ENGLISH VERSION: The Feast of Inner Silence. Sermon on the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (November 21 / December 4, 2011) by Bishop Gregory (Lourie) of Petrograd and Gdov
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. Although the historical outlines of this event remain in many ways unclear to us, we of course must completely discard the arrogant opinion of non-churchly or pseudo-churchly people of the nineteenth and especially the twentieth centuries who, proceeding from their superficial knowledge of the circumstances of the time when all this happened, said that nothing of the sort could have happened, that this event is legendary.
They thought that the accounts arose only later, 500 or at least 400 years after the alleged events, because at that time they were known only in accounts from later manuscripts. But an interesting thing happened: later, by God’s providence, these people’s opinions were put to shame directly from their own scholarship. Because in the middle of the twentieth century a third-century papyrus was found in which all these events are described. Moreover, from an analysis of this text it became evident that still earlier texts, no earlier than the second century, had been rewritten there.
Thus it turns out that it was precisely those people who still remembered the circumstances of the time that created this account. In other words, it means that this account is indeed authentic and speaks of historical events that simply remain unclear to us. But whatever the historical events may have been, the most important thing is not this, of course, but rather the spiritual meaning of today’s account. What is it? The Mother of God, after she had grown up a little, stayed in the Temple from the age of three to twelve in constant prayer and handiwork. Moreover, she was not just anywhere, simply in some room somewhere into which no one would have entered, but in the Holy of Holies, that is, in the holiest place on earth, in God’s dwelling place. Her parents dedicated her to God and brought her to God’s dwelling place according to their vow.
As we recall from the earlier part of the same account, in memory of which the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos was established on September 8 on the ecclesiastical calendar, the Theotokos was born to elderly and childless parents who already could no longer have children in the natural manner or even hope for this. But after fervent prayer, which too was inspired by God’s providence, they were granted one and, understanding this, they dedicated the child to God. She was dedicated to God because there was something about her even greater, about which we all know and now cannot speak.
This is the dogmatic and mystical meaning of this event. And what do we need to understand from all this? How can we apply this to our lives? After all, we must remember that there are no dogmatic truths that should not simultaneously be applied to our lives. Everything that has meaning in eternity has another, different but related meaning, in relation to each one of us.
If we do not understand how one or another dogmatic truth applies to the lives of each one of is that means that we do not understand that dogmatic thought, even if we respond correctly when asked, because true understanding occurs only when we realize it in our lives. Conversely, when we begin to apply it in our lives, only then do we arrive at a correct understanding.
In the given case, of course, we are saying that every one of us in his personal life needs to enter the Temple. But how can this be done if even in the case of the Mother of God only the high priest on a certain festal day could enter the Holy of Holies? No one of us would be allowed to enter therein. And today that Holy of Holies no longer even physically exists. Where can we go?
The answer to that question is already contained in the Gospel, which speaks of how one needs to pray, namely that we need to close the inner door of our cell, go into the innermost part of our cell – that is, the upper room of the heart – and there call upon God. That is how one ought to pray. The Lord speaks of this in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. This is that very Holy of Holies that is now given to us in the New Testament, as the Holy Fathers explain to us. Here our mind – what today we call our spirit – becomes the high priest offering sacrifice to God. This is how we ought to live.
Therefore today’s feast day is one of holy silence for each of us, of hesychia, of how we should shut ourselves in our inner cell and from there call upon God. Some, who have been educated in Orthodox ascetical literature, may already understand this, and there is nothing more to say. And what about all the rest, who have not been so educated?
For them, these very words – "inner cell," "high priest," "offering sacrifice" – are likely incomprehensible. What is all this? I will not attempt to give a full explanation of this, because in just a few seconds one cannot explain that which one achieves only through an education in spiritual literature, but one can briefly say the most important things.
In order to pray one needs to be able to be solitary. I do not have in mind simply being physical solitary, which is only a means for being innerly solitary – a means that is not always necessarily and is never sufficient. Rather, inside us we need a space in which we are always alone, and from which space we can speak with the rest of the world. Only then will we be praying.
Without this solitariness we will only be enclosed, but we will still have a storm of emotion, all kinds of thoughts, and no prayer, even if we try to pray. We will always need to deal with distractions and we will forget that we had wanted to pray, and so on.
We must at all times remain within – or, to put it in modern terms, be as if in a tank or, if you will, a submarine, from which one can never exit, praying there at all times and communicating with the outside world only through devices, windows, manipulators, and other technical advices. There is no need to communicate directly.
If someone should then ask how we are to help people, the Holy Fathers answer: "if you see a drowning man, then give him your staff, but not your hand." Because we cannot help a drowning man if we get too close. We are not commanded to do this, but rather to give him a staff. Then if he wants he can receive our help.
If we give him our hand, he may want various things. He may not want us to help him, but rather to pull us in after him. This should not happen. Therefore we should try to live so as never to leave our inner cell, but to communicate with the external world without leaving it.
But this is easy to say and, as we can easily see, it is not just difficult but impossible. In actual fact, it is not entirely impossible. It is just that in this case we need training. After all, we are not surprised when athletes do not immediately attain some record or impressive result, but first train strenuously for years. We are not surprised when some workman does what he does well not immediately, because he is talented, but only after training. Yes, he has a talent – if he were not talented, then no amount of training would help him learn – but in order to realize this talent many years of training was necessary.
Everyone has a talent for prayer, because this talent is part of human nature and there is no one deprived of this talent. But we can give it up and stop using it, in which case it is destroyed. Therefore we must train. Then this talent will grow and bear fruit. Only then will it be realized.
Therefore one must first train oneself, and later there will be results. This is the case in all things, but in the spiritual life first of all. In order to have an inner cell, in order to be able to remain in it and really pray there, we must begin with something simple, like just going to church and trying to pray there. This is very important. Moreover, it is important to spend as much time as one can there. Orthodox services are very long because one cannot readjust oneself in the space of an hour. These long Orthodox services are important so that we can readjust ourselves and begin to live in the world spoken of in the divine services. For this reason the Mother of God did not spend five minutes or even a year in the Holy of Holies, but from age three to twelve.
All the more then should we remain in church – and not only in church, but also in our prayers at home, for which we should allocate special time. This also applies to other matters relating to our spiritual lives, such as reading ascetical literature.
All this should be in our lives long-term so that we get exercise in this, so that we can soak this in, grow accustomed to it, and live in it, rather than in television, for example, or the Internet, or in our communication with people at work. Yes, we find ourselves in all these places, and receive a flow of information from them, but it should not flood us.
This should be like precipitation, which does not penetrate our cells. And if the cell leaks, then it needs to be repaired. What is this repair? It is above all repentance. Repentance means not simply going to Confession, although this is essential, but also correcting one’s life as much as possible.
I remind you that the fruits of repentance are not one or another emotional state that we experience, but rather the keeping of God’s commandments alone. If ye love Me, the Lord says, keep My commandments. He who keeps them loves Christ, and he who does not keep them does not. And whether one cries a lot or has a great deal of enthusiasm is beside the point. If one values these states, that speaks only about the fact that he values them, and not about God; this person is not a believer and may be in delusion.
Therefore let us strive to enter that temple that is always open. Through Communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ this temple is made as holy, and even more holy, than that historical Holy of Holies, which already no longer exists, and into which the Mother of God was led. Therefore today’s feast day should be for us that which it is in actual fact: a feast of inner silence.
Bishop Gregory (Lourie) of Petrograd