Friday, September 30, 2005

Beyond the Questions

“Jesus knew that they wanted to ask Him…” (John 16:19). The disciples’ heads were full of questions. They had heard some quite extraordinary things: Jesus was returning to the Father, the world was going to hate them, the Spirit of Truth was coming to enlighten them, etc. They had way too much to process, and I’m sure they were in complete agreement with Jesus when He said: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (16:12).

They did ask Jesus one question, which He answered in his own mysterious way, Himself admitting that He spoke “in figures.” Then, still not quite understanding, but with a bit of false bravado, they exclaimed: “Now we know that You know all things, and there is no need for anyone to question You!” That they didn’t get it was clear from Jesus’ immediate prediction that in his hour of need they would all desert Him.

But the disciples were right about one thing: He does know all things and there is no need to question Him. Not that it’s wrong to question God; He’s quite understanding and indulgent with our gropings and perplexities. But if we do decide to question God, there are two other things that need to be done: 1) Wait long enough to receive an answer, and/or 2) Realize that even though He has much to tell us, we cannot bear it now. The latter is the one we’ll most often have to accept.

In C.S. Lewis’ marvelous paradisal novel, Perelandra, the embattled hero asks a question of a great Angel about some deep mystery, only to receive the reply that there was no “holding-place” in his limited mind for the answer. He did eventually receive a flash of insight concerning the Great Dance, that intricately interwoven tapestry—or fabulously, minutely interconnected glorious grid—of God’s providential design for all times, places, persons, and things, from galaxies to grains of dust, but it was so overwhelmingly brilliant, wondrous, and mind-exploding that he could barely grasp enough even to begin to adequately articulate it. But the thing to hold on to for now is that there is a plan (or countless interdependent ones), there are answers, and God is the Master of the universe and of our own individual destinies.

We have to realize that we’re just not ready or able to receive all there is to know about the divine mysteries, or even those of the material cosmos and our own souls. There will always be questions, and sometimes we frustrate ourselves needlessly. We have to get beyond the questions, or beyond the need to constantly ask questions, especially if we do it in an over-curious, impatient, or arrogant manner. But to go beyond the questions is not necessarily to go to the place of answers—it is to go to the place of confidence in Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Just knowing that there is a design, a plan, worked out from time immemorial by a loving God, should ease our anxious uncertainties about all the vicissitudes of life and the threats to our fragile security. We’re not cut adrift, we’re not accidental, we’re not unknown or forgotten, we’re not random chunks of evolved protoplasm milling about a spinning orb of rock and water, heading towards an ultimate and meaningless dissolution.

Jesus said that the Spirit of Truth would teach us all things. He said that so that in Him we might have peace (John 16:33). Trust in Him; wait for the Promise of the Father. Move beyond the questions. Don't fret over what you don't understand. After all, we’re in the hands of Angels, those bright and glorious “ministering spirits sent forth…for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). If we don’t have holding-places in our minds for all the mysteries, let’s at least hold in our hearts some trust in that ineffably transcendent yet intimately personal God, who loved us enough to give us a unique place in his marvelous design.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

My Peace I Give You

Today I will conclude in peace my reflections on the fourteenth chapter of John. Jesus said that his parting gift would be peace. But I wrote some time ago that Jesus said He came to bring not peace but a sword. How can we understand this? Can these two statements be reconciled?

The key to understanding these sayings on peace is this: “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). When Jesus said that He came not to bring peace, He was talking about peace as understood in a worldly sense, i.e., absence of strife or conflict. He knew that his word would create opposition between those who would receive it and those who wouldn’t, but the truth has to be embraced even at the price of the superficial “peace” of religious relativism. So even now, as He says He does give peace, it is still “not as the world gives,” but it is rather his peace. What does this mean?

He gives us a hint at the end of the verse: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” So his peace is that which removes inner turmoil and fear. The peace of Christ may not remove all external conflicts or threats, but it communicates confidence and hope even in the midst of them. The peace of Christ is the “I am with you,” the “I will never forsake you,” of which the Scriptures frequently remind us. It is a rootedness in the transcendent serenity of the age to come, which at the same time enables us to act wisely and decisively in the present age. When this peace is firmly established within us, it doesn’t matter much if there is unrest around us. Lack of tranquility is the usual state of a fallen world, so we can’t expect to calm all troubled waters (though it is still important to work even for outer peace, especially when we see the horrors of war and hateful aggression). But we can be rooted in the One who gives steadfast assurance that all manner of things shall be well, when we walk in his word and will. There will never be peace in the world if there is not first peace—Jesus’ peace—in human hearts.

I have wondered how people who have no faith in God can stand to live in this world. When tragedies or random misfortunes visit them, they desperately search for something or someone to blame for their unredressed afflictions. Rage and grief consume them, and if they do think of God, it is only with reproaches for not having preserved them from misfortune, so that they could have continued their illusory existence, ignoring or rejecting Him. They look for peace as the world gives, but the world gives it not, and the world cares not for them in their distress. They have no Rock, no Anchor, no Beacon in the night saying, “Courage, beloved, do not fear; I am with you; your reward will be great in Heaven.”

Peace often comes at a price. It’s not just a relaxing, soothing feeling, an insulation from the demanding struggles of a righteous life. Peace may begin with a call to repentance, with some spiritual surgery on our bad habits or attitudes. But once we have that peace, as Jesus gives it, we will wonder how we ever survived without it. Our souls will be like the depths of a great ocean, which remains ever still, even while a storm disturbs the surface. That is because we are anchored in eternity, connected with the Source of eternal life, and our confidence in Him gives us superior strength in any struggle we are called to endure.

“I will come back for you.” His promise is still good. We have his peace while we await Him. Don’t look to the world for peace; you will only be disappointed. Remember that clever but true saying: “No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace.” He will never forsake us, and when at length He returns, we’ll rejoice that we held fast our confidence.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

John 14: The Holy Spirit

We have St John to thank for shedding important light on least-revealed Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit. (In this detail of the Pentecost icon, the Spirit is symbolized by the rays of blue Light at the top and by the tiny flames over the apostles' heads.) It is true that St Luke mentions the Spirit often, but he does not give us the same theological treatment that we find in the Gospel of John. (I’ll have to dip briefly into chapters 15 and 16 to get a more complete picture.) We find the clearest testimony to the divinity of the Holy Spirit in John when Jesus says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (15:26). This puts the Spirit on the same level with the Son who was begotten of the Father, and who, as we’ve seen, is one in essence with Him. This same passage is used in the original version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which the Eastern Churches still use today. (It is not quite accurate to call the Creed used in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches simply the “Nicene Creed.” All the Nicene Creed said about the Holy Spirit was: I believe in the Holy Spirit. All the rest was added later at the first Council of Constantinople.)

Jesus gives the Spirit a name: Paraclete. This name is variously translated Counselor, Comforter, or Advocate, and all of them apply. The term simply means one who is called to the side of another, to help, defend, protect, or otherwise “be there” for him. Christ Himself is the first Paraclete, who came to the side of sinful, exiled mankind as Savior and Redeemer. To make it clear that that’s how He thought of Himself, Jesus told the apostles that the Father would send another Paraclete (14:16), the Holy Spirit, to be with them. This Paraclete He called the Spirit of Truth (three times in the Farewell Discourse).

