Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Where Are You?

Good thing that the Heavenly Paradise lasts forever, because anything resembling paradise on earth seems doomed to be short-lived. After the magnificent introduction to God and his creation of the universe—and of man, the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s image—it is only a short time before the first man and woman lose their paradisal privileges and begin the sorry history of fallen mankind.

How blissful it must have been in that brief period of sinless peace in paradise! Effortlessly tilling the soil and reaping bountiful fruits, living in love with God and with each other, the weather always perfect, sleep always peaceful, every experience fulfilling and pleasant, no pain, no sorrow, no taxes, no alarm clocks, no traffic jams, no indigestion, no insurance premiums, no abortionists, absolutely no possibility of a same-sex marriage, no Marilyn Manson, Osama bin Laden, or Hillary Clinton—paradise indeed! But it didn’t last, for there was someone who had used his freedom to destroy his own happiness, and he was hell-bent on getting everyone else to use theirs to destroy theirs.

We know the story of the temptation and fall. Temptation often starts gently enough, with an attempt at misdirection so as to engage the prey in dialogue, which is the beginning of the end. “Did God really say…?” Having made a choice against God and thus against their own happiness, Adam and Eve found themselves naked and ashamed (whereas before they were naked and unashamed—this means that sin had changed for them the meaning of nakedness, which was intended by God as part of their original bliss). So what does one do when one is naked and ashamed? One hides.

Thus came the inevitable and deeply-dreaded words of the Lord God: “Where are you?” Of course, God knew where they were, but that question was for Adam’s (and our) own reflection. The question He asked of Eve, once they were found, is more precise: “What have you done?”

These are questions God still asks of us sinners when we try to hide from his face because of our shameful sins, our using of our freedom to serve our passions instead of the will of God. It’s rather strange how we, in choosing what looks like freedom enslave ourselves, in choosing what looks like pleasure torment ourselves, in choosing what promises to be paradise condemn ourselves to hell. Too bad we don’t trust God with our happiness. He’s the one who designed paradise, after all, so He knows what makes for our fulfillment and joy. Alas, we listen to seductive voices and find ourselves running to hide, naked and ashamed, and it’s too late to undo the deed—though not too late to find forgiveness.

If there is to be redemption, however, we have to hear that divine voice: Where are you? Why have you run away from the One who loves you? What have you done? Are you ready to come out of hiding, face the truth, and start living in the light? That voice has haunted man since the question was first asked in Eden, for man has ever been fleeing from his God down the corridors of time, having left his innocence far behind him. But God never stops searching for him, calling out to him, inviting him back to paradise like the father of the prodigal son.

It is time to stop hiding, to stop fleeing the voice of the Lord God. Our consciences hold the record of our infidelities, and the simple question, “Where are you?” brings everything to our conscious awareness. Yes, where are we, vis-à-vis the Lord God and his commandments? What is it that we might still be trying to hide from Him, from ourselves? We’ve all become sinners due to our lamentable inheritance from the first ones to hide from God. But the restored paradise to come is for repentant, not fugitive, sinners. We must listen no longer to the lies of the crafty serpent, but to the word of the Lord God.

Come out of hiding. He is calling you. The tree of life is still blooming in paradise.

Monday, January 30, 2006

In the Beginning

I’m launching into a re-reading of the Book of Genesis, which I must confess I haven’t done for a few years (outside of listening to the readings prescribed during Lent). I tend to keep re-reading the New Testament most of the time, with occasional forays into the prophets, the wisdom books, and other interesting stuff. The Book of Genesis is quite important for understanding some essential elements of our faith.

The book opens: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Such grandeur surely befits the first page of the word of God. It’s something that almost takes your breath away for its sheer magnitude and depth of meaning. There was a time (hard to get around using that word) when everything was not. God was, but everything else wasn’t. Genesis tantalizes us with omissions of equal magnitude to its proclamations. What was it like when nothing was? What was God doing with no universe to do it in? Did He create the angels before He created heaven and earth? Why did He create anything at all? Who is God, anyway?

It seems that the author of the book couldn’t quite conceive of absolute nothingness, so he gives us an image of a kind of primordial chaos, a watery, formless void—over which hovered the creative Spirit of God. Good thing there wasn’t some cranky atheistic scientist writing the book of Genesis, for he would have ruined it with some brilliant theory, like one I recently read, summarized as follows: in the beginning there was nothing; then nothing exploded and became everything. Somehow, “God created the heavens and the earth” has a much deeper ring of truth (and beauty) to it.

God created. We simply can’t imagine what that was like. How did God create something out of nothing? Nothing doesn’t become something all by itself; non-being can’t evolve into being. The “be-ing” had to come from God. This is how He created: “Let there be…” And so it was. And God saw that it was good. To say that God made everything out of nothing is not like saying a man makes a table out of wood. A man can build a table, but he cannot create one. For God, his will and his word are sufficient to make things be.

I’ve no inclination to get into disputes about the “days” of creation, young earth, old earth, and all that. Just knowing that God said, “let there be,” and it was so, should be enough to fire our contemplation. Then we can ponder the depths of what it means that God made man, male and female, in his own image. The psalmist says: "When I look at the moon and the stars, I think: what is man that you care for him?" But if we, not the stars, are made in the image of God, then it is the moon and stars that should say: when we look at man, we think: what are we…?

We don’t get the answers to the several questions I listed above, though St John gives us some insight into the last one. He must have realized that he was writing a new Bible, as it were. For something incredibly new had happened in the world, something totally astounding and utterly inconceivable had been created: the human nature of God—that is, the humanity of the Word made flesh. To try to help us understand the incomprehensible, John begins the new Bible: “In the beginning was the Word.” He takes us back to a beginning before the beginning, not just the creation of the universe, but the eternal inner life of God. “The Word was with God; the Word was God; through Him all things were made.”

So we know a little more about this God who created the heavens and the earth, and why God could say, “Let us make man in our image…” God is not only an “I” but a “We,” for God is one in nature and three in person.

