Christ salvation

Our neighbor and our salvation

Nan Palmero: Love Your Neighbor / flickr

We must love our neighbors as ourselves. We must take care of them and their needs, just as we take care of our own. This love should motivate us so that we do not just live for ourselves, but rather live for others. We are not meant to be individualists. We will never be holy if we ignore our neighbour. Anyone who suggests that we can abandon the world, because we don’t like what’s in it, and be on our own, either as individuals or as small communities that exist in opposition to the rest of the world, we misled, as they would have us abandon our neighbour. We must always think of others and realize that our own holiness lies, not in being independent of them, but in interdependence with them; what we have should be shared with others, which means that when we receive grace and become holy, we should share that grace with others, uplift them and help them become better. Likewise, we will find ourselves better when those around us are better. Salvation is communal, this is why and how, when properly interpreted, we can say that there is no salvation without the church, because all who are saved will have fellowship with one another. others and united with each other in the body of Christ (of course we have to understand how people are united and connected together in the church depends on Christ, not us, and so, as Jesus implied in his parables, many who thought they were on the outside will already find themselves part of it when he announces their salvation at the Last Judgment).

Abba Poemen, relating what he had heard from Abba Theonas, also indicated how our salvation, how our reception of grace, is linked to our relationship with our neighbour:

He [Poemen] said that Abba Theonas said, “Even if a man acquires a virtue, God does not grant him grace for himself alone.” He knew he was not faithful in his own work, but if he went to his companion, God would be with him.[1]

Theonas learned that the virtues he attained, which of course, were attained in and through his cooperation with grace (and not by him alone), were not given to him solely for his own benefit. That is, he learned that the more he achieved a kind of virtue, the more it should be used for the benefit of others and not just for his own spiritual development. Theonas therefore realized that as long as he worked alone, and only for himself, he was not faithful to God. He was not properly engaging the grace he had received. Because to stand out from others was to be selfish. Holiness, however, which is related to love, can never emerge from such selfishness. Moreover, he understood that whoever disconnects from his neighbor loses God, who is in and with his neighbor. So the lesson he learned, and what we can learn from this story, is that we are not meant to be separate islands from each other. God is in and with our neighbour, and if we want to encounter God, we cannot reject our neighbour. Grace does not come from us, but from God, and that is how we have it when we open ourselves to our neighbour.

Abba Poemen, continuing along this line of thought, said that we should make sure we stop thinking about ourselves, our own wants and desires, because that way we can look at our neighbours, see what they need and help them achieve it. . “He also said, ‘Do not do your own will; you need to humble yourself before your brother instead.[2] As we tend to think of ourselves as bigger, more important than we are, in this way looking at others, bending our will to help others in their needs, is indeed an act of humility, for it away from all proud thoughts that suggest we are entitled to everything we should desire. This, of course, is difficult, if not impossible, for us to do if we abandon our community.

Anyone who would suggest that monasticism is about denying the world in the name of personal holiness has not studied monastic literature. It’s true, many monks wanted to live in solitude, but it’s also true, they could never do it absolutely. They were always connected to a larger community and people could and did come to visit for help and advice. Even in solitude, they focused not just on themselves, but on the good of the world. Their prayers, their actions, their accomplishments were not seen as being for them alone. They were supposed to become great intercessors for the world; whatever virtues they attained were considered to bring more grace to the world. Only those who had proven themselves in a community setting, those who showed an understanding that spirituality was not so individualistic, were seen as ready to be hermits, because then, just as Jesus did not abandon us in his ascent, they would know not to abandon the world in their hermitage. They were expected to keep the spirit of community alive in their isolation. If they don’t, their isolation could, and probably will, cause them more harm than good; the spiritual delusion, prelest, is far more common among those who try to do everything on their own without direction or input from others than those who remain within a community and allow it to shape and refine them.

The more we grow in holiness, the more we must realize that our holiness, and the grace with which we cooperate to achieve it, are not meant for us alone. If we are to be faithful to the virtue we have attained, we will share the fruit of that virtue with others. For true holiness comes in love, the kind of love revealed to us in Jesus Christ, a love that seeks the lost, not to condemn them, but to uplift them with grace and compassion. As long as we are self-centered, we will not be true to our calling, no matter how virtuous we think we have reached; it will be nothing, as Paul warned us, because we will act out of self-interest and not out of love.

[1] The words of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 188 [Sayings of Abba Poemen 151].

[2] The words of the desert fathers189 [Sayings of Abba Poemen 158].

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