What will the Spirit of Truth do? Precisely as Spirit of Truth, He will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that [Jesus has] said…” The Spirit will guide us into all the truth, speaking what the Father tells Him to, glorifying Christ by declaring to us his word. So the Holy Spirit is the life-breath of the living Tradition of the Church, leading her into the full truth about Christ and the Holy Trinity. The Spirit will safeguard the revelation, the heritage of Christ which He gave to his apostles, and will bring it to fresh vitality in every age and nation.

That is what the Spirit does for the Church. For the world: “He will convince [or convict] the world concerning sin and justice and condemnation.” The sin Jesus refers to is unbelief, the justice (or perhaps vindication) is his return to the Father after having completed his mission, and the condemnation is the judgment pronounced upon the devil (16:8-11). In terms of this passage the mission of the Spirit in the world is to call unbelievers to faith, to instruct them about the unique and absolute claims of Christ—based on who He is and what He has done for us—and to warn them of the condemnation that awaits those who would follow the evil one. Yet this task is difficult, for the world “neither sees Him nor knows Him.”

With the individual believer, the Spirit is more intimate. Once Jesus said the world doesn’t know the Holy Spirit, He said to his disciples: “but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” That was just before Jesus said that He and his Father would come to us and make their home with us. So the Trinitarian indwelling is here completed. With us and in us—that is how God wants to be.

We have to rely heavily on the Spirit of Truth in this age of widespread deception. We so need to be reminded of all that Jesus said; we need to be led fully into the profound truth about God, the Church, the world, and even about ourselves. The Spirit is entirely Self-effacing, glorifying the Father and the Son; it is through the Spirit that the Father and the Son dwell in us and act in the world today. Pray to better recognize the Holy Spirit, to know Him, to love Him with that flaming intensity that only He Himself can inspire. The Spirit dwells with you and in you. Call to the Holy Spirit in your time of need. Let Him be the Paraclete in your life.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

John 14: The Son

St John gives us the clearest testimony to the divinity of Jesus in the Gospels. Not only do we see “the Word was God…the Word was made flesh” as an unmistakable teaching about the divinity of the Son and his Incarnation, but his equality with the Father is highlighted in several places. Here in John 14, we will briefly look at who He is and what He does.

We saw yesterday that to see Jesus is to see the Father, that is, the fullness of divinity was expressed in the incarnate Son. The most powerful statement in this chapter about who He is can be found in the famous sixth verse: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” This is one of the “I AM” statements that are found throughout the Gospel. “I AM” is a divine title, the one by which God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush on Sinai. This doesn’t mean that every time Jesus says “I am” He is using a divine title (e.g. “I am thirsty”). But the fact that He does use it in ways that unmistakably point to his divinity (e.g. “Before Abraham was, I AM”) means we can recognize it in other appropriate places.

To be the Way is to be the sole Mediator between the Father and mankind. Truth and Life in this absolute sense (I AM) can only be divine attributes. If we know truth and have life, it means that we must be in some way connected to Christ, who is Truth, who is Life. His other statements about being one with the Father also indicate his divine nature.

But what about this: “the Father is greater than I” (v. 28). That was part of the basis for another heresy, quite different from the one I mentioned yesterday (this heresy also is still around today). Arius and his followers used this statement to “prove” that Jesus was not divine, but a creature (proof that biblical proof-texting is not always reliable). I referred to texts that emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, but here’s one that emphasizes his human nature. Insofar as He is man, Jesus can say the Father is greater than He, for the Son emptied Himself, humbled Himself, as St Paul says, to take the form of a servant. And a servant is not greater than his master. He chose to place Himself lower than the Father, so that the Father’s will could be done for our salvation. Essentially, however, He is still the consubstantial and co-eternal Son of God.

What does John 14 say that the Son does? First of all, He goes to the Father to prepare a place for us, and He will return and take us there. Why? So that “where I am you may be also… I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” This is one of the great divine promises. Jesus expresses his love for us by the very fact that He wants us to be where He is, and will realize his love by actually coming to get us and bring us to the Father’s house. He also said He will manifest Himself to us even before He returns, but this is an interior revelation, part of the mutual abiding that is the blessing for those who love Him by keeping his word. (The Son also gives peace, but we will treat that separately in a couple days.)

He speaks often of his “works” as a testimony to his union with the Father. These works are mainly his miracles, though these are usually called “signs” in John’s Gospel. But “works” evidently has a wider application, including his teaching as well, for the term is used in a parallel construction with “words”: “The words I say I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does his works.” Later Jesus will say that He accomplished the Father’s work, having given his disciples the words the Father gave to Him.

Jesus makes a final declaration in John 14 that the “prince of this world” (i.e., the devil) has no power over Him. His disciples needed to hear that, for when He was crucified they might have in fact thought that the devil had won the day. Jesus gives a very personal and intimate reason why He was ready to submit to such humiliation and torture: “so that the world may know that I love the Father.”

What better reason could we ourselves have for enduring the sufferings of life, especially those which come to us as a result of our fidelity to Christ and his Church? Let us not merely reflect abstractly upon the attributes of the Son, but let us be like Him. Take up your cross and follow Him, so that the world may know that you love the Father.

Monday, September 26, 2005

John 14: The Father

A large part of St John’s Trinitarian theology is concentrated in the fourteenth chapter of his Gospel. For the next few days, I’d like to focus on the way each Person of the Holy Trinity is presented therein, so as to better understand one of our earliest sources for this divine and eternal mystery. Even though I’m arranging the posts this way, it will be clear that none of the Divine Persons can be adequately considered apart from the others. Therefore, much of what we will see flows from the relationship of Persons in the Trinity. What we will learn about the Most Holy Trinty comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself.

The Father is revealed as the ultimate goal of our lives, because salvation is presented in terms of coming to the Father, by way of the Son: “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Heaven is described as “My Father’s house.” The main emphasis in this chapter is the inseparable oneness of the Father and the Son: “If you would have known Me, you would have known My Father also”; “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” But the evangelist takes care to present the ineffable mystery of union and distinction, as he did in the beginning of his Gospel when he wrote: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Though the Father and Son are completely One, they are not merely two different “faces” or “modes” of the same Person (as some early heretics taught, and as some modern ones still do). They are actually two Persons: “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me… I go to the Father… I will pray to the Father… the word you hear is not mine but the Father’s… I do as the Father has commanded Me…” Even though “the Father and I are one” (10:30), there is still a “Me” and a “Him” that are Son and Father.

They are not only one in being but one in love. “He who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him…” Moreover, the doctrine of the divine indwelling is repeatedly stressed in John’s Gospel: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him… I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” If Heaven is the Father’s house, and if Jesus and the Father wish to make their home with us, then God is promising us a foretaste of Heaven on earth through this mutual abiding, which is the fruit of love, and also of the Holy Eucharist (6:56).

