Our Crumbling Sanctuaries
I. “All your problems are in your head.”
That’s what he told me. I can remember that day like it was yesterday. I had been in a sour mood all week. Nothing made me happy and everybody was irritating. I was working in the candle room when I stepped out to mope, and there was Fr. Xerubim passing by. He was one of the largest and strongest men I’d ever known. He’d grown up a farmer, served in the army, and now worked with the livestock at our monastery. Tall and massive, with a thick beard and all robed in black, he looked like Hagrid from Harry Potter. The monk took one look at me and peered down. I can still see his eyebrows frowning. “Petros, all your problems are in your head.”
I was living in Greece at a monastery founded by saints in the 15th century. It was built like a castle, with huge beautiful stones covered in ivy and flowers and looming over miles of forests on Mt. Olympus and the bright Aegean Sea below. It was the climax of my dreams. I hadn’t been a very content teenager, if there is such a thing, and always wanted something more, something grander, something exotic and exciting. Now, I’d found my adventure. Yet, I wasn’t happy. My moods swung back and forth. Sometimes I felt close to paradise and other times I felt depressed or just plain melancholy.
Fr. Xerubim’s words pierced me at that moment. It was true. I had everything, but I was looking to external things to make me happy. I lived literally in a castle in the sky, but I was just as prone to fleeting moods as I was in my childhood, in school, at work, or anywhere.
II. Our happiness has so little to do with life around us. It always comes back to our heart.
“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6. 24-34).
God knows what we need.
He sees everything we go through and listens to all our worries and fears. When you lie awake at night, upset with yourself, upset with others, frightened by what tomorrow will bring or hurt from the past, God is present. When we struggle to keep on going because life changes so fast, when our anchors seem to fall apart, when everything that once brought us comfort is gone, God stands by us with compassion and gentleness. Yet, this same loving God allows that world to crumble. He doesn’t stop it. Why?
III. Today, I want to talk about sanctuaries.
What are the sanctuaries in your life? To where do you retreat to find peace?
The ancient sense of the word comes from the Hebrew, ‘miqdas’, which refers to a place set aside as sacred. The temple was a ‘miqdas’: “The place, O LORD, which you have made for your dwelling, the sanctuary [miqdas], O Lord, which your hands have established” (Exodus 15:17). In the Medieval world, the sanctuary became a place of refuge for prisoners and fugitives. According to Church law, no arrest or violence could take place in a church, and so it became the respite from the world. From there, the modern English use of the word developed to describe a place of retreat, for renewal or comfort.
Your sanctuary may be your home, your workshop, your man-cave, the kitchen, a park, your church, a friendship or marriage. All of these are good. God gives them to us for a time so we can retreat, heal and revitalize.
IV. Nonetheless, there is one universal rule in life.
Every sanctuary will change and die. Every place of rest, every relationship, every solace and comfort will break down and vanish. Every sanctuary, that is, except for one: God.
In his first epistle, St. Peter warns the Christians about becoming too attached to this world. Comforts and pleasures are good, in their own place and time, but they eventually fade. “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.” Then, a few verses latter, the letter goes on to say, “Therefore…crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (I Peter 1:24-2:3).
V. “Crave pure spiritual milk, so that you my grow up in your salvation.”
Why does God allow our sanctuaries to die? We needed them at one time, but then He takes them away. They weren’t meant to be eternal. All these pleasures and comforts are just temporary. They are never good as an end in themselves but as a means to something more. Everything exists to prepare us for something greater and something lasting. In the end, everyone has to let go. Only God remains.
It’s no different at church.
At seasons in our lives, the church sanctuary serves as a time of peace and joy. We get in routine. We become used to the same faces and same songs. We live in a world with so many changes, after all. It’s comforting to find a place removed from everything. In the Orthodox Church, we celebrate the same Mass passed down through the centuries since the times of the apostles. It is the same Mass, the same Eucharist, the same Body of Christ. Yet, the forms of music do change, the language, atmosphere, faces change and cultural expectations change, all these come and go. Each generation brings it’s own expectations and its own pastoral needs. Year by year, like the flow of a stream, everything changes.
God is jealous. He will allow nothing to remain an idol of the heart. He trains us, gently and strongly, to find our sole sanctuary in Him. He removes our comforts when we are ready, because He wants our affections whole and complete. He wants you.
Church, family, relationships, retreat places, all these can become an idol just as easily as anything else.
So what has died in your life?
God allowed the death. At the other end, He promises life.
VI. “Consider the lilies of the field.”
What does all this have to do with the lilies and the birds? How does it relate to my story in Greece, and Fr. Xerubim’s thick advice?
Have you ever noticed how happy Jesus is?
Yes, He has times of real grief and mourning. But those are exceptions. Most of the time, he was simply happy. In every event, He was at peace. There’s only one explanation.
He had one sanctuary, one love, one heart: God the Father.
VII. We too can find peace if we anchor our hearts to God.
I’m not sure if Fr. Xerubim’s words are always true. I suspect some of our problems aren’t in our head, but most of them most certainly are. Christ’s message is clear: we can let go.
“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither” (C. S. Lewis).
If we spend our lives craving the spiritual milk, then we will be prepared to handle every death.
If we anchor our hearts on God, He will give us a peace, which nothing can take away.
Jesus Christ is the only peace, and a peace “which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.