Saturday, July 30, 2005

God Knows Your Heart

It is a comforting awareness. God knows our hearts, knows what makes us tick, knows our sorrows and sufferings, capacities and incapacities. The fact that God knows our hearts is, however, a two-sided coin, as the Scriptures reveal. Let’s take a look first at what we might call the negative (though still salutary) side of this divine knowledge of our innermost selves.

God knows our bad will, our secret sin, whatever darkness or duplicity there may be within us and, to use a phrase of St John of Kronstadt, whatever “unrighteous movements of the heart” He may find as well. In one of his stern rebukes to the Pharisees, Jesus said: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). So the fact that God knows our hearts means that we cannot hide anything from Him. We cannot pull the wool over his eyes: “You have kept…our hidden sins under the light of your scrutiny” (Psalm 89/90:8). Nor can we appease Him with external acts or rituals when we are unreconciled to Him within. His harshest criticisms were leveled at those who presented a righteous exterior but who were interiorly corrupt: “You outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:28).

On the other hand, we find consolation in God’s thorough knowledge of us, because we can “reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts and He knows everything” (1John 3:19-20). Often we don’t even know what is in our hearts, and our inner life is in turmoil or confusion. After lamenting the inexplicable dark mystery of the human heart, Jeremiah cried out: “Who can understand it?” But God immediately replied: “I, the Lord, search the mind and try the heart” (Jer. 17:9-10). We are not stuck forever with the limitations and defects of our hearts, if we confidently entrust them to Him Who Is Greater Than Our Hearts. They may need a lot of healing, a lot of changing, but we can still rest in his providence and mercy.

In one of our prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, after acknowledging our sinfulness, we say that we run to Him for refuge. See, when we sin, we shouldn’t run away from God in shame but toward Him in repentance, like the prodigal son hastening to his father. For where else can we find forgiveness and healing for our wounded and reckless hearts? Adam and Eve hid from God after their sin, but He found them out anyway. Better for you to ‘fess up right away and get it all on the table, for God already knows your heart.

Sometimes we come before God trying to explain or excuse ourselves, or even trying to tell Him what we know is best for us! Be still and know that He is God. He knows your heart; He knows what you need before you ask. Take courage and consolation in that. He is with you; He understands. He won’t let you wallow in self-pity or mediocrity, however, because his compassion is based on truth and on what He knows you can do with the help of his grace. So reach out for that divine hand that is reaching out to you. God knows your heart, and if you let Him, He will make it one with his own.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Unrighteous Mammon

One of the most obscure sayings of Jesus (in my opinion) is this one: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations” (Luke 16:9). Since I don’t understand it very well myself, I thought I’d explain it to you.

The saying is found in the context of the s
tory of the dishonest steward, the teaching on serving two masters, and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. First of all, does “unrighteous mammon” have a counterpart of “righteous mammon”? It doesn’t seem so. “Mammon” is a semitic term that means money or riches, but that can also mean anything in which one puts one’s trust. The Lord never has praises for earthly riches, so mammon in general must be “unrighteous,” i.e., a kind of “necessary evil” for our bodily survival. But it can be even worse than that—if it becomes the “master” one chooses to serve instead of God.

Yet Jesus tells us to make friends by means of it, as a way of securing salvation (being “received into the eternal habitations”), as the steward in the parable used money (though deviously) to make sure he’d have hospitable friends after he lost his position. It seems that in our case charity can redeem the unrighteous mammon. Whatever we do to others, we do to Christ, as He has said elsewhere, so a righteous use of unrighteous mammon (for example, helping the needy, providing for loved ones, supporting the Church) will be blessed by God.

It also seems that there is a kind of test involved: “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (16:11). So then, the counterpart to unrighteous mammon is not righteous mammon, but “true riches,” that is, spiritual riches that provide for our heavenly habitation. The Lord has said not to store up treasure on earth but in heaven.

We have an example in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man reveled in his unrighteous mammon, but did not make a friend with it (i.e., Lazarus, who needed help). So when the mammon failed—I think that “when it fails” must mean when material things are finally of utterly no use to us, i.e., when we die—the rich man was received into an infernal habitation but Lazarus into a heavenly one. Lazarus, who had no mammon at all, was comforted in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man ended up “in anguish in this flame,” and at that point he even begged alms from the beggar Lazarus! But he learned too late where the true riches lay. He was not “faithful in the unrighteous mammon,” so he was denied the genuine, everlasting riches.

If our one master is the Lord, we will know how to be faithful even with unrighteous mammon, using it to “make friends” with the poor and needy, who will become intercessors for us and will be happy to receive us into pleasant eternal habitations. For mammon will ultimately fail, and we will be left only with the spiritual values and works of our lives. Will you be found to be worthy to be given the true riches?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Lost and Found

Lost sheep. Lost coin. Lost son. The fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke is the Bible’s “lost and found” department. Happily, everything that is lost in this chapter is eventually found.

lost is a metaphor for being in sin, separated from God and from the righteous. Thus the sheep that wanders away from the flock is lost, the coin that has disappeared is lost, the son who leaves home for a dissolute life is lost. But what rejoicing there is in heaven when what was lost is found! Jesus says something quite startling about this: “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). This will have its application in the parable of the Prodigal Son, over whom there is more rejoicing than over his less troublesome and “righteous” brother (who, however, still was in need of some repentance).

As Joni Mitchell would say, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” In English translation, that means that we rarely (or insufficiently) appreciate what we have while we have it, and only realize how precious it was when we no longer have it. Such was the case with the father of the prodigal son. We can tell, by the words of the elder son, that the father more or less took his sons for granted, although it’s also clear that they were well provided for. The departure of the younger son was a shock, a loss, a bereavement, for the father didn’t know if he’d ever come back. When he did return, it was like finding something precious that was lost, even like resurrection from the dead: “this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Now our heavenly Father lovingly provides for us, though we can’t say that He takes us for granted. But we can perhaps say that his concern for us increases when He sees us straying, when we become lost through our sin and heedlessness. Therefore we can say that He is more concerned about the lost sheep or children than about the faithful ones who are already doing his will and who will be generously rewarded for so doing. (One gives more attention to a sick child than to a healthy one who doesn’t need it.) But when the lost ones return—then you will see the rejoicing begin! It’s not only God but even the angels, Jesus says, who will be celebrating the return of the repentant sinner. There is so much happiness in heaven because they know how much horror there is in hell. They know how urgently important it is (for his own sake) that the lost sheep return quickly to the arms of the Good Shepherd, who will carry him home to the Father.

