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February 22, 2022

Meditation on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

 Spiritual Exercises

Meditation 15

On the Parable of the Prodigal Son
By St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite

A. He Departed From the House of His Father.

B. What Life He Lived After His Departure.

C. What His Return Consisted Of

A. Think, brother, of the departure of that prodigal son from his father's house, as narrated by sacred Luke (15:11), with which the departure really seemed like a young man without a mind and intellect, because what was he missing when he was at his paternal home and under the protection of his sweetest father? He was in his paternal arms every day, he had everything he needed, he was served by all the slaves, he had the caresses and honors as the heir of the paternal property and he was almost recognized as the master and ruler of everything, so he could have every reason to say that psalm: "We shall be filled with the good things of thy house" (Psalm 64:5). But the desire for delusional freedom, from being a child and an heir, made him desire to become a slave and a servant. So he began to be disturbed by the royal and free life he had under his father's obedience; and desire to live according to his own will and utilize his disposition, as it is utilized by others, and this disturbance and desire urged him to seek the consent of his father, to leave the paternal house, and they advised him to ask for the share of that inheritance which belonged entirely to him: "Father, give me the share of property that falls to me" (Luke 15:12). The father did not want to stop him from this move, but let him go, to find out through trial and deprivation, what goods he enjoyed when he was in his father's house and despised them, as sacred Chrysostom explains: "That is why the father left him and did not prevent him from going to a foreign country, in order to learn with experience, how many benefits he had by staying in his paternal home" (Discourse 1 On Repentance). And because his father could not persuade him with words to stay in his house, he let him be persuaded by these things and sufferings: "Many times God, when words cannot persuade, allows experience of situations to be a teacher", says he who had golden speech (ibid.), as it is written: "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee" (Jer. 2:19), because even Adam, when he was in paradise, did not know the blessedness he had, but from the time he was exiled by Him, then he knew it. ”So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living" (Luke 15:12-13).

This solemn parable, brother, is a living image of that evil which you have committed, departing from the submission to your God to that of your sin. Ah! And who was richer than you wretched one, before you lost your innocence and sinned? Who else was nobler than you? Who was more beautiful and brighter? The whole inheritance of paradise was prepared for you, which after a while you would fully acquire and of which you now own. You were given the gift of adoption, with which you were a son of God and the richest of all who dwell in the east, as it is written of Job: "This man was the greatest of all the men of the east” (Job 1:3). You had the beauty and fairness, which is caused by innocence and sinlessness and then, what treasure was not for you of the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, which is the greatest gift that God can give to a creature in this life? By this you were loved by the angels, were a companion with the saints, a living temple of the deity, as sacred Paul says: "Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). This grace has always dwelt in you, it has governed you, it has comforted you as a loving mother with its heavenly sweetness, with its unaccusing conscience and with its divine mysteries; it has often kept you as the only child in the arms of its providence. But you, being young, suffering from ignorance, despised all this and wanted to abuse to no avail the freedom of your autonomy, to live according to your desires, instead of using it to submit with a high reward to the heavenly Father, and you mistakenly thought that you would make a great profit if you turned away from God your Father.

O foolish thought, which brought things to you in reverse, for when you were ordered and obedient, then you were in fact self-sufficient and free. O, if it was possible for someone to enter your heart, brother, and make her feel the great darkness of ignorance, which overwhelmed her and made you take into account created things more than the Creator, to think it a  heavy and difficult burden the light and sweet weight of submission to this most affectionate Father: "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30), and to think of your freedom as that which is truly your captivity, as it is written about Jerusalem: "She is no longer free, but is instead a slave" (1 Maccabees 2:11). And as Paul says: "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?" (Rom. 6:20-21). But even now shake the thick darkness and delusion out of your mind and, assuming the wisdom you have lost, know that there is no other freedom, such as submitting to God with all perfection and like letting yourself be ruled by the will of your heavenly Father, as Paul says to you: "But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life” (Rom. 6:22). Loathe the foolishness you committed and departed from this royal palace of your Father, confessing your mistake and making the decision for the rest of your life, not to leave your house, nor the obedience of His commandments. But because the only characteristic of the natural son is to dwell always in the house of his father and not of the slave, as you are, he begged His only begotten Son to make you an adopted son of His Father and deliver you from the bondage of sin, so that you, too, may live forever as a son in the heavenly house of His Father, as He Himself promises you, saying: "And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:35).

