A man went to Elder Porphyrios: “Geronta, I want your blessing, so that I can take communion tomorrow.” “Do you hate anyone?” “No, Geronta.” “Good. Go and receive communion.”
Simple, right? Why do we Orthodox prefer to complicate things, with rules and man-made traditions? Porphyrios was a profound thinker and man of the spirit, but he had no problem speaking simply. He died in 1991 and the Ecumenical Patriarch declared him Saint of the Orthodox Church in 2013. ‘Geronta’ is what people in Greece call a holy monk. It means, “old man” and if you read the desert fathers, that’s usually how people addressed these desert ascetics. The Russian equivalent is staretz.
Saints should really have a good sense of humor, and Porphyrios certainly had it:
“Geronta, I trust in dreams a lot. When I’ve had a dream at night that I think is a bad omen, I’m turned upside down for the whole of the following day, because I’m afraid that something bad will happen to me. For example, last night I saw fish in my sleep.”
Porphyrios answered “Don’t attach any importance to dreams. Now go to the fish market. Buy some fish and fry it for breakfast. This is what you should always do with your dreams.”
Great answer! I don’t usually dream, or if I do, I don’t remember when I wake up. But I do have dreams about life, about the church. As I get closer to retirement, I have become more and more concerned about the future of the church. Certainly the picture looks quite bleak everywhere. But is church only about numbers?
Reading the book Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios, I can honestly say that Porphyrios put me to shame with his love of Christ and his love for the Church. Criticism of the Church comes so easily to us. But reading the love for the Church that Porphyrios had opened my eyes to my own hypocrisy, because I also have criticized, I also have been cynical about the Church. So I repent for my own contributions to this culture of cynicism and destructive criticism. May God forgive me.
Near the end of his life in 1991 Porphyrios sent a letter to all his spiritual children – in other words, to all the men and women who had relied on him for spiritual guidance and help. Just before the end of this letter, he wrote:
“And I always pray for my spiritual children to love God, who is everything, so that he may grant us to enter into his earthly uncreated Church. Because we need to start from here.”
Indeed, we need to start from here. Not from numbers, not from sociological or cultural analysis, but from this prayer, that God will grant us to enter into “his earthly uncreated Church.” We pray that God will grant us entry into heaven. I’m sure Porphyrios prayed for that too. But here, at the end of his life, he prayed that God will “grant us to enter into his earthly uncreated Church.” I read that prayer and I was startled. He is writing to his spiritual children, who of course are all active members of the Church! Yet, he prays that they will enter into the earthly uncreated Church. What is this earthly uncreated Church? We create churches, we build churches, we sustain and beautify churches. But there is more to the church than what we create. Our dreams stop at what we create and what we sustain. But that’s not all the church is. Porphyrios goes further, into deep scripture meditation and he tells us:
“The Church is without beginning, without end and eternal, just as the Trinity, her founder, is without beginning, without end and eternal. She is uncreated just as God is uncreated. She existed before the ages, before the angels, before the creation of the world. She is the mystery of mysteries. She was concealed and was revealed in the last of times.”
She was concealed and was revealed in the last of times – around the year 33 AD, in other words. I’ve seen bumper stickers and other media for slogans like: “Orthodox Church founded in 33 AD.” Why stop at 33 AD? How about eternity? Do you see how petty the problems of the church, and how petty our own criticisms of the church are? Look deeper, that’s what Saint Porphyrios is telling us.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: You are the light of the world, don’t let your light be hidden. The light that shone from Christ on the mount of transfiguration is also the uncreated light that should shine from the church, the uncreated church! It should also shine from each of us. Regular light can be hid, it can be covered. But not the uncreated light, because that’s God’s light in us.
Most people in churches don’t talk like this, and perhaps you also find this talk about uncreated church and uncreated light irrelevant. But that’s because we expect so little from ourselves, from each other, and from God. Your God is too Small, proclaimed the title of the book by J. B. Phillips in 1952. It’s even more true today. And that is why men and women like Porphyrios stand out and are called Saints. God is the real dreamer, and I care more to know God’s dreams for the church than my dreams. May God grant our light to so shine in our city and in our neighborhoods that people will give glory to God and enter Christ’s uncreated church! Amen.