Being the hands and feet of Jesus
By Jackie Morfesis
As a Greek Orthodox Christian, I am accustomed to hearing the lives of the saints and martyrs as instructive to my faith walk. We venerate (not worship) the icons, which are holy images teaching us about their lives. They are considered windows to the soul.
Recently, a beautiful movie, Man of God, has been shown in selective theaters across the United States and overseas that focuses on the beautiful, humble and miraculous life of the Greek Orthodox saint Nektarios of Aegina. His life was a living testimony to his love for God and His children. The film also spoke to the incredible persecution he suffered from the political powers operating within the church and its hierarchy, as well as by others in the community at large.
The film was a powerful reminder that the faith walk is not an easy one and that the battles are both earthly and spiritual. We must, as St. Paul instructs us in the book of Corinthians, daily put on the armor of God. True in the day of St. Nektarios, born in 1846 and who passed into eternity in 1920, and true to this day.
I think also of the life and work of St. John Climacus, known as John of the Ladder. He wrote a treatise on monasticism, visually illustrated by a ladder to God with 30 distinct steps moving us from earthly to spiritual considerations and transformation. The steps are meaningful and serve a purpose not only for the monastic calling but for everyone who desires to go more deeply into their faith walk.
The icon that illustrates the work of St. John of the Ladder is indeed a ladder with souls attempting to climb to God. As they are climbing up the rungs, they are assisted by angels of God and attacked by the demonic forces, the angels of darkness. This rings true for those of us who have felt the weight of struggle, challenge, hardship, even crisis as we move toward our Lord during life’s sufferings. Yet we know He is with us. “The Lord draws near to the broken-hearted and saves those crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
God’s holy Word is our foundation, our bread of life, and we all have the opportunity to testify to our lives and share words of knowledge. We are told to testify to God in scripture. Writings and meditations by the saints, martyrs and gathers of the church are food for the spirit and aid us in our spiritual journey. None of this can be underestimated.
However, Jesus promised His followers, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). We have received the Holy Spirit, and it is our duty and mandate to live out the fruits of the spirit, not only converse and discourse about our faith. That is the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy — respectively, right doctrine and right action. We need both. This concept goes beyond the Eastern Orthodox Church; it is relatable to all Christian denominations: what we know intellectually about our faith in terms of our readings, studies, liturgies and sermons, and how we live out our faith in terms of our actions and the content and promptings of our heart.
Especially now, in our world and communities that are suffering so blatantly and close to home, we must as followers of Christ be acutely aware of the distinction between the two and not rest upon our laurels that we have knowledge of religion in our minds and not the fulfillment of being a follower of Christ in our hearts. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Here the words of the renowned Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky also ring true: “God will drive your faith, like a stake, from your head to your heart.” He said this after serving four years in a prison camp. Those who know the trauma of imprisonment, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually, also know the incredible freedom and deliverance that can only be given to us by God.
Given the trials of life and the depths to which suffering can lead us, my response to the ladder of St. John of the Cross is that no one can fall off the ladder. I realize this is a strong statement in lieu of the fact that there is an icon depicting lost souls falling off the ladder. Yet I have learned that God always leaves the door open for our repentance and our coming back to Him until our last breath. God cannot be taken out of the picture. As Father Thomas Hopko, a passionate convert to Orthodoxy and one-time dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, said during a Lenten retreat I attended, God is the single perfect point. He is unmoved. It is we who move away from God. Thus, the Greek word for sin, amartia, which literally means “missing the mark.”
As a result of my own faith walk, I am acutely aware that there is no rung too low that we cannot climb back to God. There is no angle too wide that we cannot veer back to the single perfect point. We serve a mighty God — a God who shows His love through forgiveness and redemption at our repentance.
Let us not be so invested in knowing about God that we forget it is also our duty and calling to see Christ in our midst and be Christ in our midst, as we are instructed in Matthew 25:31-46. We are called to serve the hungry, homeless, imprisoned and orphaned without judgment. We see Christ in the suffering, and we are called to serve Christ in the suffering. Everywhere we turn there is someone in need of mercy. Of support. Of love. Of simple human kindness — fierce and courageous kindness.
We do not have to search far and wide to find those in need. They are standing next to us. Lying on a bench or huddled up somewhere. Standing with a sign as we are driving by. At a coffee shop or store when we are shopping. Asking for work because they are hungry and homeless, and being told that nothing is available. It does not matter how others react or do not react. What matters is how we choose to respond.
Let’s be bold in our faith. Let’s love His children, especially those who do not have our same life circumstances. Life can change in the blink of an eye and the day will inevitably come when every single one of us will need someone’s mercy. Charitable donations are a blessing, yet every single one of us can offer a prayer, compassion, dignity and respect to the suffering instead of walking by as if they do not exist.
I am grateful that not only my church but also many Christian churches are aware and sensitive to the plight of those in need with food and clothing drives and other outreach programs. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We can all serve as the hands and feet of our Lord in whatever way we are called. We all have unique spiritual gifts, and when we also have a willing heart, God will show us the way and open the right doors. As always, we are instruments; it is His mercy and His glory.
Jackie Morfesis is a creative, advocate and author. She holds a BFA in fine arts and an MA in liberal studies and is a former Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar to Greece. She is a Greek Orthodox Christian with an ecumenical spirit.