Monday, October 31, 2005

Abandonment Issues

Some people have what are commonly called today “abandonment issues,” meaning some psychological or emotional affliction or impediment stemming from the childhood experience of a parent’s death or departure, or practically any sort of rejection by a “significant other” at any stage of life. It’s not my intention here to discuss legitimate claims vs. spurious ones, but rather to look at quite a different type of abandonment issue, one we are actually called to embrace for our spiritual well-being and salvation.

This issue is called “abandonment to divine providence,” and J.P. de Caussade, SJ, has written a classic book with that very title. In this case “abandonment” is practically equivalent with “surrender,” that is, a letting go into the merciful and loving hands of God, trusting Him absolutely with everything that makes up your life, external circumstances as well as interior movements of the soul. What we abandon is our pride and deceptive sense of self-sufficiency, our fears, anxieties and doubts, and entrust the direction of our life to the Lord who never abandons us, contrary subjective impressions notwithstanding.

I’ll let Fr de Caussade speak for himself: “In reality, holiness consists in one thing alone, namely, fidelity to God’s plan… The active practice of fidelity consists in accomplishing the duties imposed upon us by the general laws of God and the Church, and by the particular state of life which we have embraced. Passive fidelity consists in the loving acceptance of all that God sends us at every moment…” Those who would abandon themselves to divine providence “have only to fulfill the simple duties of the Catholic faith and of their state of life, to accept with submission the crosses that go with those duties, and to submit with faith and love to the designs of Providence in everything that is constantly being presented to them to do and to endure, without searching for anything themselves… The whole essence of the spiritual life consists in recognizing the designs of God for us at the present moment.”

One must certainly have faith (the size of a mustard seed, anyway) to live the life of abandonment to God’s providence and will. But faith is sufficient to carry us through. “There is nothing that faith does not penetrate and surmount. It passes beyond all darkness, and no matter how deep the shadows, it passes through them to the truth which it always firmly embraces and from which it is never separated… We should abandon ourselves purely and entirely to God’s design, and thus, with a complete self-forgetfulness, be eternally busied with loving and obeying Him, without all these fears, reflections, twistings and turnings and disquietudes which sometimes result from the care of our own salvation and perfection. Since God offers to manage our affairs for us, let us once for all hand them over to his infinite wisdom… let us pass the labyrinth of our own self-love by vaulting over it and not by following it out in all its interminable details…”

For him the will of God is everything, and our abandonment to it the chief work of our lives. “Of what use are the sublimest lights or divine revelations when one does not love the will of God? That way Lucifer was lost… I thank [God] for everything in advance, desiring only and in everything his holy will, because I am convinced by faith and by many personal experiences that everything comes from God, and that He is powerful enough and a good enough Father to bring all issues to the best advantage of his dear children… Nothing happens in this world but by the order of God or at least by his divine permission, and all that He wills or permits turns infallibly to the advantage of submissive souls. Even that which most upsets our spiritual plans turns into something which is better for us… the most efficacious method of interior advance is a simple acquiescence in all that God wills… So remain in great peace and tranquility in the presence of Him who sees the depths of the heart… He needs none of the gifts you can offer Him, but He loves the heart which is prepared for all sacrifices.”

If we can hold on to this vision of life in God, we will discover its truth in practice and will be able to live in peace and trust. If a Christian cannot live with confidence in the goodness, providence, and all-wise will of God, he cannot live as a Christian. Abandonment issues? You bet!

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Altars to an Unknown God

“I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” remarked St Paul to the Athenians. “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23). Paul was pleased to find people who were seekers of God, but he wasn’t content to allow them to remain in the darkness of their ignorance of the true God revealed in and by Jesus Christ. For he had personally experienced Him who is the Light of the world, and he was commissioned by Him to “be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15).


St Paul
continued his discourse to the Athenians. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth…gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (17:23-28). Paul was masterfully opening up the Mystery to them, beginning with creation and providence, and speaking of God’s transcendence and immanence. Yet he had not quite gotten to the “punch line,” for he was still speaking in more or less general terms.

He went on. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (17:30-31). Now he has made his point. The God whom the Athenians sought but did not know was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! They were not exactly overjoyed to hear this, being loath to accept the teaching on the resurrection of the dead (far too coarse a notion for their Platonic idealism!). But some did believe and began to follow the path to salvation that Paul preached.

It is easy to perceive today that many people are indeed very religious (though the preferred term is “spiritual,” which lacks the unwanted dogmatic or institutional connotations). It is also not difficult to find altars to an unknown god in the souls of many who may be sincerely seeking God but have not accepted the revelation of which St Paul speaks.

In a rather popular spiritual book I came to the following passage: “I still find something mysterious in such occasions, as if something unknown, finding us worthy, has used us just as we are to be an instrument of healing.” Such passages are not rare. Must it be “something unknown” that finds us worthy to be instruments of healing? Why not the God who has publicly revealed His everlasting love for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Because of the revelation of Christ, the power and wisdom and reality of God should no longer be regarded as “something unknown.”

Some people tend to seek spiritual experiences but may be too impatient or immature to live by faith. The long haul of daily faithfulness in spiritual life lacks excitement and stimulation, so they are on the lookout for loopholes and shortcuts. There are plenty of offers of spiritual experience out there, but they may not lead to the true God. It is convenient then to erect an altar to an unknown god. At least they keep their options open! Others like to be perpetual seekers, but they would prefer not to actually find the Truth, because then they might have to make a commitment or accept something that may be contrary to their own current beliefs or preferences. Up goes another altar. Dealing with an unknown divinity (or at least one that can be manipulated or does not make them accountable) tends not to cramp their style so much.

Still others would like the resurrection without the cross, seeking the rewards of spiritual life but avoiding its demands, perhaps employing the “a la carte approach” to belief and practice. If it suits their spiritual taste, fine; if not, forget it. They tend to conceive of and relate to God on their own terms without acknowledging His absolute rights on their lives, without accepting any authority outside of their own intelligence or intuition. Subjective experience often wins out over objective revelation. The true and manifest God is still not attained, but the unknown one will do fine for now.

It is inevitable then that altars to unknown gods will be going up everywhere, because people need to transcend themselves, to connect with a reality greater than themselves, to encounter God (or, as the case may be, something which they will end up calling God).

By word and example we need to proclaim as did St Paul that we know the God whom many are seeking without the knowledge which comes from the true faith. While it is true that God is beyond the concept of any human mind and cannot be wholly confined in any human institution, no one should have to build altars to an unknown god. For “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known” (Jn. 1:18).