B. Think, beloved, of the unhappy life that this poor and unknown young man lived outside of his Father's house and the damage he received, which was four in all. The first damage was that he misused all his share of property; the second, that he was placed to live under a very hard master; third, he ended up doing menial work as a pig herder; and fourth, he became so hungry that he lacked what was not lacking from the herd of pigs. But every sinful person suffers all these damages and even incomparably greater - because first the thrice-wretched one is deprived of the friendship of God and with it is deprived of the heavenly goods, scattered with material things in his mind, which is itself the main human property, according to the divinely inspired Gregory of Thessaloniki who says: “Our essence and property is the innate mind. As long as we persist in the ways of our salvation, we have it concentrated in ourselves and on the first and highest Mind, namely God; but when we open the door to the passions, immediately it is scattered, constantly wandering around the carnal and earthly" (Saint Gregory Palamas, Discourse on the Parable of the Prodigal). Second, he submits to his greatest enemy, who is the devil, according to Chrysostom. Third, he forgets the kindness he received at divine Baptism; he grazes pigs, that is, not only to roll like a pig in the mire of beastly pleasures and appetites of the flesh, but also to become a teacher of these infamous acts to others, according to the interpretation of Saint Theophylact. Fourth and last, because even in this filthy act, the wretch cannot at all satisfy his desires, but the more he eats such filthy food of sin, the more his hunger increases and he misses that which is abundant even in the animals of the plain. "He who is accustomed to these things, cannot get enough of them; because pleasure does not remain, but at the same time the wretch becomes and remains empty again", says the sacred Theophylact (Interpretation in the Parable of the Prodigal). And the great man of Thessaloniki, Gregory, says of this parable: "He could not satisfy his desire; why? Because the nature of the body is not enough to satisfy the impulses of the unclean." O the misfortune! O the misery worthy of tears!

Tell me now, you fellow-sinner, did you not suffer all this by your actions, since you sinned? Why, then, do you not learn, at your own expense and with the sufferings you have suffered, to abhor your wretchedness and leave the place that is barren and deprived of all good? Have you not experienced in practice that those who turn away from God are all lost? As it is written: "Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you" (Psalm 72:27). Why do not you leave an hour earlier from the hands of a gentleman so inhuman and cruel, who rejoices in nothing but your own loss? What peace does a pig ever have with a dog? "What peace will the hyena have with the dog?" (Sirach 13:18); or what peace will you have with such a tyrannical master? Do you think that you can ever find yourself at rest outside of God's will? Do you think that you can find any good outside of your heavenly Father's house? O, you are blind and deluded! And who ever made war with God and was at peace with himself? "Who will go against God and not be harmed?" (Job. 9:4). Therefore, if you want to have peace with sin and with the enemies of God, the demons, know that God and your conscience will not stop fighting you and your peace will not be peace, but true war. "Peace, peace, they say when there is no peace?" (Jer. 6:14). But if, on the contrary, you have peace with God and with virtue, know that this is your true peace, which no war can disturb; if you have purity of heart, then "you will be secure, because there is hope, and you will look around and lie down in safety. You will lie down without fear, and many will court your favor”(Job 11:19).

But why do you alone seek that which until now no other sinner has found? How do you want to sin and then you do not want your conscience to control you but to flatter you, that you are doing well, a conscience which to all other sinners is an accuser and a witness and a judge and an executioner? So, take out of your mind what you imagined to find and be sure that you will never do true good, except when you completely submit to the commandments of God and make a perfect decision from now on to change your mind and your way of life, and you would rather die than be separated once more from your Father's heavenly house and want to dwell again in the abode of demons and sinners, saying with David: “I would rather wander in the house of my God than dwell in the palace of sinners” (Ps. 83:11). And ask the Lord, that if you ever want to misuse the freedom of your autonomy and ask to go out of His house, to block your way with thorns, that is, with sorrows, sufferings and diseases, so that you must return immediately, as it is written: "Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you" (Ps. 31:9).