Let us not lose our contemplative vision of the world. God created, God creates. He breathes an immortal soul into the microscopic beginnings of every human life. In the beginning of each of our lives, God was there, creating, loving us into being as his images, his children. The Creator of worlds is also the creator of souls, and He wants us forever to rejoice in the “very good” of all He has made.

I think I’m going to enjoy this renewed reading of the Book of Genesis…

Saturday, January 28, 2006

St Mark and the Resurrection

What happened immediately after Jesus rose from the dead? If we had only St Mark’s account, we might be left scratching our heads and longing for some more detail (which is ironic, since St Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ miracles are usually more detailed than the other evangelists’). We’re not even quite sure where his account ends.

Mark’s Gospel has about four or five endings, two of which the Church has accepted as canonical, that is, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Those are the two found in just about all Bibles: Mark 16:1-8 and 9-20. These are quite probably not written by the same hand. In the first ending, we find a narrative that includes most of the basic details: the myrrh-bearing women, the empty tomb, the angel and his announcement. In the second we have a kind of summary of various accounts, with some material not found in the other Gospels (e.g. believers in Christ will be able to handle serpents or drink poison without harm). Other endings are found in some manuscripts, but not enough to consider them as reliable variants or inspired additions to the main body of the Gospel.

I’m not going to do an exegetical commentary here, but rather will just wonder out loud a bit. Probably the Gospel originally ended with 16:8, though perhaps a longer ending got lost really early and is no longer extant. I think the early Church just couldn’t accept the anti-climactic (to say the least!) end of the Gospel. After the long and edifying narrative of the wonder-working Son of God, who died as a ransom for our sins and who gloriously rose from the dead, and after being treated to the angelic witness to this resurrection and the joyous command to proclaim the Good News, we read this: the women “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End.

Wait a minute, cried the first Christians, it can’t end like that, for it didn’t end like that. The women eventually did tell the apostles, and the apostles told the world! So they searched the tradition for other accounts that would give a more complete and hence more satisfying conclusion to the holy Gospel according to St Mark. The account that was accepted as canonical by the Church seems to focus on the initial unbelief of the disciples—since they didn’t believe the several people who had told them they saw the risen Lord—until Jesus Himself appeared to them, upbraided them for their unbelief, gave a parting exhortation, and ascended to heaven. This longer account ends with the disciples preaching the Gospel everywhere, with signs and wonders. A much better ending!

One of the endings of St Mark’s Gospel that didn’t make the canonical cut is one I find rather fascinating. It is found in a few manuscripts just after verse 14 (where Jesus reproached the disciples for not believing). This version has the disciples basically saying the devil made them do it! Let’s look at it: “And they excused themselves, saying: ‘This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits. Therefore, reveal your righteousness now’—thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them: ‘The term of years for Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven.’”

Though it is not canonical Scripture, there is a good lesson in there. First of all, don’t give the devil more credit than he deserves. To excuse one’s failings by saying that the world is under satan—who does not allow God’s power and truth to prevail over unclean things (give me a break!)—is a cop-out of the worst kind, even though things may feel that way sometimes. It is not for the devil to allow God’s truth and power to prevail or not, try though he might to distort or hide it from us. The devil can’t allow anything, for all is in God’s hands, and we are still free. So we have no excuse for our sin, if we think it’s because someone has not allowed God to prevail in our lives. We ourselves choose to reject or accept God’s truth, which is knowable to all who seek it, the devil’s efforts notwithstanding. The Lord’s response is quick and to the point: return to the truth and sin no more, for incorruptible glory awaits those who do so.

So, as we wonder at the mosaic of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, let us also learn something from those curious little appendages, for all things work for the good for those who love the Lord.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Lord Remembers

It may be that we are forgetful, but thanks be to God, He is not. The Lord always remembers us in our needs, and He always provides for us according to his mercy and providence.

For the Lord, to “remember” is to hear our prayer. “The people of Israel…cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition” (Exodus 2:23-25). To remember them was to come to their aid and deliver them. Likewise, when Hannah prayed for a son, “the Lord remembered her; and in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son” (1Samuel 1:19-20). And Our Lady sang of the Lord: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy” (Luke 1:54).

Zechariah, the father of St John the Forerunner, was also remembered by the Lord. It was only fitting, since “Zechariah” means “The Lord remembers.” When his miraculous son was born, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and he uttered a prophecy, praising the God who promised “to remember his holy covenant” (Luke 1:72).

So we know that in remembering his holy covenant, God is fulfilling his promises to us and hearing our prayers. The covenant that God now remembers is the new covenant in the chalice of Jesus’ precious blood, as the Lord announced at the Last Supper. This covenant is sealed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. All God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ, and the Lord would have us remember that: Do this in remembrance of Me. That sacramental power of remembrance is an essential element in making the paschal mystery of Christ present on our altars.

Today, when so many people feel alone, alienated, depressed, despairing, etc, it would be good if they knew that God remembered them and has plans for their welfare. Probably one of the greatest sufferings a human being can endure, worse even than being mistreated by others, is simply to be forgotten. One of the great curses uttered against enemies in the Old Testament is that their names be forgotten, that their memory be cut off. Hell is the place where that curse is ultimately fulfilled. One’s sufferings there are bad enough already, but on top of that is the most painful realization that nobody cares, nobody remembers you any more. You are wholly forgotten by all, and the elect rejoice forever without a single thought of you. Perhaps that is one reason why the Byzantine funeral service concludes with the prayer: “Let his (or her) memory be eternal!” Let them go to the place where they will never be forgotten. And we also pray thus for various intentions: “May the Lord God remember in his kingdom...”

We ought to find some consolation in the fact that the Lord knows us, remembers us, sees our need and wants to help us. Even if we drift away, He looks for us like the father of the prodigal son. In our shame or suffering we may say: “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.” But He replies: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion of the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:14-16).

Turn to the Lord, for He is already turned toward you. He will never fail or forsake us. “The Lord remembers us, and He will bless us!” (Psalm 115:12).