Repentance is an important theme in the New Testament. The words “repent” and “repentance” show up about 60 times, but the theme or concept of the change of heart and life that repentance indicates is found almost everywhere in the Bible. “Lost and found” refers to sin and repentance. Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10), which means he came to “call sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). Repentant sinners tend to be humbler than the righteous; they tend to be more grateful and to love more ardently, for they know how far they have fallen, they know from what they have been mercifully saved. The one who is forgiven much, loves much (see Lk 7:36-50).

Let us pray for those who are still “lost,” that they may be “found,” that the grace of repentance will be granted, especially to the worst of sinners, those who have wandered farthest from the Father’s house. And let us rejoice, not only over the returning sons and daughters, but let us be grateful ourselves, for I can probably safely say that you who are reading this were once dead and are alive again; you were lost and now are found. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; his merciful love endures forever!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

No Part Dark

After yesterday’s long reflection on the nature of evil and the devil, we’ll take a (shorter) look at ourselves, and the need to be free from anything within us that would negate the will of God. The Lord puts it this way: “When your eye is sound your whole body is full of light, but when it is not sound your body is full of darkness… If your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light” (Luke 11:34-36).

Jesus is not so much concerned
with the benefits of good eyesight for the body as He is for the clarity of a healthy and pure inner vision, which enables us to know and do the will of God. St Paul prays that you “may have the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19). For this to bear its intended and full fruit, there must be “no part dark” within us.

I said yesterday that evil is the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. Sin removes light and hence increases darkness in our souls. The whole work of our purification, our prayer and asceticism, is to come to the state of soul that is without darkness. This is a life’s work, but it is no less urgent just because it takes time. We learn from St John that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1John 1:5). Not being God, we may wish to make our apologies and quickly withdraw from the labors of living in the light. But St John still urges to follow closely Christ the Light: we “ought to walk in the same way in which He walked…Everyone who hopes in him purifies himself as He is pure” (1:6; 3:3). A tall order, but with God all things are possible. In any case, what is the alternative? Wherever light recedes, darkness advances by default.

St Paul urges us to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” and to “walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:11,8). Darkness and light may be metaphors, but they indicate essential realities of our lives. The consequences of allowing darkness to fill us are too horrible to imagine (though we ignore this at our peril). Even if we are mostly light within, we must not get complacent, but rather persevere until there is no part dark. Would you be content with having no cancer in your body—except in one place? Spiritual darkness spreads even faster than cancer.

I will close with an excerpt from a blessing we use for candles, and you’ll see why: “…as the visible light of the candles dispels all darkness and shadow, so let the invisible Flame of the Holy Spirit, which illuminates our hearts, cast out the darkness of sin, so that with the eye of an enlightened soul, we may see that which is pleasing to You and necessary for our salvation, and having triumphed over the dark afflictions of this world, we may in the end attain light everlasting…”

Go for it. No part dark.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Hell No!

The most well-known retort of the devil to God is the infamous non serviam (I will not serve). Hence it follows that all his fellow hell-dwellers scream (though no one hears) an incessant and eternal NO to God. To be damned is to be suffocated in an everlasting negation, not only of all that is good, but of all that simply is.

I’ve quoted the Christian novelist Charles Williams several times on this blog, because he has some very interesting insights into the supernatural world, both the bright side and the dark side. In War in Heaven, the villains are a few satanists: one a mere dabbler, another an experienced practitioner, and the other a soft-spoken fellow who is completely possessed. We can learn a few things about the nature of the devil from this novel, and hence why we ought to stay as far away from that horror as possible.

First, and this is nothing more than a point of traditional theology, it is asserted that evil is not a “thing” in itself, but an absence of good, as darkness is an absence of light. If evil were something that substantially exists, then we would have to assert that the all-good God created it, for He created all that exists. What of the devil, then? He was created as one of the (or the) most glorious and powerful of the angels. The name “Lucifer” means “light-bearer”. But as the saying goes, the corruption of the best is the worst. When the light-bearer forsook the Light through pride and disobedience, the absence of Light became total, and there was nothing but darkness left. Angels, with their superior intelligence, do not have the ignorance and other limitations humans do, which make us eligible for another chance, through repentance, after we sin. They know what they do, and therefore they are eternally confirmed in their choice for or against God. The fallen angels are not substantial evil, but absence of good to the fullest extent possible in an existing being. This “absence” is not passive or inert, however. It is manifested in every form of malice, blasphemy, and degradation known to man (and then some).

The devil incites moral evil in the hearts of men, but is himself beyond all that. He is even beyond hate, even though it is the air he breathes (into people). The devil simply is utter and total negation, absolute rejection of God, of all that God is and does. Satan tries to negate good with evil, truth with lies, love with hate, and, perhaps most insidiously, reality with illusion (this is the essence of temptation). He is “NO” personified and as such is the adversary of Christ, because “the Son of God, Jesus Christ…was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2Cor. 1:19-20). Christ is wholly Yes; the devil is wholly No. His only objective is to destroy—everything, totally (see John 10:10). And, as one of the satanists in the novel ominously says about his infernal master: “He is the last mystery, and all destruction is his own destroying of himself.” This total negation would not stop even if he could destroy the whole universe. If it were possible, he would ultimately annihilate himself, for he is compelled to utterly reject and negate all that is.

Why does he want to destroy not only what is good but all that simply is? This is the reason: being as such is good in itself, and here lies the intolerable, eternal conflict within the devil himself. The fact that he was created by God indicates the good of being. His insatiable lust for negation must destroy all good, and if the fact of his existence is a good (originally, at least), then he has to destroy himself as well. But he can't, because he was created to be immortal, and this is part of his hell. Goodness and light may be wholly and irrevocably absent from him, but he still exists. Satan is a black hole of evil, sucking itself into itself unto an eternally frustrated act of self-destruction in a maniacal, suicidal cosmic frenzy—and he’d like nothing better than to take you with him.

Why have I been going on about such dark things? Well, think about it. This applies to each of us. Every sin is a No to God. The more you say No to God, the more you are confirmed in rejection of what is holy, good, true, and beautiful. The more you reject God and disobey his commandments, the more you share in the total darkness, the total negation that is the activity of the evil demons. Do you want to share forever in that raging (but impotent) hatred that can never spend or satisfy itself on the object of its hate? Do you want to endure the torment of endless self-destruction that never quite attains annihilation?

There will be no surprises on Judgment Day. That Day simply will reveal what we are, what we have made of ourselves. If our habitual response to God has been No (without final repentance), then we will in the end be consumed with that horrible spirit of negation, and we will flee as far as possible from the Light, from the Love that is all Yes. The only place to go then is hell. Human life is a high-stakes adventure, and it is imperative that we say Yes to all that God is and has given for our salvation. The only thing we should say No to is the “negator” himself, to all the evil he incites in the world, and to all temptations to negate the will of God in our own lives.