C. Think about the return of the prodigal son to his father’s house and the reasons behind it, which were three in number. The first was that he reflected sincerely on the wretchedness of his situation; the second was that he compared his misery with the happiness of those who were living in his father’s house; and the third was that he cherished the hope that his father would forgive him, as he had done so many times before. And so, on his return, he was granted the forgiveness he desired. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, embraced him and showered him with kisses" (Luke 15, 20). This is what you have to do, too: to come to your senses with great sincerity, as the prophet says: "Repent you apostates and return to the Lord with your whole heart" (Is. 15:20). Consider the great unhappiness  of the soul when it is far removed from God’s grace. Don’t be like those servants who, when their skin has become calloused, don’t feel the rod of their master. And don’t get to the point of giving the name of peace to the culmination of the evils you’ve experienced. As it was written: "Moreover this was not enough for them, that they erred in the knowledge of God; but because they lived in the great strife of ignorance, they gave the name of peace to those such great evils" (Wisdom 14:22).

Don’t you know the trials suffered by the wretched sinners who are far from God? Don’t you know the difficulties they have? The worries? How much sadness and pain there is in their heart? Why have they been deprived of divine grace? Why don’t they commune of the immaculate mysteries? And why don’t they enjoy help from God invisibly? And why are you indifferent to all these afflictions? Don’t you know that even one of them, particularly not taking part in the mysteries, is an unbearable affliction and a true death of the soul? This is why Saint Basil the Great in his Rule, calls exclusion from communion and excommunication "death" and a "sword". It’s apparent, then, that you haven’t yet come to your senses, and that you are still not yourself. This is why the son said: "How many of my father’s workers have food to spare, and here I am starving to death?" (Luke 15:17). As Gregory, the great Archbishop of Thessaloniki, said: "He was deprived, being far removed from our common Father, Provider and Lord, but once he was subjected to fierce hunger and felt his lack, he repented and returned. He sought and was given divine and undefiled provisions" (Discourse on Parable of the Prodigal Son). But you’re hungry and you don’t feel the hunger you’re suffering. This is why you’re suffering twice the affliction and, at the same time, twice the damage. You’re at the risk of dying from lack, not of bread and water, but of being starved of the word of God. As it is written, "The days are coming," declares the Sovereign Lord, "when I will send a famine through the land, not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord" (Amos 8:11).

Yet what desire do you show to go and listen to the words of teachers who preach the word of God, to satisfy your hunger? According to Gregory the Theologian, "The word of God is the bread of angels, with which the souls of those who hunger for God are nourished." You should listen to the word of the Lord, who commands you to study the scriptures in order to find eternal life in them. "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life" (Jn. 5:39). Yet when do you pick up a book to read? When do you study God’s law in order to be brought to salvation? As Paul tells you: "From infancy you have known the Scriptures, which is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15). You know that the real bread and nourishment for the soul and body is the life-giving Body and Blood of the Lord, as He Himself says: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (Jn. 6:51). Yet what desire or what love do you have to prepare yourself constantly and to receive this divine bread (provided you have no impediment) so that you may be filled and live eternally? If someone who is ill hasn’t eaten for a long time and has no appetite, they show signs of dying. Just as you are showing signs of being at risk of complete and utter spiritual death because of your lack of appetite for the metaphysical and spiritual bread, that is, both the word of God and the Body of the Lord.