Thursday, January 26, 2006

I Forgot

I tried to access a certain account the other day on the internet. I couldn’t because I evidently forgot my password. I didn’t think I had forgotten it, but I guess I forgot that I had forgotten it. I have forgotten appointments, forgotten something I was supposed to do on a certain day, forgotten something that had popped into my mind about what had to be done right away—it popped back out of my mind too quickly. I have nutritional supplements that are supposed to help with brain function and memory, but sometimes I forget to take them. I write reminders on a pocket note pad, on little post-it notes, and even on my hand, but sometimes I still forget.

Why all this talk about forgetfulness? ….oh, yes! I almost forgot—it’s because it has an application to the spiritual life. We may not be forgetful about our daily responsibilities, but many seem to be quite forgetful about spiritual matters and what the Lord has been trying to teach us all these years.

It seems to me that most of the sins of people who are actually trying to be good Christians don’t stem from raw malice or premeditated evil. More often than not they are the fruit of a kind of spiritual forgetfulness, an inattention or lack of vigilance, or perhaps a rather thoughtless self-centeredness. I wrote a few months ago (based on Psalm 136/137) that to sin is to forget that Heaven is the source of our joy. Remember?

In the parable of the sower of seeds, Jesus speaks about those from whom the devil snatches the word of God before it can take root. This can be understood as an image of spiritual forgetfulness. If the seed doesn’t find rich, moist, fertile soil in which to quickly sink and germinate, it lies exposed on the hard ground where it is easy prey for anything that comes by. Likewise, when we hear the word of God and don’t provide a place in our souls wherein it can help deepen our spiritual understanding, other concerns will seem more compelling (or interesting) and we end up forgetting what we heard, and it does us no good. It is as if the devil has come by and snatched it out of our consciousness.

Sometimes, in our prayer or meditation, we do actually open ourselves to receive the word of the Lord and gain some precious insight or awareness. Then, at a later time, some opportunity arises in which that insight has some practical application, but we act in our ordinary, unenlightened way. Why? We forgot what we had learned in the quiet moments of prayer. I must confess that such things happen to me more often than I care to admit (though I just did).

St James says that we must become “doers of the word.” Certainly we have to begin by hearing the word, but that is not enough. He says: “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his face in a mirror… and goes away and at once forgets what he looked like” (1:22-24). So how do we remember not to forget? If I had the answer to that one, I’d be much farther along the path to sanctity. But it seems to me that the answer must somehow lie in creating good habits of “doing the word.” It’s easier to remember to do things that we do habitually. We ordinarily don’t forget to get dressed before we go out somewhere, nor do we forget the way to a place we go to every day. Perhaps this is at least partly because if we didn’t we’d soon be forced to realize that something has gone terribly wrong. But our spiritual senses may not be as alert as our bodily ones. We may go on for way too long before we realize that we’re overdue for confession, or that we’ve been missing our daily prayers, or that we’re supposed to be fasting during Lent, or whatever.

We have to start training ourselves and forming good, healthy, holy habits, so that we won’t forget that human life is supposed to be about loving and serving the Lord wholeheartedly. Pray that you will retain whatever the Lord gives you in your meditation or spiritual reading, and that you learn the lessons that He teaches through the events of your life.

We cannot afford to forget, for life is demanding, the stakes are high, and judgment cannot be forestalled forever. Where our treasure is, there will our hearts (and minds) be. If it’s really important to us, chances are we’ll remember. Just don’t forget to pray for that enlightenment by which we will be able to see things clearly, in their proper relations and priorities, so that God’s will is always primary. “I will never forget your precepts, for with them You give me life” (Ps. 118/119:93).

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

With Him, Against Him

We are to live, Scripture says, by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and that means, of course, from the mouth of the Son of God as well. Many of his words are clear and unquestionable as to their meaning and intent, others somewhat obscure. And sometimes He says one thing at one time and another thing at another time that seems contrary to it. Seems.

One of these pairs of sayings is “He who is not with me is against me” (Mt. 12:30) and “He who is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:40). The former is quite categorical, uncompromising, and unyielding, while the latter seems rather mild and inclusive. So which is it? The contexts will show us that both are true and apply in the context in which they were spoken.

When the first saying was uttered, Jesus was in a dispute with the Pharisees over the source of his power to cast out demons. Here Jesus was quite stern with them, because they accused Him of using the power of the devil to work miracles. In the battle between good and evil, there must be clear lines drawn, everyone must take a side—no fence-sitters allowed. Either you are on the side of Christ or on that of the devil; there’s no middle ground. Therefore, if you do not choose to side with Christ, you are on the devil’s side by default. Not with Christ? The only alternative is to be against Him, for in the final reckoning there will be only two groups, the “sheep” and the “goats,” the former eternally with Him, the latter irreversibly against Him. Jesus forgives every sin if there is repentance, but what He doesn’t tolerate is calling good evil and evil good, for that is of the devil and it leads the little ones astray.

This saying has many applications today, perhaps most notably in the hotly-contested moral issues of the day. For example, if you are not with Christ and his Church in serious matters involving life (like abortion and euthanasia) or sexual morality (promiscuity, adultery, homosexual activity), then you are by that very fact against Him. Many people do make an obvious show of being against Him, but the more insidious cases are those who say they are with Him, but whose actions, words, and preferences indicate precisely the opposite.

Now what about being for Him and his Church (“us” in the text above) by simply not being against Him? We have a completely different context here, in which the saying is appropriate. The disciples notice someone who was not of their number casting out a demon in Jesus’ name, and they forbade him, “because he was not following us.” Here is Jesus’ reply: “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he who is not against us is for us.”

The Pharisees were the ones who “spoke evil” of Jesus, hence placing themselves squarely in the camp of those against Him. Obviously, the man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name was already for Him, for he recognized his divine authority and placed himself under it, availing himself to be an instrument thereof, even though at that moment he was not among the group of disciples that Jesus originally had chosen. Doing good in Jesus’ name is a safeguard against speaking evil of Him, Jesus explained.

