Christianity is a way of life and not simply one more religion among many others. It is a way of ordering one's life toward God and His Kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ and by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we follow the teachings of Christ, and the teaching of those thinkers, theologians. pastors and teachers that convey that teaching with integrity and depth. At last Sunday's Liturgy, everyone had the opportunity to pick up a copy of Fr. Thomas Hopko's "Maxims for Christian Living," all nicely listed in an attractive form that makes for easy access and careful consideration. (If you were not here last Sunday, there are more copies still available).
In these maxims, Fr. Hopko is condensing a life-long commitment to studying, understanding and conveying the truths of our Orthodox Christian Faith with directness and simplicity. The primary definition of a "maxim" is: "an expression of a general truth or principle, esp. an aphoristic or sententious one." (Random House College Dictionary) With 55 such "maxims" expressing "truth principles" from Fr. Hopko, it can be a bit overwhelming! There is such a wide range of these principles listed here, from the most essential: "Be always with Christ;" to some that are very practical and seemingly not that "religious:" "Have a healthy, wholesome hobby."
My pastoral advice was that we should all seek out a few chosen maxims that we know are needful in our lives, but perhaps absent right now, and focus on them through the upcoming months (and years!) so as to integrate these truth principles into our daily Christian lives. If we were to accomplish this with only a few of these maxims, the results could be overwhelmingly positive in our lives. Just imagine putting the following five - or actually just one - of these maxims into effect:
13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.
28. Face reality.
40. Don't compare yourself with anyone.
54. When we fall, get up immediately and start over.
How challenging - and yet how potentially life-changing!
Actually, Fr. Hopko was reviving an age-old practice within the Christian Tradition of conveying the truths of Christian living in an accessible and effective manner. Often, the Church Fathers wrote works of "sentences" or "centuries" with the same goal in mind. These were also very short and understandable teachings that condensed a great deal of theological and spiritual wisdom in such a way that anyone would greatly benefit from these teachings. St. Maximus the Confessor was a master of this form.
However, I would like to include an example taken from the writings of St. Benedict of Nursia (+547). Here St. Benedict perfectly combines and integrates a confession in the Lordship of Jesus Christ with the "keeping of the commandments" in such a way that we find the "faith working through love" taught by the Apostle Paul. You will immediately recognize how skillfully he weaves together the Old and New Testaments in this "working description" of what it means to bear the name of Christ, and thus truly be a Christian:
What are the rules for living a good life?
In the first place to love the Lord with all one's heart, with all one's soul and with all one's strength.
Then to love one's neighbour as oneself.
Then not to kill.
Not to commit adultery.
Not to steal.
Not to covet.
Not to bear false witness.
To respect all people.
And not to do to others what one would not wish to have done to oneself.
To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
To be master of one's own body ...
To help the poor.
To clothe the naked.
To visit the sick.
To bury the dead.
To assist those in distress.
To console the afflicted ...
Not to let anything come before the love of Christ.
Not to give rein to one's wrath.
Not to meditate revenge.
Not to harbour deceit in one's heart.
Not to offer a pretended peace.
Not to forsake charity.
Not to swear, for fear of perjury.
To speak the truth from heart and mouth.
Not to render evil for evil.
Not to commit injustice but to bear patiently what is done to oneself.
To love one's enemies.
Not to render cursing for cursing, but rather blessing.
To endure persecution for righteousness' sake ...
To place one's hope in God.
If one sees any good in oneself, to ascribe it to God, not to oneself.
To fear the day of judgment.
To dread hell.
To desire eternal life with all one's heart and soul.
Every day to keep death present before one's eyes ...
Not to hate anyone.
Not to entertain jealousy.
Not to give oneself up to envy ...
To respect the aged.
To love the young.
In the love of Christ to pray for one's enemies.
After a disagreement, to make peace before the sun goes down.
And never to despair of God's mercy.
Such are the tools of the spiritual art.
(Benedict of Nursia, Rule, IV - Taken from The Roots of Christian Mysticism, by Olivier Clement)
Rather comprehensive on the whole! In commenting on this remarkable passage, Olivier Clement wrote the following:
The monk (St. Benedict was writing primarily for fellow monks, but we can simply substitute "Christian" for monk) becomes little by little a center of blessing. His trust in God's infinite mercy enables him to hope. Knowing himself to be fundamentally loved, he feels himself not only able but obliged to serve his neighbor and love his enemy. ...
Being a Christian in these terms - and are there really any other terms? - is thus seen as a life-long vocation, a task that is only possible if we truly love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.