Living = Loving
By Fr. Nikolas Karloutsos
“The fire of love must be kept burning warmly and brightly with the sweet wood of sacrifice. In teaching us to cross the “I” out of life, our Lord tells us the secret of happiness. Divine love seeks to give rather than to receive, to serve rather than to be served, to love rather than to be loved, and will sacrifice anything for the beloved. Only then does love become a clean and holy fire in the heart.” +Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833)
Judging by the number and variety of Google search results for the phrase “secret of happiness,” there are tons of people, companies, books, and products that claim to have an answer and even more folks apparently looking for the so-called “secret.” I doubt the Web crawlers came across Saint Seraphim’s Orthodox Christian words of wisdom which can offer a solution to this quest for happiness. The secret (which is no longer a secret and is available to everyone and everything) is divine love. And we are called to play a part in actually sharing our Lord’s secret of happiness, in sharing God’s love. “For we are God’s fellow workers.” (I Corinthians 3:9)
The title of this article boils down the wisdom of the saint by stating it as a formula, a concise way of expressing information symbolically (thank you, Wikipedia!). As we know from our science and math classes, formulas are a bit easier to memorize than Shakespeare’s sonnets! The “formula” basically tells us that we are truly loving when we take the “i” out of living or, in reverse, we are truly living when we are loving. This formula is inspired by the beautiful words of Saint Seraphim, by his holiness in life, by the example of other saints of our Church and ultimately by our loving and merciful God. When we strive to imitate the love of God, we are actively working on our relationship with Him, on taking the “i” out of life, on putting away our selfish and self-centered ways, on loving one another as Christ has loved us (see John 13:34). And conventional wisdom tells us that if we are not working on something, then something is working on us.
Now, love is a hot topic especially in the month of February, when much of the world celebrates Valentine’s Day which has evolved from a liturgical celebration for many Christians into an occasion to express our love with flowers, candies, greeting cards, and all things red and heart-shaped. But more importantly for us as Orthodox Christians, in March we celebrate the major church feast of the Annunciation or Evangelismos, a feast celebrating the divine love of God for humanity. This is the celebration of the proclamation by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary of the “Good News” of God’s plan of salvation for the whole world and her loving, sacrificial response to God’s grace.
It is also significant that this is the one major feast of the Church that always falls within Lent. During lent, as we take a little more time to examine our souls through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we avail ourselves of the time-tested remedies that the Church offers us to bring us back into communion with God if we have strayed from the path, to work on ourselves, and to rekindle the fire of love that St. Seraphim writes about. Our Church offers us remedies which help us to curb—or better yet, to deny—our appetites for whatever unholy and selfish desires we may have as we attend more consciously to the needs of others, in order to truly encounter Christ in our neighbors. We can truly love others when we take the “i” out of the equation.
And that’s exactly what Mary did. We read in Luke’s gospel that when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced God’s plan, he first greeted her: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you.” And observing her confusion, he told her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest…” In the person of Mary, we see that her living without the “i” is all about giving, serving, and sacrificing.
In receiving the Word of God in her womb, “Mary gave a ‘city,’ a dwelling place, back to God, the ‘king without a city.’” (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, Fourteenth Century) She consents with the powerful statement of faith: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” In this way, she responds with faithful obedience as a servant of God, expressing her willingness to participate in the saving work of our Lord. And in so doing, she no doubt sacrificed her selfish desires, and any hopes and plans she may have had for herself and her family.
If indeed we are pursuing the “secret of happiness,” perhaps we can take time to cross the “i” out of life this Lenten season. Maybe then our living might become indistinguishable from our simply loving. Maybe then we will be doing the will of God in this world, thereby letting everyone in on the secret of happiness.
Fr. Nikolas Karloutsos is a 2012 graduate of Hellenic College Holy Cross currently serving as an assistant priest at the Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church in Port Washington, NY.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1) Who are the people that you love? Why do you love them?
2) How would you say that society (magazines, movies, music, television, etc.) portray or define love?
3) Read 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13. How does this compare with the images and messages we receive about love in today’s society?
3) The Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22: 35-41) calls us to love God and love our neighbor. What makes it difficult to love our neighbor? How can we work around those difficulties?
4) If divine love is giving, serving, and sacrificing, in what ways can we give, serve, and sacrifice for God? For our family/friends? For our “neighbor” or people we don’t know?