Such a saying can have its application in, say, the ecumenical movement. Not all who do good in Jesus’ name are “following us,” that is, belong to the Catholic Church. But for that reason Jesus would not forbid them to do good in his name. For if they manifest no hostility and do not give other clear evidence that they are in fact against us, we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt that in the divine “economy” they are for us. Perhaps we ought to consider this as we conclude the octave of prayer for Christian unity. All genuine Christians are trying to do good in Jesus’ name, and we ought to try to recognize that, even when we have also to recognize painful and long-standing divisions. We ought also to strive to be for, and not against, each other.

So let us be uncompromising and rock-firm in our commitment to Christ and his Church, in all that pertains to faith and morals, especially in the battle against evil in all its forms. For in this battle if one is not with Him one is surely against Him. But let us also be charitable and accommodating toward those who may be “on the way” but not quite fully integrated in the fold. For if they are not against us, the Holy Spirit will see to it that they are for us.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


We’re all familiar with the Great Commandment of Christ (actually, the two of them). What we’re probably not so familiar with is putting it into practice, perhaps because it may seem to be an impossible (or worse, impractical) ideal, but God does not command the impossible—though He may command the impractical!

The question came up in a simple rabbinical discussion about the commandments of God. A scribe asked Jesus: “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus gave the unabridged version: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:28-30). He added loving one’s neighbor as oneself, with the concluding comment: “There is no other commandment greater than these.”

When I read the Scriptures (usually in the wee hours of the morning), I often write down a passage that particularly speaks to me, something that I will try to carry with me through the day. When I come to the above passage in the Gospels, I seem always to write that one down, despite whatever else may be in that particular chapter. Perhaps this is because it is something I always need to be reminded of, something that is so essential to Christian faith and life that it shouldn’t be forgotten for a single day. Perhaps also this is because I seem daily to fall short of the “all” required by Jesus in this greatest of commandments.

One can make a general (or even formal and specific) consecration of one’s life to God and still not be giving all—loving Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. I’m not loving Him with all my mind, for example, if I expose it to words or images or thoughts that are contrary to his truth, justice, mercy, holiness and purity. I’m not loving Him with all my strength if I tend to be lazy, procrastinating, or sluggish, especially when it comes to my obligations for prayer, fasting, worship, or active charity.

While it may be a long process to reach the point of “all,” as the saints did, the Lord requires our constant efforts (in co-operation with his constant outpouring of grace) to attain to this level of love and fidelity to God. This will entail not only a “cleaning up of our act” regarding the obvious or gross violations of his commandments, but also a sincere and penetrating examination of conscience—of heart, mind, and soul. Where is our treasure? There will our heart be also. What do we find attractive or interesting? There will be our mind. To whom is our allegiance, and how many masters do we serve? There will be our soul. What do we find most worthy of the commitment of our time and energy? There we will apply our strength.

I heard recently in a reading from a Bible commentary that we cannot simply devote part of our time to God and part to worldly affairs. All must be for God. That doesn’t mean there are no more worldly affairs to deal with (even monks, alas, have to deal with some), but all affairs, divine or human, must be caught up into our relationship to God, must somehow be a part of our service to Him. If we are involved in something that could in no way be considered a service to Him, that cannot be offered as a sacrifice or cannot be done in good conscience under his watchful eye, then we shouldn’t be involved in it at all. All the duties (and the legitimate leisure) of our state in life can be taken up into our wholehearted love of God.

But we have to make it so, more and more consciously. To have a vague, general intention of living for God is insufficient to fulfill the Great Commandment. We really have to pray and work to make the “all” an experienced reality, something that drives us from within, that energizes, enhances, and graces our thoughts, words, and actions of each day. What a beautiful life it would be, if we could live it while loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We would then realize what it means to be a child of God, with all the riches of grace.

That’s the life He wills for us, makes possible for us, and to which He calls us. It prepares us for the life of Heaven, the fullness of loving God with all If we don’t do it during this life, we won’t be able to start doing it in the next. Begin now. God created your whole heart and mind and soul. Offer them back to Him with love.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Believe and Receive?

There are some texts in the Bible that make it seem like getting what you ask for in prayer is a pretty simple thing. Just believe and receive: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mark 11:24). If I prayed for a new Mercedes, or a 20-lb bar of gold, and believed that I would receive it, would I? St James says I wouldn’t: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3). So, there’s more to it than simply believing and asking! The point is, you can’t isolate one passage of Scripture from the rest, and then try to make it work to your advantage. The “believe and receive, name it and claim it” approach is not valid or authentic, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to the dynamic and loving relationship with God that He desires from us.

Jesus has said many things about prayer, and what He said must be taken as a whole to understand what his teaching really is, and thus to be able to expect the true fruits of prayer. He did say in one place, “Ask and you shall receive,” but He qualified it in another place: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). This is an important condition. Jesus is not a vending machine for miracles. If we are to receive what we ask for in prayer, we must be in a living, personal relationship with Him (abiding in Him), and we must live fully in accord with his teaching (his words abide in us). Only then can we expect to receive what we ask for—yet there is another, even more fundamental condition.

St John gives it to us in his First Epistle: “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (5:14). This is the bottom line of all prayer of petition. It follows from the previous condition: if we abide in Christ and his words abide in us, then we will know what to ask for, we will have the knowledge and awareness to ask for what He wills. Certainly, then, we will receive it, since He wants his will to be done, for our well-being and salvation. It may be a long process, however, this union with Christ and his words, and therefore it may take time, and perhaps some trial and error, before his will becomes clear to us. That is why we have to trust Him enough so that if we don’t receive what we asked for, we can accept that we were asking for something that was not his will, at least not at that time.

