The festival "Joy of the Protection of the Mother of God” is an annual event organised by Saint Elisabeth Convent each October. Our special guest this year was priest Alexander Naseko, head of the Synodal Division of Missionary Work of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. He spoke before the guests of the festival about the treasures of heaven in our hearts. How do we explore our hearts? What treasures can we find there? And how can this practice of introspection change our lives? Here are the highlights of his talk.
Let me begin with a true story. In one parish, there lived a man who stopped going to church. The parish priest came to his house to find out why. He found the man sitting at the fireplace. Silently, he was stirring red-hot coals with a poker stick. Suddenly, a piece of charcoal dropped out of the pile. It turned black and stopped burning.
With a wave of his hand, the man invited the priest to sit next to him. The priest took the stick and rolled the black piece of charcoal back towards the pile. Soon, it heated up and caught fire again. Without saying a word, the priest showed to the man: we can only keep the fire in our hearts if when the hearts of the people who surround us are also on fire. Otherwise, our hearts will cool off and turn black.
So let us look inside our hearts. Let us look deep – was have a whole new world to discover in us. Our hearts remember our happy moments - the birth of our children or grandchildren, our first time at church, or doing something good for others. Our exploration might also give us some unpleasant surprises. In the dark corners of our hearts, we might discover large caches of wickedness, anger or ill will.
We explore the depths of our hearts in silence. Many people are averse to silence. Some fear a surprise encounter with darkness or experience the pangs of conscience as they remember causing pain to their loved ones with their words or deeds.
Our meeting with the Lord also takes place in our hearts. As the Lord says to us, "I will enter your heart and will reside in it".
So do examine your hearts closely – what treasures will you find? Some might be treasures of the world. Observe this woman. On her deathbed, she asks to have her dress and dies holding on to it. Another woman at her dying hour wants to have her diamonds. She admires them for a few moments and then swallows them all up, so nobody else will have them. Alas, the treasures of the earth are worthless in eternity. To stand before God in dignity, we need to be rich towards Heaven.
Now let consider the life of Saint Peter, formerly the chief tax collector in Arica. For the greater part of his life, he never looked into his heart. He had no mercy for the poor, did not go to church or contemplate his departure. When a destitute person approached him asking for alms, he threw him a piece of bread out of annoyance. But the beggar still thanked him anyway.
When Peter had to look into his heart, he must have had a terrifying experience. Shortly after his encounter with the beggar, he became very ill and felt the approach of death. He dreamed that he was dead, and the angels were weighing his actions on the scales of God’s judgement. They found nothing to put on the side of good deeds except the piece of bread that he threw out of annoyance to the destitute person. However, even that was enough to stop the side holding his corrupt deeds from sinking. The angels said, "Go now, Peter, and do more good deeds to add to the scale, so the devils will not take you away for eternal torment.”
Here, let me recall the passage from the Gospel in which a youth asks Christ, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10: 17). The Lord answers, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.'" (Mark 10: 19). All these things are virtues. “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy,” remarks the young man. Are not we all in a similar position? There will hardly be many among us who have stolen, killed or disrespected their parents.
But virtues alone will not take us to the Kingdom of Heaven. Underlining this, Christ advises the young man, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10: 21). But the young man cannot follow the Lord's advice and walks away from him in sadness.
What did the young man lack? The grace, the burning of the heart. As the Lord justly remarked, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6: 21).
Fortunately for Peter, his brush with eternity changed him completely. His heart went on fire. He became merciful. He sold his estate and gave the proceeds to the poor. He freed his slaves. He ordered his last remaining slave to sell him into slavery to Christians and give the money away as alms. Shunning worldly glory, he spent the rest of his life going from pilgrimage to pilgrimage and doing charities.
Our most valued treasure of the heart is our meeting with God and the burning of our hearts before him. It brings life to our spirits and rewards us with calm, joy and grace – the precious gifts of His spirit. As Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, acquire the peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved. We do not need to save thousands, saving our loved ones will be just as good. Walking before God, living in Him, possessing the gifts of heaven – faith love, hope, having a fire in our hearts – all of these are riches truly worth seeking and keeping.
I pray that you will all grow rich in the spirit. Start building up your wealth this moment. Give your love to your children and kin, keep a conversation with God and keep praying to Him. This will make us truly rich today, tomorrow and thereafter. May the Lord save and protect all of you!
By Alexander Naseko
Icon painters from St Elisabeth Convent shared the secrets of their art with Britons. The workshop session on icon painting was held on April 24-26, 2018 in Preston, England, as part of From Heart To Heart Festival.