Friday, October 28, 2005

Mad Parsons

There is a character in C.S. Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength who was sometimes referred to as the “Mad Parson.” He was an insider in the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), which was a kind of Orwellian organization whose new-speak propaganda presented the organization as the great friend of mankind that would take human society into a utopian future, but which in fact was doing nothing other than delivering man to the devil and an irrevocable destruction.

The Mad Parson spoke like a parson. He talked of Jesus and the Kingdom and resurrection. But he twisted things around enough—made them fit his particular cultural and intellectual milieu, as is fashionable today—so that his words were actually nothing more than N.I.C.E. propaganda. “The Kingdom of God is to be realized here—in this world. And it will be… The powers of science are an instrument. An irresistible instrument, as all of us in the N.I.C.E. know… That is what I couldn’t get any of the Churches to see… I knew that He was coming in power. And therefore where we see power, we see the sign of His coming. And that is why I find myself joining with communists and materialists and anyone else who is ready to expedite this coming… The real resurrection is even now taking place. The real life everlasting. Here in this world. You will see it… Get rid of false spirituality. It is all going to happen, here in this world, the only world there is… The Son of Man—that is, Man himself, full grown—has power to judge the world… You shall see. Here and now.”

Mad indeed. But the world (and even the Church, to some extent) is full of mad parsons, preaching a “gospel” with familiar words yet with altered meaning. They are not hard to find, those who would reinterpret the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Holy Eucharist, emptying the rich (and divinely revealed) content and replacing it with vapid samplings from psychology, sociology, and the philosophies or politics of the day. They use the words of Jesus to support their own crooked agendas. But they are leading people astray and ultimately to destruction.

I read recently about an Easter homily given by a Catholic priest. He explained the resurrection as a “spiritual” thing that helps “lift our spirits.” Lift our spirits? If our religion is that bland, cheap, and vacuous, then we are fools to remain in it a moment longer. You can “lift your spirits” with any new-age self-help book, but only Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, can raise you from the dead!

We have to be spiritually and intellectually well-grounded in the Faith, in the teachings of the Church, if we are not to be misled by spurious propagandizing parsons who are trying to insinuate “another gospel” (see Galatians 1:6-9) into the beliefs and practices of the people of God. We must not hesitate to exclaim with the Apostle: Let their false teachings be condemned!—but at the same time being concerned enough to pray for their enlightenment and salvation, and to try charitably to correct them if it is possible.

I believe that we are going to see more and more of the Orwellian new-speak among theologians and teachers in the Church. We’re already seeing much of it in the media, politics, and the educational system (not only about religion, but about morality and truth itself). They are only trying to be N.I.C.E., of course, but there will be Hell to pay for distorting the word of God and turning the message of Christ into something it was never meant to be. The official Magisterium of the Church is our safeguard for the truth about Christian faith and morals. There’s no mad parson sitting in St Peter’s chair.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Serpents and Scorpions

A few days ago I was rather rudely reminded of my lack of splendid isolation when I perceived on the floor of my cabin, shortly after awakening in the early morning hours, a scorpion positioned perilously close to my bare foot. I did manage—thank God—to carefully remove myself from harm’s way and to send the little monster to its forefathers via the impact of a suitably sturdy implement.

I thought of the words of Jesus: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:19). Being unshod at the time, I deemed it imprudent literally to tread upon the beast, which would undoubtedly have envenomed me with its dying reflex, but the divine dictum lost none of it force thereby—I still had authority over its power, and it did not harm me.

We will probably never be without some intrusion or another of adverse elements in our lives, be they minor natural irritations or actual onslaughts of evil. But the Lord has promised his protection in the midst of it, even if our ultimate deliverance is not quite at hand. “I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Since He hasn’t decided to take us out of the world, He has granted us protection from and authority over the spiritual serpents and scorpions that would seek to harm or destroy us.

We have to remember that this is the arena of our warfare: “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Eph. 6:12). We have not been given authority to tread on each other, though we seem to feel obliged to entertain those same hosts of wickedness by engaging in that very folly. We are called by God to be united with each other in order to present a strong and invincible front against the principalities and powers, the serpents and scorpions, who attempt to divide and conquer, to sow fear and suspicion and anger and lust. If we try to go it alone, we walk in the dark and get stung when we least expect it.

The Lord told his disciples to rejoice, not so much over their newfound authority over adverse powers, but in the fact that their names were written in Heaven. That is the chief cause of joy; all other gifts and victories are benefits deriving from our citizenship in Heaven. It’s great to see the devil fall from the sky like lightning, but the goal is to end up in that place where you’ll never see him again! We’re not there yet, but the Lord has given us the means to navigate the treacherous waters of this life and so arrive at Heaven’s safe harbor.

So keep your eyes open. Authority to tread on scorpions will not do you much good if your lack of vigilance enables its stealthy approach, and you end up noticing its presence only by the feel of its plunging stinger. How pitiful is the overcoming of an armed man in his sleep! The Lord has not taken us out of the world, but if we’re spiritually awake, we will be safe from the evil one. Tread on!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More Blessed to Give

When you want to find something that Jesus said during his public ministry, you go to the four Gospels, right? Right. But there’s something He said that isn’t found in the four Gospels. You will find it in the Acts of the Apostles (and I don’t mean Jesus’ short pre-Ascension speech in the beginning). It was something St Paul remembered, which was obviously already part of the tradition, since he himself did not hear Jesus speak, except in post-Ascension visions. “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).

Jesus was in the habit of bestowing blessings, and of telling us what makes for the blessed life. He gave us the beatitudes. He told St Thomas that those who believe without seeing are more blessed than those who want to see first. Now He tells us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. That may sound like Christian common sense, and it is, but how often do we really manifest our blessed generosity, and how often are we the ones hoping (or demanding!) to receive?

It is true that we cannot give what we do not have, but maybe we’re not sufficiently aware of how much we have. We are already much better off (at least materially) than most of the world. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We have received the Holy Spirit and many gifts, so now what is our calling? “Freely have you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Jesus, the “Man for others,” has given us the example through his life, and especially the sacrifice thereof. He shows us how it is more blessed to give.

Because of original sin, we are all basically selfish. We want to know: what’s in it for me, how I can benefit or get some advantage in any given situation, how does every circumstance or relationship affect me, I’m taking care of my interests, needs, desires before those of others. It is said that the theme song of Hell is “I Did it My Way,” and such is only the ultimate and logical conclusion to a life of selfishness.

Jesus says that the blessing is in the giving. Sometimes we do experience that blessing since, if we are at least trying to follow Christ, we will do good for others from time to time, even at some personal cost. But we are called to a blessed life, not merely to a few piecemeal acts of charity by which we reassure ourselves that we are still Christians.

