Longing to See the Lord

8 March 2021

All these Sundays before Great Lent initiate us into the wisdom of repentance and every Sunday gives us constants, principles that we must keep throughout this period for our renewal. All the lessons we receive now are meant to help us realise the greatest task of our life, that of discovering our heart and become true images of God, able to converse with Him face to Face. The Sunday of Zacchaeus has two main major themes. The first is the significance of voluntary shame in cleansing ourselves from the shame of sin that we have accumulated in this life. The second theme is the desire of God. If our ascetical labours during Great Lent are to be perfect, we need the desire of God to prevail over all things, for it is this desire that turns the whole heart to God. Saint Anthony did not measure his spiritual progress by the number of years he had spent in the desert, but by the amount of godly desire he had in his heart every time he stood before God. Godly desire overcomes every other passionate desire in this world, and then God comes to reign in our heart as King. When man turns to God like Zacchaeus, he becomes taught of God and he utters things with eternal value. It is God Who speaks through him, Who justifies him and renews his life.

Question: Was Zacchaeus in a state of grace to have this desire to see Christ?

Archim. Zacharias: Grace began to work in Zacchaeus from the moment he did not consider his own honour, but gave precedence to his desire to see the Face of Christ. He ignored the good opinion of the crowd and concentrated only on seeing the Countenance of the Lord. Our soul is satiated when we are counted worthy to see His Face: ‘As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness’ (Ps. 17:15). Then the purpose of man’s coming into this world is fulfilled.

Question: How can a man acquire desire for God? Are we born with it?

Archim. Zacharias: We are all born with a certain innate possibility to acquire the desire of God. In order to receive grace, we must learn to humble ourselves, because God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud. Humility attracts the grace of God, which becomes inspiration and desire of God in us. Humility and the fear of God make man brave. When man has the fear of God and humility, he is afraid of nothing. Even if heaven and earth collide, he will not be shaken. He fears only one thing: not to sin against the love of his Redeemer. Zacchaeus did not say he would correct his injustices because the crowds murmured, but because of the energy of the presence of Christ. Such things cannot be decided and uttered by thinking in a psychological way. Such things come from grace boiling in the deep heart. Then man becomes like a lion in his repentance, standing before God and turning every arrow of accusation against himself with the sole desire to please Him.

Question: Can we find a balance between low self-esteem and humility?

Archim. Zacharias: This is the contrast between the psychological and spiritual level of life. As heaven is far above the earth, so is humility far above low self-esteem. Low self-esteem may be a form of self-pity or of hurt pride because of our poverty. Whereas humility is a dynamic sensation and desire that the glory of God may increase even through our decrease. These are two things which cannot be compared. We must not forget that humility is an attribute of divinity. All His manifestation on earth was an act of humility and condescension, an act of coming down to meet the lost sheep, laying aside all His glory, assuming even the shame of the Cross in order to save the world. Low-self esteem has nothing to do with the perspective of humility, which is infinite in that it is a divine virtue of Christ, which has covered the heavens (Hab. 3:3).

Question: How can we balance the calling of God with the world we live in?

Archim. Zacharias: One of the greatest temptations is to give too much significance and appreciation to the patterns and values of this world; to try and make the love of God compatible with the love of this world. It is not possible. The grace and the word of God are absolute, and when we assimilate the truth of His word and the strength of His grace, we are enabled to discern the things of this world and know that they are relative and insignificant compared to the things of God. We strive continually to acquire the light of the grace of God, and in His Light we shall see and evaluate all else: ‘In Thy light we shall see light’ (Ps. 36:9).

Question: Would Christ have refused to meet Zacchaeus if he had acted only out of curiosity?

Archim. Zacharias: If the Lord foresaw that he would be prompted by His word to change his life, He would have come to meet him. This is what He did with Nicodemus, who understood nothing of the spiritual rebirth in the Spirit, and yet the Lord received him and expounded to him the highest teaching about the new birth from on high. When we enter the world of the Spirit and embark on an adventure with God, there are no rules, no recipes: we simply follow the wind of grace.

Question: Are we not in a way always late to follow the Lord’s calling, unlike Zacchaeus?

Archim. Zacharias: For such things there is no program. We cannot say that it is too late or too early: our duty is to respond. When God calls, obey. That is all. There is no time which is late, because we know that the Lord rewards the workers of the last hour as those of the first, for He is good and gives all things to all men.

Question: How do we discern God’s calling from any other fake images of our own mind?

Archim. Zacharias: People often ask: ‘How can I know that my desire to be a monk or a nun is the will of God?’ If the will of God is active in us, it is so powerful that there is no other will. It devours the whole of man’s being. If man truly receives the inspiration and the calling to the monastic life, he can do nothing else, because he senses the absolute value of the life to which God calls him.

Question: Can we, as a married couple living in the world, dedicate all our life to Christ and live outside the camp of this world (Heb. 13:13)?

Archim. Zacharias: No one ever said that Christian life is easy: the commandments of God are not human exhortations, but the way in which He lives Himself. He gives these commandments to us so that we may become like unto Him, and this is not easy. Nevertheless, in the lives of the saints we find representatives from every category of people, including married couples who pleased God and became saints. If a couple in the world lives in peace, love and concord, and they set as a priority in their life to please God, surely God will give them the grace and humility to walk uprightly, keep all the commandments and ordinances of God, thus becoming righteous and holy.

