Life of Virtue & Righteousness (8)
Pope Shenouda III | 5 September 2010
Definition, aim, and means
What is virtue? Is it mere name or title, such as prayer, fasting, ministry, or charity, or there are measures for it?
The three measures by which any virtue is proved as true or false are definition, aim, and means.
What is it? Is it a talk with God, or mere reciting, and how is it done? How feelings, understanding, and attachment to God are measured?
Are you aware of the God to whom you talk, He before whom Angels and archangels stand, the Creator, the Unlimited, King of kings, and Lord of lords? With what awe and reverence one should speak to Him! Our father Abraham speaking to Him, said, "I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord." (Gen 18: 27)
With what love should we speak to such a compassionate Father to whom David the Prophet said, "My soul thirsts for You; my soul longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water." (Ps 63: 1)
Prayer truly is spiritual enjoyment of being in God's presence, and such enjoyment ought to be the aim of Prayer rather than mere requests. God Himself ought to be our request, as David said, "Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide Your face from me." (Ps 27: 8)
Prayer is not a mere duty one performs or excuses himself sometimes of, having no time for it, as if not enjoying it!
It is not a duty imposed on you or mere fulfillment of a spiritual schedule to avoid conscience remorse, but rather a need to pray, a need for God and His power to support and help you.
Prayer is communion with the angels who sing God's praises.
Prayer is a bridge connecting earth and heaven, and connecting man to heaven. It is a source of spiritual satisfaction, as David the Prophet says, "I will lift up my hands in Your name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness." (Ps 63: 4, 5) Prayer then is the nourishment of the spirit, as food for the body. Therefore, one should first know what Prayer is, in order to pray with love, with understanding, with faith of being in the presence of God, enjoying His presence.
If in the depth of your prayer you got tears, do not be occupied with them but with God, for tears are not the aim of prayer. Keep your love for God, and do not commit sins lest they take you away from God and remove away the familiarity you have with Him in prayer, for He said to the sinful people, "When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood." (Isa 1: 15)
How do you define Fasting? Is it mere overcoming of the body and depriving it from its desired food? Is control over the body a mere means of control over one's self, mind, senses, and will?
Is it mere fasting of the body, or also of the mind, the tongue, and the soul?
Is it a state of abstention from food, or a state of asceticism? Do you only abstain from some food you desire, or you have reached the level of having no desire at all for food? It is rather silencing the body to give the spirit room to speak, or subjecting the body to give the spirit room to work freely.
You have to understand the nature of fasting to benefit spiritually from it, and to practice it spiritually. In your fast, say to the Lord, 'O Lord, I have to give my body its need of food to keep it alive so that it may take part with the spirit in spiritual action, to unite with You, not for a material desire. Eating is not the aim.' Consider then the aim and the means of your fast.
What is it? Is it giving from the rich to the poor, with the feeling of giving from one's money? Nay, brother, giving with such feeling will not benefit you. God is the Giver, and He entrusts you with His money to give it to those who deserve it, otherwise it will be money of oppression.
With this concept, you should not boast of giving.
You do not give of your own money, but of God's. It is true that mere desire to give the poor or mere obeying the commandment is a virtue, yet, always remember that it is God who granted you this desire to give and to obey the commandment, why boasting then? As the apostle says, "It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure." (Phil 2: 13)
Whom you ought to give?
Give those He called His brothers, "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me." (Mt 25: 40) They are not beggars or needy, but "the Lord's brothers". You should treat them not from above, but gently, without humiliating or rebuking them. You just carry to them what God gives them, and you give Christ in them, for He says, "I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink … I was naked and you clothed Me …" (Mt 25: 35, 36)
Charity is love communion with the needy.
Giving ought to be with love, satisfying all the needs of the poor, not only part. You can seek the assistance of others to fulfill that. Remember the words: "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so. Do not say to your neighbor, 'Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,' when you have it with you." (Prov 3: 27, 28) "Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard." (Prov 21: 13)
What is ministry?
It is not mere church activity: Sunday Schools, social service, administration, or financial work. It is not mere teaching, preaching, or knowledge.
Ministry is a spirit flowing from one person to another.
