You are under the power of no other enemy, are held in no other captivity and want no other deliverance but from the power of your own earthly self. This is the one murderer of the divine life within you. It is your own Cain that murders your own Abel. Now everything that your earthly nature does is under the influence of self-will, self-love, and self-seeking, whether it carries you to laudable or blamable practices; all is done in the nature and spirit of Cain and only helps you to such goodness as when Cain slew his brother. For every action and motion of self has the spirit of Antichrist and murders the divine life within you.
(William Law: The Spirit of Love)
Today you and I find ourselves situated in that brief time of the Church’s life between Epiphany and Lent. In the past weeks we have embraced the vision of God manifested in the life of Jesus Christ, and have quietly meditated upon the magnificent and brilliant beauty of God’s love in the Incarnation of his only-begotten Son. We now begin to prepare for more in Lent when Jesus Christ demands that our vision and death should lead into death. On Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sunday- roughly seventy, sixty and fifty days before Easter, you and I are bidden to prepare for this death. And what better way to begin this journey than with William Law, that famous 18th century teacher of the Christian moral life.
William Law, you will remember, lived through a time when the western world was being seduced by the ideas of Deism. Deism teaches belief in God, but cannot accept that God’s Word was made flesh in Jesus Christ. Because Enlightenment science could not prove that God’s Word was made flesh, the age then tended to reject the Incarnation. The demands of the time do seem curious, however, since if man in any age could prove or produce the Incarnation, then man might save himself. That man cannot save himself is precisely the reason for the Incarnation. The Incarnation makes sense only if God in Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. At any rate, in the midst of scientific discovery and a zeal for human proofs, a world emerged, in which faith in Jesus Christ and his unifying and reconciling mission of redemptive love were denied. But our friend- the good and noble Reverend Mr. William Law, would have none of it. Against the rationalist pride of the Deists, William Law called his contemporaries back to belief in Christ.
But to do so, on the whole, rather than finding the threat to Christian belief in the philosophy of the Deists, William Law chose to locate it in human habits. Bringing before man his own inner temptations which emerge even when, with the best of intentions, he seeks to faithfully follow Jesus Christ, Mr. Law sought to address the root cause of unbelief from the standpoint of behavior. So he would diagnose the problem by locating the root cause of vice in man’s worldliness. You are under the power of no other enemy, are held in no other captivity and want no other deliverance but from the power of your own earthly self. This is the one murderer of the divine life within you. The real danger that we must face is that of our own earthly self. For it is the self that accepts or rejects, affirms or denies, and embraces or expels the Divine Life within. It is your own Cain that murders your own Abel. [For] everything that your earthly nature does is under the influence of self-will, self-love, and self-seeking, whether it carries you to laudable or blamable practices…. Law finds our proclivity to spiritual destruction nicely imaged in the 4th chapter of Genesis, where Cain slew Abel out of envy and jealousy.
Cain was made to be a tiller of the ground. Allegorically he is the man who ought to till and cultivate the soil of the soul. Abel was a keeper of the sheep, and is truly superior to Cain allegorically and spiritually –for he is the symbol of Christ the Good Shepherd, who comes to shepherd Cain’s cultivation into the service of God. But we read that Cain slew Abel, and so we interpret this as meaning that Cain did not cherish and perfect his God-given gifts. Cain’s problem was with his own earthly self, and so he became the murderer of the Divine Life within. First, he was ungrateful for the gift of his calling- to cultivate the soil of the soul. Second he became envious of his brother’s gift, the care and love of his soul, figured in his younger Abel’s vocation to tend to and care for the sheep. But Cain –and you and I who are very much like him, rather envy the presence of the shepherd in our lives, and so cannot welcome him, because we resent his gifts. Because we are moved by self-will in our own earthly self, we allow God’s gifts in others to destroy our own.