It is the Father who is the eternal Origin of the Son and the Spirit, though not in any sort of temporal priority. All three Persons are consubstantial (of the same divine essence or nature) and co-eternal, but the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father (15:26). So it is always the Father who acts through the Son and the Spirit: “the Father who dwells in Me does his works”; “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send… whatever He [the Spirit] hears, He will speak” (the last passage is from 16:13). And it is the Son and the Spirit who refer back to the Father: “I go to the Father… I do as the Father has commanded… I love the Father.” Notice in the icon above (a symbolic image of the Trinity as three angels, based on the way God once appeared to Abraham), that the angels who represent the Son and the Spirit are both looking toward the one who represents the Father.

Since the Father is the ultimate Origin in the Trinity, the Scriptures often refer to Him simply as God. In many cases, “God” ought be to taken to mean the Holy Trinity as such, but it’s obvious when Jesus says, for example, “believe in God; believe also in Me,” that here “God” means the Father.

Perhaps we ought to learn here (I was reminded as I wrote) that everything comes from the Father and everything returns to the Father, in one way or another—if only for judgment, in some cases. Whatever Jesus and the Holy Spirit say or do for us comes ultimately from the Father. The Father, as both eternal Origin and everlasting Destiny, is silently present and at work in the world and in every aspect of your life. “Our Father” may be in Heaven, but He’s as close to you as your own heartbeat. He loves you and wants to make his home with you.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Do You Believe This?

Martha was put on the spot. Her beloved brother Lazarus had died four days earlier and was buried in a tomb. Her dear friend Jesus came to see her, and she received an initial word of consolation from Him: “Your brother will rise again.” This seemed to her like standard comfort for the bereaved, an appropriate passage from the catechism, as it were, but it wasn’t going to change anything in the here and now. So she just responded with a similar one, perhaps with a touch of resignation: “I know that he will rise again—in the resurrection on the last day.”

Here’s where Jesus puts her on the spot, as He sets aside the catechism: “I AM the resurrection and the life! He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die [literally, “shall not die forever”]. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). The teaching came alive in his own Person; the resurrection was no longer in some indeterminate future. The Resurrection was standing before her.

Martha was taken aback. What did his words mean? What did He think He was going to do? So she dodged his question slightly, not restating it in her answer as in the previous one, but at the same time making a powerful profession of faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” In effect she was saying that she believed that since He was the Son of God, the awaited Messiah, whatever He said was true, and whatever He wished to do, He was able. But she may not have been all that sure He was actually going to raise her dead brother. It was too good to be true, too much to ask, even from the Messiah.

This doubt of hers was manifest when Jesus commanded that the stone be taken away from the tomb. She protested, making it clear that her brother was not only dead but already decaying. We have to wait till the last day for resurrection, she may have thought. But Jesus turned to her with fire in his eyes and cried out, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). So He called out: “Lazarus, come forth!” The divine voice of Christ echoed through the halls of Hades, and the dead man returned from the netherworld alive, to the utter astonishment of all who witnessed it.

As we read the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is going to be checking with us: “Do you believe this?” We need to make a profession of faith. We are faced with many questions, many difficult circumstances, many apparently insoluble problems in our lives, and it takes a lot of faith just to keep going on. We hardly know the way to turn, what is true anymore, how to live rightly. Wait a minute, says Jesus: I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life! I AM the Light of the world; whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness. Do you believe this?

The Holy Eucharist may bring up another demand for faith. In the Byzantine Liturgy, before receiving Holy Communion, we offer a prayer that begins with a profession of faith very much like Martha’s: “O Lord, I believe and profess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners…”

Cling to the word of the Lord. As Jesus often said, your faith is your salvation. He is resurrection; He is life. Do you believe this? If you do, you will see the glory of God.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Heschel on Prayer

As long as I’ve got my Heschel open, I’ll share some more with you. I began reading him a few years ago, and I still go back to him once in a while for some spiritual refreshment. His insights into the mystery of God are profound and his articulation is eloquent. Even though his works need the completion which only the revelation of Christ can bring, what I’ve been quoting from him can benefit the spiritual life of any Christian. The following passages on prayer are from Man’s Quest for God.

“How good it is to wrap oneself in prayer, spinning a deep softness of gratitude to God around all thoughts, enveloping oneself in the silken veil of song… [Prayer's] drive enables us to delve into what is beneath our beliefs and desires, and emerge with a renewed taste for the infinite simplicity of the good. On the globe of the microcosm, the flow of prayer is like the Gulf Stream, imparting warmth to all that is cold, melting all that is hard in our life. For even loyalties may freeze to indifference if detached from the stream which carries the strength to be loyal… Prayer revives and keeps alive the rare greatness of some past experience in which things glowed with meaning and blessing. It remains important, even when we ignore it for a while, like a candlestick set aside for the day. Night will come, and we shall again gather round its tiny flame…

“It is the spiritual power of the praying man that makes manifest what is dormant in the text [of the prayer]… The service of prayer, the worship of the heart, fulfills itself not in the employment of words as a human expression, but in the celebration of words as a holy reality… Praying means to take hold of a word, the end, so to speak, of a line that leads to God… But praying also means that the echo of the word falls like a plummet into the depth of the soul…

“Whose ear has ever heard how all the trees sing to God? Has our reason ever thought of calling upon the sun to praise the Lord? And yet, what the ear fails to perceive, what reason fails to conceive, our prayer makes clear to our souls. It is a higher truth, to be grasped by the spirit: ‘All Thy works praise Thee’ (Ps. 145:10). We are not alone in our acts of praise. Wherever there is life, there is silent worship. The world is always on the verge of becoming one in adoration. It is man who is the cantor of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed.”

Makes you want to start praying right away, doesn’t it? I think we often need to acquire a more profound vision of prayer and of our relationship to God, lest we succumb to lassitude, boredom, or frustration. Merely “saying our prayers” in a routine or inattentive manner will not plunge us into the heart of the Mystery. We have to breathe prayer, be prayer, and let it flow through us like a river of life. It’s your turn now; be the cantor of the universe.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Awareness of the Ineffable

A great philosopher of Judaism, Abraham Heschel, said that our first intimations of God come from an “awareness of the ineffable,” that which is profoundly real but which eludes our concepts and formulations. In a pithy phrase, he says, “in moments of insight, the ineffable is a metaphor in a forgotten mother tongue.” It’s as if the voice of God in us is like a half-remembered dream, which we know was quite vivid in the night but which now hangs about us like an intangible mist, a disappearing image. But it calls us to return.

“We…leave the shore of the known…because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. Citizens of two realms, we must all sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another. Between the two we set up a system of references, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody, as life and what lies beyond the last breath.”

The awareness of the ineffable creates a sense of awe, for the Lord is near. “Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine… to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.”

One pitfall in our own spiritual lives may be to try to contain the Ineffable in a conceptual box in order to gain a sense of knowledge and control. But God will always resist that, and will withdraw until we let Him be who He is on his own terms. When I begin to have some experience of the Ineffable, I tend to try to articulate or analyze it (so as to remember it, or even to write an article about it!), and thus I either dissipate it or send it back into hiding. Some people can sense the mystery underlying all things and are filled with wonder and awe, but the majority walk around like blind, deaf, stumbling clods who would rather “wield the definitions of the superficial” than “be overwhelmed by the symbols of the inconceivable.” It’s time to quietly listen and let God be God, even if his essential incomprehensibility is daunting to our fragile spirits.