So come to your senses, recover your wits. How and in what way? Let me tell you. If you always strive to concentrate the whole of your nous within your heart and don’t allow it to be distracted with your feelings about the things of the world, then you’ll come round. Then, in the spirit, you’ll see all the passions which possessed and possess you, and which you didn’t even know about before. Then you’ll see your spiritual enemies, who assail you constantly. To put it simply, you’ll see what you’ve gained and what harm has been done to you. So always entreat God in the spirit and in your heart, to have mercy on you as He had on the prodigal, saying: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." As the Lord said, the heart is the center and repository of all our passions and thoughts: "But what comes out of a person’s mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles them" (Matt. 15:18). And the great Makarios  says: "The heart dominates the whole of the body. And when grace occupies the parts of the heart, it reigns over all thinking and all members. Because that is where the nous and all the thoughts of the soul are" (Discourse 15).

This is why Basil the Great says that when the nous isn’t distracted by the things of this world it returns to itself and through itself ascends to an understanding of God: "When the nous is not dispersed towards outward things and is not dragged into the world by the senses, it comes back to itself  and through itself ascends towards an understanding of God. Then, illumined and enlightened by God’s comeliness, it forgets even its own nature" (Letter to Gregory the Theologian). Dionysios the Areopagite calls this movement of the soul towards itself cyclical and unerring: "Further, there is a movement of soul, circular indeed, the entrance into itself from things outside it, and the unified convolution of its intellectual powers. This lends it, as it were, an inerrancy. In a sort of circle, it turns and collects itself, from the many things without, first to itself, then, having become single, uniting with the uniformly unified powers. It is thus conducted to the beautiful and good being, which is above all things, the one and the same, without beginning and without end," that is, God.

So come to your senses in this way, because there is no other way to do so. Get up and take this bold decision, saying to yourself: "I will arise and go to my father" (Luke 15:18). Get up out of this mud you’re wallowing in and go running to find your father, our sweet Jesus, in whose hands the whole of your salvation lies, the whole of your peace, the whole of your eternity. "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). What are your afraid of ? Even if, through your own fault, you’ve lost what it means to be a son, this doesn’t mean that he’s lost what it means to be a Father. As Saint John Chrysostom says: "We lost the hallmark of sonship, but He didn’t cast off his capacity as Father." You followed the example of the prodigal by sinning as you did, so you can now follow his example by repenting, and humbling yourself down to the ground before God, by confessing before Him and His angels that you have erred and aren’t worthy of being called His son. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your servants."

That freedom, for the love of which you were moved to leave your home, you can now dedicate to the Lord. You can inspire your heart with great boldness, at the thought that your heavenly Father, seeing you so poor, so naked, so wretched and ill-used by the devil, by the passions and by sin (because, as one wise person said, wickedness is a necessary punishment for the wicked) still doesn’t think about the fact that you squandered your inheritance. Nor does He remember what you did, only what you suffered, as Saint John Chrysostom, the preacher of repentance and comforter of sinners, says: "This is why it doesn’t say 'what he did,' but 'what he suffered.' He didn’t dwell on the fact that his son had squandered his inheritance, but rather that he had fallen into countless misfortunes. This is how he seeks the lost sheep with such concern" (Discourse on the Repentance of the Son Who Returned from the Field). This is why, out of His excess of kindness, He will come to meet you, He will fall on your neck, He will embrace you, He will give you the kiss of peace and He will forget all your sins. And for your part, in your astonishment at His immeasurable loving-kindness, distance yourself from your sins, despise them as you never did before. Think with shame, that others who were lower and beneath you, led pure lives, in obedience to our heavenly Father. They didn’t leave home and they belong to the order of sons. Others sinned, but through the efforts and exertions of repentance, regained grace and belong to the order of servants (according to the interpretation of Saint Gregory Palamas).

Both of these groups take part in the divine mysteries. Their hearts are filled with God’s grace and with a lavishly-given peace of the conscience. But you, miserable wretch that you are, you disregard God’s commandments. You sin, you don’t repent as you should and you’ve been deprived of all this. You’ve made it a rule not to take part in the divine mysteries: "How many of my father’s servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death." Take the decision to show that from now on you will repent with contrition; you will seek the Lord’s grace, to strengthen you and to prevent you from refusing to submit to His commandments ever again. As a loving Father, the Lord calls to you as His child and cries out to you, like the prophet: "Return you wayward children, for you belong to me" (Jer. 3, 14).

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.