Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Peace of God and the God of Peace

In just a few verses of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:4-9), we learn how to acquire the peace of God as well as communion with the God of peace.

To get the peace of God you need to do four things: Rejoice, give up anxiety, pray, and give thanks. These may not always seem to be easy to do (especially giving up anxiety, right?), but there is grace at hand to help us, for he says, “The Lord is near.” That awareness alone ought to be enough for us to begin practicing the four things in earnest. And the word of God bears within it the Spirit of God, so that it is able to accomplish what it says. If you still have anxiety, then go back to the third thing: pray. But you have to pray with thanksgiving, for the Lord is near. If the Lord is near, that is cause for rejoicing. And if you are rejoicing and praying with thanksgiving, then there is no place for anxiety, is there? Therefore “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”

Only two things are required to get the God of peace to be with you: think and do. Those are pretty general things, so the Apostle tells you what you ought to be thinking about and doing. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is righteous, whatever is pure, whatever is worthy of love, whatever is gracious; if there is any excellence [literally, virtue] or anything praiseworthy, think about these things.” Reflect upon the things that tend to fill your mind. Do they fall into the above categories? If not, then you are keeping the God of peace away from you. God is found where truth, honor, righteousness, purity, love, virtue, etc, are found. So think about these things, rest your mind in them, let them strengthen and purify and ennoble you—and let go of all the base, corrupting, superficial or ungodly rubbish that is always being offered as junk food for our minds. We were made for greater things.

If you are thinking the right things, what should you then do? “Whatever you have learned and received and heard” through the writings of the Apostles and the teachings of the Church and your meditation on the good and true and beautiful. Act accordingly, and the God of peace will be with you.

It is perhaps a rather challenging discipline to do the four things and the two things. Yet it’s not all that difficult. You just have to really want to. You have to be willing to make the effort to give up what is not of God and to embrace what is. It’s really good for you, after all, and it will (as you’ll notice, if only little by little) even make you happier. You will have the peace of God and the God of peace. So rejoice!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Satirizing Idols

The Old Testament is full of prophetic denunciations of idolatry, which God evidently regards as one of the greatest sins against Him (unfortunately, one of the most frequent as well). In some places, the prophets employ a kind of satire to expose the ridiculous folly of worshiping idols. Here are a couple examples.

“Half of [the wood the carpenter cuts] he burns in the fire; over that half he…roasts meat and is satisfied; also, he warms himself… And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it and prays to it” (Isaiah 44:16-17). In the Letter of Jeremiah found in the Book of Baruch, we read: “These gods of silver and gold and wood cannot save themselves from rust or corrosion… their eyes are full of the dust raised by the feet to those who enter [the temple]… They do not notice when their faces have been blackened by the smoke of the temple. Bats, swallows, and birds light on their bodies and heads; and so do cats. From this you will know that they are not gods; so do not fear them” (Baruch 6:11-23).

These may seem rather humorous, and are meant to be, but for a good reason—to open our eyes to the absurdity of idolatry. We may laugh at people worshiping carved or gilded idols in pagan temples and say, “What does that have to do with us?” Well, as I indicated in a previous post, idols come in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not we carry them in our hearts. You don’t literally have to pray to something for it to be an idol for you, only to give it inordinate attention, especially if that somehow detracts from the worship and service due to the true God. When you engage in some behavior (especially if it is habitual) or promote some position or agenda that is forbidden by God, then you are practicing idolatry.

Everyone has their idols, of one sort or another, because everyone has their sins. Why do we never learn, why are we so easily seduced by the lies of the demons who offer a wide variety of idols for our worship and service? There may be as many answers as there are unique individuals, but in many cases it may be reduced ultimately to this: we do not believe the word of God. God has revealed Himself and communicated his grace through the Church: the Scriptures, the Sacraments, etc. It’s all there: the Truth and the grace to live it; the Love and the offer to enjoy it forever. If we still choose what God has forbidden, or simply do not choose what He enjoins, then we’re saying, in effect, we just don’t buy it. We’ll make our own way, thank you, we’ll just do what seems pleasurable or profitable at the moment. Laughing at the satires against pagan idols, we fail to acknowledge the existence of our own little pantheon, while the demons compose satires about us.

Perhaps, though, we should laugh—at our own idols, be they interior or exterior ones. To see (at last!) how ridiculous it is to choose anything but what God has ordained for our salvation and happiness will make them seem less formidable or attractive. To unmask the deception is to take away the idols’ power (which is only what we give them). Suddenly we wake as if from a dream or stupor, and we see things clearly.

So do not fear (i.e., stand in awe of) them, says the prophet. They are not gods but silly and mute shells without substance or strength, whose devotees eventually become like them. Let us pray that the veils be lifted, the deceptions laid open, that we see all idols for what they are, and the true God for who He is. Then we’ll know whom to worship and serve. Then we’ll stop believing lies—and the joke will no longer be on us!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

All the Words of God

When we read Holy Scripture, we have to make sure that we do not take a selective approach. Taking a passage out of context, or in isolation from other texts on the same subject, can easily lead to error and to the strange irony that one can use the infallible word of God to go astray.

For example, you may think that Christ abides in us only through faith after reading “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17). But Jesus Himself said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him” (John 6:56). You can’t hold one (honestly, that is) without holding the other as well, for it is all the word of God. Perhaps you think you have the secret to answered prayer when you see that Jesus has said: “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Just think, whatever you want, simply tack “in Jesus’ name” at the end of your petition and it is yours! But notice that He also said: “If you abide in Me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Those are two very important conditions He gives, but the ultimate one is found in First John: “if we ask anything according to his will, He hears us” (5:14). So, abide in Him, let his words abide in you, and if what you ask is in keeping with his will, you will receive it. That is the teaching of Scripture.

A rather startling example of what I’m saying is found in the following texts: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), and “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,'” shall enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). This shows that the first text is incomplete without the second, and the Lord gives the reason why in the second half of the verse: “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Calling on the name of the Lord must be coupled with doing his will, or it will be an empty prayer and certainly will not save you. This is one example (among many in the Scriptures) that shows how it is impossible to be saved by anything alone, not faith alone, not works alone. If St Paul says we are saved by believing in Christ, and Jesus says we are saved by doing the will of the Father, then we are saved by faith and by doing the will of the Father! Scripture must be taken as a whole, as a unity, for it ultimately derives from the same Source.

So, hear the words of the Lord—all of them! Call on the name of the Lord, but make sure you also do the will of the Father. Ask in Jesus’ name, but make sure you’re abiding in Him and asking according to his will. We will ultimately be judged not by our fidelity to the few texts of Scripture we happen to like, but “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Monday, June 27, 2005

If Only You Knew

When someone receives a revelation from a saint, or hears from someone who has had a direct vision of the life to come, be it heaven, hell, or purgatory, the urgency of it is often preceded by: "If only you knew..." If only we knew what they know, if only we could see what they see, how different our lives would be!

Our Lord has said the same thing to the Samaritan woman at the well: "If only you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is speaking to you..." (John 4:10). The problem is, we don't know, or at least we don't know as fully as we'd like to know, and sometimes that hinders us from giving ourselves completely to God and to the carrying out of his will. Yet, as I wrote in my last post, our faith requires us to live as if we did know, as if we saw more clearly than we actually do.

But do we really not know? It's true that we don't have the unmediated vision of God that the blessed enjoy in heaven. Yet I think that more has been revealed to us than we'd like to let on, and so we try to hide behind the excuse that the Mysteries of God are opaque and inaccessible, so we just live according to our own lights. One commonly misunderstood Scripture text seems to put the heavenly revelations of God beyond our grasp in this life: "No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1Cor. 2:9). But read the whole sentence: "That which no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit." So there is much we do, or can, know if we sincerely seek the face of God.

