How Open Are We to Encountering God?
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
How many of us can say we have ever seen God? Or could any say we have encountered God’s presence in some special way in our lives? We read about miracles in the Bible, and throughout Church history, and yet, some people will say, “Why don’t those things happen today?” Or if someone says, “Yes, God does act in the world today” there will be plenty of skeptics who doubt, question, and outright reject such claims of faith.
Does God really enter into our world in a tangible way? St. Seraphim of Sarov, the great mystic and 19th century saint of Russia, described how during the Divine Liturgy he actually saw angels around the altar table, and the host of saints filling up the space where he worshipped. Have any of us witnessed such wonders when we worship? Is it possible to see such things, or experience such wonders?
For many in our church, we can actually say we saw an amazing miracle several times over the past years when the Kardiotissa icon of the Virgin Mary and then the Hawaiian Iveron icon came to our Church, and we saw wooden icons stream with myrrh. Out of a piece of wood this sweet smelling holy oil was flowing, and has continued to do so for the past 10 years. Some of us saw this with our own eyes and we then heard of miraculous healings from cancer and other illnesses. But as time passes, many become skeptical can are unsure when we hear that some people actually had miraculous healings from being anointed with the myrrh. God visited us through those holy icons, and yet we still doubt.
Life is a deep mystery, just as faith is an unfathomable mystery. We all are on a journey in which God is present everywhere, all around us, and yet so often we simply don’t have the eyes of faith to see and believe. Why is that? Why can some people see and feel God’s presence everywhere, and others get lost in doubt and uncertainties, and outright skepticism and rejection. There’s nothing wrong with doubts and questions, as long as we continue the journey, seeking out answers, and pursuing God!
Today’s Gospel story of the Sower and the Seed may help us understand the challenges of this journey, and the obstacles that prevent us from cultivating hearts of faith.
Christ tells a story relevant to his listeners, mostly whom were farmers. Maybe some of us can understand the essence of this story when we compare it to our gardening efforts. “There was a farmer planting seeds, and as he threw the seeds, they fell on different types of ground. Some seed fell on HARD SOIL, which could not penetrate the ground. Some seed fell on ROCKY SOIL, which did not allow roots to grow. Some fell on THORNY SOIL, which eventually choked the growing plants. Finally, some fell on soft, CULTIVATED, PREPARED SOIL. Only this seed fully developed, with roots deep in the ground. Only this plant produced fruit.
Note that the central focus of this story is not on the farmer, who represents God, nor on the seed, which are His holy Word, His teachings. Instead, the story concentrates on the soil, which represents our hearts! Here lies the central challenge to each one of us, as we listen. What type of soil do our hearts possess? Can the wonders of faith find a place to not only take root in our hearts and lives, and grow and flourish there? Here lies the great challenge for contemporary man. We, too often, have allowed the spirit of this world, with all its skepticism and doubt, combined with all the human pride and arrogance that comes from the progress of humanity and the brilliance of discovery, to deaden our eyes of faith. We become like the soil which doesn’t allow the seeds of faith to grow.
Think about the first seed which falls on the hard ground. This hard surface obviously represents a hard heart. A heart not open to learn. A heart not interested to grow. A heart full of pride and arrogance that it has no room for faith. A heart that ignores the Gospel and Christ’s teachings, because it believes there is little to learn. How many people, in and outside the church today, have such closed hearts? We who come to church must ask ourselves, “Do we come to listen and to truly hear God’s voice and learn how to apply His teachings in our daily lives, no matter how inconvenient or difficult they may be?”
When some seed falls on the rocky soil, this describes the type of land in Israel which has a thin layer of dirt covering a foundation of rock. A seed’s roots can begin to grow, but quickly stop when they run into the rock foundation. The soil has no depth. Can this describe our own hearts and minds? How many Christians who, at one time lived their faith with joy and passion, allowed their hearts to become cold and indifferent to Christ’s message? Maybe certain pastimes and habits have stunted the growth of faith in our lives. Do we sincerely allow Christ to “interfere,” in a healthy way, with our lives.
Other seed falls into soil with thorns. This soil is good and rich, with much potential. Surely, the Gospel can take root and grow in such hearts. The problem, however, is that growing alongside the good seed are weeds and thorns. In our walk as Christians, such weeds and thorns threaten to crowd out Christ and His teachings. Our Church Fathers talk about the three most common and threatening weeds -- cares or anxieties of the world, the deceit of riches, and our desire for pleasure. Anxiety, riches, and pleasure. Society bombards us with these temptations. Some such temptations may not appear bad in and of themselves. Yet to allow the seed of faith to take root, we have to take care that nothing in our lives crowds out our Lord. If anything in our lives makes us too busy to find time with God, if anything takes away our primary focus and loyalty to Christ, then such things have become weeds and thorns endangering our spiritual wellbeing. We must dig such weeds out and cast them aside.
Ultimately, our goal in the Christian life is to cultivate hearts with fertile, rich soil. Such hearts not only accept seeds of faith, but becomes fertile ground for our faith to grow unhindered. It is precisely such hearts, which as they grow with faith, begin to see God all around. They witness the wonders and beauty of Christ in everything and even in everyone. Miracles will not be unbelievable events we read about in Holy Scripture, but will be daily occurrences which experience. We will encounter God daily, because we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear!
Yet, how do we cultivate hearts with such fertile ground? Any gardener knows that good soil is a mixture of natural gifts and careful cultivation. The soil may have many nutrients, which are given by God, but the gardener must still diligently work in the garden. The ground needs water and sun, yet the gardener must constantly cultivate the soil. Jesus shared this story because it reflects our spiritual life. We cannot cultivate an authentic spiritual life without daily and patient effort, without struggle to battle dark thoughts and actions, without self-examination and repentance, without discipline and an ascetical struggle. We cannot nourish a spiritual life learning and growing in the faith without participating in the sacraments/mysteries of the Church.
God’s grace works together with our effort. Synergy and cooperation with God. As we live this life with God, in Christ, our eyes will open more and more, our hearts will expand and embrace God’s Spirit, and we will then see the world with very different eyes. We will have eyes of faith to encounter God each and every day! Let’s work at cultivating hearts with fertile and good soil.