Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Best Sermon I Ever Experienced

As I was reading a sermon of St. Kosmas the Aitolos the other day on his feast day, I was thinking what that sermon must have been like for his listeners. I imagined an educated monk with an ascetic appearance from Mount Athos coming into an 18th century Greek village made up of mostly an illiterate population, hungry to learn and to be guided and to be inspired in a time of harsh oppression. They were like sheep without a shepherd surrounded by wolves, but then a saintly shepherd appears in their midst and offers them some refreshment. This made me think of the closest experience I ever had to such a thing, having heard at least a few stand out sermons in my life. Nothing really can compare. However, when I think of the absolute best sermon I ever heard, my mind always goes to the same one.

It was the evening before the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, around 26 years ago, when it was my first year in seminary, and I had gone to a local church outside of Boston dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos, where the Lamentations to the Theotokos were movingly chanted that night over a decorated replica of her tomb. The fairly large church was full inside, with people pouring out into the parking lot outside, and the Bishop was serving, together with at least a dozen priests. I sat somewhere around the fifth or sixth row to the left, with a clear view of the pulpit. I didn't know who was going to be preaching the sermon that night, but before he came out the church was dimly lit, primarily by the candles, the people sat down, with the service having ended, then up to the pulpit walked a Greek monk from Mount Athos, with an ascetic appearance, long white beard and hair in a ponytail, dressed in a black cassock.

I don't know who the monk was or why he was in Boston, but he only spoke Greek, so the sermon was only going to be in Greek. Then he began to speak. The premise of his sermon was the person of the Panagia, and how Mount Athos is her garden, and as the abbess of Mount Athos her presence there is keenly felt and experienced, and to the monks she is a constant consolation and the only female presence who is given motherly adoration. He wasn't only speaking theoretically, but he was giving examples, multiple examples, of her presence and protection and consolation among them. When he spoke of her he was filled with emotion and passionate longing, with tears in his eyes. His voice was strong but high at the same time, his speech was eloquent and poetic, and his movements were full of expression. It was like he was talking about the woman he passionately loved, and just could not stop talking about her, zealously hoping that you will come to love her just like he does. It was like a Shakespearean sonnet that was not prepared beforehand, but it gushed forth extemporaneously from his heart.

As I listened to him and watched him, I was simply in awe. This was something I had never experienced before. I think I even teared up myself, or at least came very close to doing so. My eyes were focused on him the whole time, my ears fully attentive, my heart inspired and uplifted. It was almost as if I couldn't believe what I was experiencing. This may be something I can experience in Greece, I thought, where I heard many good sermons, but to hear something like this in America was more than I was expecting and a great treat, to say the least. One thing was for sure: I had never before nor ever since been so wrapped up in a sermon, almost ecstatic about it. I had to know if everyone else was taking this in like I was, so I started looking around, expecting to see people attentive and moved like I was. Instead, what I disappointingly noticed was that it seemed like he lost the entire crowd. People seemed bored and agitated. Even inside the sanctuary the priests and the bishop were getting a little agitated. I was with my mother, and it seemed like she was the only one besides me listening. An older lady next to my mother even let out a grunt to express her boredom, and said in Greek something like, "Is this gonna go on all night?"

This is when I quickly looked at my watch, and noticed that at least forty minutes had gone by since the sermon started. I was so enthralled by the sermon that I thought no more than five minutes had gone by. Soon you could hear people moving around in their seats trying to get comfortable. The clergy in the sanctuary were talking among themselves. But the monk from Mount Athos went on with his sermon without losing any steam. At this point, I even started to become distracted by the reactions of the people. Their expressions of utter boredom were interfering with what was to be the best sermon I ever heard, and probably will ever hear. Now I can understand the few people in the room who spoke no Greek being somewhat bored, but the majority there spoke Greek probably better than me. Then, as the sermon seemed to be coming to a close, the monk was so moved by all that he was saying, that he said with a certain enthusiasm, "Before I close, let me tell you one final story." When he said this, I thought the people were going to get up and start a riot. You could hear from your soul all the silent "Nooooooo's!" coming from the crowd. Meanwhile, I was like "Yessss!"

Undisturbed by the reactions of the people, because no doubt he was caught up in some sort of divine ecstasy, the monk continued with his final story. However, sadly, the crowd was ruining it for me. Their silent cries were getting louder than the preaching from the pulpit. Then it came to an end. The monk walked away from the pulpit and entered back into the sanctuary. A sigh of relief came from the crowd. The Bishop then quickly tried to dismiss the people, since they were all anxiously waiting to attend coffee hour. I'm sure if you ask most people that night, they would say that was the worst sermon they ever experienced. Technically, he did everything you are not supposed to do in a sermon. He went on for a long time and had absolutely no ability to read the room. For me, it was by far the best sermon I ever experienced. It might sound a bit arrogant of me to say this, but it seemed to me that the monk was feeding a bunch of meat to infants, when all they could really take is some milk. But now that I think about it, the people in the time of St. Kosmas the Aitolos were very much like spiritual infants, but they ate up everything he had to offer. So now I'm thinking perhaps the issue was that they just weren't hungry enough.