Daily Reflection for August 18, 2020

DAILY REFLECTION  •  AUGUST 18  •  Repose of Venerable John, Abbot of Rila


It is not a rare occurrence, especially in our time, for parents to be responsible for the spiritual death of their children. Whenever a child has an aspiration for the spiritual life and asceticism, and the parent curtails this aspiration instead of encouraging it, such a parent becomes the murderer of his child. And such children, as a punishment to their parents, often turn to the opposite side and become perverted. A boy named Luke, the nephew of St. John of Rila, heard about his uncle and was drawn by the desire for the spiritual life, so he visited his uncle in the mountain. John received Luke with love, and began to instruct and to strengthen him in asceticism. Then one day Luke’s father appeared at John’s cave, and furiously began to scold the saint for keeping his son in that wilderness. John’s words and counsels were of no avail. The father dragged the son home by force. On the way home, a serpent bit Luke and he died. The cruel father saw in this the punishment of God and repented, but it was all too late. He returned to John, mourning and condemning himself. But the saint said only to bury the child, and to return from wherever he came.
(St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Prologue from Ochrid)

Fr. John’s Reflection

“I shall sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed from all your uncleanness, and I will also cleanse you from all your idols. I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I shall take the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I shall put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My requirements, and you will keep My judgments and do them. You will dwell in the land I gave to your fathers. You will be My people, and I shall be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:25-28)

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.
            Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2 Corinthians 2:14-3:3)

The living God who spoke to His people Israel by the prophet Ezekiel, speaks very similar words to His people the Church through His apostle Paul. The image of baptism (sprinkling clean water) is how the Lord begins this passage from Ezekiel, and leads to the beautiful image of a heart of stone being taken out of us by the Lord and replaced with a heart of flesh. Once they are cleansed and a “real” heart is given to them (the Spirit), we see the end result: they will be His people and He will be their God. His people, dead in sin and apostasy, are revived through the cleansing and the gift of the Spirit. It is a living relationship. St. Paul echoes this and makes two points. First, the apostles are not “peddling” the word of God as so many do. They speak the Truth and that aroma is death for some, and life for others. Secondly, the believers who follow Christ are His “epistles,” written by the Spirit not on stone, but on flesh (like in Ezekiel, their hearts).

What amazing images and lessons for us. The prophecy from Ezekiel is read in the Church during Pentecost (and today in my daily discipline), and Paul’s words are today’s lectionary selection. What a providential blessing! Consider that His people are dead – hearts of stone. Isn’t that where much of our spiritual life begins, despite our baptism? Cold, hard, stony hearts? Hating, judging, gossiping, not forgiving? But the Lord cleanses those with hard hearts and, to those who accept Him, reaches in and replaces those hard hearts with warm, fleshy hearts. The apostle also speaks to our current condition. There are many today who “peddle” the word of God, either for their own financial benefit or to their own glory. But we also fall into that trap when we construct our own little gods to justify our behaviors or ignore the living God when following and being obedient to His word is inconvenient. But those of us baptized and chrismated into His Body are to be living epistles, with His word written onto the tablets of flesh that are our hearts. We pray the Spirit to continue to open our minds, hearts and souls to the handwriting of God, little by little becoming His Epistles.