The paradox in all this is that if we seek only to receive, we will never be satisfied, and we will end up destroying our souls, even depriving them ultimately of the very capacity for happiness. But if we seek to give, seek first the Kingdom of God with all that entails, Jesus promises that we will in fact receive all we need from the providential hand of the heavenly Father.

The life of a blessed giver (and a cheerful one, adds St Paul in 2Cor. 9:7) is a rewarding life, a life that knows the peace and blessing promised in the beatitudes. It is not easy, for we are always at war with our inveterate selfishness, but in time our hearts, our minds, will change, will adapt to the rhythms of the Gospel (this is metanoia, conversion, repentance). We will have acquired the heart of a servant; we will have put on the mind of Christ. Then giving will be the most natural thing to do. (You can start enjoying the blessedness of giving even now by clicking the link on the column to the right: Help the hungry and poor.)

No one gives what he does not have? True enough, but in the end no one will have if he does not give. The Greek makarios is translated as both “blessed” and “happy.” You will be both by following the word and example of your Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Prodigal Confession

Sitting in a muddy and stinking pig-sty, wasted with hunger, bowed down with shame, humiliated by the quick exit of his fair-weather friends, the prodigal son decided to make an examination of conscience. What were the events that led to this disastrous state of affairs, and how could he make things right again? He used to be rather well-off, but his youthful arrogance and urges toward forbidden horizons landed him in the mire of shame and the shame of mire. Time for a decision.

The Scripture says that he finally came to his senses. He must have really lost them, because even a child could have come to the same conclusion: at his father’s house the very servants had more than enough food, yet he, the son, had allowed himself to become the cell-mate of swine. Next step: arise and return to his father, confessing his sin, acknowledging his unworthiness, choosing the lowest place.

It was quite the wise choice, not only because it corresponded to the reality of the situation and the justice that should be done, but also because the actual outcome was far more glorious than he could ever have imagined. For he received not a just punishment and demotion but a merciful, loving, and joyful welcome fit for a king’s son!

Confession is an oft-neglected sacrament, but senselessly so. I have heard many confessions over the years, from people who have refused to repent and return to the Father’s house for two, four, ten, fifteen, twenty, or even forty years! What is the point of our pervicacious refusal to repent when the happy result is the open arms of the Father and the infilling of grace? Some have lost the sense of sin, some are too proud, some think that the disallowed “general absolution” suffices, others are too ashamed to confess the sins they weren’t too ashamed to commit, and some simply see it as a drudgery they’d just as soon forego. But none of these excuses hold up—either now or on judgment day. We ought to let the Lord be merciful to us while we still live in the time of mercy.

Fr. Jean d’ElbĂ©e, in I Believe in Love, writes: “Each time you pick yourself up after a fall, the feast of the prodigal son is renewed. Your Father in Heaven clothes you again in His most beautiful cloak, puts a ring on your finger, and tells you to dance with joy. In a living faith, you will not approach the confessional with dragging feet, but as if you were going to a feast, even if you have to make a great effort each time to humble yourself and to conquer the monotony of the routine. After the absolution, you should dance like the prodigal son did at the request and for the joy of his father. We do not dance enough in the spiritual life.”

So if you are still stuck in the mud of sin and haven’t yet decided to arise and return to the Father, now is the moment. Come to your senses and go to Him who sees you from afar and runs to meet and embrace you, welcoming you to the banquet He has prepared: the sacrificed Body and Blood of his only-begotten Son, who has loved you and given Himself for you. Examine your conscience, understand the decisions and choices that led you away from home, and make a new decision, a new choice: I shall arise and return. What’s wrong with—that you would delay it—the healing of your soul, the removal of your spiritual burdens, the liberation from sin, the restoration of grace and peace, and the joy of the angels over one more repentant prodigal?

Filthy sties are for pigs, and bright banquet halls for the children of kings. Let us neglect the confessional no longer, for it is the anteroom of blessed peace.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Eyes Have It

Much has been written about praying with icons and the way they can help draw one into a place of inner peace and awareness of the mystery of God. There’s something about the hieratic style, the light shining from within the figures, and the sense of sacred serenity that exudes from these blessed images. For me, along with all of the above, the eyes are very important, for they are the locus of personal contact with Christ or the saint depicted on the icon, at least from the standpoint of our subjective perception.

That is why I’m a little disappointed with some icons in which the eyes are not looking back at the one who is praying before it, but rather looking in some other direction. I understand that the figures in the icons are rapt in a contemplative gaze upon eternal mysteries, and that perhaps we are meant to simply contemplate their contemplation, being unobserved observers, as it were, in the holy place. Yet there are times (and these may be the majority of times) in which we come before the Lord or his Mother in distress or need, times in which personal contact is essential, times in which we don’t want them to be (even only apparently) looking the other way.

There are two reasons for this (that I can think of at the moment). One has to do with the generally personalistic approach the Byzantine Church has to the mysteries of the faith. We are known and called by name. Going to confession without the anonymity of the confessional-box is not an innovation in the Byzantine tradition. We’ve always done it that way (often standing in church before an icon of Christ). Why? Because in the formula of absolution, the person’s name has to be mentioned! The forgiveness of sins is not an anonymous ritual but a personal act of divine mercy, and you get to hear Christ (using the voice of the priest) telling you—not just some generic penitent—that your sins are forgiven. The same goes for the Holy Eucharist. When the priest gives Communion he says: “The servant (or handmaid) of God, [your name goes here], receives the precious, holy, and most pure Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of his (or her) sins and for life everlasting. Amen.”

I don’t think it’s particularly selfish to want Jesus or Mary to look at me when I’m praying to them. The icon depicted here is called Paramythia, literally: “she who comes to your side to console you.” I would hope that if she’s coming to my side she’s looking at me as well! It’s important for our relationship to Christ to know that He died not just for “all” but also for me qua me! He knew me when He made his sacrifice, and He knows me now. St Paul, for all of his brilliant theology on what Christ has done for us all, does not hesitate, in one of his more intimate passages, to say: “I have been crucified with Christ… Christ lives in me… I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

The other reason has to do with the inner experience that accompanies “eye contact” in prayer. Once when praying before an icon of the Mother of God—one in which her eyes were looking directly at me—I suddenly became aware that she herself actually was looking at me, or rather through me, as if a window to my soul had just opened. She could see—and I knew she could see, and I wanted her to see, and I let her see—all that was within me: the good, the bad, and the ugly of my whole life. It was not an entirely pleasant experience, for there were things I wished never were a part of my history but that had left their mark on me. For a while I felt exposed and ashamed, yet it wasn’t like a judgment but rather a moment of cleansing and healing. I realized since then that even though God is fully able to see within us, if we really want to be transformed within, we have to choose to let Him see, let Him come in. That’s when the real spiritual work begins. The icons can facilitate this experience. Would I have “connected” with Our Lady in that way if her image were looking off somewhere else? It’s possible, but less likely. Eyes have a riveting power unlike almost anything else.