“We ring the hollow bell of selfishness rather than absorb the stillness that surrounds the world, hovering over all the restlessness and fear of life... Is not listening to the pulse of wonder worth silence and abstinence from self-assertion?... We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God. We constantly pour our inner light away from Him, setting up the thick screen of self between Him and us, adding more shadows to the darkness that already hovers between Him and our wayward reason...”

Take some time to enter into the stillness—of a quiet dawn, of the depth of your own soul. The Lord is near. Don’t try to figure Him out; you can’t anyway, and that’s not why He’s here. Be there for Him who is there for you. Begin to realize that God is your origin and your destiny and ultimately all that matters. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” We may have relativized his importance in our daily lives, but in the end we will behold the full truth. Pray for open eyes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

All This and Heaven Too

St Paul warned us about accepting a different gospel than the one he preached, and it seems that there are different gospels out there, and here I’m not referring to the far-out ones of the several quasi-Christian sects. One of the different gospels, which is both pernicious and ubiquitous, might be termed the “gospel of prosperity,” or the “All-this-and-Heaven-too gospel.”

Such a reading of Christianity could only flourish in wealthy countries like America. Tune into any feel-good televangelist and you’ll discover that God wants to give you not only the Kingdom of Heaven, but also health, wealth, and all manner of earthly happiness. When I check the true Gospel, though, I find that Jesus says that it’s really hard for someone to try to hold onto all that and receive Heaven too. Wealth as a sign of divine favor was an Old Testament belief (they mostly weren't aware that there was even such a thing as “Heaven, too,” so they can be forgiven), but Jesus was at pains to make it clear that such was not the case for those who would follow Him unto Paradise.

I read about one Christian seeker who was getting fed up with the quality of the Christianity that was within his experience. He recounted hearing a man at a prayer meeting asking God to give him a new Toyota SUV, and he even told God what engine size he wanted, and the color and pinstriping, hastening to add “in Jesus’ name” so as to be sure his prayer would be heard. Is that what Christ came to teach us? Another fed-up person, when told that America was one of the most religious countries of the world, shot back: “I’m talking about actual religion, not these rich Pharisees…rotting inside painted tombs, hypocrites…praying for washing machines.”

Sometimes I’ll read something by one of the saints (canonized or not)—who really had a grasp of what the Gospel is all about, who actually lived it at great personal cost (and deep joy as well)—and it is refreshing to the point of being startling. Hey, that’s right, I say, slapping my forehead, that’s the Gospel of Jesus! But if it’s startling to hear a real Christian speaking of Christianity, how far have we fallen? How much have I myself been influenced by the bourgeois decency of bland, mainstream, toothless, superficial California Christianity? O Lord, give me a new computer (160GB hard drive, 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, DVD/CD-RW drive) before the warranty on my old one runs out!

Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, said the Lord, and everything else you need will be given you. We have to go back to the real Gospel and make sure we’re asking for the right things, make sure we know what being a Christian really entails before we blithely present ourselves as such. We don’t want to be a scandal for those in search of the real thing. Jesus never preached a gospel of prosperity; He preached a Gospel of cross and resurrection, a Gospel of faith and love, a Gospel of mercy and truth.

Jesus ought to take us on a tour of the world, his world. He would show us sinners repenting, people serving the poor, sick, and elderly, others prostrate in heartfelt adoration and supplication, people trusting God despite poverty and hardship, others making difficult renunciations in the midst of the seductions of this world, people comforting the bereaved and the hurting, others spreading truth and beauty through art, literature, and music, people standing up for the truth of the Faith in the face of malicious opposition, etc. “All this,” He says with a smile, “and Heaven, too!”

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Grains of Truth

The question of truth is an important one these days. Not only are we faced with distortions of truth in the media, big business, and government, we have still more important questions concerning truths about ourselves and that which has been revealed by God. On the other hand, many are saying there really is no such thing as truth (in any absolute or objective sense, anyway), that truth is only what seems true for us according to our subjective perceptions or preferences.

The entire issue of truth is far too large and unwieldy to treat adequately in a blog post, so I will limit myself for now to a few words about religious truth, that is, that which God has revealed for our salvation. Truth is embodied in the word of God, and the word of God is found in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Scripture and Tradition together are the foundation of “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15). The Catholic Church, in her self-understanding as the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, has declared in her official teaching (Lumen Gentium) that the fullness of revealed truth subsists within her. Is the Church trying to say that all truth about everything in found in her? No. The Church knows the field of her authority and competence. The Church is simply stating that—since she has faithfully preserved the heritage of Christ and the Apostles—all the means of grace and salvation, and the fullness of God’s revelation to man concerning God, man, and our salvation, is to be found in her.

The Church also states in her official teachings that elements of truth can be found in non-Catholic Christian churches and even in non-Christian religions, and does not deny the possibility of salvation to those who sincerely seek God and strive to live a righteous life, insofar as they know what that means (see Romans 2:12-16). Grains of truth have been liberally scattered all over the world.

But even within the framework of God’s revelation as received and interpreted by the Church, there is room for legitimate variations, emphases, and approaches to the mysteries of God. And here is where we ought to have respect for the various grains within the Church herself. I have read, for example, writings of hermits who insist that prayer in solitude and silence is the only way to God, and I’ve also read writings of activists (in the good sense) who say that solitude and silence have to be set aside for the sake of active compassion and service to the poor and needy, and in this God is discovered. Both possess some grains of the whole truth, but neither has it all, and problems enter in when controversies or even animosities develop between those who insist that their way is the only way. We ought to be working together, supporting one another with contemplative prayer and active labors. We are members of each other in the Body of Christ, as St Paul says, so the full truth is realized when each member contributes his or her unique gifts and talents for the spiritual and material well-being of the whole Church.

Each of us has our own grain of truth to contribute to the whole. We all ought to be willing to be ground and mixed together like flour for the bread of heaven, a Eucharist offered to God in truth and love, grace and beauty, peace and unity. The grain of wheat must die to itself to bear fruit, said the Lord (John 12:24), and our self-sacrifice in charity and mutual understanding will make it happen. This will be the great revelation of the Last Day for all the faithful, but we are called now to embrace truth where we find it, and at the same time to realize that the Church bears the fullness thereof.

There is absolute and objective truth. It comes from the God who is love, who sent his only Son, who in turn said: I am the Truth. And the Church is entrusted with the mission to hand on, interpret, teach, and live the Truth who is Christ. We pray to God in every Divine Liturgy for the leaders of the Church, that they may “rightly impart the word of Your truth.” Amen, let the grains be gathered.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Treasure and the Pearl

I'd like to continue with the theme of the losses and gains of the spiritual life, and with Fr Maturin's book, Christian Self-Mastery. Today it will be in the context of two of Jesus' shortest parables, but which are among his best, in my opinion: the parable of the hidden treasure and of the pearl of great price (Mt. 13:44-46).

