Moral Law and Holiness
“Purify yourself and you will see heaven in yourself…The sun that shines there is the light of the Trinity. The air breathed by the entering thoughts is the Holy Spirit…That is the kingdom of God hidden within us” (St. Isaac of Nineveh).
“Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. And God spoke” (Exodus 20:21).
There are two ways to change a lump of iron. You can hit it with a hammer, chisel and polish. Or you can set it in a fire. Let the flames bake it, and the iron becomes refined and malleable. The soul is the same. The purpose of Christianity is not to make us moral or ethical. It is to plunge us into God, and in God’s presence, change something raw and ugly into something holy and beautiful.
Jesus Christ is standing on the top of a hill, and a crowd is gathered around him. The Jews knew their scriptures. Since they were children sitting around the Rabbi, they had heard about the great prophet Moses. He spent 40 days in a cloud on Sinai, and came down to reveal the Law of God. Today, they are gathered around another Prophet on another mount. As Moses was an archetype of Christ, so the first law was an archetype of the true law.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” You have heard it said: do not commit adultery. I say: do not lust. You have heard it said: love your neighbor. I say: love your enemies” (Matthew 5:20-48).
If you cast a shadow on a wall with your hand, the shadow does look a bit like the real thing, but it is not. The shadow is blurry and vague. But you can touch the real hand, smell it and feel it. Christ did not abolish the old laws. He taught them in a superhuman light. The old code was exterior. It was a list of do’s and don’ts, and not that different from any moral teachings, from Tibetan caves to the halls of academia. Indeed, even monkeys have ethical standards, and there is a lot of overlap with ours — especially nowadays.
Natural morality is paper thin, and everyone knows it.
After a life behind bars in the USSR, the ex-Soviet, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, acquired a pretty solid idea about the soul of the modern West. “Men have forgotten God,” he said. “The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.” The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for his declaration: “God is dead.” He recognized a truth, not about God, but about the vacuum in our heart — intuiting what a world would look like without God at its center. What is the true test of man’s morality, Solzhenitsyn asked. You will discover it behind the bars of a gulag, and it is not pretty.
What Christ offers is different — not a moral law, but a changed heart.
“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
When I lived in Greece, I saw a lifestyle different from ours. Orthodox cultures still maintain a traditional Christian lifestyle, where a monastery sits at the heart of every Christian community, where contemplation is held up as the highest value. Greece is a third the size of California, with over a thousand active monasteries. Every little town is full of monks. They embrace poverty. They live in little cloisters or huts and caves. They spend their life fasting and meditate through the night. Not everyone is called to follow their example literally, but their very presence changes a Christian atmosphere. There is a buzz in the air.
The ascetics are not escapists. They are simply realists. They have discovered a truth — everything we do is vain, without a changed heart.
We do not have many monasteries in America, but we do have the examples of saints. We have biblical heroes like Elijah, Prophet Anna, John the Baptist, who spent most of their lives sleeping on the floor and listening in silence. We have volumes of stories about saints in the Church, modern and ancient. We cover our walls with their pictures, because they remind us — they gave up everything to pursue one thing: holiness.
Our world is marked by a crisis of faith. It is a crisis not for intellectual reasons or science, but from lack of experience. Stuffed up with noise and pleasure, and dizzy with distraction, no one can hear God. The noise and distraction in our lives the world’s single, greatest threat in the 21st century.
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
“Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your own heart, and in your chamber, and be still” (Psalm 4:4).
We should be busy finding ways to unplug and tune into reality.
Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos puts it this way:
“Contemporary man, tired and discouraged by the various problems which torment him, is looking for rest and refreshment.” His problems stem from “a darkened mind, and an impure heart.” “Lack of silence is what creates the problems, the pressure, anxiety and insecurities…the psychological…and physical illnesses.”
Stillness is the soul’s medicine. Rest in God is the one cure of the heart.
“[It is] when a man is inwardly healed, when he has discovered the place of his heart… purified the noetic part of his soul…[Then] he lives in the blessed and undisturbed peace of Christ.”
Cain was the father of cities. He lost God’s grace through sin, and built up walls and armies to protect himself — the way we build up walls in our soul. But Moses stepped away from the city. He scaled a mountain and walked inside a dark cloud — the path of contemplation. Now that is the worthwhile trip — away from the delusion, into the mystery of God.
“Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees - it is all the talk and hype in our world — the fluff people get excited about, but falls apart in the end. The righteousness Christ offers us is different. It is interior and divine —a transformation inside-out that can only come from a life in God. It means getting broken down and remade — like iron in fire. We cannot fix ourselves. All we can do is seek God — and he does the rest.