I’m guessing that if we were to take a vote on whether or not we want our icons looking at us, the result would be: The eyes have it!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Don't Kill the Egyptian

The young Moses was full of zeal (the kind that St Paul would later call “unenlightened”). He had been brought up in Pharaoh’s house, but he knew he was a Hebrew by birth. So “he went out to his people and looked on their burdens” (Exodus 2:11), with a desire to help them. He saw one of his people being beaten by an Egyptian and was filled with indignation. Seeing no one in the area, he took justice into his own hands and killed the Egyptian (though it was not really justice, for he took much more than “an eye for an eye”). Convinced now that he could right all wrongs, he discovered two Hebrews fighting and tried to get the one who started it to see his error, on the grounds of their common blood and heritage. What he got in reply was this: “Who made you a prince and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (2:14). As soon as Pharaoh got wind of it, he sought to kill Moses, who then fled in fear.

The first lesson here is that killing only begets more killing. Moses thought he was solving a problem (eliminating an aggressor) by doing something worse than the aggressor was doing. It is wrong to beat; it is more wrong to kill. Moses killed; the other Hebrew was then in fear of being killed; then Pharaoh threatened to kill, so Moses was afraid of being killed. Thus turns the vicious circle of aggression, murder and fear.

Some people think it is in the best interests of our country to kill people in other countries, especially if they are doing something wrong, or are a perceived threat (in this context we'll prescind from the baser motives of economic advantage or international hegemony). We tend to do that by more or less indiscriminately blowing up cities. (It’s true that we then drop down food and medicine to minimally help with recovery, though that’s rather like beating someone up and then handing him some aspirin and band-aids. Thanks, but I’d have been much better off it you hadn’t beat me up in the first place.)

Other people think that it is in their personal best interests to kill little defenseless people in their own wombs, who may be perceived as a threat to their economic well-being, or who would tend to cast a wet blanket (or diaper) on their self-centered lifestyle.

In the short term, all of these people might feel a little relief. Good, we’ve killed some terrorists (sorry about the women and children; it’s the price of “freedom”), and thus we’ve rid the world of their pestilence. Good, I’m not pregnant anymore, so I can toss all those worries out the window. But killing begets killing. Because we’ve killed some terrorists, the remaining terrorists are angry and will kill some of us. Then we’ll get really mad and kill more of them, the whole lot of them! And the world will be safe and democracy will flourish—until another train or plane or skyscraper or customer in a restaurant unexpectedly blows up; it will not end. And since many have succeeded in killing their unborn (or partially-born) children, others will think that’s a good solution—though they don’t yet know about the psychiatrist’s bills and valium prescriptions and nightmares.

Much of this has to do with utilizing bad means to attain (perceived) good ends. National security and prosperity is good—how low shall we descend to insure it? Personal autonomy and freedom is good—how many babies have to die to preserve it? The Catholic Church has always taught that it is immoral to use bad means to achieve good ends (those mentioned above are only relative goods, anyway).

That is actually what I meant to write about in the first place. Moses thought that killing the Egyptian was the way to vindicate his compatriot. Pharaoh thought that killing Moses was the way to vindicate Moses’ killing of the Egyptian. The reading of salvation history—to be sure, it was a painfully gradual enlightenment—shows that it doesn’t work that way, and Jesus’ own teaching seals the issue.

We also have to look at ourselves and see which Egyptians we are killing in order to get the job done and achieve the desired outcome. Do we think, for example, that character assassinations must accompany the proclamation of the truth? We see a lot of that in both political and religious debates. Explain the issue; point out what is right and what is wrong; but don’t kill the Egyptian. You only compound the problem. We may wish to help people who need it, but do we deliberately hurt others in the process?

Think about whatever values you wish to maintain and whatever goals you wish to achieve. Then think about the means you employ (or perhaps the moral compromises you tolerate) in order to secure them. Is it worth it? What price will you have to pay tomorrow for killing the Egyptian today? It is not only literal killing that begets killing. Sin begets sin. Dishonesty begets dishonesty. But love begets love, and that should be where we come in.

There are many powers at work in the world that are beyond our control. That may be frustrating, but we are called to act within the counsels of the Gospel. We have to stand before God with a clear conscience, unwilling to be co-conspirators in the unraveling of the moral fabric of human society. God will have the last word; through repentance let us wash the blood off our hands and stand with Him in purity of heart and intention, speaking the truth in love. It is ours to testify; it is his to pass judgment. And He will.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Wild Times

If anyone thinks that the Church in apostolic times was peaceful and serene, one has only to read the Acts of the Apostles to get a different view. St Paul and his disciples were thrown out of town after town, their preaching caused arguments and even riots, and they were persecuted, imprisoned and beaten as well. One thing that is indicated by all the mistreatment they experienced was that fact that in those days, religion really mattered to most people, and so preachers of a new religion were regarded as threats to the very well-being of society.

But Paul was trying to say that his religion was not new at all—even though it is “good news.” Something quite new had in fact happened with the advent of the Christ, and especially with his resurrection, but Paul was at pains to show that this was in clear continuity with what God had revealed in the past, and that it reached all the way back into God’s eternal plan for the salvation of mankind. It was a fulfillment, not an innovation. This was so important that even in that wild and woolly time of the first century AD, St Paul went fearlessly into the enclaves of paganism and (hostile) Judaism to bring the message. He exclaimed: “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value or as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:23-24).

We live in some rather wild times ourselves. For some, religion is a matter of indifference, but for others it becomes a justification for hatred, murder, and war. Yet neither of these extremes reflects the good news of Jesus. For the true Christian, Jesus and his word can never be a matter of indifference, because eternal life is at stake. On the other hand, even though the word of God certainly inspires opposition among unbelievers or promoters of immoral agendas, Christians are not called to be aggressors but rather martyrs (i.e., witnesses), their only sword being the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).

But things get more complicated. It’s simple enough (though perhaps not easy) to seek converts among the heathen, to speak out against manifest evil. What makes things a little stickier is when those who are supposed to be on your side turn out to be against you: “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:36). In his farewell speech to the believers from Miletus and Ephesus, Paul warned: “from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). And perhaps most chilling of all: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). It’s difficult to have a sincere and open discussion with someone who thinks it is God’s will for him to kill you! The animosities between those who claim to believe in the same God have always been a scandalous counter-witness to the truth of divine revelation. We would make so much more progress toward the overcoming of evil in our society if the ones who believe in the true God would present a united witness to the world!

