From May 30th to June 3rd the clergy and some of their wives gathered together with Bishop Peter Stasiuk and Bishop Venedykt, Auxiliary to the Archbishop of L’viv, for their annual spiritual retreat, at Pallotti College, in the stunning beauty of the Yarra Valley. This year’s retreat was a particularly graced time for all who attended, as we met together for prayer, worship, fellowship, and the joy of catching up with friends from inter-state. Our retreat master this year was Bishop Venedykt. This turned out to be a refreshing and challenging choice, as Vladyko Venedykt has much to offer. He is possessed of a rare blend of spirituality and practical wisdom. He has an astute knowledge of our times, a clear-sighted view of the problems of our age, both within and outside of the church, but crowning all of this, he is able to inject a very piercing and crystalline monastic spirituality that draws upon the radiance of the patristic tradition in the discourses he gave to us over four days. He was adept at weaving together the elements of byzantine hesychastic spirituality, practical asceticism, many elements from the western religious and academic traditions, as well as his native “Orthodox” monastic tradition, making his discourses both engaging, fresh, and challenging. I will reflect on the retreat of 2016 in four sections, which do not represent the summation of all that was shared at the retreat, but are four vignettes which capture the essential elements which came to the forefront for me.
1. God is not absent and removed from the world
Bishop Venedykt was able to powerfully demonstrate through a sustained meditation on the mystery of the Cross that God is not absent, but is one who enters the world, so fully in fact, that he is crucified and undergoes the death we will all have to undergo at the last. Unless we accept Christ our crucified saviour as a scandal, and as foolishness, there can be no possibility of the gospel of freedom in Christ. He is a scandal to those who want God to be some sort of power figure, the deity of a primitive sort of group “religion”, and foolishness to those who want a God that fits neatly into an intellectually constructed artifice: comfortable, safe, and ungenerous. We will be serving our own ego-centric needs first, fashioning a false idol and bowing down in worship not to the true and living God, but to something we have created, which we want, and which we control. The reality is that the scandal of the Cross is as difficult to understand and accept today as it was 2000 years ago. There cannot be a truly Christian path through this life that seeks to evade the cross and still retain its integrity and vitality: “In the Cross of Christ I glory.” It is through the Cross that the One we long for, longs for us, speaking directly to each and every one of us from the centre of pain, abandonment, failure, and defeat. Yet this is the place from which new life, and the joy of the resurrection, springs forth. “I came that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”. To recognise this gift, which is in each and every one of us, nourishes the life of faith as ministers and servants of Christ, and is the heart and core of every Christian’s lifelong search.
2. We remember, only to forget
Within our culture, which emphasises “self” in so many ways, there are deeply held convictions that obstruct our vision of God’s presence among us. After a period of recollection we inevitably must return to the daily routines and challenges of our life in the world. This is where Vladyka was able to draw deeply on the collected wisdom of the monastic tradition, exploring a kind of practical asceticism of the “unseen warfare” which is designed to strip away these illusions of the ego-self, and guide us into a way of living that is simply present before the presence of God. Practically speaking, we human beings actually inhabit several “worlds” at the same time. The spiritual, the bodily, the intellectual, the mercantile, and the hedonic, for example, are all aspects of life simultaneously present within our lives symbolically as “worlds” that shape us as humans, and which interact and influence each other within the dynamic life of the human personality. This theme was constantly present in our reflections upon the body, the soul, and the spirit as “layers” within every human life. In the gift and joy of a “calling” we have to each promise to change our lives, not just once, but as a promise which must be renewed and pursued with every breath we take, until our very last. Herein lies the arena where the struggle must take place against all that separates us from God, and which obstructs our path to the freedom of faithful service in Christ. Our freedom for communion with God is a freedom for that sacred exchange between God and Man, a sharing of God for which we were created. We are to live a life of Communion.
3. Inner attention and the remembrance of God.
The bishop insistently demonstrated the need for an inner state of vigilance and watchfulness amid the activities and confusions of life. There is an art to “remembering” that must find actual time – seconds, minutes, and hours – within the framework of every passing day of only 24 hours. It is within the 24 hours of every day that the tendency of sleep and forgetting overtake us. We need to find time to be alone with God, and this is what the monks call vigilance and watchfulness. It arises from the Christian hope, that we live in the joyful expectation that we are going to meet the Lord. We are not to practise this for its own sake, but vigilance and watchfulness guide us into a wider and more expansive life, the more abundant life which Jesus came to give us. Salvation is precisely this: a bestowal of life – just as we sing at Pascha- “and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”. To be “saved” is to be made “more alive”, and to participate in a larger, more vivid, and unified, life made possible through the Holy Spirit.
4. Openness to the currents of earthly and divine life
Speaking in ways that seemed very pregnant with symbols and meaning drawn from the writings of Vladimir Solov’yov, the bishop spoke of that uniquely Eastern Christian concept of “Bogochelovechestvo”- divine humanity, or “God-manhood.” In sharing His divine life with us, God is drawing us into the “fullness of being”. We do not accept the dualistic notion of escape from the world, flight from the body, or rejection of the physical and “enfleshed” nature of the human person, but seek their transfiguration; nothing is abandoned by God, who seeks us through the glorious flesh of His Son. In Christ we behold the human “flesh” transfigured in glory; it is a promise that our human nature is permeated by the divine, that our sufferings, and even our death is redeemed in joy, nothing is lost, and all is gathered together. The “holy and glorious flesh” speaks directly to us of the transformation of matter by the Holy Spirit. In the face of Christ, “One of the Holy Trinity” we are led to gaze again and again upon the radiant beauty, upon the face of divine love.
Fr. Justin McDonnell