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"The Way" - H.H. Pope Shenouda III

A translation of an excerpt from a Sermon delivered on August 25, 1978 by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III.

The human, in his journey towards God in his spiritual life, sometimes goes astray and loses his way, especially if they lack the virtue of discernment, or that of wisdom, or if they do not have experience in the spiritual atmosphere and the way of God.

There is a verse in the scriptures that is found more than once, saying: “There is a way that seems right for man, but the end of it are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12). This means that there is a way that, in a person’s opinion, is correct. And there are many who depend on their own understandings, stubbornly hold fast to their own ideas, and think that their ideas are correct. Such a person might read a reading and find it opposed to his thinking, and suppose that the reading is mistaken while he is not. He might hear homilists and spiritual guides opposing his opinion and nonetheless believe that these are wrong while he is not. And it is possible that even his father of confession might advise him against this opinion, and nonetheless he holds fast to his opinion and believes it to be correct, believing that all of these people are persecuting him. To this person the Bible says: “Lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

For this reason, guidance is found in the Church. And one of the fathers (c.f. Palladius) says “Those who are without a guide fall as the leaves of the trees.” Why? Because “there is a way that seems right for man, but the end of it are the ways of death,” and the person is lost on the way.

Do you think that, when Jonah fled from God to Tarshish, he did not think that he was walking correctly? God even came to him in the end and asked him, “were you angry?” And he told God “I was angry even to death” (Jonah 4:9). His thinking was beautiful in his eyes.

The most difficult thing for a person to resist is his thinking. It is possible that we might oppose the thinking of others, but it is difficult for us to oppose our own opinions. And if someone is too staunch to his opinions, this thinking might lead him to rebellion, and to hardness of heart, and to stubbornness of thought, because he is too unwavering in his thinking.

The humble person concedes at times. It is not necessarily true that whatever I think must be true. Perhaps what I think happens to be wrong. There are some people who, when faced with an issue, think that there is absolutely no room for discussion. But is it really true that there is absolutely no room for discussion?

Many people trust in their opinions and believe that they are true. But these people require humility and willingness to rethink their opinions, and to be able to say “I might be wrong,” and “the other opinion may be sound.” There is no reason for too much staunchness, or too much discussion, or too much debate or resistance.

For this reason, the humble find the way of the Lord to be an easy way.

In monasticism, the humble person progresses more quickly in the way than the other. That is because he accepts advice, concedes his opinions, is not staunch with his opinions, and does not believe as true everything that comes to his mind.

The way whose end is death appears beautiful in the eyes of man, despite its end being death.

This shows us the ego that stands against man. And the one who wishes to walk in the way of God must resist his ego, just as our Lord Jesus Christ says that man ought to hate even himself for the sake of God (Luke 14:26). He resists his ego. Here is found the idea of self-denial. The resistance of the ego is in some of the spiritual books called the “putting to death.” The person enters into the “putting to death;” putting the self to death so that it may live; rejecting himself so that he may find life; rebelling against his own self, struggling with his own self, and putting his own self under subjection; not obeying his own will.

The most troubling thing in your spiritual life is to walk according to your own will. As one of the saints said: “I have not found a stumbling block for a young man greater than for him to walk according to his desires.” Good is the saying of the Lord who said to Hagar: “Go and submit yourself to your mistress” (Genesis 16:9). “Submit yourself” — that is a good saying. It is good to submit yourself, and to resist the self.

Our problem is that, instead of warring against our egos, we war against people; and instead of resisting our egos, we resist people. And the power of anger that is given to us, that we may anger against our sins, and anger against our souls in their falls, we misuse and become angry with people.

Try to resist your ego, to oppose your ego, to subdue your ego, and not to walk according to your own desires, nor to walk according to your own opinions, and to live first according to the virtue of obedience. Strive against your ego. This is what is required of the person who wishes to live with God.

There is a verse the Lord Christ said, and it is a beautiful verse that encompasses within it many things: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). In your spiritual life, do you find yourself, or do you lose yourself for the sake of God?

Every person’s ego is beautiful in his eyes. It is dear to him. He wishes to give rest to himself, and wishes to please himself, and wishes to feel his own status. He says “I want to feel my existence.” Just like those who follow existentialist philosophy, who think that the existence of God eliminates their own existence. They say: “God does not feel our existence. I want to avoid God and feel my own existence. I want to live my life and find myself and enjoy the world. I want to live my life.” This is the self that is leading you astray. “He who finds his life will lose it.”

The prodigal son, one day, wanted to enjoy his existence and find himself: “Why should I stay in my father’s house? What makes me live under orders and ‘where are you going and coming from?’ What makes me live the life of obedience? Why don’t I live the life of freedom, which is better?” The life of freedom was better than the life of obedience in this young man’s opinion: “Why should I live in an old man’s house while I am young? Why don’t I live on my own, and live in my own home, and become my own master, and find myself? My self that is lost in that home.” So he told his father: “Give me my inheritance. Give me my freedom. Let me live my life as I want.” So he took the money and did whatever he wanted, thinking that he had found himself. Yet the saying rang in his ears: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

There is the person who, to find himself, wants to find freedom. He says: “I want liberty; I don’t want to be bound by anything.” The majority of the problem of our youth in this generation is this freedom — this “liberty.” They want to live however they want: “I will style my hair however I want, and I don’t care what anyone says. I will do my nails however I want, and I don’t care what anyone says. I will wear tight clothing, and I don’t care what anyone says. I will work and travel, and I don’t care what anyone says. I want to live my life.” “He who finds his life will lose it.”

My beloved, God has not given you the self to say “I will please it and give it freedom as it wants.” God gave you the self so that you may control it and govern it. Solomon the Wise says: “Better to have self control than to conquer a city” (Proverbs 16:32). This is the self that you are given to govern and conquer. Do not fulfill every thought that comes to your mind. Our saintly fathers were not quick to fulfill the thoughts that came to them. To every thought that came to them, they said: “Let us be patient. Let us run this thought by God and see what He thinks. Let us put this thought on the altar and see what God thinks of it.” You speak to a great person and say “let us do this or that,” and he will tell you “be patient my son. Let us run this thought by God, and ‘if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it’ (Acts 5:38-39).” But zeal, speed, and haste are what put us into trouble. Zeal, speed, and haste do not give us a chance to run the thought by God, nor by a spiritual guide, nor wait to see God’s will. Believe me, what led Eve to fall was this haste. The thought came to her and she carried it out right away. If Satan told her “eat from the tree” and she told him “let me think about this for two or three days,” she would not have fallen ever. It would have been impossible.

This translation by Anthony & Andrew Doss was first shared by H.H. Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary on March 17, 2020.


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