Let's start with the pearl, for the seeking comes before the finding. Notice first, though, that in the parable of the treasure, it is clear that the Kingdom of Heaven is the hidden treasure ("the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure..."), and we can probably assume that the precious pearl also represents the priceless value of the Kingdom. But that's not exactly how Jesus presents it. He says: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls..." So the search itself is part of the mystery of the Kingdom. We have to have the proper dispositions, the willingness to make necessary sacrifices, not only in order to actually possess the pearl of great price, but even to undertake the quest at all.

If we truly seek, we will find. A merchant sought and found the priceless pearl. A man found a hidden treasure in a field (he couldn't have found it if he wasn't looking for it; buried treasures don't rise to the surface of their own accord). But in order to possess that treasure he had to buy the field. And the field cost precisely the value of everything he owned. So he sold everything to buy that field.

Fr Maturin gives us the spiritual principle and application: "To acquire anything...we must part with something we already possess, which we value less than that which we would acquire. If we do not think it is worth the price, we do not pay it. The law of gaining possession is the parting with what we value less for what we value more. A man cannot keep his money and at the same time get what he has his heart set on having. The question is which he values most... He who values this life more than the life beyond the grave will purchase its pleasures and enjoyments at the price of that life. He who believes that he was made for eternity, and that his home and happiness are in that other world, will be ready to sacrifice this world for it."

Both the man who found the treasure and the one who found the pearl sold all they had to acquire that which was of surpassing value. This is like the spiritual "dying" that is mortification or self-discipline, accepting a loss for the sake of a greater gain. Was the man who sold all he had grudging or bitter over the price he had to pay? No, for it says: "in his joy he goes and sells all he has..." He forgets his loss in the joy of his gain.

This is what Jesus offers us when He asks us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him. He is asking us to value less what perishes, and especially what leads us to sin, and to value more the hidden treasures of the spiritual life and of the Kingdom of Heaven. He asks us to let go of that to which we cling for security or pleasure, and to open ourselves to that which is promised but not yet fully possessed. For we, like the merchant, are on a search, but Christ guarantees -- by the Blood of his pierced Heart -- that if we don't give up the search we will find the precious pearl, the hidden treasure. Then, in our joy, we will easily relinquish the passing fancies of this temporary life.

Be willing to pay the price. If you give all, you will receive all -- and God's "all" is infinitely greater and more precious than the relatively insignificant "all" we are asked to sacrifice. Give up what is of less value for that which is of more. You will gain possession of the treasure, the pearl -- the Kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Dying Upward

I discovered that curious phrase in the book I mentioned in my last post. Here it is in context: “He must seek the things of that world above him, set his affection upon it and mortify the members of his body that cling to and are entangled in that lower world in which he lives. If he cannot die to the old life, he cannot live to the new. It offers itself with all it has to give, but he must make his choice: live and die, exhausting his powers in the narrow life of pleasure, or dying upward into a life that opens out wider prospects and stirs his heart by more stimulating hopes… How hard it is to rise… How dim and impalpable the vision of the world above us until we enter in and take possession, and how substantial the grip of those things for which we live, until, with pain and tears, we break away and die upward into the world above. Then how poor and shadowy and worthless the world we leave seems when looked at from above—like the toys of childhood seen by the eyes of a man.”

This is just another way of explaining Jesus’ “doctrine of the cross.” To follow Him we have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses; we have to lose our lives in order to save them. That is, we have to lose our “lower” life (governed by the “law of the members” and the “law of sin”) in order to gain the higher life (governed by the “law of the mind” and the “law of the Spirit of Life”). It is a generous response to “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

Jesus also spoke of the grain of wheat that has to die (to its seed-state) before it can open up to the new and vibrant life of the full-grown, fruit-bearing plant. The old has to be sacrificed for the new to emerge. We see that law at work in nature and we see it at work in our psychological, moral, and spiritual lives.

“Mortification” has become a kind of a dirty word in many circles, conjuring up images of morbid self-flagellation, scrupulous asceticism, or shutting oneself off from all the beauty and joy in the world. True mortification, however, is not self-hatred; it is not contempt for the world God created. But it expresses a simple law of the spiritual life: you must die before you can rise, you must shed the old, sinful self before putting on the new, sanctified one—“always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2Cor. 4:10). Perhaps “self-discipline” would be a somewhat more agreeable term, though it lacks the paschal connotation of death and resurrection. In any case, it is essential to spiritual growth and maturity.

Fr Basil Maturin continues: “Henceforth, his life must be one of mortification, dying that he may live, a yielding of nature to grace, a surrender of the things of earth to the powers of Heaven, a constant mingling of the sadness of earthly surrender with the divine gladness of heavenly attainment… There is always a sense of loss at first in passing from a lower to a higher life, but the loss is soon forgotten in the gain… And as we pass from the undeveloped and spiritually ignorant state of the citizens of the kingdom of earth and become citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, we enter into ‘the liberty of the glory of the children of God.’ This is the mortification that the Christian life demands: the surrender of our whole self to the new life that descends from above to sanctify and energize every power and faculty of our nature and fit us to enter into the Vision of God.”

I’d rather die upward than live downward. The former frees us for the life of grace and prepares us for everlasting joy; the latter enslaves us to selfish indulgence and prepares us for the endless descent of the bottomless abyss. Begin today to press your way upward to the kingdom above.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Laws of the Spirit

Early in the 20th century, Fr Basil Maturin undertook a noble but near impossible task: He tried to figure out what St Paul was saying in the inscrutable seventh chapter of the Letter to the Romans. Actually, he didn’t produce a word-by-word commentary (not that I know of, anyway), but rather made some sense of the spiritual laws of which the Apostle spoke. The quotes from him are taken from his excellent little book, Christian Self-Mastery.

Following on what I said yesterday on the formation of character, a basic understanding of how these laws work can be helpful. There are four of them: the “law of the members,” the “law of sin,” the “law of the mind,” and the “law of the Spirit of Life” (this last one actually appears at the beginning of chapter 8, but Paul didn’t divide his own work into chapters; that was done by editors centuries later). The first two laws are related, as are the second two.

The law of the members is at work in our acts and desires that are not in themselves sinful, but that end up preparing the way to sin. The very lack of discipline evident in our indulgence in them is a sign that sin is not far away. “The man who determines that he will not do what is positively wrong, but will do everything else he wishes, will find that, in the long run, he cannot stop short of actual sin.” Yield to the law of the members, to “harmless” acts of self-indulgence or to habitually taking the path of least resistance, and you will soon be captive to the law of sin.

The law of sin brings the destruction of moral and spiritual life. Once you pave the way for sin by lack of discipline in regard to things in which you may tend to pamper yourself or prefer your own way to making a sacrifice for another, then the law of sin gains ascendancy and ultimately brings spiritual death. “Once admitted and indulged, sin lives, grows, and develops by its own law. Its growth is like that of an organism that feeds on the very life of the soul, absorbing its strength… We cannot bargain with it and say it shall go so far and no farther.” Once sin becomes habitual, we have to make extraordinary and painful efforts to uproot it. The idea is to discipline ourselves in the “neutral” things, things that may not be evil in themselves but have a real potential to take us there if we continue in them. Learning how to say no in small matters will strengthen us to say no in large ones. Faithful in little, faithful in much.