Our faith is not in the power of faith or of prayer; our faith is in God. Period. Therefore we don’t try to use biblical passages as foolproof formulas for getting what we want. We submit ourselves to the will of God because we believe in Him and love Him, and because “we know and believe the love God has for us” (1John 4:16). We don’t ask for anything “so that we can spend it on our passions.” We pray that God will “grant our petitions which are unto salvation” (from the Byzantine Liturgy). Surely if a human father will give his children not stones but bread, the heavenly Father will give all that is good from the treasury of the Holy Spirit to those who ask in faith and trust.

So it’s not just “believe and receive.” It’s believe—abide, let his words abide, ask according to his will, trust in his wise providence—and receive, as it pleases God to give. That alone will ensure our spiritual well-being and eternal happiness, and it will keep us in peace and free from frustration in the meantime. We’re in good hands, and we don’t have to attempt to wrest anything out of them by “working” the Bible to our advantage.

OK, so I won’t get the gold or the Mercedes. But those are mere trinkets compared to what God has prepared for those who love Him.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Life Marches On

This weekend there are many marches and other demonstrations and events happening across the country, to protest the infamous and murderous Roe vs. Wade decision which has covered this country with rivers of human blood and guilt. I will be offering the Divine Liturgy today for the march happening in San Francisco, a city notorious for its libertinism and immorality. The marchers expect some vicious opposition, so we will be praying.

It has been 33 years since that lamentable decision, tens of millions of unborn babies have been murdered, new and more barbarous ways of killing have been devised, and yet it goes on, firmly entrenched as the “settled law” of the land. What we’re up against are numerous hardened hearts in high places (see my post, “The Hardening” at the end of last month). Those who control the media, and those with economic and political clout are mostly calling the shots, and most legislative attempts to do even a little to curb the madness are declared “unconstitutional” by one or another court. One can be arrested simply for praying or speaking to women outside an abortion clinic. Recently, some pro-abortion people, in an uncontrolled rage, defaced or tore down a number of pro-life ads placed on a public transportation system in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were outraged and indignant that the company took a politically-neutral stance and accepted the ads. Hmm. Suppose a few pro-life people tore down some pro-abortion ads. They would be branded as law-breaking, dangerous fanatics, or perhaps even terrorists, and there would be a lot of media coverage to vilify them. But pro-abortion fanatics are somehow champions of freedom and the American Way. Double-standards are the standard for the enemies of life.

I think I have to ask a hard question in the face of all the well-oiled anti-life machinery that dominates the public arena. They have the law on their side, and a lot of high-priced, slick attorneys (and judges in their pockets). What will a march for life accomplish? Will it change laws or hearts? Most likely not. It seems that the general intention is two-fold: to give people a chance to make a public stand for what they believe in, and to show the powers-that-be (and the media) that there is still a strong pro-life constituency in this country. Chances are, if that is the extent of it, that things will go on as they have been: more dead babies, more hardened hearts, more smirking media personages, and more lying pro-abortion lobbyists.

Only one thing is really going to work: saints. This country is in desperate need of saints, of men and woman who, by their very existence in a profound communion with God, will be “portals” of divine grace for this beleaguered country. It is just and noble (and necessary) to fight abortion on the levels of politics and media. But that is not enough. You can’t overcome the Beast on his own terms, in his own arena. The only thing against which the devil has no defense is holiness. It disarms and destroys him, and lays waste all his insidious plans. Only divine grace can reach a hardened heart—not cogent arguments, irrefutable logic and scientific fact, or political prowess, not even an appeal to someone’s basic humanity. And grace flows through the prayers and sufferings of the saints.

So if the marches are successful (and this is our ardent hope), it will only be because they are praying fervently, and not because they are carrying signs. The victory can’t be won through a mere public face-off. It has to be won on the level of spiritual warfare. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the cosmic rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). It is not enough to make one’s voice heard in the cause of justice for the human rights of the unborn. One must also be in communion with God, on fire with love for Him, immersed in prayer and the sacraments, “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…” (Phil. 2:15-16).

Shine as lights in the darkness, then, and the devil has to fall, and all that he has built will have to crumble. More saints are needed. It makes little difference if there are 10,000 or 10,001 people at a pro-life march. But the benefits of one more saint in the world are far-reaching. Support the marches, join them if you can—but most importantly, pray, offer your life to God as a sacrifice for the little ones and for the manifestation of God’s righteousness, don’t return anger and violence for anger and violence. Evil can only be vanquished by holiness. Life will march on through the hearts of the holy. It is time for saints to arise; it is time for the Kingdom to come.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Depart From Your Land

In St Stephen’s final discourse before his martyrdom, he offered a summary of salvation history. What I’m concerned with here is his recounting of God’s words to Abraham: “Depart from your land…and go into the land that I will show you” (Acts 7:3; Genesis 12:1).

That’s part of the message I received when I asked for a bit of divine guidance for the new year. I had to ponder it awhile, for I didn’t think I was meant to take it literally and leave the monastery for some new adventure. A new adventure it may be, but it must be an interior one. Perhaps God wanted me to depart from marshmallow-land and go to prosphoron-land (see the last two posts).

God is always calling us to a deeper life in Him, to fuller enlightenment, a more courageous witness, a more faithful and selfless devotion. It may be that, even if we are believers with hope for eternal life, we may reach a certain plateau, a certain level of spiritual satisfaction, comfort, or complacency—and then we’d like to stay there. But this interior plateau or “land” is not yet the Promised Land; it may still be infested with weeds and pests like selfishness, laziness, unforgiving or uncharitable attitudes, or a general spiritual lassitude. God calls us to depart from this land, and to go to the land that He will show us.

As I wondered just what that might be, I began to read the book on Fr Arseny. It occurred to me that maybe this was the land that God was showing me—not the land of concentration camps, but the land of holiness, the land of unshakable faith and trust, of love and self-sacrifice for the salvation of souls. It is one thing to depart from one land—renouncing bad habits or attitudes that hinder spiritual growth—and quite another to actually enter a new land. The land that the Lord shows us is a “place” that offers a new way of seeing things, of understanding life, of living and moving and having our being in the Holy Spirit. This transition may be just as radical as that of physically moving from one land to another.