Hell? No! I won’t go. I will be a Yes to God in Jesus Christ, through fidelity to his will, "for faith says Yes to every truth of God, seen or unseen" (von Balthasar). In gratitude for the Lord's merciful love, I will serve. How about you?

Monday, July 25, 2005

In This You Rejoice

The Scriptures often invite or exhort us to rejoice, but perhaps we don’t feel like rejoicing all the time, having that “What’s good about it?” attitude to someone’s friendly “Good morning!” But if we take a look at the First Letter of Peter, we will see that he’s not asking us to rejoice about any particular morning or any given set of circumstances at all. His sights are set much higher.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1Peter 1:3-4). Immediately he adds, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…” He’s not asking them to rejoice over the pain of their trials, but to rejoice in the fruit of trials well-borne, the end result of the “testing by fire,” that is, what has been prepared for us in heaven, which is “the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

St Peter is inviting us to keep before our eyes the glory of the Kingdom, through a “living hope” in the power of the resurrection of Christ. He knows we have to suffer on earth, but the vision of heaven is what makes the suffering endurable, even embraceable. This was also the intention of St John when he wrote the Book of Revelation. St Paul had a similar idea when he exhorted us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thess. 5:18). Note that he didn’t ask us to give thanks for all circumstances, but rather in all circumstances. It’s rather difficult to induce any sane person to become deliriously happy over some tragic disaster, but in the midst of sufferings believers can still look to the reward, the outcome of faith, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.

Now, our looking to heaven for consolation doesn’t mean that we must view this life as wholly miserable. We still have sacraments and sunsets, music and merlot, creativity and contemplation, and opportunities to give and receive love. But since many tend to feel the sting of suffering more intensely than the gentle joys of walking in the Spirit, it is good that God has placed before us the promise of everlasting delight in the glory of heaven.

So, whatever is troubling you, let it not consume you. Read the first chapter of First Peter, and try out the first chapter of Ephesians while you’re at it. In this you will rejoice.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

On Bearing Burdens

St Paul encourages us to “bear one another’s burdens” because this will “fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). How are we to understand this? In the most basic sense, and one of which all of us are capable, it simply means to help others in their needs, for Jesus’ sake. We can all “be there” for others when they need us, and offer whatever material aid or spiritual consolation it is within our power or charism to give.

But there are deeper levels. In one of Charles Williams’ novels, he calls this bearing of burdens “the doctrine of substituted love.” He means that one can, on a spiritual level, out of love for another—and in conscio
us reliance on God’s grace—will to experience another’s fear or grief or other burden of suffering, and thus help free them from it, provided they believe it can really happen. (This isn’t the same thing as psychic “sympathetic suffering,” for that generally does nothing to help relieve the original sufferer of his pain.)

Williams calls it “picking up another’s parcel,” of which they first have to let go. In the case recounted in the novel it was worry and fear. After Pauline agreed to let Peter Stanhope “carry her parcel,” we read the following: “Her mind leapt back to Stanhope’s promise, and she knew that, whatever the explanation might be, she had been less bothered for the past ten minutes than ever before in any solitude of twenty years… She had promised to leave it with him… she only had to keep her promise… She wouldn’t worry; no, because she couldn’t worry… She was, then and there, incapable of distress. The world was beautiful about her, and she walked in it, enjoying. He had been quite right; he had simply picked up her parcel. God knew how he had done it, but he had.” Not everyone can do this, because not everyone has the capacity for it. But that does not mean that the capacity cannot be developed.

In his book on anxiety, Hans Urs von Balthasar notes the difference between “sin-anxiety” and the anxiety (or angst) of the Cross. The former is the one that plagues most of us, the one that Jesus forbids his followers in the Sermon on the Mount—the one that has its source either in a lack of trust in God, in a culpable psychic or emotional malaise, or in unresolved guilt. One would vainly attempt to glorify sin-anxiety and call it the angst of the Cross (as people often confuse psychological depression with the “dark night of the soul”). There is a vast space between the two: the space of Christian faith, hope, and love. If one cannot rid oneself of sin-anxiety through divine grace and the practice of Christian virtue, one can never reach the spiritual maturity and radical openness of spirit needed to embrace the angst of the Cross and bear fruit thereby.

One can enter into Christ’s redemptive sufferings only if one is already immersed in a profound joy, trust, peace, and genuine Christian love. Then he is prepared to bear, with Jesus, others’ burdens, and that only insofar as it is the explicit will of God. We can “pick up the parcels” of others through the power of the Cross, once we are free from anxiety and rooted firmly in grace. At this point we are no longer mere servants or disciples of Christ, but friends and lovers. At this point it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in and through us.

There’s really only one way to advance beyond sin-anxiety, to enter into the joy of grace and love, and to be strong enough to share the Cross of Jesus for the sake of others: “Come to Me… Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Friday, July 22, 2005

Dust We Are

When Abraham dared to argue with the Lord over the fate of Sodom, he used this humble introduction: “I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Dust he was, and to dust he would return, as the Psalmist also knew: “What profit would there be in my going to the grave? …can dust sing your praise or proclaim your truth?” (Psalm 29/30:9). It has been said that, materially seen, we can be reduced to a few dollars worth of chemicals, and we know what a small pile of ashes one can become if he passes through the crematorium. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Are we ultimately nothing more than a mound of dirt?

Before I get spiritual on you, let’s remember that there is, even in the Old Testament, a good side to being dust. The fact that we are dust actually spares us from punishments that would be due to nobler substances. God has compassion on us, we learn from Psalm 102(103), because “He remembers that we are dust.” If we were angels we’d only have one chance to get it right, but being dust makes us eligible for repentance and forgiveness. God knows our humble origins and the limitations of people made of dust, and so He makes allowances for our lack of wisdom and fortitude. He knows that we struggle with “grievous weakness and painful passions” (as one of our liturgical texts laments), and that we have much difficulty finding our way clear of all kinds of besetting (or besotting) plagues. Being dust ought thus to make us humble, and grateful for God’s forbearance. Yet we can’t seem to learn the simplest of lessons. “Why are dust and ashes proud?” (Sirach 10:9).