On the other hand, the “law of the mind” is like the counterpart to the law of the members. Living by the law of the mind is a preparation for living by the law of the Spirit of Life, just as living under the law of the members sets us up for living under the law of sin. The law of the mind acts in our reason and conscience: “to lift up the soul to all that is best in it.” It leads us to do what is right, encourages us to discipline ourselves in things that lead to sin. But because the law of the members (and perhaps also the law of sin) are simultaneously at work in us, the law of the mind is not always successful in helping us to see and do what is right and pleasing to God. But it does point us to the One who can liberate us from sin.

With the help of grace, the law of the mind leads us to choose the way of Christ, whose Spirit then brings us under his own law. “Conscience is, as it were, a valve through which the stream of grace flowing forth from the Spirit of God floods the soul… if conscience is open, the stream rushes forth in a mighty torrent, refreshing, invigorating, and uplifting all the powers of the soul.” Then we can cry out with St Paul: “The law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). This liberation, however, must be diligently maintained, for those other laws still have potential to regain power if our vigilance falters.

The battle doesn’t begin with the law of sin and the law of the Spirit. It begins in the little grey areas, with the law of the members and the law of the mind. I will conclude with an extended quote that puts the struggle in perspective: “Thus, the great moral battle, whether the soul is to be ruled by sin or by the Spirit of Life, depends upon the victory of the law of the members or the law of the mind. About the trifling acts of self-indulgence or self-will against which conscience so vehemently protests, from the first waking in the morning when the law of the members cries, ‘Rest a little longer,’ and the law of the mind cries, ‘Arise and prepare for the work of the day,’ on through every hour, almost every moment of the day, the tide of battle ebbs and flows. And behind these two combatants, whose conflict is over things so trifling that they scarcely seem to have any moral value at all, stand the two mighty powers of life and death, of sin and righteousness, awaiting the issue. This, therefore, is the seat and center of self-discipline…”

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Faithful in Little, Faithful in Much

When the Master returned after having entrusted his servants with various sums of money (talents), those who multiplied his "investment" were granted this blessing: "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Lord" (Mt. 25:21). The one who hid his talent in the ground, however, was cursed and cast out for being "wicked and lazy." Why? Because there is a spiritual principle involved here, one He'd like to share with us: "He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much" (Lk. 16:10). If the slothful servant was unfaithful in a simple task entrusted to him, the Master surely couldn't trust him with anything really important, so he could no longer be counted among the Master's servants.

The same principle applies in our own lives. We can't expect to cut corners in small matters, be a little lazy, tell a few "white lies," get a little curious about forbidden things -- and at the same time think that when something really serious or important comes up, we'll surely rise to the occasion and do the right thing. It doesn't work that way. Why? Because the way we think and act, even in small things, forms our character in a certain way, perhaps imperceptibly in any particular situation, but if we become habitually unfaithful in little things, we will also be unfaithful in the big ones. Some people think that the prime of life is for making money and engaging in various forms of self-indulgence -- they can repent and "get religion" when they are old and unable to enjoy their former pleasures anyway. But if you disregard the commandments all your life, chances are you will not repent in old age, either.

On the other hand, our fidelity in small matters (avoiding scrupulosity, of course) will form our character in such a way that we will also be faithful in greater things. Our lives are composed mostly of a long series of relatively little things, so how we handle them indicates what kind of person we are and how we are likely to handle other things. Ultimately, it is not our accomplishments themselves that really matter, but how the things we do make us who we are, that is, how what we do forms our character, either as faithful or unfaithful. Do we sacrifice ethical principles for the sake of success? Do we allow the Gospel and the Church to form our conscience in truth and love, in morality and justice -- or do we learn all the ways to get an advantage through little compromises? The little ones will soon turn into big ones.

St Francis de Sales once said: "We shall soon be in eternity; then we shall see how unimportant were all the things of this world, and how little it mattered whether they were accomplished or not." What does it profit someone to gain the world and lose his soul?

Start small. Be faithful in little things. There will come a time when God will entrust you with much. When more is given, more is required in return. On the other hand, he who has (that is, who has been faithful) will be blessed still more. The main thing is not to be unfaithful, even in a little. That begins the moral and spiritual degeneration that ends in the outer darkness. Rather, be a good and faithful servant, and enter into the joy of your Lord.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cross Purposes

We see so many images of the Cross: in icons and other holy pictures, on churches, around people’s necks, even on internet blogs. It may be that we get desensitized to it, comfortable with it, perhaps even get a little fuzzy about its true purpose. The image of the crucified Christ should make you more uncomfortable than comfortable, at least at first, until you experience the love that flows out of Jesus’ wounds along with his Precious Blood.

What is the purpose of the Cross? Huge volumes, and many, have been written down through the centuries, and probably more are yet to come. Here I just want to take a brief look. The reason for the Cross is that “God so loved the world that He sent his only Son…” (John 3:16). Human sin was the reason that the gate of Paradise was locked, and the Cross is the key that re-opened it. But was God so mad at us that He demanded nothing less than the bloody sacrifice of his own Son to appease his wrath? Was the purpose of the Cross the satisfaction of God’s offended honor? Some writers (even saints) have said so, and there is a grain of truth to it, but that is not even close to telling the whole story.

God could have forgiven all our sins with a simple fiat, “Let it be done.” But if He did that, we might have ended up mistaking Him for a sort of benign Administrator discharging the day's duties in a calm and detached manner. But God is a Lover (read the Prophets to discover some of his passion), and nothing short of the utterly complete manifestation of his love would have sufficed. Love is most perfectly manifested in sacrifice (that is why the two-becoming-one sacrifice/ecstasy of married love is an image of divine love), and only a complete and perfect sacrifice would manifest the love of God and communicate his power to forgive, heal, and save. The sacrifice began with the Incarnation, the Son’s incomprehensible sacrifice of his eternal divine glory for the sake of becoming a lowly human being like us. The agony and ecstasy of his sacrifice was consummated on the Cross (Latin for “It is finished” is Consummatum est). If to suffer for the beloved is the highest form of selfless offering in love, then Jesus had to take human suffering to the limit (and beyond), to pour out his lifeblood fully, that we would find forgiveness in this love, and return to Him with our whole heart. Scripture says not only that He loved us, but that He loved us “to the end” (John 13:1), that is, to the utmost.

Pope Benedict has recently reminded us that this awe-inspiring and profound mystery of the Cross is not simply good for a reflection on what God has done for us long ago. This very mystery is present to us daily in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in Holy Communion. He says: “The Eucharist is the memorial of the whole paschal mystery…and the Cross is the tangible manifestation of the infinite act of love with which the Son of God has saved man and the world from sin and death. Because of this, the sign of the Cross is the fundamental gesture of the Christian’s prayer. To make the sign of the Cross is to pronounce a visible and public ‘yes’ to Him who died for us… When we receive Holy Communion we also…embrace the Wood which Jesus with his love has transformed into the instrument of salvation, and we pronounce our ‘Amen,’ our ‘yes’ to crucified and risen Love.”