All of this is something that God must show us, for we cannot improvise our way to his heavenly Kingdom. But in order to be shown we have to be paying attention, open and willing to learn and be led, and to meet the demands of the new land He is revealing to us. So we have to pray, to listen, to read the signs of the times and of our own personal environment, to pay attention to our worship, our reading, our relationships. Look everywhere to see what God might be showing you. For it may be subtle, realized only in the interior movements of the soul. It may also be as profound as it is subtle, as glorious as it is humble. For the departure from the land of lukewarmness to the land of sanctity is an event (or series of events) of “biblical proportions.” We have to be ready to let God take over, and then hold on tight!

So think about it, pray about it. God is always calling us to “come up higher.” What is the land from which you must depart, and what is that to which you must go? Be ready for the journey, and God will show you. And you will never be the same again.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


What is the opposite of a marshmallow? A prosphoron. Prosphoron is Greek for “that which is offered,” or simply “an offering” (the verb form is literally: to bear or bring toward). It is the term used for the altar bread that is offered and consecrated at the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Churches.

The life and work of a priest is a prosphoron, an offering to God, for his glory and for the salvation of souls. The greatest offering he makes is that of Christ Himself in the Divine Sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist. Here the priest understands that he, like the prosphoron that becomes the Body of Christ, is “offered and consecrated,” he too is broken and sacrificed for the salvation of souls. We say of Christ in the Liturgy that He is the One “who offers and is offered.” He offers, because He Himself is the great High Priest of our salvation, and the Sacrifice is his once-for-all immolation on Golgotha, made sacramentally present during the Liturgy. He is offered, because he allows the priest to offer Him sacramentally for the accomplishment of this Mystery in the daily life of the Church.

But any baptized person can offer and be offered. A life that is one great offering is expressed in many smaller offerings, which may consist of trials, hardships, sufferings of body or soul, even the myriad inconveniences and irritations of daily life. I must choose to make an offering of all that makes up my life, and all that happens to me in my life, knowing that I am at the same time offered by Christ to the Father—hence the fruitfulness of the offering. One benefit of making this offering is growth in patience and in peace, as the awareness grows that nothing is wasted, that God can bring good out of any disaster, that my inevitable sufferings can be transformed into manifold blessings, that lasting contributions are being made toward increasing the population of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Many souls cannot be moved or converted by word or example, usually because they have chosen a path contrary to the Gospel, or because there is some other impediment, perhaps not of their own making. The Lord wishes to save them too. But they can only be touched from within by the hidden dynamism of grace working through the spiritual connections within the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus one soul can influence and positively affect another, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It seems that God expects us to pray and offer sacrifices for the salvation of our brothers and sisters, and that He even waits for this before intervening in another’s life. This is because God is love and wants to teach us to love. Loving is giving, offering oneself for the sake of another. Intercession, therefore, is a commitment of love, an offering of oneself for the good of others, especially for their eternal salvation.

The double dimension of the life of a prosphoron, a person who offers and is offered, is essentially that of the first apostles: to be with Christ and to be given a mission (see Mark 3:13-15). The prosphoron used in the Liturgy is pierced five times in honor of the major wounds of Christ. We should be aware that we will share in the sufferings of Christ if we desire to be united with Him, offered with Him. St Paul said his sufferings were for the sake of the Church, so obviously he believed there was benefit to be gained by the members of the Church through his own sufferings in union with Jesus.

Of course, one person can only do so much in the face of all the sin and suffering in the world. An awareness of even a tiny fraction of this is overwhelming. Only Christ is able to bear it all, but He still invites us to share in his mission, a mission that will not be completed until the end of time. So I pray and make my offerings for “those whom the Lord has given me” (see John 17:9), whether I know who they are or not. He will assign others to intercede for the rest.

What is the meaning of life? What do we want from life, and for whom do we live? What do we want to see when we look back on our lives? How is one to make a contribution in this world that will cross the threshold into the next? In the end, what matters but the salvation of souls unto eternal happiness and the glory of God?

Let us offer and be offered, allowing ourselves to be “brought toward” the Lord in a sacrifice of love and joy and spiritual fruitfulness. Someday in Heaven we shall meet the fruits of our offering, souls rescued by grace through prayer and self-giving. All will be borne up by the Risen Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us, and who stands eternally before the Father, bearing the shining wounds of his pure sacrifice. Then we will know fully the meaning of our lives, offered and consecrated to God for the eternal salvation of souls. And we shall rejoice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I’ve mentioned in a couple of recent posts a holy priest named Fr Arseny, who suffered much for his faith in Soviet Russia during the Stalin years. The witness of his life brings me to a further reflection. (By the way, I recommend the book: Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, trans. Vera Bouteneff, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

My conclusion after reading the book is this: I am a marshmallow. Perhaps you are too. I would wager that at least 90% of Christians in America and Western Europe also are marshmallows. What I mean is that we are marshmallow Christians: soft, spineless, easily crushed, easily melted in the fire of trials and purifications. If we continue like this, we will have to add another marshmallowy characteristic: wholly without nutritional (spiritual) value to those who have any contact with us.

We really have no idea what millions of people consistently had (and have) to suffer for their faith. Of course, we all have our own sufferings, and they are real: illness, injuries, mental anguish, work and family and financial problems, bereavement, etc. This is part of the human condition. But people like Fr Arseny suffered things above and beyond ordinary human suffering. And it was precisely because he was a believer in Christ that he suffered so—but because of his faith and love for God he was purified like gold in the fire.

I mentioned something in a previous post about what he suffered: beatings, hunger, sleep deprivation, hard labor, exhaustion. The land itself where he was imprisoned was a kind of hell on earth: long, frigid winters (temperatures down to 50 below zero, with strong winds), springs characterized by melting snow and rivers of mud, and short, hot, sticky summers in the midst of literal clouds of mosquitoes—and soon it is winter again. He had to work 15-18 hours a day in those conditions, with the most primitive of tools and with the constant cursing and frequent blows of the guards, barracks searches at any hour of day or night, etc. Yet through him God brought peace and hope to many, and he was able to live in gratitude.