The logic of our Cain-like existence unfolds nicely in today’s Gospel Parable. In it we learn about what can and will progressively destroy the gift of God’s Word when it is sown in the human heart. God the sower addresses Cain and goes out to sow his seed. As he sowed, some fell by the way-side, and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Like Cain we treat the Word of God as what has been sown outside of the heart, is removed from its expectations, and alien to its inmost longing and desire. We are like those who are by the way side and hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe, and be saved. (Ibid, 12) We have heard the Word addressed to us; we are even reminded that He intends to bless us always. When we are confused and alarmed, He even asks us, Why are you extremely sorrowful? Why has your countenance fallen? (Genesis iv. 6) God has made us and called us. We are bidden to till the soil of our souls. But we treat God’s Word as an external phenomenon only. In our immaturity we can see its blessing only in others like Abel. We do not remember that we come from God and that He has given us the gift. In our forgetfulness and frustration, the Word of God is snatched away from us and is devoured. Thus it never comes alive.
God’s Word is spoken to us and next, as our Gospel tells us, it falls upon a rock, and as soon as it springs up, it withers away because it lacked moisture. (St. Luke viii. 6) Perhaps with Cain we know that the Word has been spoken, but as time goes on we begin to grow cold and hardened as envy for its perfection in the heart of our brother Abel overwhelms us. Its fertility and fecundity in our brother’s life shows up our own failure to grow it. As the Word’s success in others grows, it breeds only malevolence and ill will in our hearts because it has outrun and outshined us. Thus we have no root and in time of temptation fall away. (Ibid, 13) We are tempted to view what others have and what we have not. As we cultivate and perfect our bitterness, wrath expands, and so our hearts are hardened to the hearing of God’s Word. We cannot will the good of our brother. Because we do not love the brother whom we do see, we cannot love the God whom we cannot see. (1 St. John iv. 20)
Our sin enlarges and matures. The Word of God falls among thorns, and the thorns spring up with it, and choke it. (Ibid, 7) With Cain God’s Word has been heard, but by now our self-will, self-love, and self-satisfaction have strangled and suffocated to such an extent that we cannot believe. We have become possessed by pride, envy, and wrath so completely that we have effectively devitalized and disabled the Word’s potential growth within our souls. In addition to being envious of his brother Abel, Cain is truly stifled and smothered by his own self-important but precarious insecurity. God’s Word cannot breathe its way into his heart because of his own exaggerated sense of inward failure. The good is perceived to be so great in the other that what remains is too little to do good for himself.
The seed that longs to be sown in the heart of Cain, you and me, is the Word of God. It yearns to fruit and flower in the soil of the human soul. If with Cain we spend much of our lives refusing to hear and obey God’s Word, the Divine Word will perish first outside and then within us. Every action and motion of self has the spirit of Antichrist and murders the Divine Life within you. (Idem, Law) Ill will or malevolence towards any other man is the effect of our failure to cultivate God’s Word in our own souls. We kill it in others because we are alarmed to discover what we have refused to cultivate in ourselves. And yet the true Abel, our brother Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh for us, endures our spiritual murder of Him, responding only with a deeper desire for the confession of our sin and the longing for His new birth within our souls. It is only when we come to see that we have murdered our brother Jesus Christ, that we come to perceive what the Word made flesh can become in and through us.
Today, knowing that blood is on our hands, let us pray for that forgiveness that will cultivate rich and fertile soil in our souls ready to hear and obey the Word of God. Let us with St. Paul glory in the things which concern our infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) That is, let us resort to God because we are infirm, weak, and powerless without the persistent pursuit of His magnanimous love. Let us remember that God’s love is so large that there is more than enough to be shared with us and all others. With William Law, let us daily and hourly in every step that we take, examine the Spirit that is within us, whether it be Heaven or Earth that guides us, and judge every thing to be sin and Satan, in which our earthly nature, our own self-love or self-seeking has any share in us, nor think that any goodness is brought to life in us before we die to pride, envy, wrath, and all selfish temper. (The Spirit of Love…) For it is only then that we might begin to approach God with an honest and good heart, [and] having heard the word, [begin to] keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience. (Ibid, 15) Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons