By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
(Talk given at a Youth Meeting, November 2017)
Today we live in a society where it’s all about being happy and satisfied. The Western world (and most of mankind) want to eat well, sleep well, have fun, enjoy our lives and be as satisfied as possible. It’s all about being happy. Our lives are structured in such a way to bring maximum pleasure, enjoyment and happiness.
We naturally resist suffering; we flee from it, avoid it, and sometimes try and believe it doesn’t exist. Anything that requires substantial effort, and can take away from our enjoying life, is avoided as much as possible. We want to be happy, we don’t want to suffer. The problem isn’t that we want to be happy and satisfied. Actually we are created by God to enjoy life and be happy and be satisfied. The problem is the way and the means we pursue to gain happiness and satisfaction.
Man was created for eternal satisfaction, eternal joy, and eternal happiness. As eternal beings, only the eternal can satisfy our deepest yearnings for fulfilment. We are created in the image and likeness of God. The image and likeness of an Eternal God who is love and from whom emanates pure joy, happiness and eternal satisfaction. Through intimate communion with this God we participate in His presence and partake of true joy, happiness and satisfaction.
The problem is that we are born in a fallen world, and we all partake of this fall in our own way. It’s easy to sin, it’s easy to indulge, it’s easy to be selfish and seek my own good, even at the expense of others. It feels good to eat until I’m absolutely stuffed, it feels good to have sex, it feels good to sleep all day, it’s fun to get drunk, it feels good to get revenge. In this fallen world it’s actually easier to live a life for me, myself and I, and to fulfil all my desires than it is to abstain.
All these things make us feel good, but there’s a problem. The problem is that we are eternal beings, hard wired for eternal satisfaction, as we are made in the image of an eternal God. This means that even if I indulge all my pleasures, eat, have sex, party, etc., these things cannot satisfy me permanently. The enjoyment lasts for a while and then I’m left seeking for satisfaction again. It’s as if we are in an everlasting search for satisfaction, doing all we can to be happy and joyful, chasing our tail round and round, yet, at the end of the day, we all end up empty, dissatisfied, and suffering.
Can we see the paradox? By taking what seems to be the easy way, the wide path, we have instant gratification and satisfaction. But due to all the items that we use to satisfy ourselves being temporary: food, cars, money, expensive houses, etc., all temporary things, they cannot provide the eternal satisfaction we are all created to experience. Instead they make us constantly work and labour for pleasure in an unceasing rat race, an unceasing pursuit for happiness that cannot truly satisfy us. Thus why we have the highest rates of depression, anxiety and mental illness in the Western World.
In Australia, it’s estimated that 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety.
The world and its pleasures cannot grant true and lasting satisfaction to man, as the world will perish forever, whereas man is eternal and His spirit, his deepest inner most being, yearns for the eternal.
That’s not the only reason we suffer, through our love for the world and worship of the flesh. It’s because we are created to be united to God through an intimate communion. It’s actually the natural state of a human being to be deeply united to Christ in deep love, similar to the union of husband and wife in the sacrament of marriage. This is our natural state of being to experience union with God in the Spirit.
What we are doing now, and how we are living now, is actually a corrupted and broken existence and is deeply unnatural. We weren’t created to live like this. We were created for heavenly life. But once again we face a dilemma. Although we are meant to be naturally united to God in this deep and pure communion, we can’t see Him. He seems so distant. We can’t see His beautiful face, we can’t hear His sweet voice, we don’t feel Him so close to us. But the world and its pleasures are right here and now. They are visible, accessible and so easy to indulge in. It’s easy to continue in an unnatural broken existence. It’s so hard to regain the natural state of man to which we were created.
This is why we are all destined to death, all of humanity, because once sin entered the cosmos it corrupted our nature, it disconnected us from God, we couldn’t see or hear Him anymore, but we could see His creation, so we turned to it for satisfaction. Thus we all were destined to death, disconnected from God who is the source of life.
You might ask me what in the world does any of this have to do with Christmas. Well for the Christian, one of the truest and visible examples, especially for others, of how or whether we have been carried away with the world and have ceased to be Christian at heart (not it name, anyone can be Christian in name) is how we approach this blessed feast of the Incarnation of our God and saviour Jesus Christ, Christmas. Is it all about the food, all about the holidays, all about the beach, all about presents, all about the parties? Is it all about using temporal means to gain temporal satisfaction?
Or is it all about disconnecting from the world and it’s temporary pleasures, fasting sincerely, praying deeply, attending Church as best as we can, giving our time to serve others with joy, seeking the One by whom we can have true satisfaction?
Through the Incarnation, through the Word becoming Flesh, Jesus started the process whereby we could start the process of being freed from the rat race, from the empty pursuit of fulfilment through the lusts of this world, and come face to face with the living God and learn the way of life. He took on our broken nature, the one destined for death and healed it, restored it, united it to Himself and called us to unity with Himself. He called us to a radical love for Him and for others as a means whereby we can enter into communion with Him and find true happiness.
Through fasting, abstaining from too much food so we can demonstrate we don’t want all of God’s gifts for us, so we have more to give to others. Abstaining from the most expensive clothes, cars, houses, etc., allows us to have more to give to others. Through turning away from TV shows and inappropriate movies, we make a stand against the false gospel of the world and proclaim we are different. We are God’s children. Through praying fervently we demonstrate we want God, we proclaim we need God, and start the journey of a relationship with God, whose final result is eternal satisfaction and happiness.
Orthodoxy is Paradoxy. It’s a paradox. I suffer through not satisfying my fleshly lusts, desires and pleasures, and in return I find true satisfaction through giving my whole heart to God and living by His laws and ordinances.
This is why Christ said narrow is the way to life and there are few who find it. This is why He said pick up your cross and follow Me; because to follow God is a struggle. To become natural again requires a radical repentance, a tearing away of our heart from the pleasures of the world and directing them to the service of God.
This is why monasticism is a unique path, followed by many who really love God in our Church. These people taste the world, realise it cannot truly satisfy, they renounce the world; they vomit out the world. They look poor and people can’t understand why they’d leave all the pleasures of the world, but they truly find the Great Pearl, Christ and find true joy. Orthodoxy is indeed a Paradoxy.
We are actually all called to be monastics in our hearts. Even the married are called to monasticism in heart, where we despise the flesh and its lusts, and use this life as a means to enter into true satisfaction through union with our sweet Lord Jesus in and through the Holy Spirit.
How does this happen though? Well it’s actually quite simple. If God is love and the source of all goodness, then the closer I can draw to this God and participate in the grace of God, also known in theology as the energies of God, the more I can enjoy His goodness and find the satisfaction my heart desires. The instruction manual for this way of life is pretty much what the Church teaches us every day, what the Bible proclaims, what the saints wrote about and what the hymns proclaim. It’s all given to us, all we need to do is implement it.
This is the real reason that the Church decided many centuries ago to celebrate the feast of the Incarnation, Christmas. It was a feast that reminded us that God became man that he may make us gods, as St Athanasius said. Not to make us divine, but to raise us to the glory of His Son, and through His grace, to make us reach our full potential as human beings. It was a feast to remind us of the need to tear our heart away from the world and follow the Lord Jesus throughout our lives unto eternal life.
The question I must ask myself then today is: “will I be one with the world in how I approach Christmas this year? Will I continue to enjoy the Incarnation as a celebration of fleshly lusts and desires? Or will I use this period to repent and re-align my mind and heart with the way of Christ and use this time to begin my journey to the ultimate joy, happiness and satisfaction for which I was created?”
Which path will I take? The wide or the narrow?