Many others among the simple faithful found themselves evacuated from their homes and sent with no money or food to some Siberian village where they knew no one, and told to make the best of it. Women were raped by soldiers, and many people died from intolerable conditions.

Now this isn’t meant merely to be a horror story, or something to shame you into realizing how easy you actually have it (though that could still be a salutary meditation). The real point is how these people kept (or found) the faith in the midst of these severe trials, how they prayed, how they trusted God and the Mother of God, how they were grateful for every kindness, for every divine intervention to keep them alive. They knew what was the “one thing necessary.” They believed in miracles and experienced them. God comes to the aid of those who are really in need, to those who call on Him with their whole heart.

One thing I found touching was the tender love the faithful had for the Mother of God, especially as she is represented in the famous icon of Our Lady of Vladimir. When they light a candle and pray before her, her sad but compassionate eyes look upon them with love, and she obtains mercy and grace for them from Him whom she carries in her arms. She actually appeared in that form to save a young woman who was about to be raped. Later the man regretted his action and actually went back to that woman to seek forgiveness, and when he saw the icon in her house he exclaimed: “That’s her! Who is that? She is the one who appeared to save you from me!”

These people lived in an atmosphere, an environment of faith in God, of repentance from sin, of hope for the life to come, in awareness of the constant presence of the Mother of God and the saints, who protected and helped them—even though the society around them was officially atheist, and they could be imprisoned for any manifestation of religious faith. They relied wholly on the mercy of the Lord.

So this is what I’m getting at: they knew what was the meaning of human life, they lived at the heart, the essence of it, because everything that was superfluous was stripped away from them. They knew love and tried to be good for each other, for the world was harsh, and the enemies of Truth were everywhere. In short, they were true Christians, not marshmallows. We see today what happens in free and affluent societies: many members of the Church, including clergy and hierarchs, begin to miss the point of the Faith. They reject some of the teachings of the Church and hence the uncompromising power of the Gospel, they tolerate immorality, wink at peccadilloes, model spirituality on modern psychology, run the Church like corporate America, and make uneasy alliances with the surrounding society, which is often anti-Christian in its mindset and morality. They don’t talk about Heaven and Hell, about the absolute necessity of living to fulfill the will of God, of how difficult and demanding it is to be a true Christian—as if salvation could be attained by presenting one’s baptismal certificate, or by simply being tolerant or “nice,” and “not hurting anyone.”

No, eternal salvation is the ultimate goal, the sine qua non of the meaning of human life, and though it is impossible without the grace of God, it will still cost you every ounce of your strength, your blood, sweat and tears. Everlasting life in a paradise of joy is not a “given,” a consolation for having merely existed for a certain number of years. It is the fruit of a life of faith and love for God, built up and expressed through trials and hardships, made genuine and unshakable through perseverance in adverse circumstances and even in persecution. To be saved, you have to be a martyr, that is, a witness, with your life, that God is real and is really involved in our world, that He loves us and became man to save us from our sins—yes, those sins which could keep us out of Heaven forever. Marshmallows are for roasting over a fire, and that’s exactly where they’ll end up.

Human life is a high-stakes adventure. God is with us, and He sends Our Lady and the saints to help us. But our role is indispensable, and the marshmallow Church in America needs our firm support, and our unfailing witness to the truth. We cannot afford to be marshmallows ourselves. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet… Strive for…the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:12-14). Put all your hope in the living God. You will find that He is a wellspring of strength, peace, wisdom, joy, and love. Just ask Fr Arseny.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Peace! Be Still!

Some of us tend to ride the sea of life in a tiny, barely-seaworthy boat. Jesus seems often enough to be asleep when the winds rise and the waves start spilling into the boat. So, like the Apostles, who really didn’t know Him all that well at the time of their first sea-squall (for when it was over, they asked themselves, “Who then is this…?”), we panic and shout at Him: “Master, do you not care if we perish?” (Mark 4:38).

Jesus calmly gets up, briefly but thoroughly assesses the stormy situation, and says: “Peace! Be still!” In the Gospel account, He was addressing the wind and the sea, but I think in our own situations He is addressing us. What He did say to the Apostles, He also says to us: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

Both of those questions are important for us, though in a sense they are but one question. Jesus seems to answer the first with the second. If we are afraid (as we often may be), the reason may very well lie in our lack of faith, which also means our lack of trust. One of the most difficult struggles for a Christian, I think, is that which involves knowing how much weight to give to human means, evidences, calculations, plans, and psychological, sociological, or political dynamics, and how much simply to believe and trust in God. There is no easy or exact solution to this, though it seems clear that the saints had a radical faith and trust in God and a severely limited trust in all the rest (though a further discernment lies in how much—or whether or not—God is using any given human means for his own purposes). Having said all that, I think we can probably conclude that in our own experience we do not rely sufficiently upon God—and hence we end up afraid, due to lack of faith, just like the disciples on the sea.

The issue of faith and of the calming of storms can perhaps be summed up in the well-known (but little practiced) Psalm verse: “Be still and know that I am God” (45/46:11). (The actual context of the psalm would probably require us to translate it, “Shut up! And know that I am God!” but for the purposes of our contemplative prayer we’ll keep it, “Be still.”) To be still enough to hear that word presupposes at least a little bit of faith and also the time taken in silent prayer to know what it means that the Lord is God, with all that this implies for the benefit of our lives. God can calm the storms, in and around us, but we really do have to believe that He is there, to trust that He has our best interests at heart, and to expect that He will simply do what is best for us—and we must also be ready for Him to show us what is our role in co-operating with His will in the accomplishment thereof.

Some years ago I read this little prayer formula, based on the psalm, which I use from time to time to help get me quiet and in the presence of Him who is God:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I AM.
Be still and know.
Be still.

