This is a guest post from James Helmy, a deacon serving at St Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church in Delray Beach, FL. In this post, James shares an excerpt from the book, "If You Love Me: Serving Christ and the Church in Spirit and Truth" by Fr. Matthew the Poor - a man who James says is "an amazing example of spiritual formation and reformation for Copts living in modern times." If you too are interested in guest posting on my blog, please visit my Guest Post guidelines for more info.
Necessity has driven us to offer this series of essays in order to draw the reader’s attention to a very important fact: that there is an enormous difference between religious “knowledge” as it is marketed in modern days, and “service” according to its original Christian meaning. Religious instruction, even when offered in a spiritual vein, tends to focus on the cultivation of the mind, the interpretation of the Bible, the development of religious exercises like hymnology and prayer, the refinement of preaching skills, and the accumulation of bits of knowledge in history, tradition and theology. The end result of this process is often a self-admiring contentment with one’s self, and a feeling of superiority over others in spiritual matters.
Christian service, in contrast, focuses on the “chatechising” and reproof of one’s self; mastery of the bodily drives (to free the spirit from its bondage to personal whims and tendencies); and the adoption of a warm and constant state of repentance in order to receive God’s grace. The end result of this process is usually self-abandonment; the surrender of one’s self to God; the forging of an open and honest relationship with others; and a constant and reverent engagement in worship.
We may say, then, that whereas religious instruction as a matter of course centers around the ego, and (without service) tends to inflate its object—the Gospel says: “Knowledge puffs up but love edifies” (1 Cor 8:1)—Christian service centers around the spirit, and fills its object with reverence, love, and humility. For this reason, we considered it necessary to discuss the qualities that make up a spiritual service, so that barren instruction and teaching do not become weights on the soul.
First, we need to understand the significant difference between a religious teacher and a spiritual servant. The first relays information; the second builds souls. The first extracts knowledge from books and places it before the student on paper. The second feeds the ones he serves from his own fullness: he shares the inner riches of his faith, his love, his self-sacrifice, and his humility. He provides genuine experiences and a living example to those he serves—for it is himself that he gives, and it is his own life that he offers. The first transmits words and concepts that he has heard externally; the second brings forth words and concepts from within, an effusion that emerges from his depths, similar to the hot ferment that erupts from the pits of the earth. The first prepares a lesson with the aim of convincing the listeners of his ideas; the second labors to birth children for Christ.
Therefore, we must say that there is also a difference between the student who sits for instruction in religion with the promise that he will receive rewards and accolades for memorizing his lessons, and the obedient servant who places his hand into the hand of his spiritual guide, and follows his counsel with reverence. Such a guide will be constantly asking himself the question: “What can this servant do to overcome his sin and grow in the spirit?” The first increases everyday in knowledge, and strives to outdo his rivals in order to boast to them of his achievements. The second increases in grace and humility day by day, and strives even more to go unnoticed and unapplauded by others (even by himself).
To summarize, the Christian servant is not just a lesson-teacher, but is in the first place a leader of souls to salvation. The first priority and central pre-occupation of Christian service is to lead the souls of men and women to repentance, and to train the young in the paths of virtue and the fear of God.