Though our bodies shall return to the dust from which they came, there is more to humanity than the assembling and disassembling of bodies of dust. How do we know? Pull your old dusty Bible off the shelf and read Genesis 2:7. You will see that once God formed man from the earth, He breathed the breath of life into him. This dust is sustained by the very breath of God! We’re on to something here. We also learn that we are created in God’s image, which immeasurably ennobles this humble dust. But the greatest thing (and this—for better or worse, depending on your perspective—is the destroyer of all our excuses) is that God Himself has taken our dust upon Himself by becoming man in our Lord Jesus Christ. He has united our dusty human nature to Himself and—descending farther into hell—He has also taken on the filth of our sins and nailed them to the Cross. Through faith in Him and obedience to Him, come what may, we will discover that we are more than mere dust, and are destined for the glory God has prepared for those who love Him.

So dust yourself off and get busy with the work of your transformation! God does the lion’s share, but He still requires our free co-operation. Can dust sing his praise? Yes, when it is animated with an immortal soul and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Being dust we shall return to dust, but being united to God we shall rise again and forever sparkle like gold dust in the Sun of Righteousness!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Set Your Face

As the time for Jesus’ passion approached, He decided to head toward Jerusalem. Well, He didn’t merely decide, He set his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). That is a biblical expression for a resolute determination to do something. He was so determined to do his Father’s will that even the Samaritans noticed it—though with a certain haughty indignation. They wouldn’t even let Jesus stay in one of their villages, for they knew his face was set toward Jerusalem. The disciples wanted to blast them with fire from heaven (saw too many movies, I guess), but Jesus reminded them that He came to save lives and not destroy them.

A funny thing happened on the way to Jerusalem (not “ha-ha” funny, but curiously remarkable). Jesus invited others to set their faces as well (9:57-62). Or rather, He showed them how properly to set their faces, since they already wanted to but didn’t quite understand the demands of discipleship. One who wanted to follow Him didn’t realize that it meant relying utterly on Providence, even unto being virtually homeless. Another one wanted to wait till his parents had died so that he would be free of filial responsibilities. But Jesus reminded him that if he was going to preach the Kingdom of God, that work must be left to others.

Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, one poor fellow wasn’t even allowed to go home and say goodbye to his family and friends before setting his face toward the Kingdom. Jesus’ response to his request was: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Here is the basic principle: if you set your face forward, you cannot turn it back. If you resolutely determine to follow Christ, you cannot return to your previous way of life; you cannot even toy with that idea or make a few compromises. It’s all or nothing. If you are to be fit for the Kingdom of God, you set your face and keep moving forward.

I would guess that most of those who would take the time to read this have already (at least to some extent) put their hands to the plow in the service of Christ and the Kingdom. But we have to examine our consciences: are we looking back? Have we made resolutions about which we tend to waver or compromise? Do we sometimes long for the “fleshpots of Egypt” while we sojourn through the desert on the way to the Promised Land? Do we try to justify or rationalize behaviors that are incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus? Do we fall into self-indulgence or self-pity when what the Lord requires is fidelity, courage, and trust?

Let the dead bury the dead. You have to speak and live the word of the Lord. Set your face toward Christ and resolve to do his will. Put your hand to the plow—and don’t look back. The only thing that ultimately matters is being deemed fit for the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Martha, Martha

The story of Jesus’ visit to his friends Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) is well-known, as is its standard spiritual interpretation: Martha represents the “active” life and Mary the “contemplative” life, the latter being understood to have higher value because of its more direct relation to God and because of Jesus’ words about Mary choosing the “better part” (literally, the “good portion”).

But the story deserves another look. We ought to notice that it is not the “active life” as such, i.e., the labors of active service to God and one’s neighbor, that is somehow of inferior value. Martha was not criticized, either by Luke or by Jesus, for serving (indeed, to serve is of the essence of Christian life, and Jesus Himself said that He came to serve). Luke says, however, that Martha was “distracted” because of her service, and this is the beginning of the difficulties. Jesus does not offer his gentle reproach because she is serving, but because she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” It is her anxiety, not her serving, that places her, on the scale of values, a step below Mary’s quiet listening to Jesus’ words.

One can listen to the word of God even while serving, if one is free from anxiety, distraction, and other such troubles. Listening to the words of Jesus is always the “good portion” in comparison to anxious and unrecollected busyness. But service is essential to the Christian vocation, so we have to learn how to listen while serving, in addition to making adequate time for quiet listening alone. For if we do not set aside sufficient “quality time” for contemplative prayer, which is basically listening to the word of God and responding in faith and love, we will not be able to listen well during our times of more active service.

God will fill whatever interior space we open to Him, and our silent prayer time is meant precisely to create “space” within our hearts for his indwelling. It doesn’t matter if we do not experience his presence during the times we explicitly invite Him to abide in us. As long as we faithfully do so, He will come, perhaps in a way and at an hour we least expect. God is sovereign and free, and the fact that we give Him a certain amount of time each day doesn’t bind Him to manifest Himself during those particular times. But be sure that if you open your heart to Him in prayer, He will come to you, sooner or later, with his blessing and grace.

So be like Martha in your zeal to serve, but do not be like her in her anxiety and distraction. Be like Mary in your quiet, focused listening to the Lord, both in the solitude of your contemplative prayer time and in the activity of your serving. No one will take from you this good portion.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

No Anxiety

Since I have to get some car repairs done today (I’m trying not to be anxious about that), I’m going to let the eminent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar take over for me. This sobering but profound teaching comes from his book, The Christian and Anxiety. Anxiety is a form of fear, and (outside of the “fear of the Lord”) we are called to “fear not.”

“If the Christian’s fearlessness before…every power other than that of Christ is strictly commanded in the New Covenant, it follows that all the ‘facts’ set forth by modern philosophy and psychology concerning the dominance of anxiety are struck down by this command… Modern man will say that this prohibition by no means eliminates the fact of anxiety from the world. The Christian can only counter by insisting that ‘facts’ do not eliminate the command forbidding [anxiety’s] presence. If it is true that anxiety—about being in the world, about being forlorn, about the world itself, about all its supposedly or really unfathomable dimensions, anxiety about death and anxiety about perhaps inescapable guilt—lies at the root of modern consciousness; if it is true that this anxiety is the basis of contemporary neuroses and that this anxiety is supposed to be overcome through a modern existentialist philosophy by entering into it and affirming it and enduring it with determination to the very end, then to all of this Christianity can only say a radical No… If [a Christian] nevertheless is a neurotic and an existentialist, then he suffers from a lack of Christian truth, and his faith is sick or frail…

“The sickness of secular society, in all its various shadings, grips humanity today… To heal this sickness, one does not have to suffer from it oneself; on the contrary, only the example of the healthy man can offer help to the sick man. Thus it was in early Christianity, when the new Christians strode through the existentialism of decaying antiquity without contracting it, and demonstrated to the infirm the strength of a life that draws on quite different sources and resources. Thus it will be today as well. And if the world’s ‘present hour’ makes it harder for people to keep themselves free from anxiety and neurosis than it was in other times, then it follows from this, at best, that more is required of this generation than of others, which probably means that there will be fewer genuine Christians than at other times. Fewer men and women who, with the matter-of-fact courage of faith and by its power, step out into life and lay hold of what God has to offer them: this vocation, this Christian mission, this risk without which a man gains nothing noble, this responsibility, this purity.

