self-awareness and this dishonesty with self led him to judge others and destroy all his good deeds through his pride. 

“Know yourself,” Socrates once said. How many of us honestly look at our lives and truly see who we are in relation to God, where we are in relation to our neighbor, and how we have truly fulfilled the two greatest commandments to love God and neighbor above all else.

Self-awareness. The younger son came to himself, and when he honestly looked at himself, he realized his exile. He understood where he was and who he had become. He comprehended how he had lost his way and become a scoundrel. He realized that he had lost all his father’s inheritance. He understood that he had disgraced his father, burnt the bridges to his father’s house, and even lost his humanity as he sat among the pigs.

Yet in coming to his senses, in his honest self-awareness, he also remembered his divine identity. Despite his poor choices, he remembered who he was, whose son he was originally, he remembered the beauty and safety of his father’s house from where he came, and he found the courage to repent, to truly turn back to his Father in utter humility. “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Receive me as a hired servant.” Thus, he gets up. He starts the long journey home uncertain what awaits him yet hopeful in his father’s mercy and love.

Today, I want to highlight this understanding of exile with all its consequences. Yet, I don’t want to focus solely on the younger son’s self-imposed exile, his self-awareness and return back to the Father. Instead, I want to challenge each one of us to reflect on our own exile from God and ask if we understand the importance of being honestly self-aware. Do we comprehend the meaning of true repentance as the courage to humbly and courageously return from a place of exile back to the Father?

We can criticize the younger son for his arrogant and poor actions with his father in today’s Gospel, yet Christ wanted to draw our attention to how our own actions, our own choices, our own lifestyle and worldview often imitate the younger son and lead us into exile from our heavenly Father’s house.

Alexander Schmemann says it is this unique definition of going to a far away country and squandering all we have that “we must assume and make ours as we begin our approach to God… Anyone who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly “at home” in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what repentance is.”

As we prepare our Great Lenten journey which begins in two weeks, we need to become more self-aware and ask ourselves where we are in exile from God? When we have become too comfortable in this present life, we won’t feel a need to repent and turn back to God. In the midst of the younger son’s prodigal living, when he preoccupied all his time with entertainment and superficial friendships, he didn’t think about his Father’s house. Yet in the moments when he sincerely reflected on his life and what was all around him, on his original identity and on his divine calling, he then realized his self-imposed exile and this created a desire to return back home.

St. Augustine said, “Our heart will remain restless until it rests in the Lord.” The busyness and entertainment of our lives try to drown out this sense of restlessness. The world and all its alluring pleasures fool us for a period of time, yet in moments of solitude and silence when we truly try to become self-aware, we realize our exile and alienation from our heavenly father. We realize how we have defiled and lost our inner beauty, how we have forgotten our true home, and how we have become broken and sick.

This awareness of our fallen condition will call us to repentance, will lead us to turn back toward God. Self-awareness and repentance is the beginning of an authentic Christian life. So, as we prepare for the beginning of Great Lent on March 7th, let us think about this season of Great Lent as our school of repentance. As Schmemann says, we enter this school of repentance to become more self-aware, to carefully look at the world around us, to re-evaluate our lives, to deepen our faith and to hopefully change the direction we presently are on, discovering a truly Orthodox way to live life.



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