Question: How do we overcome the sense of futility in serving people who do not want God?

Archim. Zacharias: By continually accumulating the traces of grace in our heart, seeing that the true destiny of man and his true habitation is not in this world, but in the world to come. It is only through grace that we build up our future habitation.

Question: Does God speak to us through our conscience?

Archim. Zacharias: Yes, our conscience is an unwritten law of God within us. The more we read the written word of God and the more this word dwells in us, the more powerful it becomes in guiding and inspiring our life. It is the same with our conscience: the more we cleanse it and obey it, the sharper it becomes and, as Saint Andrew of Crete says, there is nothing more violent in this world than man’s own conscience rebuking him for his sin and prompting him to correct his life for the sake of God.

Question: Is there any connection between the foolishness you spoke about and what Saint Sophrony calls ‘utter self-emptying’?

Archim. Zacharias: Yes. Saint Paul describes foolishness as not putting our confidence in our little mind and natural gifts, but in Him Who is able even to raise the dead (2 Cor. 1:9). This is true foolishness, which has value before God. Utter self-emptying, on the other hand, refers to the unique self-emptying of our Lord. Even in the hymns of the Holy Week, He is called ‘the extreme humility’, ‘the extreme self-emptying’. This is an absolute title that the Lord deserves. As for ourselves, we do not come to such a measure, but we try to follow hard after the steps of our Master.

Question: How can we confess now that churches are closed or the priest is far away?

Archim. Zacharias: If you have a long-standing relationship with your spiritual father to whom you confessed in the past years of your life, now, because of the necessity and the hardness of the times, you can do it in writing. You have not entered the Church yesterday; you have been 30-40 years in the Church now. In the letters of Saint Barsanuphius the Great, we see that he continually receives the confession of the monks from his surroundings and he gives them a word to benefit their life, to help them improve and become stronger in their spiritual struggle.

Question: Some priests do not give you Holy Communion, even if you tell them that you have the blessing of your spiritual father to partake without confessing every time.

Archim. Zacharias: I know that in some places it is required that the person should confess in that very parish in order to have Communion. In our monastery, if we are told that someone has the blessing of their spiritual father, we are one family and we honour the word of that spiritual father without asking further questions: that which a spiritual father decides should be respected in every place. In our Monastery, someone may have a thought or temptation, and he confesses it to you in the refectory or on the path. The priest cannot produce an epitrachelion and read a prayer at that moment. That is why before the Liturgy we read the prayer of absolution for all.

Question: How to remain faithful to the decision to correct ourselves for the rest of our life?

Archim. Zacharias: Saint Paul was taken up to the third heaven and yet, in order to preserve that grace, he went to meet Peter, John and James so as to have a point of reference in the Church. They recognised the gift of God in him and confirmed it. Therefore, we preserve our inspiration and desire for God, if we always join the assembly of the faithful, of the Church, where all have the same desire. Then our inspiration will not decrease.

Question: How is the total repentance of Zacchaeus, a once in a lifetime event, connected with the saying of the Fathers, ‘If you fall, get up again’, which points to a constant need for repentance?

Archim. Zacharias: In the 4th century, in the desert of Egypt, the constant prayer of all the ascetics was: ‘Lord, give me the spirit of repentance,’ because they knew that repentance is like a circle of fire that prevents man from falling into sin. There is a moment of radical confession, but this is only the beginning of salvation, not salvation itself. The Holy Fathers say that if man wants, from morning until evening he can attain to a divine measure. Yet, Father Sophrony said that this must happen every day.

Question: What advice would you give someone who wants to repent and struggles to keep the grace of God?

Archim. Zacharias: This is no simple matter. If we turn with all our heart to God, if we repent and weep before Him, He will fill us with His consolation. But how to preserve that? This is the problem we all have. Well, when we have tasted that the Lord is good, we make it a purpose to be pleasing to Him, day by day. Then we discipline ourselves and this becomes our main task in our life: to always live under the shadow of His grace. That is why Saint Paul says ‘I discipline myself, I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway’ (1 Cor. 9:27). Thus, we learn to preserve grace more and more. Do not be astonished if you lose it a thousand times. We keep losing grace, but one thing remains: we never stop seeking for it and humbling ourselves until God is well-pleased to return to us. In a kneeling prayer of Pentecost, we say: ‘To Thee we sin, O Lord, but it is Thee that we adore.’ Our adoration must become stronger and stronger so that it may swallow up all our sins.

Question: Can you say a word about the feast of the Meeting of our Lord?

Archim. Zacharias: Righteous Symeon had the same desire to see the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26), and this desire kept him alive for many years. When he receives the Lord in his arms he sung his triumphal song, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace… for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ (Luke 2:29-30). THE DESIRE OF GOD KEEPS THE SOUL ALIVE. Even his desire to depart from this life and be with God was in the perspective of Saint Paul’s words: ‘having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better’ (Phil. 1:23). Such is the desire of the perfect.