It remains true, however, that there are some things we will simply not know through direct experience in this life. Faith has to carry us. But our constant meditation on the word of God and the mysteries of eternity should keep our thoughts and behavior at the level of one who does know, who knows enough, anyway, to live with a heart set on eternal communion with Lord and not on the passing vanities of this life.

Our desire to know should simply come from a longing to love Jesus more perfectly, and not from curiosity about miracles and extraordinary supernatural phenomena. In the same chapter of John quoted above, Jesus sighed, not without a bit of exasperation: "Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe" (4:48).

In summary, then, realize that God has already revealed much, so there is still much that can be known in this life. Accept that some things are reserved for the next life, and humbly carry on in faith. Seek God not for the sake of extraordinary manifestations, but only to love Him more, and to receive the grace to enter eternal communion with Him. If only you knew how much good this would do for you...

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Persevere As If Seeing

The are two very small but very important words in the Christian vocabulary: as if. We are called to live by faith, not by sight, but to live truly by faith we have to live as if it were by sight. Moses gives us an example: "he persevered as if seeing the One who is invisible" (Hebrews 11:27). To persevere as if seeing is to live by faith.

In this, God asks quite a lot from us, but evidently it's the only way to prove our love and to be found worthy of his heavenly kingdom. St Peter exhorts us: "Love Him without having seen Him; believe in Him though you do not now see Him" (1Peter 1:8). For those of you who are more advanced, the Greek can also be translated as a declaration of fact: "Without having seen Him, you love Him; though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him."

This was the essence of Pascal's famous wager: Live for one year as if you fully believed all that the Scriptures and the Church teach, and put it into practice diligently the whole time, and I'll bet that at year's end you will in fact really believe and will freely and lovingly put it into practice thereafter.

Much of our spiritual life, whether we like it or not, has to be lived on that "as if" basis. We don't see, we don't fully understand, we have numerous unanswered questions, we have struggles with things that we'd really wish could be some other way. But we believe and trust in God, so we live as if we had the answers (which means we live as the Gospel directs, without excuses, procrastination, or rationalization). This is not easy, but it is what a life of faith requires.

Look again at Moses, at the context in which it was said that he persevered as if seeing: "he chose to share ill-treatment with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Anointed One greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward... he was not afraid of the anger of the king..." (Hebrews 11:25-27).

Persevering as if seeing is hard work, but its benefits will be eternal. We will have to sacrifice certain ideas, opinions, activities, pleasures, and worldly behavior for the sake of living by faith in the Invisible One, who promises eternal life to those who believe in Him and do his will. After all, faith is about believing and embracing "things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). So don't let it be an obstacle for you that the Mysteries of God are so profound as to be invisible or intangible or not subject to scientific verification. Persevere anyway, as if...

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Capacity for Joy

Charles Williams wrote of a character in one of his novels: “her incapacity for joy admitted fear, and fear had imposed separation. She knew now that all acts of love are the measure of capacity for joy; its measure and its preparation, whether the joy comes or delays.” I’ve never heard before that acts of love are the measure of capacity for joy, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but perhaps you’ll permit me here to think aloud just a bit.

First of all, it seems clear enough that where there is no joy it will be easy for fear to fill that void. Fear always imposes some sort of separation from what is feared (if only a hoped-for separation). Such a separation will not only refuse to admit joy, but love as well, since love is about union, not separation.

But what about love and joy? What about the capacity for joy as the basis for acts of love? There is certain good sense to this, since joyless love would be something of a contradiction in terms. Perhaps a capacity for joy is a capacity for life, the abundant life that Jesus came to give. So if we are walking in the Holy Spirit and trying to live the Gospel of Jesus, to live is to love, and to love is to rejoice.

But are acts of love always carried out in joy? Often enough, to love is to suffer (or to sacrifice, anyway), and the personal cost of acts of true love can be quite high. Williams didn’t say, however, that “feeling happy” is the basis for acts of love, but a “capacity for joy.” Joy has to find room to dwell within us, like peace, which may dwell at a very deep and almost imperceptible level. The feeling of joy may “come or delay,” but in order to be able to act with love, we must be able to rejoice. True joy--which is not the same thing as the experience of pleasure or of other things we have been taught to associate with happiness--is really more akin to true love than we may have thought.

In the Kingdom to come, perfect love will have cast out all fear, and love will be full of joy, and joy will be full of love. In the meantime, why don’t you pray for a greater capacity for joy? You may discover that acts of love come much more easily. What have you got to lose?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Believe into Jesus

What does it mean to believe in God? Is it believing that He exists, that He has said and done certain things in human history, and that they are true? That is only the bare minimum of faith, and it is not even true faith, really, not the faith that saves. To believe in the true God, and in the One whom He has sent, Jesus Christ, is more than believing facts or propositions about God. It is, in a common biblical phrase (which is usually not translated literally), believing into Him.

In what is perhaps the most famous New Testament verse (John 3:16), we read: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only Son, that whoever believes in Him (literally, “all who believe into Him”: pas o pisteuon eis auton) should not perish but have eternal life.” What can we understand by “believing into” Jesus?

The expression connotes a personal engagement and communion, not a mere intellectual assent. Our faith is “into” Jesus, that is, it connects with him personally and establishes a relationship (or ratifies the relationship God has established). Personal relationship, engagement, and communion are not static concepts, but suggest a dynamism of growth, maturation, and fruitfulness. That is why a legalistic “once saved, always saved” approach to Christ can never really be a believing “into” Him.

Some time ago a young fundamentalist Christian man asked me to give him the Catholic position on justification, for a paper he was writing for his Bible college. I obliged him, and he wrote back, thanking me but “correcting” me here and there according to his own interpretation of Scripture. Then he went on to say, as if it were something to glory in: “I will never be closer to God than I am right now,” evidently meaning that he believed he was confirmed in righteousness and that he would remain in that state forever, for he must have thought that such a state does not admit a need for spiritual growth. I thought to myself: How sad! This young man has only recently begun his Christian life, and he thinks it a blessing that he will never get any closer to God than he is now! He completely misunderstands believing into Christ: entering into a relationship that continually grows through our faith, prayer, efforts to overcome sin and grow in love for Jesus, with the help of the Sacraments and God’s ever-flowing and deifying grace. If anyone thinks he will not (or somehow cannot) love Jesus more tomorrow than he does today, he is the most pitiable of men!

Hey, I'm into Jesus, that is, I believe into Him. You can, too. Get beyond merely believing things about Him, and realize how inadequate are the static formulas of mere acceptance of “salvation.” Rather, abide in Him as He desires to abide in you. Grow in Him as his presence grows in you. Enter into a communion with Him that increases and deepens all the time. Believe into Jesus and you will find yourself entering into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Divinely Energized

There’s a lot of talk in new-age circles about “energy.” Cosmic energy, bodily energy, psychic energy, the energy of a particular place or person. There is some truth to this, for energy in various forms can be scientifically verified and even put to good use, but all too often this “energy” talk is just part of the nebulous jargon of psychics, occultists, and wanna-be “enlightened spiritual persons” who believe in everything they come across in new-age bookstores.

But there is a true and profound Energy that we do well to discover and receive. Those who are just now experimenting with various “energies” (some of which can actually be demonic), are probably unaware that “Divine Energy” has been a standard theological term in Eastern Christian churches for many centuries, and its roots reach back into Sacred Scripture.

