Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Violent Refresher

I don’t put much stock in dreams—either as messages from God or as sources of information about persons or events—though I think that dreams can express something of our own inner states, and I can't deny that God has at times spoken to people in dreams. But I am rather fascinated by the fact that we dream at all, and that we unconsciously produce nightly “movies” that may be entertaining, bizarrely convoluted, or even horrifying. Having said all that, I venture to share here something that came to me in a dream (though I don’t remember the dream at all). It was odd enough to make me reflect on it to see if there was something of God in it, since it was a name or title for Him. As you’ve already guessed, I woke up with the words “The Violent Refresher” stuck in my mind. I’ve never heard those two words put together, and I wouldn’t have consciously tried to do so, but God is full of paradoxes, so who knows?

Now I’m not proposing the following as a new section for the Catechism, and you can put it in other terms if you wish, but since God is infinite and therefore can be approached from innumerable perspectives, I’d like to offer one here that’s perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, but which may stimulate a little beneficial reflection.

First, the violent part. Obviously, this cannot mean the violence that is the result of unrestrained human anger, frustration, or malice. We (and the monastic fathers) speak sometimes of “doing violence” to ourselves when we have to break a bad habit or remain faithful to a difficult discipline. The violence of God is like something we would do to yank back a person about to step over a precipice, or to arouse a sleeping person whose house is on fire around him. To such, a gentle whisper would achieve nothing but abandonment to certain death. Similarly, a therapeutic yet sharp slap across the face, rather than soft-spoken reasoning, is more beneficial to someone who is hysterically babbling. Sometimes God has to be “violent” with us in order to give us a wake-up call, when all his gentle whispers and pleasant invitations have gone unnoticed or unheeded—because He desires at all costs to save our souls from the “second death” (see Rev. 20:14-15).

God is all life, strength, vigor, dynamism, decisiveness, wisdom, overflowing energy—in short, Love that is stronger than death. He wants to be in personal, life-giving, bracing communion with all He has made. There is nothing mushy, maudlin, timid, half-hearted, impotent, or wishy-washy about Him. He acts powerfully in the world, though He exercises sufficient restraint to leave room for the free decision of faith, lest He overwhelm us with his blinding glory and endless miracles. He is called a “jealous God” in Scripture, and it is clear what severe measures He often took to try to keep his beloved people from destroying themselves or the covenant they made with Him.

But God is the Refresher also. He does not merely enforce his laws that are necessary for our salvation. He also is lavish in bestowing blessing, grace, encouragement, and mercy upon us, as Scripture repeatedly testifies. We also say in one of our liturgical texts that He is the One “whose delight it is to bestow gifts upon us.” Jesus invites us burdened ones to come to Him, saying, “I will refresh you” (Matthew 11:28). I noticed recently at Matins that in several of the prayers of the priest we thank God for having refreshed us during the night. Divine refreshment is not, however, mere pleasure or relaxation, but torrents of grace and spiritual enlightenment that carry us off into the world of God. He would rather refresh, revitalize, and renew us all the time, but He must resort to “violence” when we’ve strayed so far that only a stern jolt will bring us back to reality, that is, to the path of salvation.

Yet there is another way that violence and refreshment come from God, though maybe this is reserved chiefly for the saints. I’ve been reading a book about a Russian Orthodox priest-monk named Fr Arseny, who suffered for many years in Soviet concentration camps (perhaps his experience is something that my mind fashioned into a dream to produce those strange words). God allowed him to suffer terribly for years, and even when he finally died from illness and exhaustion, God told him it wasn’t his time and sent him back for more years of service in suffering! (Which means that his sufferings were part of God’s plan and were not merely the product of random human or demonic malice.) He was frequently beaten, and often was nearly starved or frozen to death. This is the “violence” of God upon the saints, his specially chosen ones. He tries them, tests them, pushes them to their limits, in order to perfect them. "God tested them and found them worthy of Himself; like gold in the furnace He tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering He accepted them" (Wisdom 3:5-6). He takes them to the Cross and seems to abandon them there (ask Jesus what that was like), making them endure more than what is ordinarily humanly endurable. Yet they love Him so much, and their faith and trust are so strong that they do not complain, but rather grow in holiness as they persevere in prayer and patient endurance. They know that Heaven is worth it.

These saints God also refreshes in extraordinary ways. Fr Arseny received graces and spiritual experiences in his captivity and suffering that literally took him to heaven and temporarily made his squalid surroundings and intolerable pains recede out of conscious awareness. He was with God and that was all that mattered, and God was pleased to lavish gifts and miracles upon his beloved, faithful son and servant, while at the same time requiring him to endure still more suffering. This is the paradox of the Violent Refresher, who takes people to the Cross and to Heaven, and back to the Cross again, until Heaven will be the only and eternal reality and happiness. God’s love and call to intimacy are all-demanding, and no half-measures or lukewarmness are acceptable to Him. With God it is all or nothing, and whoever is not with Him is against Him. Those who die not wholly matured in love and fidelity must undergo a further purgatorial purification after death. All this is so that He can take us into his perfect love and joy for all eternity. To those who are willing to bear his “violent” purification, his “jealousy” that proceeds from an irrepressible and blazing love, He will grant refreshment and peace beyond all measure, beyond all imagination and hope, in this age and in the eternal age to come. “The sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed…” (Romans 8:18).

When your faith and love are so strong that you see and accept God’s will in everything, even the worst of sufferings, and love Him above all, holding nothing more precious in life than the salvation of your soul (and the souls of others), then He takes you into his most breathtaking, crucifying, marvelous, ecstatic intimacy, and you know what He means when he says: The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.