It takes you right back to the moment of your creation, when God said: Let there be you, and it was so, and God saw that it was good. First, you “be.” Little by little you learn until you know. Then you learn what is most important to know, that the Lord is God and can calm any storm. Then you rest in that. Be still. Be—in Him.

Now get back into your boat and sail the sea of life. Jesus may be sleeping somewhere in the boat, but that’s OK. Know that He is God. He will bring peace and stillness, and it will happen more and more as you grow in faith and thus diminish in fear. We have to listen and examine ourselves when He asks us about our fears and our faith; we have to receive and rejoice in His word of peace when He commands it. Then all manner of things shall be well.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Kindled by Hell

Today we look at the flip side of blessing. St James gives us a quite unambiguous treatment of the matter of sins of the tongue. Meditation on the third chapter of his Epistle is a penance I sometimes give to people who confess gossiping, lying, or any other sort of harm done with words.

Let’s get right to the point: “The tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body…and kindled by hell…a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:6-8). He also likens it to a tiny rudder that steers a large ship. Such a small thing, the tongue, but such great pretensions! Such potential for both good and evil! You probably don’t have to think too hard to remember times when you’ve said things you’ve later regretted, things that hurt other people. Or times when you have used profane language, taken the name of God in vain, ridiculed others, or perhaps started or continued some rumor or gossip that ended up doing far more damage than you bargained for. We all have, and St James is the first to admit it: “We all make many mistakes, and if anyone makes no mistakes in what he says, he is perfect…” (v 2). But the Apostle is trying to get us to reduce such mistakes to an absolute minimum.

For this he tries to get us to see things a little more clearly, to see the gravity of what we are doing, and its contradictory nature: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so” (vv 9-10). We bless God and we curse the images of God. Put that way, it is clear how wrong and self-contradictory it is (that’s why he put it that way). In this we see the slippery nature of the tongue, and why he says it is kindled by Hell and full of poison. The devil is called the “father of lies,” so our misuse of the tongue puts us in his camp. To use the tongue to bless God and condemn others is like using a chalice for both sacred and profane functions.

But we don’t have to literally curse or condemn someone to be doing the opposite of blessing. Whatever hurts, whatever cuts, whatever denigrates, whatever spreads falsehood—these are all part of that “restless evil.” The correction of all this is an important ascetical work. Now it is clear that sometimes love demands the use of stern words, to correct, to discipline, but ultimately to enlighten and heal. Some words that “hurt” another can actually be therapeutic, if they serve that person’s growth and/or conversion. But we usually know darn well what is the intention of our words, whether they are aimed to hurt or to heal, to tear down or to build up, or simply to get the last one in.

One antidote to all the evils of the tongue is simply to bless, as I said yesterday. If we choose to bless instead of curse or revile, and make a habit of it, we will notice that we are using our tongues less for evil and more for good. Of course, this is not just a matter of the tongue but of the heart. We will not be able to habitually bless if we have not yet learned to love—or at least to act in loving ways toward others. From a heart that loves, blessing will naturally pour forth, and likewise cursing from a heart that is cold and hard. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Lift up your heart, then, to the Lord, and pray that He make it a source of blessing, so that your tongue will be a tongue of fire--kindled not by Hell, but by the Holy Spirit. Then begin to bless God and all his images…

Saturday, January 14, 2006


“We bless you in the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 128/129:8). You know what is sorely missing in this world? Blessings. Not God’s blessings bestowed upon us, for they are innumerable. At the root of many of the woes of the human condition is our failure to bless.

We are often told in Holy Scripture to bless those who curse us, to return a blessing when reviled, to overcome evil with good. But somehow we seem not to think of those passages in the heat of the battle, at the moment of our being insulted or cursed or offended in some way. Not thinking of it doesn’t let us off the hook, however. We have to train ourselves to respond with blessings—and not to wait until we must give a blessing only in response to something else, but to freely and spontaneously bless people and all creation, to have an attitude of readiness to bless.

Here are a few practical examples. Whenever you hear someone take the name of the Lord in vain, just quietly say: “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” There, you have effectively made reparation by honoring God, having “canceled out” the dishonor someone else has just showed Him. When someone is rude or unkind to you, steps ahead of you in line, cuts you off in traffic (lots of curses to overcome here!), or in any way offends you, bless them in the name of the Lord. When someone sneezes, really mean it when you say: God bless you! With your spouse or with friends who may have some irritating fault, rather than (first) praying that God change them, ask that He bless them and give them joy and peace. When driving by or flying over some place or city that is known for its sin, call down upon that place the blessing of the Lord. Demons cannot stand God’s blessing, so they will have to leave.

In general, just be a blessing for others and for the creation. It is true that priests can bless in certain ways that others cannot, because of the grace given and ministry entrusted to them—and priests therefore have a great responsibility to bring God’s blessing upon the world. (I once read an account of a mystic—I leave this to your discernment—who said she saw a certain priest in purgatory whose right hand was shriveled, discolored, and very painful, because he did not use it to bless as he should have.) In the Byzantine tradition, when a priest blesses, he forms his hand into the letters which make up the abbreviation of the name of Jesus Christ (IC XC, which inscription is found on all icons of Christ). So when a priest blesses, he blesses with the sign of the Cross and in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—without having to say a word!

But all the baptized can in their own way bless in the name of the Lord. Parents should bless their children; “saying grace” is invoking God’s blessing on our food, as well as giving thanks for it. To bless another is literally to “speak well” (bene dicere, whence comes “benediction”) of another, especially to speak well of them to God. (In Greek a blessing is a eu logia, same meaning, whence comes “eulogy,” speaking well of, or blessing, the deceased.)

Let us decide to bless the world, every day, in the various ways we find opportunity. If the 1.5 billion or so Christians in the world would simply invoke the blessing of the Lord daily, we would see things change significantly and soon. Be a blessing for others as you “speak well” of them and draw them into the Lord’s blessing by your prayer. The blessed life begins here and now.