Our times are just as wild as New Testament times; more and more they will become just as risky as well. We may not see religious riots or public floggings in this country anytime soon (though they do happen elsewhere), but the means of the suppression of truth are in place and active already. The very law of the land is being used increasingly to stifle the effect of Christian witness, to silence the “voices crying in the wilderness,” to discredit the Church and reduce her influence, to impose legal, political, or economic sanctions on those who would, like St Paul, fearlessly preach the truth in the public square. What is our response? Do it anyway! What do the persecutions and oppositions matter, if only we can accomplish our course and testify to the Gospel of the grace of God? Caesar is not our king. Even though we owe a certain allegiance to legitimate law and authority, we answer to a higher one, and that one decides all disputed issues. “Better for us to obey God rather than men,” declared the apostles when they were arrested and ordered to keep silent about Jesus.

The same Spirit who was with Peter and John and Paul and all the other witnesses to the Gospel is with us as well. We have only to meet the challenges of the present age with the same courage and determination to be faithful unto death. The grace of God is our strength and salvation in times of turmoil as well as periods of peace. Let us not shrink from the challenges of the present time, but live the truth in love, come what may. “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).

Thursday, October 20, 2005

On New Life

I just discovered an insightful passage about new life in Christ and his Spirit. It is taken from The Life of the Soul, by Samuel Howard Miller. I found it on the Bruderhof site: www.bruderhof.com. I think most of us can see ourselves somewhere in the following reflection and can use a shot of renewing hope.

“It is the rare person who, looking back over his life and seeing what he has done to it, hasn't sighed for a chance to redeem what he has cheaply used or carelessly ruined. If only somehow, somewhere, there was a way to live again the days we have darkened with our blind haste—the innumerable occasions when our indifference trod on all the pearls of God’s graciousness: the times when our pride, or our fear, or our meanness poured the acid of contempt over the fair countenance of another’s soul! …It is not that we futilely ask to be born at the beginning again, but rather that now being what we are, we are ill content to go on in the same way. The past is past, and we know it. It cannot be broken or re-made. There is no way back…

“All of us carry in us devils that came to us in the other days, quietly and slowly at first, with courtesy and bright wit and enticing manners. Here in these hearts are the compromises we lightly made with the world. Here in these hearts are the entanglements by which we have entered into social fellowship and became known by our fellows; all our opinions, our class or our set, our position or our profession or our reputation, everything which others have known or know about us, which they say or think we are. All these things are like stakes driven deeply into the earth and to which we have been tied. Here in these hearts are the ruts—ruts made by knowledge as well as ignorance, ruts of presumption, of hesitancy, of selfish security and cowardly fear, of pride and lust: deep, deep ruts made by half-truths and half-lies, half-free and half-slave, half-life and half-death. This is the tangled network of all that we have ever thought or done in which the new life digs deeper the old ways.

“We rise each day with new and courageous impulses, we daringly aim at the nobler and more generous existence, we put all our energy back of it—and then scarcely has it been moved when with a sickening thud it falls back into the well-worn rut of our habitual way of doing things. Our life is so cut and scarred with what has gone before that it is difficult to move without falling to our accustomed level.

“What we want is…to start now with a completely new life, free of the burden of the cursed giant of the past who towers above us; to begin a new life unhindered by the weight of all the acts and thoughts piled upon our backs by the years… What is impossible with man is possible with God. All one can say is that these things happen, men are reborn, decisive changes are made and souls enter new life. Men, in short, become new creations. The stakes are pulled up, the compromises repudiated, the entanglements thrown off, the devils driven out, reputation denied, and with a leap life is started on a new level… It is then that the soul rises in its own right and declares its absolute need of a new relationship unhindered by all that has gone before. To put it briefly, there must be a beginning somewhere, when the soul with revolutionary decisiveness turns its attention to and places its interest in things of the spirit…

“It is not enough to be born of the flesh, for that is to be born to die. To fulfil our destiny we must also be born of the spirit, for that is to live eternally. To live carnally, then, is to live in death every day. To live carnally is not only to live coarsely or lustfully or vulgarly. Carnal living is often the most respectable. It seeks only appearance, reputation, traditions, and what men usually call happiness. To live spiritually is…to be conscious of the eternal stream of creation in God; and to know that there is no satisfaction of human thirst outside of it.

“Sooner or later, the yes or no must be given. Man must have his treasure either here or there, he will serve mammon or God, either or, but never both. Once the decision is made, the travails suffered, the new life entered, then the years may be full of creative occasions. And these shall come again and again, as long he has continuing faith.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Through Many Tribulations

There are many exhortations in the Scriptures concerning the Kingdom of God. We like to hear about the beauty and the glory and the joy of the Kingdom, and we are comforted to know that faith and baptism open the gates of the Kingdom for us. But here’s one that might not be a frequent theme of our meditation: “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

It is not just faith but perseverance in faith, with all that this implies, that will lead us to Heaven. In fact,
St Paul, immediately before uttering the above admonition, was “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith…” St Paul ought to know about going through tribulations. There are several lists of them in his letters, the beatings and floggings and persecutions, etc. The one he just emerged from (which may have been the basis for the saying on tribulations) was quite dramatic. In Lystra, Paul’s enemies attempted to kill him and almost succeeded. In fact, they stoned him so severely that they thought he was dead and left him lying there. His disciples gathered around him (and presumably prayed), and he got up alive. So did he go to a seaside spa for a quiet and comfortable convalescence? No, he immediately went to the nearest town and started preaching the Gospel again!