That is the purpose of the Cross, yesterday, today, and up to the moment we meet Him face to face and enter his intimate embrace in the Kingdom of Heaven. Then we will know the meaning of everlasting love, and we will glory in the eternal fruitfulness of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Food that Endures

“Do not labor for the food that perishes,” said the Lord Jesus, “but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). This enduring food the Lord called Bread from Heaven and Bread of Life. Can you be just a little more specific, Lord? “The bread which I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (6:51). Thus we know that the Holy Eucharist is the Food that endures unto eternal life: “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (6:55-56).

Since the Holy Eucharist has been given to us as spiritual food, there ought to be some analogy with material food: the food that endures with the food that perishes. We ought to expect that we will be spiritually nourished, strengthened, and invigorated, as ordinary good food would do for the body. We probably ought to expect also that the spiritual food will not necessarily do for the soul what material food does not do for the body.

If you have a serious physical illness, for example, a good meal (however nourishing or well-balanced) is not going to cure you. It will certainly help sustain your bodily functions, and in general will be a welcome support. In the big picture, eating properly all the time will contribute greatly to good health and well-being and longevity. Some may think that the Holy Eucharist, being the very Body and Blood of the Son of God, must instantly cure all spiritual maladies, even severe and deep-rooted ones. It is certainly possible for miracles like that to be worked, and they have, but that is not the ordinary purpose of the Food that endures.

Experience has probably already taught you that receiving the Holy Eucharist, even devoutly and frequently, is not a magic eraser for all your faults, wounds, quirks, or bad habits. It is like healthy food for the body: over a whole lifetime it produces beneficial results, and sustains you all along the way, but it’s not a panacea for every disease. Perhaps you’ve wondered about someone: he must have received Jesus in the Holy Eucharist 10,000 times in his life; why is he still such a self-centered, obnoxious crank? There may be many answers for this, but I can think of two right now. First, it may be his own darn fault for being the hard, rocky, or weed-filled soil that receives the good seed yet bears no fruit (see Mark 4:1-20). But it may also be that the inner work sustained by the Eucharist is actually being done, gradually, even imperceptibly, and that we won’t see the fruit until the Last Day draws near.

The Holy Eucharist is food for the journey, for the long haul, a medicine for the sin-sick soul, but we may not experience the full healing or deliverance for which we’ve prayed and longed for years—until at the Final Examination we discover that we’ve been given a clean bill of health, for we have persevered in eating the Food that endures to eternal life. Don’t lose faith if you haven’t received a sought-after miracle from the Eucharistic chalice; thank God that He sustains you with the Sacrament even in the midst of your afflictions. After all, it is not some thing you receive, but some One. The answers to your prayers spring from the mutual abiding, Christ in you and you in Him, that the Holy Eucharist effects.

The Food endures; we have to endure. We have to endure the painfully slow growth, the disappointments and the struggles. We have to realize, too, that sin is a great setback to our spiritual health and progress. The benefits of our spiritual food are perhaps being expended to repair all the damage that sin does to our souls. We may lament that we are not progressing, but how much would our sins make us regress if we did not consistently apply the healing remedy of the Body and Blood of Christ? The sooner we shake off our besetting sins, the faster our spiritual food will enable us to advance on the way of holiness.

The Son of Man will give the Food that endures to those who ask Him, who become members of his Body, the Church, wherein this heavenly banquet is available. Don’t approach only for quick fixes or extraordinary manifestations, but realize that this Bread is the Staff of Life Eternal.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Next Stop: Purgatory

The first stop on your trip to eternity will be the judgment seat of God at the moment of your death. The next stop (if you haven’t been issued a one-way ticket to Brimstone Sulfur Springs), for many if not most of us, will probably be Purgatory. This is the last stop before arriving at Paradise Gardens.

The teaching on Purgatory, especially the details concerning the nature of posthumous purification, has been disputed from time to time. Some hold that we are harassed and accused by demons for 40 days as we pass through “aerial tollhouses” somewhere in the cosmos. This cannot be biblically or theologically justified; once we die we’re done with demons, and we're in the hands of God—unless we received that one-way ticket mentioned above, but that comes after the “particular judgment” at the moment of death. The teaching of the Church, that Purgatory is a place or state for those saved but not wholly purified, where their imperfections are removed, is much more in keeping with what God has revealed about Himself. In any case, all the Apostolic Churches do hold to a belief in some sort of place or state of purification that many souls must pass through to be prepared for Heaven. Otherwise, it would be senseless to pray for the dead, for if they’re in Hell prayer won’t help them, and if they’re in Heaven they don’t need it. I think that most Protestants do say that prayer for the dead is useless, but they have rejected much of what virtually all Christians believed for 1500 years before the "reformation." Sometimes I say that Purgatory is the place where those who don’t believe in Purgatory have to go when they die.

Scripture says that nothing unclean can enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Revelation 21:27), and that would naturally mean that nothing even a little unclean can enter. The various understandings about human nature, justification and salvation can color people’s belief about the existence of or need for Purgatory. Some forms of Protestantism teach that human nature is totally depraved and simply cannot be healed, cleansed, transformed, and that to be saved we can only be acquitted by a kind of legal imputation of the righteousness of Christ. One famous Protestant reformer even offered an analogy of the justified soul as a hill of dung covered with snow, meaning that we aren’t actually transformed by grace in our very being, but we just accept Christ’s imputed righteousness through faith and thus are saved. But I’d rather be a thoroughly cleansed and deified human being (which is what all the Fathers and Saints of the Church have taught) than a snow-covered dunghill for all eternity.

What we need is not only pardon but restoration; not only acquittal but rehabilitation. If we are not perfected in love—and this is what Purgatory is really all about—then we have to become so, if not before death then after, but certainly before we can enter the intimate presence of Love Himself for all eternity.

What turns a lot of people away from belief in Purgatory are hellish images of fire and torture of the saved, who still have to be punished for some reason (but check 1Cor. 3:12-15 all the same: our works will be tested and what is worthless will be burned; we will be saved, but only as through fire). But Purgatory isn’t about torture and punishment; it’s about rehabilitation, about learning the lessons we failed to learn on earth. God treats us with respect and according to the dignity of creatures made in his image, who can think and feel and will and love. He doesn’t just throw snow over the dunghill and say, Come on in! He actually heals us, purifies us, enlightens us, transforms us, so that “we shall be like Him” (1John 3:2). Because of our free will and its occasional resistance to grace, we hinder his work in us during this present life, so it just might not be finished at the moment of our death.

Even if we don’t have to deal with demons or tortures, Purgatory still entails suffering, because the souls there have at last seen and understood clearly who God is, how infinitely desirable He is, that He is all that matters in Heaven or on earth—but their selfishness and other unrepented failures on earth have made it necessary for them to wait. They wouldn’t accept delayed gratification on earth—well, they have to accept it now! Still, they wouldn’t want to be back on earth (say the mystics) because they wouldn’t want to return to their former ignorance of heavenly realities and to the possibility of losing their souls. They’re safe now, but must grow in the love they neglected here below.