“Against all this today’s neurotic anxiety is opposed, and as a result so many Christian vocations—which always demand a fearless Yes to grace—are ruined in these times. As a result, today’s Christianity is criticized for its tepid, insipid mediocrity… Only a Christian who does not allow himself to be infected by modern humanity’s neurotic anxiety…has any hope of exercising a Christian influence on this age. He will not haughtily turn away from the anxiety of his fellow men and fellow Christians, but will show them how to extricate themselves from their fruitless withdrawal into themselves and will point out the paths by which they can step out into the open, into faith’s daring. But not one whit, either theoretically or in practice, will the Christian stoop to compromise. He will know that ‘anxiousness’ belongs among the things the Lord has forbidden (Mt 6:25-26), that guilt is not the fate of a Christian, and that, through Christ, death has lost its sting (1Cor 15:55).

“Christ has borne the anxiety of the world so as to give to the world instead that which is his: his joy, his peace… And this is absolutely inseparable from his earthly life, from his Cross and his descent into hell, and from his Resurrection. All grace is the grace of the Cross. All joy is joy resulting from the Cross, marked with the sign of the Cross…”

The Cross and the Resurrection are the foundation of our freedom from anxiety, and of our courage to be uncompromising Christians. Onward!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Fear and Fear Not

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says the Bible in several places. It is also a gift of the Holy Spirit and is even said to "delight the heart and give gladness and joy and long life" (Sirach 1:12). So what are we afraid of? These days "fear of the Lord" is seen as just a bit too theologically "retro" for 21st-century well-adjusted integrated Christians. Back in the 1990s, when I was talking to a young man who had confidently jettisoned most of the teachings of the Church, I heard his justification for that: "Hey, I'm a man of the nineties!" I suppose that today he is a man of the new millennium, which would mean he's not a "God-fearing" man.

There is a good kind of fear as well as a bad kind of fear. The good one is the "fear and trembling" that overtakes any human soul to whom God would reveal his blinding and terrifying majesty, with the inevitable experience on the human's part of his own utter insignificance and wretchedness in the face of that absolute holiness and ineffable glory. The good fear is also the healthy respect and reverence we ought to have for the commandments of the Lord, for every word that proceeds from his mouth, and for the Holy Mysteries of the Church. Even on a purely human level, fear is quite beneficial when it prods us to flee or to protect ourselves from life-threatening dangers. Our salutary fear of committing sin and thus offending God is likewise beneficial. It is perhaps unfortunate (because of our sinful weakness), but all the same quite helpful for our salvation, that meditation on the eternal consequences for unrepented sin should "put the fear of God" in us. The good kind of fear isn't opposed to peace, either. We pray in the Divine Liturgy: "Let us stand in fear, that we may offer in peace the Holy Oblation."

The bad fear is the cowardice and anxiety, the psychologically debilitating agitation, dread, or apprehension that is an enemy not only of ordinary inner peace but also of the spiritual life. "Fear of the Lord" is not the same as being "afraid of the Lord," in the sense I just described. We are often full of all kinds of fears, and we fear fear itself and the very possiblity of approaching fearful circumstances or events. To this the Bible says repeatedly: "Fear not!" I read somewhere that this call to abandon inappropriate fear is found 366 times in the Bible: that's one for each day of the year, leap years included!

We learn from St John that God is love and that perfect love casts out fear -- it doesn't cast out "fear of the Lord" properly understood, for a fruit of the Spirit (love) cannot cast out a gift of the Spirit (fear of the Lord). It is rather, as the Apostle says, the fear that fears punishment that is cast out by perfect love. Let us note, however, that until our love is perfected we may still need to be reminded of the consequences of lack of love, and if that motivates us to get back on track, then it is salutary fear indeed!

Love is the goal; love is what lasts to eternity. There will be love in heaven but no fear (though there will always be reverent and awestruck wonder before the glory of the Lord). Let us begin to understand how to fear and fear not, for each in its own way is enjoined by the word of God. Fear nothing but grieving your God, and you will be advancing in wisdom. Let the "evolved" people of the new millennium receive the gift of the fear of the Lord -- and rejoice!

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Not Dead but Sleeping

Sometimes we may wonder about certain things the Lord says, especially if they seem to contradict the obvious. In these cases, however, we should be aware that there is a mystery that transcends our sense of the “obvious.” One case in point is what He said before He raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead: “She is not dead, but sleeping” (Luke 8:52). Now it was quite obvious to everyone present that in fact she was not sleeping, but dead. What are we missing here?

Jesus sees things that we cannot see. As a matter of biological fact, the girl was indeed dead. But Jesus does not merely live and perceive reality on the biological level. Jesus sees things also on the spiritual and eternal planes, and so this momentary cessation of earth-bound consciousness was insignificant in the face of the deeper truth. For as God, “all are alive to him” (Luke 20:38). Knowing that her human, spiritual consciousness had not been destroyed—only her bodily functions had ceased—Jesus simply recalled her spirit to unite again with her body. No tragedy for Him. It was as if He had merely to wake a sleeping child.

We have to be aware that there is much more to reality than we can see or touch. Our capacity for awareness of the profound mysteries of God is not dead, but sleeping, and the Holy Spirit would like to wake us up. Beneath (or within) the “obvious” phenomena of this world, the mysterious presence of God dwells, and He would like us to recognize Him in his handiwork. G.K. Chesterton, in The Man Who Was Thursday, gives us an inkling into this when he writes: "Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind… That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front..." Similarly, Romano Guardini writes: "The earth is pervaded by a cosmic ecstasy: There is in it an eternal reality and presence that, however, normally is asleep under the veil of custom. The eternal reality must now reveal itself, as in an epiphany of God, through all of that which exists."

So if Jesus says the dead girl is not dead but sleeping, we have to realize that He is seeing farther than we can, that the full truth of this world (and the next) is ever-present to Him in its God-designed profundity and mystery. And therefore we also have to realize that we cannot be content with the “obvious,” with whatever is immediately present to our senses or ability to reason. Our eyes have to be opened. This begins with faith, grows with our contemplative experience of the mysteries of God, and is fulfilled as we pass into eternity. I will not really die, but fall asleep (a common biblical expression for death) and, making the psalmist’s prayer to God my own, “when I awake, I shall behold Your face, and shall see the light of Your glory” (16/17:15). All are alive to Him—if only all those on this side of death would believe and be awakened!