For him, that brush with death was just one of the many tribulations that are part of the path to the Kingdom of God. Perhaps you and I will not be stoned or flogged for our Christian witness (though we may be verbally flogged at times), but we must accept that disciples of a crucified Master must carry the cross. No servant is greater than his master. “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer and thus enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Even in the context of his consoling Last Discourse, Jesus reminded us: “In the world you have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Our consolation is in Christ’s overcoming the world and all that it hurls at us. To overcome, however, is not to avoid but to confront, engage in battle, and emerge victorious. So we will experience the sting of trials and sufferings. We have to send down deep roots so that we do not wither under adverse conditions. Jesus warns us about shallow Christians: they are the ones “who hear the word [of God]…yet have no root in themselves, but endure for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Matthew 13:20-21). And thus they bear no fruit for the Kingdom. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes: “Only long-term fidelity to…its Sower’s intention can produce the whole healthy plant and its fruit… Disagreement, opposition, contrary winds, sunlight grown too intense—in other words, pain—are the test that determines whether Christ’s word in us has been received as a pastime or as the treasure of our hearts… Mature faith, faith that has managed to sink roots in the earth below the rocks, does not have pleasure and pain as the chief criteria for judging the quality and rightness of the situation. Mature faith keeps its gaze steadily on the contemplation of its Lord…”

After Paul and the apostles with him had exhorted the faithful and appointed presbyters for the local churches, “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” Here is a call for endurance and faith, says the Seer of the Apocalypse (Revelation 13:10 and 14:12). Commit yourself to the Lord in whom you believe, and you will be able to weather the storms, be they great or small. You will grow strong through steadfast reliance on God’s grace in times of adversity. And best of all, you will gain access to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Give God the Glory

We find in Holy Scripture and sing in the Divine Liturgy: “Heaven and earth are full of Your glory!” Indeed, if your eyes are open, there is much glory to behold. We are fallen and the original Paradise is no more, but numerous vestiges still remain. There are still plenty of flowers and stars and mountains and oceans to keep us marveling, not only at the awesome creative power of God, but also of his sensitive touch in producing glorious yet delicate beauty even in our own back yards.

The glory that creation gives God just by being itself is one thing. But God receives with even more delight the glory we freely and consciously give Him who has created all the other glories. We glorify Him through worship and thanksgiving, through the acknowledgement of his superior wisdom in guiding the events of our lives, through the sacrifices we offer out of love for God and for our brothers and sisters.

In the Byzantine Divine Office, glory is one of the two major themes of the liturgical texts (the other is repentance—an interesting but theologically sound combination). We repeatedly sing: “O All-holy Trinity, glory to You!” “O Christ our God, glory to You!” “Glory to your precious Cross!” "Glory to your holy Resurrection!” And so on, for all the mysteries of our salvation. A man from a different tradition visited here a number of years ago, and I asked him what he thought was the main difference between our tradition and his, and he immediately answered: “mine lacks the glory.”

God is also glorified in the works He performs to heal and sanctify his people. I used to write a column in a former monastery publication. I called it “Give God the Glory,” and it consisted of testimonies to the presence and activity of God in people’s lives. It’s easy to give God the glory when some dramatic and personally beneficial wonder is worked, but do we always give Him the glory even for the little things? If, for example, someone comments favorably on one of my blog posts, I might be tempted to think: “Yeah, I did do a good job on that one, didn’t I!” Rather, I should give God the glory for his generous inspiration which somehow filtered through my little brain.

On the other hand, we ought to acknowledge the natural gifts God has given us and realize that we do in fact contribute something essential to our own works. The example of the other extreme of giving God the glory (which nicely puts things in perspective) was given by someone who said: suppose I compliment someone on his piano playing, and he responds, “Oh, don’t give me the credit, it was God.” I might then think to myself: Well, if it was God, I should expect Him to do better than that! Everything comes from God, but He does choose to work with us and expects us to make a real contribution to what we do together with Him. Another friend says this when he does something good for someone and they praise him for it: “Give the glory to God, you’re worth it!” This puts the emphasis on God and the other person as well.

If we have a basic and honest humility, we will easily find the way to give God the glory in all things and at the same time acknowledge that with the grace He gives us we can be humanly creative and constructive. The worst thing is if we do not give God the glory at all, but reserve it to ourselves. Here’s what happens then: “On an appointed day, Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and made an oration to them. And the people shouted, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he did not give God the glory. And he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:21-23).

So let us open our eyes and see heaven and earth full of glory; let us glorify the Lord through prayer and worship and service and the creative work of our hands and minds. Let us humbly acknowledge that the Almighty has done great things for and in and through us, because He respects the dignity and freedom He has bestowed upon us. And in all things, in the appropriate form that fits the occasion, make sure you give God the glory!

Monday, October 17, 2005

You Shall Laugh

In the beatitudes found in Luke’s Gospel, the promise Jesus gives to those who are weeping is: You shall laugh. This doesn’t mean He’s about to tell them a good joke, nor is He speaking about some ephemeral or superficial happiness, but rather that a deep and lasting joy will be theirs if they continue to carry their crosses with patience and with trust in the Lord. The poor, the hungry, the persecuted and maltreated are all invited to rejoice—for their reward will be great in heaven. And that is the only reward that ultimately matters. But that doesn’t mean He wants us to be morose or lugubrious until we get to heaven.

The Lord’s promise of laughter to those who weep was once manifested to me in quite a striking and extraordinary way. It was a long time ago, maybe 20 years. I was here in the monastery; I think I may still have been a novice. I was going through a period of a rather tenacious depression. The fact that I had given my life to God and was still depressed was even more depressing! Anyway, a good friend of ours, a priest who lived about 100 miles away, came for a retreat. I had always liked and respected him, and I would eagerly listen to his accounts of how the Lord was working in his life and in those of his parishioners. He almost always had a miracle story when he came to visit.

So I asked him if we could talk, because I was hoping he could help me out of my depression. After a while he said he’d like to pray over me, so I said, “OK, it can’t hurt,” though I wasn’t really expecting much more than a few pious but useless words (when one is depressed, everything looks extremely bleak and hopeless, and one becomes proficient at pessimism). We were sitting outside the main house on a bench. He began to pray a more or less standard healing prayer, and I just sort of slouched and listened. After a minute or two, the strangest thing began to happen. The words of his prayer started sounding funny. Not funny-weird or funny-suspect, but ha-ha funny! I couldn’t suppress the grin that was rapidly spreading across my face, though I hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening and why his prayer sounded so funny.

Suddenly, I just burst out laughing. Now he had seen a lot in his years as a priest, but I don’t think he ever saw that, because he got this startled look on his face. He was quite taken aback (and probably was trying to recall what he’d just said and why I would think it hilarious). But soon enough he realized that the Lord had in fact immediately answered his prayer. As for me, I couldn’t stop laughing! I thanked him for his prayer and walked away laughing, powerless to contain it. I went over to the shrine of Our Lady and sat on a bench and laughed—nonstop, for about 20 minutes. After that, my depression was gone. (By the way, it wasn’t a “manic” episode. I’ve never had that counterpart to depression, and I hadn’t had any such previous experience, nor have I ever had anything like it since.) The Lord was simply telling me in the midst of my inner darkness and depression: You shall laugh! And his word accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent.

