Recently I attended an outdoor concert of poet, writer, singer, and philosopher Leonard Cohen. I remember studying Cohen's poems in my high school religion course many years ago. His deep, monotone, hypnotic voice resonates as strong as ever, though time (and cigarettes and whisky, he says) has taken its toll on the 'cool' radical.
Cohen has long dabbled in religious imagery. Jewish by birth, he has gone through a wide range of beliefs and now considers himself to be a Zen Buddhist. Still this hasn't stopped him from expressing his attraction to the person of Jesus Christ.
I remember an interview he gave in a poetry magazine:
I always liked the founder of Christianity ... The thing is that his moral stance is unequalled -he's the only guy who has put himself squarely with the outcast, with the leper, with the sinner, with the prostitute, with the criminal. Nobody is excluded from his embrace. There have been some startling religious figures, but I don't think there is anybody who said so specifically that nobody is beyond this embrace. It's so subversive and so revolutionary that we haven't even begun to deal with it. It's a miracle those ideas have lasted in the world, because there's no evidence that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Leonard's words are strikingly true and reveal some theological insight. But why it is that so many are drawn to the teachings and life of Jesus, yet they find it impossible to follow Him? Are Christians the problem? What are we doing wrong? People like Cohen tell us how they see Christianity and how they want to Christians to live. Why do we, more often than not, let them down?
Maybe we need a return to the unexpected nature of love. We often act what we think it means to be a Christian and so our life appears superficial. The impact of our actions and words become meaningless because they no longer have any real meaning to us. What would happen if we really took God seriously? Can you imagine the impact the Church would have if every Christian were a saintly witness?
This overflowing expression of God's love towards us and our love towards others is what John Chrysostom called the "world of sanctity, [where] there is room for the entire world; for saintliness is all-embracing, all-inclusive, loving." The nuns at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City understand and practice the need to embrace even the sinner. They write:
When [we] love each other in the spiritual sense, not sensually, [we] actually recognize God dwelling within the other. As we greet someone, we worship God, for man is the icon of God. But when we express hatred for someone, we have become an iconoclast, for we hate the image of God-which is man. Man is a living icon. Each man is a separate depth, but Christian love is a bridge uniting these abysses. Even the sinner is a temple of the living God, but it is a desecrated temple which must be repaired and rededicated through penitence.
When we find the treasure that is hidden for all to find, joy is experience and disinterest evaporates. The urgency to share it develops. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh said about the uncontainable joy of knowing Christ:
If truly you have come nearer to truth, how can you keep it to yourself? If truly something has been kindled in you which is life, are you going to allow anyone not to have a spark of this life? It does not mean go round and tell everyone specifically religious things or use clerical phrases. It means that you should go into the world which is yours with a radiance, with a joy, with an intensity that will make everyone look at you and say 'He has something he hadn't before. Is it that truly God has come near? He has something he never had before and which I do not possess-joy, life, certainty, a new courage, a new daring, vision, where can I get it?'
Joy must radiate from us, not in some contrived or frivolous manner, but in a peaceful certainty that extinguishes our pride and attracts others to us. Our light cannot come from our own intentions. It needs to arrive when we are no longer fighting to find it and bank it for ourselves. When we forsake our attachment to all our selfishness, our possessions, and our lives, and instead turn to obey and believe in God, then our light will come to us. Our light will become attractive to the world.
If the world did not believe in Jesus they will not always believe you. If the world deserted God's truth and they will likely ignore you. The world demands signs and wonders, but I wonder which is more difficult for us to give: great miracles or absolute love. Yet meekness, mercy, and purity are so absent from our lives that our message is nothing more than blather filling up an already congested religious space. There is far too much envy, not enough sacrifice; far too much greed, not enough giving; far too much hate, not enough love.
And so I wonder if people like Cohen are an indictment of the shriveled faith that I offer to all the Leonards of the world. Is my witness a dead corpse without impact? Have I been so negligent in my life that I am the cause for another person's unbelief? How will I give an explanation for the wasteful prayers, the lost opportunities, the screaming silence? I fear that God might say:
You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd ... and there was no one to search or seek for them (Ezekiel 34:3-6 NASB).
I hope that one day I will learn to love God with a free abandon -- a reckless love really, because that's when I learn how to love everyone else resolutely. When I discover how to reach out to God, my own life will finally be embraced by the world.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.