Now’s the time, then, to learn to love and to practice it, the time to set our hearts on things of Heaven. It’s possible not to have to get off the Heaven-bound train at the Purgatory station. Love God with your whole heart and soul, mind and strength—consistently—and you can take the express to Heaven.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Unless it is Given from Heaven

When I had my ordination cards printed about 14 years ago, I included this text: "No one can receive anything unless it is given from heaven..." (John 3:27). In its original context, this is St John the Baptizer deferring to Christ, whose ministry was eclipsing his own. John's disciples, not yet knowing who Jesus was, were a bit miffed that their master was being upstaged, but John had to reassure them that he was in the limelight only as long as his God-given ministry required. Now it was time for him to decrease while Jesus increased.

For me, not only did I realize (at least a little, anyway) that the priesthood meant the increase of Christ and the decrease of me, but also I was aware (at least a little, anyway) that the priesthood was a gift of such magnitude as to be something that can only be given from heaven (see Hebrews 5:1-4).

This is the same for all that God in his mercy and love does for us. Unless anything is given by God (I'm talking mainly about things of enduring value), we will only frustrate ourselves trying to grasp or produce it on our own. Not that we aren't required to work for our livelihood or to practice personal self-discipline. It just has to be done with, for, and in reliance upon God. "If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor" (Psalm 126/127:1). For this reason we must be committed and surrendered to the Lord's will if we expect to bear fruit in our lives for sanctification and salvation.

There are certain things that are good in themselves, e.g., love, happiness, material goods, etc, but which also need to be "given from heaven," that is, given in the manner, measure, and time that the Lord knows is best for us. It may be, in the case of love, that the time is not ripe (or the circumstances, or the person), or that we have to learn some necessary lessons through the experience of sorrow before we can appreciate happiness to the full, or that we need to discover the spiritual blessings of poverty before (or instead of) the material blessings of prosperity. All this we commit to the providence of the Lord. One of the priest's prayers in the Byzantine Liturgy begins, "We place before you our whole life and hope, O Master and Lover of Mankind..." This means that all we are and all we anticipate or aspire to is placed at the Lord's disposal in loving trust.

Does that mean that we have to accept lives of suffering and deprivation while we wait for heaven to get around to giving us something? Reflect on this text and see what you think: "He who did not spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with Him?" (Romans 8:32). Or this one: "All is yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's" (1Cor. 3:22-23). Once we start to live like we believe God is our Father, we will see heaven opened and we'll discover blessings everywhere.

No one can receive anything unless it is given from heaven. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Katrina and the Cross

Much speculation in religious circles has accompanied the destruction wrought by Katrina. Some of it has to do with the event as a purification or cleansing of the area because of its immorality and unholy interest in evil spirits. I recently learned that there was to be a "southern decadence" festival in New Orleans over Labor Day weekend, which Katrina effectively cancelled (except, from what I've heard, for a few debauched die-hards). Perhaps this area was indeed a prime candidate for a powerful purification and warning. Let's see what this might mean.

When I was praying a couple of days ago about this whole situation, I saw in my mind's eye an immense crucifix suspended over the devastated area. Does that mean that those who suffered from the hurricane were innocent victims like Christ? Undoubtedly many were innocent, but surely many were not. The rampant sexual license of the city, as well as its renowned voodoo practices, make it clear that it was something not too far removed from Sodom and Gomorrah.

But what then does the Cross over the city mean? Shall we speak of the "wrath of God"? I mentioned that myself a few days ago, though I neglected to explain what that entails. Although the Scriptures often use terms like "anger" or "wrath," they do not mean merely what we observe or experience as human rage or anger. God does not get red in the face and lose emotional control and lash out irrationally at the object of his anger. God's "wrath" is a dimension of his love.

You see, God loves all people, even evildoers in a decadent place. But his love is not some flaccid sentimentality that turns a blind eye to the truth. So when God's love is faced with human wickedness, what happens (in one way or another) is that his "wrath" is exercised for the sake of both justice and mercy (for in God there is no conflict or opposition between the two). God's wrath includes his absolute intolerance of evil, his grief over its effects, his righteous justice, and his longing to heal, forgive, and save. Read the Prophets and you will see this.

So the Cross over New Orleans offers different things to different people. To the innocent victims it offers strength, hope, and a personal share in the deepest inner mystery of the Incarnate God. To the hardened sinners it offers an invitation to repentance, a sign that God requires truth, love, and righteousness of his people, who are now urged to turn to him and change their lives if they would see the salvation He longs to grant them.

"Katrina" means "pure," and the Cross has evidently accompanied her to purify an area noted for its iniquity. There were also many oases of holiness in that place. The Lord will see to it that their good fruit will endure and that the faithful will be rewarded beyond all expectation. But we still may have questions. The answer is always, in one way or another, the Cross, on which Jesus died that we might live: the answer to the questions of God's love and his wrath, God's justice and his mercy, man's wickedness and his hope, man's sorrow and his joy. If you wish to discover the profound answers to life's insoluble problems, go to the Cross of Christ.

Under the Fig Tree

A rather striking, and almost incomprehensible, thing happened when Jesus met Nathanael and told him that He saw him under the fig tree. Nathanael, who had just manifested his skepticism about anything good coming from Nazareth, suddenly exclaimed to Jesus: "You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (John 1:49).

What had happened under the fig tree? We aren't told in the Gospel, and we will probably never know for sure in this life, but it must have been something quite profound. Perhaps God had given Nathanael some sort of revelation when he was under the fig tree ("Nathanael" means "God has given"), something which Nathanael was able to connect to the person of Jesus when he saw Him. Whatever it was, it was something known only to Nathanael and God, and since Jesus knew about it, He must be the Son of God!

Do you perhaps have your own "fig tree" under which the Lord has seen you? Our "fig tree" might very well be simply the "place of the heart," our own inner sanctuary that is known only to ourselves and to God. Surely He sees us there, but we have to be willing to be seen -- whether in our naked shame or in our grace-filled contemplation. Our encounters with God are not only pleasant or exhilarating experiences. Sometimes we have to come to Him as the repentant harlot, with our sins and our tears. But that is OK. God wants us wholly; He's not interested in us merely trying to show Him our good side. We go under the fig tree, the place of divine revelation and of our self-disclosure, the place of enlightenment, healing, and mercy. We meet the Lord there, and in the experience of his grace and loving-kindness -- knowing full well that He has already seen not only our best side but our worst -- we exclaim: "You are the Son of God!" And He is our Savior.

The Lord is pleased when we open our intimate depths to Him under the fig tree. But there is still more. Even after having met Him there, we are told: "You will see greater things... You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (1:50-51). Once we become transparent to God, heaven begins to become transparent to us. The whole of our spiritual life, in one sense, is our gradual awakening and enlightenment toward seeing heaven opened. The Lord has much in store for us, more than we can ask or imagine.

So what are you waiting for? Go under the fig tree, so that Jesus will see you there and you will know the Lord. Angels are waiting to descend...