It is an example given by somebody to the others, or a spiritual word conveyed through church work. Knowledge is the means, while salvation of the souls is the true aim, as St. James the Apostle says, "He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins." (Jas 5: 20) St. Peter likewise says, "… receiving the end of your faith – the salvation of your souls." (1 Pet 1: 9)
Edification of the Kingdom is likewise an aim of the ministry. All the means should lead to these aims. Naturally, for the edification of the Kingdom one cannot work alone but needs communion with God, for, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it." (Ps 127: 1) The Lord also says, "Without Me you can do nothing." (Jn 15: 5)
Ministry then is communion with God in work.
St. Paul said about himself and Apollos that they are God's fellow workers (1 Cor 3: 9)! Consider then how you work, and say to Him the words of the Litany, [Take part in work with Your servants in every good work.]
Ministry is God's work in you, with you, and through you, so, you should first get filled by God.
This is the means leading to the aim, "Be filled with the Spirit." (Eph 5: 18) Be filled that you may flow on the others.
To seek the salvation of the others, you should love them.
Ministry is a message of love. If you love the others, let them love God as you have loved Him, taste Him as you have done, and declare His name to them, as the Lord did to His disciples. He said to the Father in the Soliloquy, "I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them." (Jn 17: 26)
God works in the ministry, so, prayer is an important means, rather than mere labor, preaching, and teaching. To yield fruit and to give a word of benefit, you have to pour yourself before God in prayer. St. Paul sought the prayer of others that utterance may be given to him when he speaks about the mystery of the gospel (Eph 6: 19), how much rather should we? Also, pray that God may give the word power to enter into the heart and have influence and yield fruit lest it falls on a stony place, among thorns, or be devoured by the birds (Mt 13).
Ministry is for the edification of the kingdom, not the minister.
Many ministers aim at edifying themselves, giving room to the ego to interfere, that is why God rebuked the shepherds who fed themselves and did not search for the flock (Ezek 34: 8, 9). Therefore, in your ministry chant with the Psalmist, "Not unto us, O Lord, but to Your name give glory." (Ps 115: 1)
Behave in your ministry with humbleness, like a servant.
Many actually forget that they are servants, while St. Augustine says his beautiful words about his flock, [Remember, O Lord, my lords, Your servants.]
Many people avoid talking and love silence, seeing that it is a virtue, but is all talk sin, or all silence virtue? Let us see the definition of each and its relationship with virtue. St. Barsonofius, when asked about this, said: [Silence for God's sake is good, and talk for God's sake is good. For Your sake, O God, we keep silent, and for Your sake we talk. We keep silent to have an opportunity to pray and to meditate and to keep away from wrong talk, but we talk when our word is of benefit or gives comfort, counsel, warning, or testimony to You or to Your kingdom.] As the Wise man said, "The mouth of the righteous is a well of life." (Prov10: 11)
If talking is a necessary virtue, then we may be condemned for our silence! In all cases, we should glorify God whether by our words or by our silence. Talk is not a power stored within us that needs to come out to the ears of people, though with no aim, or even if that power is destructive to the peace and spirituality of the others! In such a case, silence will be better until God gives you word to say, as the Psalmist says, "Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise." (Ps 51: 51) The Lord therefore says, "It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you." (Mt 10: 20) Consider then which type is your talk; whether silence is for prayer and meditation, or with accompanied with sinful thoughts! Furthermore, if you talk about the truth your words must be true.
True knowledge is not mere information, but that which edifies you and others through you. Therefore you should be strict concerning what you ought to know or what not, not as the first man did when he ate from the tree of knowledge and became ignorant, having got the knowledge of evil as well. The wise man said, "He who increases knowledge increases sorrow." (Eccl 1: 18) Such is the knowledge of things harmful to the mind or bringing suspicions, which the apostle describes as knowledge that puffs up (1 Cor 8: 1).
Spiritual knowledge is the knowledge of God and His ways.
The Lord said in the soliloquy, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." (Jn 17: 3) The Psalmist likewise says, "Show me Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths." (Ps 25: 4)
There is yet other useful knowledge:
Such is to know yourself, to know your weakness that you may be humbled, to know your wars that you may struggle and conquer, to know the wiles of Satan that you may keep away from them, and to know the truth that the truth may free you.