I recently read in the Acts of the Apostles: “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52). This is an important part of what it means to be a Christian. Now there was nothing slapstick about the disciples’ joy: they had just been forcibly thrown out of Pisidian Antioch for preaching the Gospel there. But they had that joy of the beatitude: “Blessed are you when people…exclude and insult you and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day, for your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:22-23). Their joy came from the Holy Spirit. The disciples rejoiced because they expected their reward from God, and even because they were simply happy to serve Him—they loved Him so much and they knew his love for them. Jesus Himself “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21), so we know whence true joy comes.

So if you are sorrowful or depressed now, fear not, for you shall laugh. You shall overcome, by the Grace of Christ, all the death-dealing, downward-thrusting forces of the prince of darkness. Embrace the beatitudes, for they are a key to accepting the hardships of life with faith and hope—and even with joy. Believe me, if a depressed monk can burst into joy at the word of the Lord, so can you.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Paradise

“Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” So spoke Christ to the good thief on the Cross. Perhaps God spoke similar words to Adam when He first created him. The rather rare icon pictured here is entitled: “The Word Introduces Adam into Paradise.” That was the original earthly Paradise: walking with the Lord in naked innocence through a garden of delights, free from suffering, sorrow, and death. It is perhaps an ironic testimony to how far man has fallen that what was once Eden is now war-torn Iraq, wherein flow the Tigris and the Euphrates mentioned in Genesis (2:10-14), though now polluted with human blood. The mark of Cain reappears in our fratricidal madness.

The theme of Paradise is abundant in literature, and I think it dwells in man at a deep and practically inaccessible level, where it is experienced perhaps only as an occasional whisper, a haunting reminder of the original nobility and beauty of the human being in a pristinely pure relationship to God. Elusive and ineffable though it may be, it won’t let us alone. Paradise—exile and return—seems to be one of the great themes of my own life, something that hovers around my consciousness and smites my soul with a yearning for the complete and peaceful communion with God that humanity has all but lost: walking with Him in the cool of the day in unhindered freedom, and in joyful, childlike gratitude for the abundance of his love and goodness. I feel deeply both the sense of exile and the longing for home.

We have lost the pure and holy naivete of the newly-created Adam and Eve. They could walk naked through God's garden with neither lust nor self-consciousness. It was only after the "fall" that the human form became associated with shame instead of innocence (except in little babies). This distortion has been utilized by pornographers and other advertisers to stimulate passion (as well as the economy), while most other people simply continue to harvest fig leaves and hide from God.

We know well the story of the fall; we feel it in our bones, in our wounded and waylaid souls. We may despair of ever recovering what has been lost, for the congenital curse has ravaged our very nature. Perhaps we dream of being re-created, starting all over in a new paradise, getting it right this time. This is essentially not an idle fantasy, for “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2Cor. 5:17-18). There is an astonishing exchange that is at the source of this re-creation: God allowed us to exchange our sins for his righteousness (v. 21), by accepting the reconciling sacrifice of his only-begotten Son on the altar of the Cross. Christ, the new Adam, “trampled death by death” and recalled the fiery swordsman from the gate of Paradise. The icon venerated at Easter depicts Christ descending to the netherworld, raising up Adam and Eve by the hand. There is also a legend that the place where Jesus was crucified is the burial place of Adam, and hence it was called the Place of the Skull. Most icons of the crucifixion depict a skull beneath the Cross, sometimes with the redeeming Blood pouring over it.

All these references to Adam bring our thoughts back to Paradise. In both the icon of the original Paradise and the regained Paradise of the resurrection, Christ takes Adam by the hand. (Perhaps this icon ought to be called "The Word Re-intoduces Adam into Paradise.") Adam lost and regained Paradise; we’ve lost it, too, but can also regain it by reaching for the hand of the risen Christ, who lifts us “out of the depths” to seat us with Him next to the Father.

Our nature is still wounded but has been infused with the potential for transfiguration. Christ retained the wounds of his sacrifice, and they serve not to diminish but to enhance his glory. Our problem may simply be that we don’t really believe that Christ can make (or already has made, through baptism) a new creation out of us. We become resigned to our intransigent defects and make dutiful but discouraging trips to the confessional. We should rather (while not foregoing the confessional) put our faith in the word of God which reveals the great things He has accomplished for us—and not rest until we have learned to plunge into the bracing current of the River of Life that flows in twin streams from the divine Eden of the pierced Heart of Christ.

We cannot literally return to the original Paradise, but “we await a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells” (2Peter 3:13). We can still walk in renewed innocence through the grace of Christ, while the new creation which He has made out of the wreckage of our former beauty begins to manifest within us. We may be in exile, but we are still citizens of heaven, and “in our hearts are the roads to [the heavenly] Zion” (Psalm 83/84).

Perhaps Paradise still seems like a dream. But when we at length hear the voice of the Son of God calling us unto Himself, it is the present life that will seem like a dream from which we have finally awakened, and we will find ourselves clothed not in the skins of shame but in the garment of glory.

Friday, October 14, 2005

IC XC NIKA

In case you don’t know what that title means, IC XC are abbreviations (in both Greek and Slavonic) for the name Jesus Christ. NIKA is a Greek verb that means “conquers” (perhaps “is victorious” is better, though not as grammatically accurate).

Why am I giving you a lesson in Greek words and abbreviations? First of all, it will help you understand a few things you may see in the Eastern Christian tradition. On icons of Christ, you will always find somewhere the IC XC. If you look carefully when a Byzantine Catholic or Orthodox priest gives a blessing, you’ll see (if they’re doing it correctly) that they form the fingers of their right hand into the letters IC XC. So we always bless with the sign of the Cross and in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The victory that we celebrate is that of Jesus Christ over the world, the flesh, and the devil, over sin and death. For Him to conquer evil was essential to his mission, so much so that St John could even say: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1John 3:8). But what Christ conquers is evil as such, and the evil spirits, not evil human beings, for whom there is still hope for repentance and salvation. For He came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).

The Conqueror of evil comes to us as a Merciful Savior and the Lover of Mankind. That is because He conquers through the Cross. He allowed Himself to be apparently vanquished so that He could thereby vanquish evil. The devil thought that he was the conqueror when the Son of God died, but he received a sudden and rude shock when he discovered the truth. Our liturgical texts for Vespers on Holy Saturday evening personify death and the realm of death, and we sing: “Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘It would have been better for me if I had not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power… I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner, and with Him I shall lose those over whom I ruled… the Shepherd has been crucified and has gone in search of Adam, to raise him… death has no more strength.”

