“You have seen you brother, you have seen Christ”

From the Serbian Patriarchate website (here) [Loose translation]:

His Grace Bishop Jovan (Purić) gave a lecture on Sunday September 5, 2010 on the topic of sensitivity – the basic property of Christians in the Orthodox spiritual center in Podgorica. The well attended lecture aroused the attention of all present, who, after Bishop Jovan’s presentation had something to think about, to reflect on, and to ask questions of their Archpastor.

Among other things, Bishop Jovan stated:

“The issue of sensitivity is a key contemporary issue from two connected but distinct aspects: the aspect of the Church, our relations, our theological and living testimony, but at the same time it is the basic question of modern  man who does not know the Church and its treasures of salvation. In fact, these two perspectives are closely linked in regards to soteriology. That is, the Church is called to, through her teachings, but primarily to save mankind through Her being, and we can say that sensitivity towards the other, as fruit of our love for Him, is that guarantee of salvation which the Church should transmit to the world through her grace-filled pedagogy.

It is problematic, we must point out, in both of these aspects. Whether we’re in the church or just prying in the narthex of Her ark of salvation, modern civilization presents before us the challenges which dull  our moral and emotional capabilities. Television programs promote the culture of violence and brutality, and bearing in mind that it is precisely popular culture which imposes social and emotional patterns of behavior, violence, and rudeness present in our lives. Modern man is more like a child, in that delicate period when he learns and adopts the basic ethical principles and develops the thresholds of his emotional, “endurance” and sensitivity, subject to scenes of violence that make him insensitive to violence in everyday life. There is no need to mention specific unfortunate instances in which individuals,  inspired by violence in films or  video games, actually committed violent acts on their neighbors. Even when it is not so, the culture of violence, which underestimates emotional sensitivity proclaiming it undesirable, “weakling”, modern man is often so dulled down making him insusceptible to empathy with others. All it takes is to pass through any one of our urban settings to see how people are completely emotionally insensitive passing by the scene of violence, poverty, human misery and grief of all kinds. Is this life and are such people really “strong” or weak? When the social perspective is factored in we can see that social insensitivity is a desirable characteristic. “Competition,” the “competitive spirit”, “creative competition” are less feeble and ironic names for the principles that usually involve insensitivity to a colleague, the individualistic tendencies that do not know the compassion and perspective of the Other as Neighbor.

Unfortunately, often we have witnessed that the spirit within the Church knows insensitivity to dominate and take its toll. Sensitivity is  termed as one’s handicap, as a lack of responsible functions for which, supposedly, one should be strong and insensitive when making difficult decisions. The problem in the church receives special strength when we consider the theology of the Church which places man in the center of its interest and involvement, as the Image of God in Christ, and his whole being. More specifically, the Church and its experience, permeated into its theology as the basic concept of every meaningful discourse places the PERSON, as the fundamental dignity of man, as the possibility of its conformity to the Icon and Likeness. If man’s personhood is something which is the most sacred which exists in the world, something for which the Logos was made incarnate, was crucified and resurrected, then man cannot be insensitive to the Other as a person, inasmuch as we desire, in an authentic manner, to witness the truth of the Gospel. Therefore, it is precisely sensitivity, rather than insensitivity which has its biblical and patristic foundation.

God is portrayed in the Old Testament as being “sensitive”: it hurts Him when Israel = the fore-Church forgets and rejoices when it returns to its God with repentance. God “shows feelings”  which should not be understood as anthropomorphic, but we also mustn’t diminish the significance of the God inspired words of the writers of the Priestly Books of the Old Testament. Thus, for example, God, the Holy One of Israel, speaks directly to Israel “since you were precious in My sight, you came glorious, and I love you” (Isaiah 43.3), and it was particularly because of that love that the Lord was angered at Israel, though not angered for eternity ( Jeremiah. 3.12). The Lord, therefore, does not show insensitivity, but is in fact sensitive to the sufferings of mankind (as St. John Chrysostom often reminds us), and how else are we to understand the famous words of the beloved disciple that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son for the salvation of the world (John 3:16), other that it being the culmination of divine compassion with mankind.

The Holy Fathers especially emphasized the necessity of compassion (sympathy) and sensitivity in our spiritual lives. Often you hear that the Fathers taught about apathy (indifference), which, of course, implies insensitivity but this is a misunderstanding of the patristic thought for the Fathers implied having an insensitivity to passion and sin, and not insensitivity towards other people. On the contrary, it would take much time and require a more comprehensive writing if we wished to name only the father’s thoughts regarding the need to see Christ in our neighbor and to have compassion on them. The Fathers also emphasize that the feelings of lethargy, the inability of man to be sympathetic to his neighbor, as one of the first signs of the death of the soul, of which in recent times the Venerable Simeon of Dajbabe wrote of (see his beautiful song “The diseased soul and the healthy mind”). Of course, none of this should be taken as being a sort of Christian sentimentalism. A Christian is not someone, according to patristic thought, who should allow their emotions to rule them, but he should bring his emotions in harmony – mind, body, spirit and his entire being.  Sentimentalism does none of this but gives preference to feelings, reducing the entire sense of the human being – while the Christian approach is completely different as it is of an ontological character, it stems from our being which is ontologically sent to other people, to the Image of the Holy Trinity. Because, as the Fathers say, – “You have seen your brother, you have seen Christ.”

A true shepherd must never cast these words from their mind. This is that gift of which the elder Sophronius wrote to Fr. Boris Stark of: “At my age I still continue not only to serve the liturgy, but also to receive many people, and experiencing with them their suffering, their problems, to share with them the long experience – according to man’s language – of life. A sense of deep responsibility in any case, with every man, especially with children and young people, requires a gradual tension of attention, compassion, patience and so on.” A true pastor, bishop, clergyman, lay person, a religious teacher, and minister and officer and engineer, are all invited to feel and be compassionate, if they truly wish to church(ify) and Christ(ify) their service.  For this reason we are all faced with a great – but worthy of every pain – goal, to transfigure this world from insensibility to a Christ-like compassion, that we might bring it to its designation – the kingdom of God. “

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