Friday, July 15, 2005

Still at Sea

Perhaps today we will conclude our oceanic reflections for the time being. We’ve looked at the restless surface and the quiet depths of the sea, but we haven’t done much sailing yet, so there’s still room for a nautical meditation. Several Gospel stories take place on the open waters, and I’d like to look briefly at Jesus’ stilling the storm at sea.

The purpose of recounting the calming of the storm is to of
fer a more or less rhetorical question concerning the divinity of Jesus: “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” Who indeed! He is the One who made heaven and earth, the seas and all they contain. But what does this miracle tell us about us? We’re always interested in that subject.

Let’s se
e what happened there. Jesus was with his disciples in the boat, asleep. He must have been quite exhausted if He could sleep through a storm as the boat was violently tossed around. Or maybe He was sleeping with “one eye open,” just waiting to see how the disciples would react to the situation. In any case, they freaked out: “Master, don’t you care if we perish?!” Jesus unhurriedly got up, instructed the wind and waves about more considerate behavior, and sat back down as calm ensued. “Where is your faith?” He inquired. The dumbfounded disciples then began to reassess their speculations on the nature of their Master.

Why did Jesus and the disciples react to the storm in different ways? Why did the disciples panic and how did Jesus keep his cool? It has to do with the state of one’s inner life, and this is the connection to us. The disciples, when becoming aware of the storm that was outside of them, allowed its restless turmoil to come inside of them. Hence the panic. The exterior storm became an interior one. Jesus, on the other hand, was already filled with inner peace and strength. Rather than letting the exterior storm rattle his interior life, He sent out his inner peace on the outer storm. Thus his interior peace manifested itself in his outer environment.

If we have the peace of Christ within us, we can work similar miracles. Let’s say you find yourself in the midst of arguing people or of some other stressful situation. Are you going to let that outer disturbance and disharmony enter you, so that the turmoil casts out your peace and you become just like them? Or are you going to send forth your inner peace on to the raging waves of the outer conflict in order to calm the storm? We have that choice: letting outer stresses become inner ones, or creating outer peace by consciously willing (and invoking God’s help) that the peace of Christ within us will be manifest around us. It’s not merely a manipulation of psychological or social dynamics. It’s a way of bringing the presence of Christ to a situation that was lacking it, a way of trusting that Jesus still has power over the “wind and waves” of human unrest.

Where is your faith? You may find it anew as you confidently awaken the “sleeping” Jesus within you and introduce Him to whatever storm may be raging around you. Be still and know that He is God. And the stillness will spread out over the sea.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


“Much labor was created for every man, and a heavy yoke is upon the children of Adam, from the day they come forth from their mother’s womb… Their perplexities and fear of heart—their anxious thought is the fear of death…from the man who wears purple and a crown to the one who is clothed in burlap, there is anger and envy and trouble and unrest, and fear of death and fury and strife. And when one rests upon his bed, his sleep at night confuses his mind; he gets little or no rest…” (Sirach 40:1-6).

Not so
mething we’d like to meditate much on, I would guess, but it is the word of God nevertheless—expressed in the words of one quite familiar with the human condition. The vast majority of humans (in Western societies, anyway) are restless, anxious, fearful, or perplexed in one way or another. It’s no accident that the happiness and peace of Heaven is sometimes described as “eternal rest.” Our restless souls long for the tranquility of a life without stress, frustration, and the myriad little anxieties that seem to situate our souls in a state of more or less continual restlessness.

How to make restlessness restful? I don’t have the easy answer (sorry!), but I know one place to find restful restlessness: the ocean. There is a paradox there, which I wrote about in one of our newsletters. The continuous restless activity of the churning waves and the unceasing sounds of surf tend to calm my spirit, more so even than a placid lake. Perhaps it is because each wave-crash is a release of tension, a spending of energy. The waves then calmly withdraw and return to the deep, and the cycle begins again. And again.

Is there something we can learn from restful, restless waves? Perhaps when we look at the big picture (and the ocean is a very big picture), we will notice that the restless waves are usually on the fringes of the vast expanse of blue tranquility. And in the depths there are no waves at all—only stillness, muted colors, and gentle, filtered light. Restless waves point to a deeper truth, and our restless thoughts and emotions ought to turn us to the big picture: the depths of our souls, which have sufficient capacity to bear the presence of the Creator of oceans. If our chaotic restlessness can be transfigured into a rhythmic surface tension, an energetic dance, then it can be productively spent and we can regularly withdraw back to the deep.

Our dis-integrated desires, our fragmented feelings, our piecemeal perspectives, might make us view the kaleidoscopic magnificence of ever-changing ocean waves as mere disorder or chaotic frenzy—a mirror of our inner lives. But if we sat and listened for a while, and watched the movement of the waves—and of our minds and hearts—we might see a pattern, the hint of a divine design, and we would gently gather our scattered thoughts and emotions into quiet tide-pools of trust and a more far-seeing wisdom. We might begin—foamy splashes notwithstanding—to rest in Providence. “Only in God is my soul at rest” (Psalm 61/62).

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Let Down Your Nets

Sometimes praying is like fishing. You go to the ocean or lake (the environment you create for prayer), bring your gear (Bible, prayer beads, etc), get comfortably situated—and wait. It may be, however, that you work hard at it and apparently come up with nothing. But perhaps you are still fishing in shallow water.

Jesus got into Peter’s boat to do a little preaching (which was actually fishing, in his own way). Afterwards, He said to Peter: “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). Peter responded as we might, with just a touch of exasperation, if someone told us how to do our own job: “We have (already) worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” Though he didn’t really expect anything, Peter’s saving grace was in the next words he spoke: “But at your word, I will lower the nets.”

At the word of Jesus, everything changes, for even the wind and the sea obey Him. Peter knew his profession; he knew the logic of the time and the tide; he knew there wouldn’t be any fish there. But at Jesus’ word he let down the nets and suddenly he knew that God had visited his boat. He cried out a confession of personal unworthiness, as we also might do in the presence of the Mysterium Tremendum. Thus began a great, lifelong adventure for Peter and the other fishermen.

The experience of prayer, especially contemplative prayer, is like letting down your nets into the deep water. The surface may have its own charms, but the real treasures are discovered in the depths. You have to go to the place of the heart, the place of the divine indwelling, to discover the mystery of God. In the Eastern Christian tradition, contemplative prayer is sometimes described as “descending with the mind into the heart.” The goal is union of mind and heart, the two becoming one, and this “one” becoming one with God. In one sense, the mind is the net that is let down into the deep waters of the heart, so that our souls can be filled with the richness of grace, of communion with God.