“Divine Energy” is a term that refers to God Himself, insofar as He can be manifested and communicated to creatures like us. It is contrasted with the Divine Essence, which is the hidden inner being of God which is not knowable or accessible to us. So we know and experience God when He reveals and communicates his Divine Energies to us. “Divine Energy” is another way of speaking about Divine Grace (or Sanctifying Grace, as they say in the Latin tradition), the indwelling presence of God.

“Energy” translates the Greek energeia (that’s obviously where our word comes from), and in Scripture it usually refers to the power of God, his activity in relation to us or within us. So we read about the “energeia of his great might, which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph. 1:19). Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the energeia which enables him to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:21). “You were also raised with him through faith in the energeia of God” (Col. 2:12). Perhaps most importantly for our own daily experience is, in St Paul’s words, “striving with all the energeia which God mightily inspires with me” (Col. 1:29).

God’s power—grace, energy, presence—is within us, the same power that effected the resurrection of Christ and that will transform us, body and soul, when He comes to judge the living and the dead. This Divine Energy is available to us in the Sacraments, and it is communicated to us through the word of God and through every way He chooses to love and bless us.

Without Him we can do nothing. With Him all things are possible. Get divinely energized. This is not “new age” but is ever-renewing. It’s as ancient as God Himself, as fresh as the first day of creation, and as urgently necessary as the air we breathe. “Grace be with you” (Col. 4:18).

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Streets of Gomorrah

"Acceptance is right. Kindness is right. Love is right. I pray, right now, that we're moving into a kinder time when prejudice is overcome by understanding; when narrow-mindedness, and narrow-minded bigotry is overwhelmed by open-hearted empathy; when the pain of judgmentalism is replaced by the purity of love." Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Who would not be for kindness and love, and against prejudice and bigotry? But this is rather slippery, and it’s a sign of the times. The quote is from the entertainer Janet Jackson, who was at that moment receiving an award from a gay-rights group.

I wonder—to whom is she praying? If it is the true God, then she will not get a hearing for her plea for freedom for people to perform unnatural sex acts (is that “the purity of love”?). God has already condemned that in the Scriptures. If Dad has warned Junior not to stick his hand in the lawnmower blade when it is running—because he knows the consequences—it will do Junior no good to ask him for kindness and “open-hearted empathy” with his desire for self-destruction, because Dad loves him too much for that.

A more profound assessment of the issue comes from someone who saw these times from afar, from about seven decades ago: “We all know about Sodom nowadays… Men can be in love with men, and women with women…and make sounds and speeches, but don’t you know how quiet the streets of Gomorrah are? Haven’t you seen the pools that everlastingly reflect the faces of those who walk with their own phantasms, but the phantasms aren’t reflected, and can’t be. The lovers of Gomorrah are quite contented; they don’t have to put up with our difficulties. They aren’t bothered by alteration, at least until the rain of fire of the Glory at the end… They’ve no children—no cherubim breaking into being or babies as tiresome as ours; there’s no birth there, and only the second death. There’s no distinction between lover and beloved; they beget themselves on their adoration of themselves, and they live and feed and starve on themselves, and by themselves too, for creation is the mercy of God, and they won’t have the facts of creation… When all’s said and done, there’s only Zion or Gomorrah” (Charles Williams, Descent into Hell).

There is a demon that mans the gate of Gomorrah, though it looks more like an ordinary person than a demon. It offers promises and lies. “I could make you perfectly safe and perfectly happy… Happy, rich. Insatiate, yet satisfied. How delicious everything would be! I could tell you tales that would shut everything but yourself out. Wouldn’t you like to be happy? … If you will come with me, I can fill you, fill your body with any sense you choose. I can make you feel whatever you’d choose to be. Secretly, secretly…” (ibid.)

Today’s celebrities word it differently: “Acceptance is right. Kindness is right. Love is right…” But the smooth, deceptive invitation to Gomorrah is the same. (This does not have to apply only to homosexual activity, but to any disordered or forbidden sexual behavior.)

For a while, things would seem well in the streets of Gomorrah, but one eventually discovers that it was all an illusion, because it wasn’t based on truth or God’s will. It was merely a phantasm that fed on narcissistic passion. Once it disintegrates (as it must), all that remains is emptiness and despair, and a bottomless abyss.

Read between the lines of what celebrities or other public-opinion shapers gush about love and compassion. Know what is really being said and offered. Don’t fall for the phony rhetoric of “love” that is nothing more than tolerance of evil. Head for Zion, not Gomorrah. And don’t look back.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Be Sun, Be Rain

The Lord makes a rather startling revelation in speaking about the Father's mercy and providence: "He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). God doesn't withhold the benefits of sun and rain from people just because they are wicked or unjust. He would like them to recognize and acknowledge his magnanimity and turn to Him with gratitude and a resolution to change. Yet He wants to manifest to the world that his love is not conditioned by our lack of response. We can condemn ourselves by not responding to his love, but that doesn't mean He loves us any less.

Did Jesus tell us this just to show us how wonderful the Father is? Yes, but more than that. The whole point of it is that we are to become children of our heavenly Father through imitation of his boundless love, and thus to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (5:48). From most perspectives on the meaning of "perfection," this would be impossible. As humans, the countless perfections that belong to the divine nature are for us wholly out of reach. But the Greek word from which "perfection" stems is telos, which connotes completeness, a goal or end. When Jesus died, St John tells us that He said, Tetelestai--it is finished, completed, the goal of his incarnation and sacrifice has been attained. So in one sense, what Jesus is saying is that we have to have the same goals as the Father, striving until we reach the fullness or completion of all that is possible to us with the help of divine grace.

To be able to achieve the goals of the Father for his children in this world, we have to love as He loves. When Jesus said we have to be children of the Father, it was in the context of loving and praying for our enemies or persecutors. God shines the sun (literally, his sun) on them, gives them rain when it is needed. We have to realize that those whom we have reason to call our enemies, those who hurt or malign us, are living in darkness and are like parched and arid earth. When Jesus says love them and pray for them, He is saying: Be sun for them, be rain for them, give them light in their darkness, pray that they will be open to the transforming refreshment of grace. "For if you love only those who love you," He goes on, "what reward is there in that?" Anybody, even evildoers, can do that. You, however, are called to be children of the Father who gives sun and rain to all, deserving or undeserving. The final judgment is in his hands, and no one pulls the wool over his eyes, but this is the time for mercy, for generosity, for being the Father's hands and heart as He seeks to achieve his goal of salvation for all.

Be sun, then, and be rain, for the sake of those for whom Christ died. Be a child of your heavenly Father. Love and pray and go forth in peace, in the name of the Lord.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

If I Forget You, Jerusalem

A great and tragic lament arose from the hearts and lips of God's chosen people when they were exiled to Babylon. It was not only a matter of the hardships of physical expatriation, nor of the social and cultural humiliation experienced at the hands of their enemies. Their greatest sorrow was having to be banished from the Temple of the Lord and his holy city, along with the knowledge that it had been razed to the ground.

The Temple was the dwelling place of the Lord and hence the only place where sacrifice and true worship could be offered. How could they now expiate their sins? Psalms composed (in whole or in part) during the time of exile expressed the need to find some way to connect with God, to somehow substitute for the Temple worship. "Let my prayer rise like incense before You"--for incense could no longer be offered in the Temple-- "the lifting of my hands like the evening sacrifice"--for there were no more sacrifices in the Temple (Psalm 140/141). For the same reason: "My sacrifice is a broken spirit, a humble and contrite heart..." (Psalm 50/51).

But nothing could ever really take the place of Jerusalem and the Temple. Hence we have the deeply poignant Psalm 136/137: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion... Our captors asked of us, 'Sing for us the songs of Zion!' How could we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither... Let my tongue cleave to my mouth...if I consider not Jerusalem the source of my joy."

We too are in exile. We have been banished from Paradise because of our sins. But for many it may seem such an ancient and distant memory that they no longer lament its loss (or perhaps they have simply resigned themselves to lives of quiet desperation). But Christians still long for Jerusalem, that is, the New Jerusalem, Heaven, of which all believers are citizens (see Philippians 3:20). If we have lost our awareness of being exiles from Paradise, citizens of Heaven, and have thus contented ourselves with life in Babylon, we must at once recover our longing. We must not forget Heaven, for such forgetfulness puts us on the path to sin. To sin is to forget that Heaven is the source of our joy. If we do forget "Jerusalem," we end up looking to other, foreign, polluted sources that can never provide true or lasting happiness. Heaven is where we belong, for Heaven we were created, for Heaven God has destined us--if only we choose to leave Babylon (in spirit, for we cannot yet leave the earth) and return to our fatherland.

We are in exile, but not without hope. We are in a foreign land, but not without a passport. We have fallen from grace, but we can be restored. We may still have many years to live far from Paradise, but earthly exile is not forever. Forget not Jerusalem, and the Lord will bring you home.

Friday, June 17, 2005

That I May See

When Jesus asked the blind man what he would like Jesus to do for him, he replied: "Lord, that I may see." This ought to be our request as well, though we all too often don't even realize that we are spiritually blind. It has been said that the worst form of blindness is blindness to one's own blindness.

What is it, though, that we need to see? Before we set our sights too high, we need to see our own shortcomings and sins, so that we can repent of them--removing the plank from our own eye so that we can help others with the specks in theirs. To see our own faults clearly is not necessarily to become blind to those of others, but it will enable us to know where to direct our focus.

There is still much more that we need to see, and much of this can only be seen with eyes of faith. How much do we want to see? I wrote about this yesterday. Those who have already left this world and entered eternity see clearly what we can only "see through a glass, darkly." Do we want to see what they see, know what they know? But if people knew that, it would ruin everything! Their ambitions, desires, pleasures, and mistreatment of others would all have to be thoroughly modified or done away with altogether! For some, this knowledge would be received as a saving grace; for others, in their blindness, as an irksome obstacle to their present fulfillment.

I would think that the saints and angels who live in the unmediated presence of God could tell us more about God, man, and life than the most brilliant scientist, philosopher, or theologian. Yet we don't even look to them for understanding, nor do we seek to deepen our faith, but rather we turn to secular journalists, talk-show hosts, and TV personalities! What can they possibly know about the most profound and essential realities of life?

What is it that you want to see? As for me, I want to see into the hidden mysteries (at least a little more than I do now!). I want to see more of the depth and beauty of the human soul; I want to perceive more fully the mystery of Christ present in the Holy Eucharist; I want to see something of what goes on "behind the scenes" in the drama of spiritual warfare in high places (though I don't think I want to see too much of this!). I want to know more of the mystery of the afterlife and of the hidden, providential way God is at work in the processes of nature and in the sufferings and strivings of human beings. In short, I want to see God everywhere, be always aware of his presence, having my feet on the ground but my heart and soul in heaven, for that is where truth and love and beauty reside in all their fullness and glory. I also want to see God breaking into the "world without God" that mankind is feverishly trying to build, as He decisively confounds all their silly or harmful designs, refusing to be excluded from the universe He created.

I don't think this is all vain curiosity, and I'm aware that there are limits to what we can know in this life. But the saints perceived a lot more of the spiritual realm than most of us do, and living in that heavenly awareness enabled them to be more faithful and loving human beings on earth. When you know what is superfluous you can focus on what is essential. When you discover the Source of true joy you can set aside all counterfeits.

So, your life is all clouded over with anxieties, responsibilities, distractions, and even with the darkness of misguided passions and desires? Stand with the blind man and cry out: "Lord, that I may see!" When you begin to look for the Truth behind the appearances, the loving hand of God in the midst of trials; when you purify your heart and long for the revelation of the mysteries of the Spirit, you just might be ready for a little message or two from heaven, a perception, an awareness, a lifting of the veil--and little by little you will come to see. Yes, you will see.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Do We Really Want to Know?

The Scriptures and the Church teach us about "the life of the world to come," but I wonder if we think about that very much. I think many people take a more or less unarticulated "heaven can wait" attitude, as they go about their busy lives. But what if it's all true? What if this life is but a brief preface to the infinite story of our everlasting existence? That is precisely what the Scriptures do teach us, so maybe we ought to investigate it a little more closely.

But people are afraid to know, partly because of a generalized fear of the unknown, but also because that knowledge might make it imperative that we change our lives. And we seem to be not ready to do that just yet. Charles Williams captures that mentality well in his novel, Descent into Hell, in which he dares to speak what we leave unspoken: "'Grant to them eternal rest, O Lord. And let light eternal shine upon them.' Let them rest in their own places of light; far, far from us be their discipline and endeavour. The phrases of the prayers of intercession throb with something other than charity for the departed; there is a fear for the living. Grant them, grant them rest; compel them to their rest. Enlighten them, perpetually enlighten them. And let us still enjoy our refuge from their intolerable knowledge" (italics mine).

But we won't be able to enjoy it for long. Williams continues: "Men were beginning to know, they were being compelled to know; at last the living world was shaken by the millions of spirits who endured that further permanent revelation." The lively awareness of eternity, of immortal souls, of heaven and hell, cannot fail to mark our earthly lives profoundly.

Someone recently sent me a little booklet with a quite uninteresting title: An Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory. I had heard of it before, but never had any desire to read it. I assumed it would be full of pious scare-tactics, stories of souls who return from purgatory to burn their handprints onto the walls of their intended intercessors (but souls don't have hands...). Yet it is not that at all (at least halfway through it isn't; that's how much I've read so far). It is about a soul, a nun, who was in purgatory and was permitted to speak to one of her Sisters in religion and to ask for prayers.

What strikes me about it is the lack of scare tactics and pious embellishments. She speaks as do the angels in Scripture: rather tersely and quite to the point, in an utterly no-nonsense style, as if time were presssing and she had to say only what was essential. Her message is clear, serving only to emphasize what the Church has already taught us (if our whole life hasn't been a post-Vatican II one): life is short, eternity is long; if you waste or ignore the graces God is offering you now, you will pay for it later; nothing is more important than loving God and doing his will; all things will quickly pass, except for the life after death; now is the time for detachment, purification, prayer, sacrifice, and charity, for soon it will be too late and you will desperately wish that you had been less selfish and realized that God alone was worth all your love and effort; God is bending over backwards to bless and save you, but you must offer a free response to his love and grace.

You may think that the above summary is rather scary after all, but it is said without drama or intimidation, only as plain and sober fact. Do we really want to know all this? I think we darn well ought to want to know, because in this case ignorance is not bliss, but could result in precisely the opposite. Maybe you don't want to know because after you go to work, take the kids to the soccer game, pay the bills, do the housework and weed the garden, you have no time or energy to think of crossing the threshold of eternity and gaining a vision more vast and profound than you could ever imagine. So start by bringing God into every event of your day, asking Him to help you see all things in their proper perspective. You will begin to recognize superfluous or worthless things or activities as such. You will also realize that you need to make some sacrifices; you will have to make some choices that express your faith that the fullness of life is yet to come and that it wholly depends on God and your present relationship to Him.

Let us not flee or play the agnostic when it comes to the knowledge of things that bear on our salvation. The souls who have left this world now see everything very clearly. We still wear the blinders of our self-centered or narrow-minded perspectives, held fast in this world and afraid to look toward the next. But if a soul came to you, speaking wisdom from the world of God, would you want to know? Can you afford not to know?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Body Theology

I received a note from someone who was quite exuberant about Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body (or rather, a digest of it by Christopher West). So I thought I'd say a little something about it. I've read the Pope's book. It is quite profound and, given the debased mentality of modern society, it is revolutionary as well.

As with most revolutionary ideas, he is simply recovering an original vision--that is, God's orginal vision for the meaning of the relationship between man and woman. One striking feature of John Paul's treatment is that he does not present his thesis as one more present-day perspective regarding sex and marriage, though he of course deals with the issues. Like Jesus--when He was asked a question about divorce (even at that time marriage was rather easily dissolved by a simple certificate of divorce)--the Pope refers to how it was "in the beginning." The paradigm for intimate human relationships is not found in modern psychological or social theories, but in God's own intentions when He first created man and woman.

In the beginning, man and woman were "naked without shame," because sin had not yet distorted the meaning of the human body and of intimate love. Human masculinity and femininity were seen and experienced as different but complementary ways of being human (and of imaging God), and the intimate union that resulted from this complementarity was experienced as mutual self-giving. This is what John Paul calls the "nuptial meaning of the body." God created us as man and woman so that each could express both the gift of oneself and the acceptance of the other as gift--without manipulating or dominating the other, or experiencing the other as a mere object for one's gratification. Thus "the giving and accepting of the gift interpenetrate, so that the giving itself becomes accepting, and the acceptance is transformed into giving."

All that changed, in practice, with the serpentine question: "Did God really tell you not to eat of the trees in the garden?" With pride and disobedience came the sin and the shame with which we have clothed ourselves ever since. But now that our bodies and souls have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, it is possible to recover, at least to a great extent, the true meaning of the body and of human love as God ordained it from the start. The human body was created to express the intimate love that God wills to exist in a one man/one woman relationship of sanctified matrimony that is further designed to bear fruit in children, as an image of the interpentrating and eternally fruitful love of the Most Holy Trinity. In marriage, two become one in intimate union, and this union opens up to receive new life, that this love may be shared in a new way. This is what John Paul explains in great detail in his book.

Today, the same snake that found its way into Eden is whispering into many hearts: "Did God really say that you have to be married before enjoying sex? Did He really say that you have to limit yourself to one woman or one man?" And even more perversely, "Did God really say that only a married man and woman could have sexual intimacy? What about a man and a man, a woman and a woman?" By believing the lie, many are still falling from grace through pride and disobedience, and through the confusion and lack of courage and clear vision that modern society and the media everywhere promote.

Now, what about celibates who cannot realize in their bodies the divine purpose that was "in the beginning"? Those of us who are not (or who have vowed not to be) married look not so much to the beginning as to the end. John Paul points this out as well. For in the Kingdom of Heaven, people "neither marry nor are given in marriage...because they are equal to angels and are sons of God" (Luke 20:35-36). So those who live the eschatological witness of the coming heavenly wedding feast, when Christ alone will be the Bridegroom of the whole Church, experience even now the ultimate truth that "the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body... He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (1Corinthians 6:13, 17).

Whether in sanctified marriage or sanctified celibacy, the body is a means of giving oneself in love to another, and most profoundly and ultimately, to Another. The world needs to recover the true and deep meaning of the body, of sex, of love, of marriage and procreation, and of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. For this we look to the beginning--and to the end. These issues profoundly affect our society and our Church. Read the book. It can be the beginning of a deep inner transformation, for you will begin to see this mystery through the eyes of the One who created it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tears

We have reflected some time ago on the blessedness of the mourners who, says the Lord, shall be comforted. But mourning isn't merely for the sake of seeking comfort, and tears aren't only for mourning.

The gift of tears is highly prized in Eastern Christianity, especially in monastic milieux. It is a gift because these tears are not merely the self-generated product of overwrought emotion. These tears come from the Holy Spirit as an expression of repentence and love (and even of intercession, as when Jesus wept and prayed over Jerusalem; Lk 19:41ff). They come spontaneously and may or may not be accompanied by emotion. The gift of tears can also be a manifestation of joy and thanksgiving, as an expression beyond words. When the presence of God is felt, when we begin to realize something of his love and goodness toward us, tears may be the only response that is even remotely adequate.

To weep is also to come near to the Heart of Jesus, pierced by the sins of mankind, and to love with his wounded love. It is to recognize how far we have fallen from God's dream of beauty, harmony, and love for his whole creation. Tears are a sign that we're beginning to see clearly, beginning to return.

Once again, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis expresses it beautifully: "The fruit called for [by John the Baptizer] must grow from the fertile moisture of a crushed heart, from the irrigation of tears that flow from the melting glacier of a haughty mind... Our existence must become one continuous flowing toward others and to God. Repentance is the heat that melts us so that we can start moving, since where there is no movement there is no life. And this precious movement constituted by the water of our tears is the irrigation that fertilizes the tree of our will, that it may yield the fruit of good works" (italics in original).

And Leon Bloy says: "When you die, that is what you take with you: the tears you have shed and the tears you have caused to be shed, your capital of bliss and of terror. It is on these tears that we shall be judged, for the Spirit of God is always 'borne upon the waters' "[see Genesis 1:2]. The Spirit hovering over the primordial waters signifies the beginning of creation. So Leiva-Merikakis adds: "Wherever there is weeping, there is God. The water of our tears invites him to create a new world within ourselves."

What can I add? "Amen!"

Monday, June 13, 2005

More on Mercy

I guess I haven’t quite finished what I wanted to say about mercy, but can we ever finish on that inexhaustible topic? The appreciation of how high the Lord brings us by grace can only come with an understanding of how far we have fallen through sin. That’s why I said a few days ago that if we lose the sense of sin, the concept of mercy becomes practically meaningless. People today often speak rather glibly about the “merciful God,” evidently meaning that He is quite tolerant or doesn’t even really notice our sins or hold us accountable for them. Relax, God is merciful, don’t fret about repentance or confession. But nothing could be further from the truth of the merciful God.

To tolerate or overlook sin is not mercy. Do we think God is like us? He is not blind or senile, or confused about right and wrong. Mercy is not tolerance, it is forgiveness. It is not saying, “what you did is OK, or perhaps not too bad under the circumstances.” Mercy, like love, must be based on truth. God tells it like it is. He convicts us of wrongdoing, but in his mercy forgives, and therein lies the greatness of his loving heart.

In the writings of the prophet Jeremiah (can you tell I’ve been reading him lately?) this double aspect of the divine conviction of sin and the forgiveness thereof is expressed very clearly. We must know our sin to know our deliverance. Thus says the Lord: “Know for a certainty that I have warned you this day that you have gone astray…and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord your God” (Jer. 42:19-21). No room for excuses on our part, no “tolerance” on his. But what happens when we realize the truth and turn to the Lord? “Do not fear…says the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you… I will grant you mercy…” (Jer. 42:11-12).

When divine love meets human sin, what happens is mercy. When human sinners recognize the love of God, what happens is repentance. Divine mercy plus human repentance equals the salvation of souls. We don’t really understand how horrible sin is, and so we don’t understand how marvelous forgiveness is. Thus we tend to live in the shadowland of not loving much and hence not being forgiven much. But we have to awaken to the truth. The texts of the Byzantine Office do not mince words: “The magnificence of Your glory, Your terrible loathing of evil, and the riches of Your compassion are beyond our power to comprehend.” God loathes evil, but since his love and compassion are boundless, He washes it all away when we turn to Him. Truly it is beyond our comprehension, but we can still live the mystery in faith, still try to perceive the horror of sin and the wonder of mercy.

That is the level on which we ought to live, for there the drama of our salvation is played out. Learn the meaning of mercy, and you will follow the Lord for the rest of your life.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Idols and Masters

Even a cursory reading of the prophets will convince you that idolatry is one of the main objects of God's displeasure. "Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke Me to anger with the work of your hands" (Jeremiah 25:6). But is idolatry limited to making some sort of pagan figurine and then prostrating before it?

Idols can be anything that we substitute, in some sense, for God. It's not only a matter of worshiping them, but simply of serving them. It may be that we don't explicitly think of money, prestige, possessions, sex, pleasure, etc as "gods," but when we see the disproportionate amount of time and energy we invest in them (compared to what we give the true God), then we must ask ourselves: whom do we really serve? You don't need to go to some pagan temple to commit idolatry. All you need to do burn the incense of attention over the dark flame of passion--of whatever sort: greed, lust, ego-building--and you are serving an idol. These idols will eventually fail us, for they are not of God. Then what shall we do? "They have turned their backs to Me and not their faces. But in time of their trouble they say, 'Arise and save us!' But where are your gods that you made for yourselves? Let them arise, if they can save you..." (Jeremiah 2:27-28).

Jesus doesn't say too much about idols, but He does speak of other masters, which is the same thing. "No one can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24). "Mammon" means not only money but anything in which you put your trust. To serve anything other than God is to serve another master, an idol. There are many different kinds of service we are required to perform, and not all are explict acts of worship. But if whatever we do is good in itself, it can be offered as service to God. Any sinful acts, however, constitute service of an idol, and behind every idol stands a demon.

So when we examine our lives we should notice where our time and energy go, that is, which master we serve. What is the desire of our hearts, what moves us most powerfully, what is most important to us in life? "Children, keep yourselves from idols" (1John 5:21), so that you may serve "our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (Jude 4).

Friday, June 10, 2005

Trust in Mercy

Divine Mercy is our only hope for salvation. In a world in which "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), salvation can only come through God's forgiveness of our sins. The eternal benefits of Divine Mercy are perhaps nowhere more clearly (and at length) spelled out than in the writings of St Faustina.

It is not only the fact that God is merciful that is crucial, it is also our response to it. And that response, according to St Faustina, has to be trust. Jesus said to her: "The graces of My mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive. Souls that trust boundlessly are a great comfort to Me... I pour all the treasures of My graces into them" (Diary, 1578). And again: "Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy" (Diary, 300).

The Byzantine tradition has always known that, so we confidently ask for mercy, in our liturgical prayer and in the Jesus Prayer, dozens or even hundreds of times a day. But we always have to be conscious of what we are saying, because merely reciting "Lord, have mercy" is not the same as deeply trusting in his mercy.

One would think that all Christians would immediately see the immense value, both of God's mercy itself, and of our trust therein. But a strange thing has happened over the past few decades: people have lost the sense of sin and hence of the need for mercy. In his novel The Red Hat, Ralph McInerny writes: "...a generation of Catholics had been persuaded that the old prohibitions were negotiable. No matter that popes said the opposite and persisted in teaching what the Church had always taught, what Christ had taught. Nowadays Catholics could dissent from Church teaching, 'form their own consciences,' in the phrase. But Catholics who accepted such advice soon drifted away. The appeal of Christianity lay not in its endorsement of sinful behavior but in its offering of forgiveness of sins. If there were no sins, if hell were a product of the primitive imagination, if life beyond this one were open to question, what was the point of religion?"

God's offer of mercy is great only when we realize that sin can keep us forever out of heaven. But we must realize that, because it is the truth! Christianity (and human life itself) is insipid if reduced to the level of "I'm OK, you're OK." No, man is a sinner and God is love! Man has imprisoned and condemned himself and Jesus Christ can set him free!

Our trust in mercy begins with our awareness of our utter destitution without God, our total inability to save ourselves. One of the prayers in the Byzantine tradition expresses this most concisely: "Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us. Since we have no excuse for our sinfulness [or, at a loss for any defense], we can only offer You this prayer, O Master: Have mercy on us!"

Mercy is abundantly available for those who know they need it. We can come to the Eucharistic chalice and wash away our daily sins. He gives us a fresh start. All we have to do is trust in Him: not presuming upon his mercy, and hence feeling free to sin, for that would reflect a serious lack of genuine faith and love, but trusting that the Lord is always there, without fail, whenever we call on Him with our whole heart--no matter how grievous our sin.

Despair, discouragement, and self-hatred are enemies of the spiritual life. Trust in Divine Mercy clears them out of our souls and enables us to return immediately to loving and serving the Lord. He does not want us to wallow in our sins--or even in the memory of them--but rather, trusting absolutely in his mercy, to repent and live!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Remembering, Reconciling, and Offering

We are mostly aware of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. We are also quite adept at living as though we never heard them. Here is a very important and oft-neglected divine teaching: "If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there... first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).

To bring any sort of offering to God is to bring a symbol of ourselves. If we do not offer ourselves along with our gift, then the gift is without value in His eyes. Remember all that God said in the Old Testament about the worthlessness of sacrifices offered without any accompanying righteousness, i.e., without a right relationship with God. To offer (Greek prosphero) ourselves to God ultimately has a Eucharistic reference: it is to be like the altar bread (Greek prosphora) offered and consecrated in the Divine Liturgy.

An essential part of the Eucharistic offering is the anamnesis, or remembrance of all that Jesus has done for our salvation, all of his mysteries which will be manifested and communicated mystically in the Holy Eucharist. So we bring the offering and remember the saving works of the Lord. Then his sacrifice, which has reconciled God with man, is made present before us.

So the Lord says that when you are bringing your offering, and remember that someone has something against you, you must reconcile before God will accept your offering. The memory of Christ's works is a necessary element of the offering of the Divine Liturgy, but a memory of wrongdoing or any sort of estrangement from another person is an impediment to our personal offering, to our uniting our self-offering to the offering of Christ to his Father. Be reconciled, Jesus says, so that you can offer--so that we can enter with a pure heart into the Offering that has reconciled the whole human race with God.

Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes: "You cannot present your heart to God as a gift-offering on the altar of sacrifice if that heart is turned against God's other children. The way to union with God in worship cannot lead away from your brother. It is impossible for me to be a child of God without being a brother of all those for whom Christ died. I cannot love and adore God and at the same time hate and exclude God's children from my life... Christ's Incarnation, death, and Resurrection mean that he has become inseparable from those he came to redeem" (italics in original).

Note that Jesus says above, "if you remember that your brother has something against you." He doesn't specify whether that something is justifiably held against us. We also have to reconcile with those who unjustly hold something against us. Far less should we hold something against others. It may not always be possible to reconcile with a brother or sister in person, but we must at least do so in our hearts, so that we can bring a pure self-offering to the Lord as we approach the altar, as we seek to enter into Holy Communion with Him.

Anger, resentment, hatred, grudges, have nothing in common with offering, worship, and communion. Therefore remember, reconcile, then offer. And Jesus will remember you in his Kingdom, reconcile you with his Father, and draw you into communion with his all-pure and perfect Offering.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A War of Worlds

We hear a lot about spiritual warfare, and perhaps we don't understand it very well. It may seem like some mystical conflict between us and satanic powers, full of Book-of-Revelation images of beasts and dragons. On a certain level, it actually is that. But our practical daily "warfare" is more subtle, and hence we may not even be aware of the battles we're losing.

One way to look at it is to see it as a "war of worlds." There are a number of "worlds" in which we live, some of which need to be "baptized" into the Gospel, and others need to be entirely severed from us. Some examples may be the business and employment world, the world of leisure and recreation, the world of information and entertainment, and the dark world of satanic evil.

Our main world in which we live ought to be the world of God, of prayer and truth and love. This world should influence other worlds we need to have contact with, and must shield us from the evil world. It might seem simple enough for us to embrace whatever is good in them, and reject whatever is evil, but unfortuately it isn't. Why not?

Each "world" has its own logic and rationale, and when you accept its presuppositions, mentality, and psychological "environment," then it will begin to make sense to you, and you will be comfortable living in it. For example, if a certain amount of lying and cheating and "doctoring the books" is part and parcel of the business world, and if it seems to work for you, you may find yourself thinking that it is OK. Or if you immerse yourself in the mindset and perspectives of what you find in magazines, TV, and movies, its own peculiar logic might eventually make sense to you, because if you accept faulty premises, you will accept faulty conclusions as well. If you engage in such things as impure fantasies or desires (which can be called "deceitful lusts," Eph. 4:22), you will eventually find that even what is contained in that evil world will make sense to you, because you have placed yourself within its psychological and spiritual framework. Evil thoughts make perfect sense within an evil world, and you will start asking yourself why anyone would think it wrong.

The spiritual warfare consists in not allowing ourselves, in mind and heart, to come near enough to any world that is not God's world (or that cannot be easily integrated into God's world), so that it could draw us in. Once we adopt the mentality of the other worlds, we have lost our strength to fight. The evil world encroaches upon us, much like a virus that approaches a healthy cell: a virus injects its own genetic information into the healthy cell and destroys it from within, reproducing itself as a parasite within the cell.

We must not allow evil to do this to us. Where possible, we must introduce the mind of Christ into the mentality of a world in which we must still function, like the world of commerce and government. When dealing with a world that is nothing but evil (the arena of satanic temptations and deceptions), we must sever all ties to it absolutely. For as soon as we start thinking that there might be something OK about what the devil offers us, we have entered his world and will find it very difficult to escape it without sin. We must constantly turn to the Lord, to his world, seeking first his kingdom and righteousness--the teachings of the Bible and the Church will make clear what constitutes God's world--and then all evil will be unmasked as such, so that we are not deceived and drawn into a world that will be our downfall.

So you see, spiritual warfare is not dueling Darth Vader with light sabers. The arena is our own heart and mind, and the places we live and work. Our weapons are truth and purity of heart, the Scriptures and the Sacraments. Choose the world in which you want to live. "Resist the devil and he will flee; draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (James 4:7-8).

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Everlasting Love

What is God going to do with us? He sees what a mess we have made of our lives and the world around us: "Your hurt is incurable and your wound is grievous...because your guilt is great, because your sins are flagrant." What is the divine response? "I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal" (Jeremiah 30:12-17). Why? What's behind all this, and why doesn't He just inflict a deserved destruction upon his people because of their sins (as He sometimes threatens)?

The reason is this, and I think it is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued My faithfulness to you" (Jer. 31:3).

Without this everlasting divine love we would all perish and perhaps by now would have already received the just punishment for our sins. But He waits for us, desiring our return. We ought to notice (for the sake of acquiring a bit of humility) that God maintains his faithfulness to us--not because we deserve it, not because we are good, not because of our righteousness, but rather in spite of our sins--solely because of his own love for us. God is love, as the New Testament would later explicitly reveal, and He can only relate to us out of his inexhaustible love. "I have loved you... therefore I continue my faithfulness."

This revelation of the unflagging, tenacious, irrepressible love of God should inspire in us a profound gratitude and should draw from our hearts as much of our own love as we can possibly return. How can we continue in our "flagrant sin" when the wounded Heart of Jesus remains patiently faithful to us in his everlasting love? Such defiant disregard of the humble yet all-powerful love of God will surely not endure the blinding light of soul-searching Truth in which we will all stand at the hour of our death.

Now is the time to reflect on the divine mercy, the boundless love of God that has endured countless millennia of human sin yet continues in faithfulness to us. Now is the time to return love for Love. It may be that in this valley of tears our love is still weak and imperfect. But if we remain faithful to the One who remains faithful to us, as soon as we cross the threshold of eternity we will begin to love Him with an everlasting love.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Stupid Salt

The Lord uses concrete images in his teachings about the Kingdom of God and about his disciples. One of those He uses in the Sermon on the Mount is that of salt. "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). Why did He say salt of the earth and not salt of the sea? It's because sea salt cannot go bad, lose its flavor, but salt that is mined from the earth can. What He wants to talk about is salt losing its flavor or ability to season.

Disciples of Christ are to be like salt, that is, to enhance the quality of life for those around them by proclaiming and living the truth of the Gospel. Christians can thus transform life in this world and help raise it to a level that gives glory to God. But what if the salt goes bad, becomes insipid? "It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out," says the Lord (Mt. 5:13). The root of the Greek word that is translated "insipid" or "tasteless" is an interesting one: moros, from which comes the English "moron." It is not only wrong to lose your Christain faith or fervor, it is stupid!

One commentator says that either Christians enhance the quality of human life or they have no reason of being. He even goes so far as to say that the reason that the world is so full of sin and confusion is that Christians are not living up to their vocations. We have become insipid, "stupid" salt. We don't know who we are and what we're supposed to be doing, and so many opportunites are lost for bringing the truth and love of Jesus to others.

If God has chosen us, baptized us into the Holy Trinity, fed us with his word and sacraments, then we have a mission, a responsibility--especially to others who have not been so lavishly blessed. So it may very well be our fault that the world is in its present state. We have to recover whatever degree of our "flavor" that we may have lost through sin, negligence, or indifference. We can still be all that God wants us to be; we can still spiritually enhance the life of the world by our greater faithfulness, fervor, and prayer.

"Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another" (Mark 9:50). To be a disciple of Christ is a great, noble, and holy calling. Do we live up to it? Are we making a contribution in the world toward the eternal salvation of souls? Our Christian mission is not necessarily a high-profile one. Salt, like yeast (another image He uses), works in a hidden manner, but it really makes a difference.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

A Heart to Know

What is it that we most need in these chaotic and troubled times? Is it financial or emotional security, or perhaps good health and protection from various potential disasters? I think what we need--most essentially and even most urgently--is what the Lord promised to those who would turn to Him: "I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord" (Jeremiah 24:7). Even that chapter and verse are significant, because that's how often our hearts need to be turned to Him!

To know that He is the Lord implies much more than I can share in this small space. But it basically means that we can have peace through trusting in Him, hope through believing in Him, and everlasting life through fidelity to his word and his will. For He says in the same place: "I will set My eyes upon them for good... I will build them up." How wonderful it is to know that it is "for good," that is, for blessing, that God has set his eyes upon us. We can add to this the other meaning of "for good"--He has set his eyes on us permanently!

Yet there is more. For all of its benefits, it is still not sufficient to know "that" He is the Lord. As other Scripture passages invite us, we must have a heart simply "to know the Lord," to know Him personally and with love. This has been made much easier and more fruitful through the incarnation of the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. We can know the Lord because we can know Jesus, who has revealed to us the Father, and who has sent us the Holy Spirit. Now we can know and love each Person of the Most Holy Trinity. "This is eternal life: to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent" (John 17:3). To complete the revelation: "You will know Him [i.e., the Holy Spirit], for He dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:17).

On top of all this, the Lord is so generous that He even anticipates and foresees our repentance and full conversion: "They shall return to Me with their whole heart" (2nd half of Jeremiah 24:7). Given the Lord's benevolent designs upon us, we should not postpone our repentance, but rather hasten to discard our idols and return to Him who loves us so much.

So before bringing to God all of our legitimate and perhaps even urgent needs, let us begin by praying for the most important thing, that which will be our hope and blessing in the good and bad times of this passing life: a heart to know Him.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Not Peace but a Sword

In case you haven't noticed, sometimes Jesus says things that are rather difficult to understand, or that turn our ways of thinking upside down. Here's one of them: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Jesus is not some great political (or even religious) figure who came to unite all peoples, end all wars, and provide for social and economic equality for all. What I've just described is actually how the antichrist is expected to dominate the world order. Rather, Jesus came to reveal his Father and to save our souls, and "keeping the peace" is inadequate to his task.

What is the sword of which Jesus speaks, the one that is more central to his mission than bringing peace? It is certainly not the sword of malicious aggression, of violent crime, or of anything that proceeds from hatred. There are actually several edges to this sword, and the one referred to in the context of the passage quoted above has to do with the division that always results when divine truth is proclaimed. Jesus said that our enemies will be within our own house, that is, people will be set against one another, even against their closest relatives, because some will believe in Him and some won't. It's not that Jesus desires this division, but that his coming will inevitably produce it. Some will stand for the truth and some will stand against it. St Simeon prophesied this when Jesus was but an infant: "this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is contradicted..." (Luke 2:34). Trying to make a superficial "peace" by ignoring the sword of division between those who accept Christ and those who don't (relativism is a handy tool here), is not doing the will of Christ. "Do not think that is why I have come," says the Lord. Jesus' answer to the division is not relativism but evangelization, not tolerance but an invitation to repentance and conversion.

There is also the sword of spiritual warfare. There can be no peace, no truce, between the followers of Jesus and "the spiritual hosts of wickedness." We have to stand against evil without compromise, wherever we find it--starting first with ourselves. "The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:17) is like the Surgeon's scalpel that must be applied to our sinful habits or inclinations, so that we can fight the good fight with a pure heart. If we are to wield the sword against the evil one, we have first to cut out the evil in ourselves. "For the word of God is...sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit...discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

Peace is certainly desirable, but not at the price of truth, righteousness, and the will of God. To be a disciple of Christ is to be equipped for battle--not to harm or destroy our fellow men, but to wield the sword of the Spirit against all falsehood and evil, all that sets itself against the will of God for our salvation. "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against...the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness" (Ephesians 6:12). No peace with them, only the sword.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Truthing in Love

There is a lot of talk these days, and even some heated arguments, about truth and love. The champions of truth are without love, their opponents aver, and those who speak only of love are told that they ignore truth in order to embrace a fuzzy, sentimental brand of love that isn't really love at all.

So who's right? It's not a simple matter of right and wrong. In such debates, it is rare that one side would be wholly right and the other wholly wrong. So let us lovingly try to discover the truth.

Truth and love are not options for us to choose when we are deciding how to live, to believe, and to relate to others. Both are equally essential. Truth without love is tyranny, and love without truth cannot be genuine, because love and falsehood are mutually exclusive. We can't even do right by accepting some disproportion between the two. We can't be 60% for truth and 40% for love, or 30% truth and 70% love. We have to be all truth and all love!

This is a very difficult feat for fallen humans, but the saints did it rather well. We ought to look especially to Jesus and his Mother as ideals. St Paul gives us an appropriate expression for this most genuine Christian way of being. The passage I'm referring to (Ephesians 4:15) is usually translated "speaking the truth in love" or, somewhat more accurately, "doing the truth in love." But the literal translation is simply "truthing in love." Since "truthing" isn't an English word, the translators gave us the next best thing.

But I prefer "truthing" because it covers everything: speaking, doing, living the truth in love. Christians are the ones who are supposed to go about truthing in love. We must speak the truth as written in the Gospel and proclaimed by the Church, even if it causes some pain or distress to those who hear (those are signs that they need the grace of repentance). But we cannot use the truth as a weapon of self-righteous superiority, taking pride in shaming others by having bettered them with a more cogent argument.

On the other hand, when we say we love others or have compassion for them, yet refuse to bring the truth to them on the pretext that it might upset or trouble them, we are doing them a grave disservice. Sometimes the failure to speak the (sometimes hard) truth to those we love can result in damage to or even the loss of their souls. How is that love? It is then nothing more than mushy cowardice.

St Paul continues his exhortation: "...truthing in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ..." So, if we're going to be "loving truthers," we have to grow up! We have to mature by the grace of God so that we know how to place equal value on truth and love, for one cannot exist without the other. We have to learn, in the Holy Spirit, when and how to speak and act in such a way that both truth and love are equally served, and thus that God's will is done. Only then will we be truthing in love, and loving in truth.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A Breath of Consolation

I’ve discovered a marvelous commentary (meditations, really, but based on the Greek text) on the Gospel of St Matthew, entitled Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Ignatius Press). His two immense volumes cover the first 18 chapters of the Gospel, and they contain a wealth of profound insights, beautifully expressed. The following reflection is influenced in part by his commentary.

We are familiar with the Beatitudes, perhaps all too familiar. Phrases like “poor in spirit” roll easily off our tongues, but don’t always pass through our hearts. In both Greek and Hebrew, one word means both “spirit” and “breath.” The expression “poor in spirit” can be almost incomprehensible (or perhaps misleading), but what the first beatitude really means is: “blessed are those who depend on God for their very life’s breath.” The recognition (and its application in our way of life) of our constant need for the Spirit, the Breath of God, confirms us as heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. Poverty of spirit is a humble acknowledgement that we belong to God, that we can’t even take our next breath without his life-sustaining love and active presence. This is a cause for rejoicing for those who seek the face of God with their whole heart, who want to be wholly involved in the life of God and ever renewed by his Spirit. “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).

Those who mourn or weep are also called “blessed” by the Lord. One would perhaps see less cause for rejoicing among the mourners than among God’s humble dependents. But these are not two entirely separate groups. The promise made to those who weep is that they will be consoled. To “con-sole” means to be with another in his or her solitude. God will enter and share the solitude, will be present at the side of those who weep. The Greek word that is translated “console” is a word that literally means “to call to one’s side.” This is the very same word that gives the name “Paraclete” to the Holy Spirit. This term is alternately translated Consoler, Comforter, Advocate, and (rather weakly) Helper. The Divine Spirit, whom we call to our side as our Comforter and Advocate, is thus a Breath of Consolation that sustains our lives in the midst of our poverty and pain.

Blessed are you if you put your trust in God alone, if you do not “serve two masters” (or more), if you find your joy and hope in Him who provides all that you need for patient and peaceful endurance in this life, and for immeasurable gladness in the next. Blessed are you if you allow the Lord to enter into the solitude of your pain and sorrow. And blessed are you if you “weep with those who weep,” for you who console others will be consoled by God. “The Father of mercies and God of all consolation comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction…” (2Corinthians 1:3-4).