The mystery of Jesus Christ’s victory is that of his death and resurrection. The Church celebrates this mystery daily in the Holy Sacrifice, the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Take a guess, then, what is stamped into every prosphoron (loaf of altar bread) that is transformed into the slain and risen Body of Christ. You’re right: IC XC NIKA. As we receive the Holy Eucharist, we are invited to share in his victory, we receive the victory itself into our bodies and souls, and we become victors, conquerors, insofar as we do the will of Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. Do you not believe that you too are a conqueror? St Paul takes us even further: “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

So, go ahead, put your own abbreviated name in there. I’ll start: AB JS NIKA. In Christ, and only in Him—far be it from me to think I can conquer anything on my own—I shall be victorious. And you shall, too, if you faithfully follow Him who came to destroy the works of the devil. “With God we shall do bravely, and He will trample down our foes… I am sure now that the Lord will give the victory…with the strength of his victorious right hand” (Psalms 59/60:14 and 19/20:7).

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Schmemann on Faith

I’d like to share a passage on faith I recently came across, by the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest and theologian of considerable and well-deserved renown. He places faith squarely in the mystery and gift of God Himself, and not as a fulfillment of our own needs or a handy help for the struggles and questions of life. Faith is surrender to God because God is God, and hence all is gift. We cannot know God in the same way that we know other persons or things. We have to wait, to listen, to be open to receive, and then surrender to the divine initiative in whatever way it is manifested. Believing without seeing is required of us, yet we can (and must) respond to the gift, and this will open the door to an encounter with the Ineffable Mystery. We can all stand to grow in faith, and this meditation may help at least a little.

“Faith is a responding movement, not of the soul alone, but of the entire person with his whole being… Faith comes from God, through His initiative, through His call. It is always a response to Him, a person’s surrender to Him who gives Himself. As Pascal said so wonderfully: ‘God says to us: You would not be searching for me unless you had already found me.’ And because faith is a response, a responding movement, it always remains a search, a thirst, a yearning.

Why do I believe? I look within me, within my experience, within my feelings, and yet I find no answer there. What is God to me? A way to explain the world and life? No, it is clear to me, first, that this explanation is not the source of my belief in Him, and, second, that my faith in God does not rationally ‘explain’ all the world’s mysteries and enigmas. More than once in my life I have had to stand at the bedside of a dying child in terrible suffering. And what? Could I explain anything at all to those who stood around the bed? Could I vindicate or justify these sufferings and death ‘religiously,’ as they say? No, I was only able to say: God is here. God is. I could only confess how impossible it is to measure that presence with our sorrow-filled, earthly questions.

“No, of course faith is not the product of my need for explanations. But then where does it come from? Does it come from fear of suffering after death? Or does it come from being frightened of total annihilation, from that passionate and ultimately egotistical inner desire not to be annihilated? No, that is not why I believe… It is not because I want eternal life after death that I believe in God; on the contrary, I believe in eternal life because I believe in God.

“This leaves me with only one answer to the question of all questions: Why do I believe? I believe because God gave me this faith and continually gives it. He gave it precisely as a gift, as a present, witnessed within me by that joy and that peace I sense which are so absolutely unrelated to anything in this world and life. Oh! I do not always sense this. In fact, I rarely sense it—only occasionally, at those moments when the word God ceases to be simply a word and becomes an underground hot-spring erupting a geyser of light, love, beauty, and life itself. ‘Peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,’ as the apostle Paul said (Rom 14:17), and there are no other words, for when you believe and live by faith, even words become unnecessary and almost impossible” (Celebration of Faith, Sermons, Vol. 1).

Believe in God and believe in eternal life. Ask for deeper faith, but don’t expect faith to be merely something that helps you through the difficulties of life. Let it simply be your lifeline to God, and trust Him to take care of the rest.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Still Hope

There are a lot of things going on in the world that can become a cause of discouragement, and for some even of despair. Wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, abortions, the savaging of moral traditions, the crises in the Church, all weigh heavily on hearts that are seeking the face of God and struggling to endure. God sometimes seems silent, and in our worst moments we might even think He is unwilling or unable to stem the crushing tide of suffering, evil, and chance disasters. But there is still hope.

I remember, some years ago—when I was able to spare some time to tend the retreat house rose garden—I was thinking about similar issues. I had just cut a lovely rose and I was taking it to set before Our Lady. I remember thinking to myself, as I examined its delicate and intricate beauty and breathed its exquisite perfume: if God goes on creating such beauty, then there is still hope for the world. (Sometimes I see a tiny wildflower growing out of bare rock, and I receive a similar message.) Perhaps not everyone would make the connection between the silent splendor of a rose and hope for the eradication of the world’s intractable evils. But at that moment it seemed clear: signs of the profound truths about God and the world can be found in hidden and unexpected places. God goes on revealing beauty, as if to say that horror and degradation are not the last word. God is not the problem, man is. God creates roses, man makes bombs. God gives life; man snuffs it out when it stands in the way of his selfish ambitions.

When He came in the flesh to proclaim the forgiveness of man’s stubborn resistance to truth and love, the Creator of roses was forced to wear a crown of thorns. This was the price He chose to pay to give the world beauty and hope. He has already borne the accumulated malice of the world in his own flesh and has nailed it to the Cross. The current evils of the world are but the “aftershocks” of the great rupture between man and God that was healed by the death and resurrection of Christ. The world just has to wake up to that truth and begin to realize that reconciliation and transformation have since been woven into the fabric of our existence. We have but to say “yes” to the One who makes all things new. We have to walk the way He walked.

Scripture warns us that there will be tribulations and sufferings before the faithful are gathered unto God for everlasting peace. So the disasters we daily witness, while being a cause for concern and an opportunity for prayer, active charity, and Christian witness, should not lead us to discouragement or despair. God is still the Lord of history, of nations, and of your soul and mine. God is still creating beauty, and He would have us notice that—and make the connection with his ultimate plan of the transfiguration of the entire cosmos. Created beauty is like a seed of heavenly glory, planted in hope. It is a sign that the best is yet to come. The existence of a lovely rose in a war-torn world reminds us of the innocent Man on the Cross with the crown of thorns: a poignant figure, veiled glory in the midst of a world steeped in sin. Though the sun hid its light as its Creator gave up his life, and all the world was plunged into darkness, on the third day He arose in divine radiance. He disarmed death by his death, and no one will ever take his glory from Him. “I died, but behold, I am alive forevermore” (Revelation 1:18).

Draw some encouragement from the bits and snatches of beauty you discover around you. There is still hope. Examine a rose, and pray, and you will see what I mean. The plan is not yet fulfilled, the victory is not yet fully manifest. But it’s on the way, and nothing will stop it. Just ask the roses.