Contemplative prayer is not something that you “do,” but the creation of an interior disposition and openness to let God do what He wills in and through you. Our efforts to make something happen in prayer are like Peter’s working hard and catching nothing. Our own notions about prayer and life in God are woefully inadequate. But if, by quietly listening to the word of the Lord, we let down our nets into the deep, descend with the mind into the heart—the place of stillness and presence—we will meet the Mystery; we will stand in awe of the undreamed-of wonder. There still may be long nights of waiting, but it will not be useless toil, for the Lord is near.

So let down your nets. Begin by letting down your defenses, your rationalizations, your ego-props, your fantasies of who you think you’d like to be. Then humbly listen—in your soul’s unaccustomed solitude, in the nakedness of your lack of self-defense—to the gentle call of the Master: put out into the deep. When you set aside human logic to obey the divine Logos, the deep waters will begin to yield their treasures.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

On Weeds and Goats

The Lord has told many parables on the Kingdom of God. Quite a few of them have to do with The End, or at least point to it. At The End, what do we find? There's going to be a separation, a sifting, a gathering and a discarding. Today's universalist or politically correct Bible-reinterpreters don't like these parables of the Kingdom. Jesus didn't offer them for our like or dislike, however, but simply as an expression of the truth and an admonition to embrace it.

In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, we see that among the wheat (the "children of the Kingdom") an enemy has sown weeds ("the children of the evil one"). The owner of the field chose not to uproot the weeds before harvest, lest the wheat go with them. But at harvest time, the weeds will be separated from the wheat, the former going to the fire and the latter into the master's storehouse. We might wonder, perhaps, at the wisdom of letting the children of the evil one flourish along with the children of the Kingdom. St John Chrysostom reminds us that there is still hope that in time the weeds will become wheat through repentance and thus not have to be burned. But St Augustine warns us (lest we become complacent) that the wheat can also become weeds through sin and negligence, and thus lose their place in the Master's glory. Anyway, there will be a separation in the end.

The Lord also told us quite explicitly about a separation that will happen at the Last Judgment, this time using the image of sheep and goats. The sheep in this case are the citizens of Heaven and the goats the citizens of Hell. (I wonder if that is why the goat's head is a satanic symbol, and why devil worshipers sacrifice goats. Perhaps it goes even farther back into pagan mythology.) Those who served Christ in their brothers and sisters will be numbered among the saved sheep, while those who neglected or hurt Christ in their brothers and sisters will be numbered among the damned goats. Anyway, there will be a separation in the end.

I could have added "flotsam" to the title of this post, because there is still another parable about casting a net into the sea and dragging in all sorts of stuff, both valuable and worthless. There's going to be a sorting, and the good stuff will be kept while the bad stuff will be thrown out. Obviously, as the parable makes clear, the good stuff is good people and the bad stuff is bad people. The angels will do the sorting, and the trash bin is an everlasting fiery furnace. Anyway, there will be a separation in the end.

The message is clear. It really matters what we believe and how we behave in this life. How we live is how we will die; what we make of ourselves is what will be manifest for all eternity. We can be golden wheat, unblemished lambs, or treasures of the sea -- or we can be toxic weeds, evil old goats, or useless flotsam. Choose what kingdom of which you'd like to be a citizen; choose whose child you'd like to be. Consider carefully; it's the most important choice of your life.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Plank-eyed People

You may have heard of them. You may have seen them. You may know one or more of them. You may even be one yourself—the Plank-eyed People! Jesus told us about them 2000 years ago, and you’d think that by now their race would be extinct. But no, if anything they seem to have multiplied and flourished, and they stubbornly establish themselves in Christian communities of every sort.

“Why do you notice the speck
in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye?... You hypocrite, remove the plank from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). It’s clear then—if I’m seeing correctly—that Plank-eyed People are hypocrites: in this case, people who judge small faults in others while being oblivious to their own greater ones. They are so “magnanimous” as to even wish to correct the little faults of their poor speck-eyed brethren. That’s actually a way of remaining blind to the plank: focus on someone else’s faults and you’ll never see your own.

St Paul referred to the Plank-eyed people, though not by name, in chapter two of the Letter to the Romans. They surface here and there throughout Scripture, but mostly we learn about them from Jesus Himself, when talking to or about the Pharisees. The Plank-eyes may seem to do pretty well for themselves, but it won’t last. Somewhere down the line everyone must pay the price for willful blindness or stubborn hypocrisy. Why? Because “as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Mt. 7:2). If every Christian would deeply meditate on that one line alone the whole world (or at least the whole Church) would change radically for the better.

We just don’t seem to get it. Listen again: “as you judge, so will you be judged.” One more time: “the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” I guess we don’t think that’s true, because we keep judging others in ways we would not wish to be judged, and measuring out to others what we would not wish to be measured out to ourselves—not realizing what the consequences are for the way we regard and treat others. Woe to us on the Last Day when we see how we judged, how we measured others, finally realizing—but all too late—that what we did to others we did to Christ. If we die still refusing to remove the planks, they will be used as fuel for an everlasting fire to be set beneath us.

So let us not be among the Plank-eyed People. There is still time to change. If Jesus tells us to remove the planks, that means it is possible to do so. With the help of God’s grace, remove the planks and build with them a stand upon which to place the book of the Holy Gospel. Now you will see clearly to read the word of the Lord—and maybe even to help your brother with that little speck in his eye.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

On Being Forty-seven

I’m completing my 47th year on the tenth of July. (I’m not asking for gifts, but you can always send money.) I don’t mean to be a Pharisee blowing my own horn, for it’s not an accomplishment or even a milestone like, say, 50. Anyone can turn 47; you just have to avoid dying before then (though I did have a bit of a scare back in ’93). So why am I blathering on about it? Well, there are probably several million people in the world who are 47 right now, and I’d just like to assure them that I know how it is. In our tradition we don’t sing “happy birthday,” but rather, “God grant you many years.” I’m not so sure I’d like many more years, frankly, though I know we all have to take the time to learn how to love and serve, to pay our dues and all that. I am sure that I would like eternal life, though it’s not measured in years. How about singing, “God grant you one eternity”?

When I was young(er), I was free. Free from righteous
ness, as St Paul was wont to say. Now that I am old(er), freedom means something different, though it’s an elusive enough concept that I’ll probably never know precisely what it means. But that’s OK; everyone struggles with these things. I read recently that they’ve come up with a new life-stage crisis (I guess life is no fun if you can’t complain about being in one sort of crisis or another, and thus elicit everyone else’s understanding and sympathy). It’s called the quarter-life crisis, and you get to have it as early as your mid-twenties. I wish I’d known about it 20 years ago; I would have had one myself. As it is, I passed my mid-late 20s right here in the monastery, in relatively ignorant bliss.

