The famous French philosopher, writer and journalist, Albert Camus (born on 7 November 1913 and died on 4 January 1960), in one of his notable works, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, wrote: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion”.
The Lenten retreat successfully organized by the Maltese Patristics Society, on Saturday 23 March, helped us, retreatants, to take a healthy step away from the world in order to enter it again in a new way. The retreat was a heartfelt response to Jesus’ revelation of the Father’s plan: For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). Now wonder than that Jesus’ parable of the Merciful Father, which clearly shows how God loves the world to save it, was the retreat’s focus.
After the celebration of the Mass and a coffee break the retreat kicked off with a very interesting input by Papas Martin Zammit. Papas Zammit spoke profoundly about the prodigal son. In the Ode 6 of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, the longest canon that is associated with Great Lent in the Christian East, we read: “I offer you, O Saviour, sincere tears and the deepest groans of my soul, crying from the heart, ‘O God, I have sinned against You, be merciful to me.’” It is interesting how this verse openly echoes what the younger son said to his Father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). Then, Papas Zammit quoted another major spiritual work within the Christian eastern lung, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus. In step 28, verse 5, St. John writes: “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase”.
As a reaction to the Pharisees and the scribes who murmured that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2), St. Cyril of Alexandria comments in his commentary on St Luke’s gospel: “It is our duty, therefore, to conform ourselves to that which God wills: for He heals those who are sick; He raises those who are fallen; He gives a helping hand to those who have stumbled; He brings back him who has wandered; He forms anew unto a praiseworthy and blameless life those who were wallowing in the mire of sin; He seeks those who were lost; He raises as from the dead those who had suffered the spiritual death. Let us also rejoice: let us, in company with the holy angels, praise Him as being good, and loving unto men; as gentle, and not remembering evil. For if such is our state of mind, Christ will receive us, by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen”.
In the second input of the retreat, marvelously delivered by Fr Mark Sultana, we came to appreciate more the role of the elder brother in the parable. As St Ambrose pointed out, the elder brother of the parable “described … to come from the farm, that is engaged in worldly occupations, so ignorant of the things of the Spirit of God… The envious seeks a kid, the innocent lamb… A man grows old through envy. Therefore too he stands without, because his malice excludes him; therefore he not hear the dancing and music, that is, not the wanton fascinations of the stage, but the harmonious song of a people, resounding with the sweet pleasantness of joy for a sinner saved.” In the words of the psychologist and theologian, Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, “when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years”.
While thanking the Maltese Patristics Society for this well-organized retreat I strongly encourage everyone to attend to such retreats. They really enrich one’s spirit as well as one’s cultural formation.