I remember remarking rather blithely during my early- or mid-thirties that a monk ought never to have a mid-life crisis, because he of all people knows the meaning of his life, and one who is securely on the path to the Kingdom of Heaven ought never to feel compelled to do the dopey things or have the doubts and nagging fears of those who think they may have made the wrong choices, wasted their lives, don’t know what the future holds, and if only they’d done things differently… Famous last words, as they say. I did have a sort of crisis in my early 40s. I realize, in retrospect, that you don’t really see it coming, and by time you recognize it, it’s too late, and then you just—if you’re a monk—try to trust God and ride out the storm. But even monks’ moorings can be susceptible to a bit of slippage. However, the relentless monastic schedule of services, full of inexorable divine counsels—with the still more relentless, tenacious, ubiquitous, and indefatigable love and mercy of God—tends to re-tighten them, Deo gratias. For me it’s all kind of a blur now. Someone will have to tell me what I was like back then. I think I was elected abbot during that time. Anyway, I did have some doubts, and I guess I did a few dopey things, but all in all it was more of an interior mid-life crisis (monks favor the interior life, you know), and the Holy Spirit restrained me from doing a whole lot of damage.

So now what do I have to look forward to—a three-quarter-life crisis? I guess if I’m still around in another 15 or 20 years, I can have one of those, too. Not that I enjoy crises, but perhaps we do need a crisis every once in a while so that we have the opportunity to consciously recommit ourselves to what we know is right and good, rather than slipping into complacency or quiet desperation. “Crisis,” after all, comes from a Greek word meaning “decision” or “judgment.” We may need to have times of decision so that we can ratify who we are and what we’re doing here. If God is going to grant us many years, we ought to have some idea of what to do with them, how to bear good fruit for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. The only crisis I don’t want to have is an end-of-life crisis. The time of proximate preparation for crossing the threshold of eternity is not the time to start second-guessing one’s vocation. But I don’t expect to be looking back with regretful dread on a wasted life, as some people inevitably will. I hope that I will simply and serenely trust that God has accepted the prayer and labors and offerings of my life, has forgiven my failures to be all He has called me to be, and is ready to accept his mostly-faithful and sometimes-recalcitrant servant into his heavenly kingdom.

So, 47 is OK for now. I’ve yet a lot of work to do, I think, promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. But I daresay I’ll not be much troubled when at length it’s time to be relieved of this mortal frame. Someone asked me once what I thought heaven would be like. “Rest,” I replied, “eternal rest!”

Friday, July 08, 2005

Radiation Therapy

One author wrote, in a book on spiritual remedies for ailments of the soul, that to pray before the Blessed Sacrament is to undergo “radiation therapy.” I found that rather interesting, since I actually did undergo the conventional (and ultimately less beneficial) form of radiation therapy about a dozen years ago. It occurred to me that there are some similarities and differences in the two kinds of radiation therapy.

The Blessed Sacrament, the sacramental Presence of Christ Himself, indeed radiates the Uncreated Energy of his divinity, which can be received by all who come to Him in faith and love. You don’t have to get sick to benefit from it, but guess what, you already are! We all have the sickness of sin or inclination to sin of one sort or another, so we are all patients of the Divine Physician. The doses of radiation you receive at the medical clinic are measured in “rads,” but there’s no measure to the grace of God shining through the Holy Eucharist. If there is, it can only be the measure of love, which has no limits.

One of the downsides of radiation, aside from making you glow in the dark (just kidding!), is that it not only kills the cancer cells, it also kills many other cells with which it comes in contact. That is why they have to map you out very carefully, and even put a few little tattoos on you, so they can correctly line up the template every time and not zap anything they’re not supposed to. They even have to take certain measures to avoid accidentally sterilizing you. As soon as the technicians assure you that everything is just fine, they all run out of the room and push the button! (That always made me feel just a tad nervous.) Then they give you some pills to keep you from throwing up in response to the therapy. Maybe modern medicine is not all it’s cracked up to be…

But the “radiation therapy” of God’s love in the Blessed Sacrament needs no map, makes no mistakes, makes you spiritually fruitful instead of sterile, destroys only evil—and Jesus will never leave you lying alone in your sickness and fear! Nor do you need to take some remedy for the remedy, for there are no negative side effects (you may, however, notice new growths of virtue here and there). So I recommend this form of therapy for all men, women, and children. It’s impossible to overdose, and the health benefits, while perhaps only gradually noticed, begin from the first treatment.

Regular doses of Divine Uncreated Energy Eucharistic Radiation Therapy are the beginning of God’s making all things new within you. Stop by your church for a free treatment. No appointment necessary. Walk-ins welcome. “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Pondering and Marveling

Mary, the mother of Jesus (thus the Mother of God), is presented in the Gospel of Luke as one who ponders an
d treasures things in her heart. This is the basis of all contemplative life: reflection upon the mysteries of God and cherishing them as gifts that lead us to divine communion and salvation. Another Mary, the sister of Martha, sat at the feet of the Lord and listened to his word. Jesus commended her for choosing "the better part."

We see in the second chapter of Luke that the Virgin Mary (and Joseph as well) run a whole gamut of reactions to the great works of God that were being manifest to them, one after another. Not having our benefit of 2000 years of spiritual and theological reflection and teaching, their reactions happened in the immediacy of the events themselves. Their responses include: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart”; Joseph and Mary “marveled at what was being said about (Jesus)”; “they were astonished”; “they did not understand the saying (Jesus) spoke to them”; “his mother kept all these things in her heart.”

The presence and activity of God in our lives and in the world is marvelous and astonishing, and is something that we are called to ponder and treasure in our hearts. But it may very well be something we do not quite understand. If even Mary and Joseph did not understand the meaning of what Jesus said to them (in at least one instance, anyway), then we should not be surprised that we do not understand all the words He speaks in the Gospels. But not to understand initially is no reason to “go away sad.” Rather, it is an invitation to ponder, to reflect upon, in your mind and heart.

Jesus spoke often in parables, which many of his hearers did not understand. I think He may have been trying to sift out the sincere seekers from the merely curious. Some went away scratching their heads. Others said, “Lord, explain to us the parables.” It was with these that He shared the mysteries of the
Kingdom of Heaven.

So persevere in the word of God, even if you don’t understand it all. Seek and you shall find; ask and you shall receive; ponder and you will gain insight. Then marvel. Then be astonished. You’ll rejoice that you didn’t go away sad.