Tuesday, February 28, 2006

God Meant It For Good

The story of Joseph and his brothers covers about 13 chapters in the Book of Genesis, so it is quite significant for the early stages of salvation history. Joseph is one of the most attractive characters in the whole book, as a patriarch, sage, ruler, and mystic, one whose chastity and compassion have become stirring examples for all.

Joseph was favored by his father and hence envied and despised by his brothers. When, as a youth, he rather imprudently shared with them a couple of his dreams, which were obviously to be interpreted as his entire family bowing down to him, his brothers decided to do away with him, and they eventually sold him into slavery in Egypt.

Once he was there, the Pharaoh’s wife tried to seduce him, and when he refused, she accused him of trying to seduce her, and he ended up in a dungeon for 13 years. But his ability to interpret dreams became known to Pharaoh, who had just had a couple of disturbing ones, and Joseph was rehabilitated when he spoke the word of God to Pharaoh—and not only rehabilitated, but made second in command over the whole of Egypt.

Soon Joseph’s former dreams would come true, as his brothers came to Egypt seeking grain, for a famine had afflicted the whole Near East. They had no idea who he was, only that he was the viceroy of Pharaoh and their only hope of survival. So they all bowed down to him, declaring themselves his servants if only he would give them food. Joseph recognized them and milked the situation for all it was worth before revealing himself to them—being unable any longer to restrain his tears and his joy—and his brothers were filled with both joy and fear: joy that their own brother was so powerful in Egypt, and fear that he might retaliate against them for having treated him so cruelly years ago.

The point of this whole reflection is Joseph’s answer to his brother’s concerns, which shows both his magnanimity and his faith: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:20-21).

This is perhaps the Old Testament version of St Paul’s “all things work for the good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). It is something that we need to reflect upon seriously, for in our own lives some people do mean evil against us, and we may wonder if indeed “all things” work for the good. We see from Joseph’s faith that God is always and still the Master of time and space, of persons and events, and that nothing is the last word unless it is his. God is able to bring good out of evil actions or intentions, as he did in the case of Joseph, and especially in the case of Jesus. So all is not lost if some apparent misfortune befalls us, if things don’t go as planned or expected, or if people do things that seem quite obviously to ruin what we believe are God’s own intentions or plans.

This is not meant to excuse evildoers—“as for you, you meant it for evil”—for they are still accountable, and God will prove that He will not be outsmarted, upstaged, or thwarted by any mere creature—“but God meant it for good.” God will provide, God will show compassion, God will transform even the worst of situations according to his will, which holds our spiritual well-being and salvation as the first priority.

So do not grieve, grumble, or grow angry or depressed, for God means it for good—whatever it is. Do not fear, for God will provide. But pray for the faith and trust to hold on to that, to discover the lessons that need to be learned. And pray for the patience necessary to wait for God’s plan to unfold. It took years for the realization of Joseph’s dream. But everything did turn out well—because God meant it for good.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Get Me to Heaven!

I received a rather interesting comment from one of my blog readers about a week ago. He said he wasn’t interested in too much of what is out there in cyberspace, because he was looking for something that would help get him to Heaven, and most blogs (even Catholic ones) do not provide much help in that regard. He wanted to read something that would advance his salvation, and not merely entertain him (or worse, weary or discourage him). Another friend says he uses this blog for spiritual discussions with his girlfriend, presumably for the same ultimate goal.

I thought to myself: shouldn’t that goal—getting to Heaven—be first and foremost on all our agendas? If something doesn’t positively help get us there, then it is neutral at best and a hindrance at worst. But other things actually lead us away from Heaven, and these ought to be avoided at all costs—even though they are often the things that the majority of people seem avidly and blindly to pursue.

What I’m trying to do with Word Incarnate, in my own small way, is to help lead you to Heaven. So I write about Heaven, and sometimes about Hell—for you have to know, because of original sin and its effects, that “Heaven” is not the default setting for our souls. We have to choose it, make an effort, follow the Lord; it won’t happen automatically. And I write a lot about the word of God, how the way to Heaven is explained to us in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church. There are countless insights there into living a full and faithful spiritual life, and if the Lord has freely given a few of them to me, then I freely share them with you—because I want to see you in Heaven (and because, I confess, I share St Paul’s burden: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”).

Let’s be clear about this. The mass media do not exist to help you get to Heaven; neither do politicians, advertisers, pornographers, insurance companies, or anyone else whose main interest is taking your money, keeping you under control, or ruining your immortal soul. We must have the realistic attitude that, even with the refreshing touches of Paradise that God has allowed to remain on earth, and even with the heartwarming experiences we may have with some of those created in his image, we still have to fight hard against “the world, the flesh, and the devil” in order to get to Heaven. And for this we need a lot of help.

The Church ought to be our greatest help in getting to Heaven, for, unlike all the other groups mentioned above, the Church does exist to help us get to Heaven. That is her reason of being, even though sometimes it may seem like she exists to raise funds or handle administrative tasks or hand out a few spiritual warm fuzzies. You have the right to go to your pastor and tell him that you expect him to help get you to Heaven! After he has put his jaw and eyebrows back in their proper places, he may either dismiss you or actually realize that this is his vocation and begin in earnest to deal with your spiritual needs. The Church is supposed to provide us with all the means of grace, through the sacraments and the wise counsel of its ordained ministers. If the Church isn’t working tirelessly to help the faithful get to Heaven, she is failing in her most important and essential mission.

Perhaps this should be the main criterion when we are making a decision about some plan of action to pursue, even in the simple things of everyday life: is this going to help me get to Heaven? If it isn’t going to help get me to Heaven, why the Hell do I want to do it? Sometimes I pray to the Lord (trembling at what this might mean in practice): Whatever it takes to keep me out of Hell and to secure my place in Heaven, do that! Because nothing is worth losing your soul. Make your efforts toward attaining Heaven explicit. If you’re not actively trying to get to Heaven, be assured that you won’t. The Lord has provided more than enough helps for us to get there, for that’s where He wants us to be, but that doesn’t mean the way there will not be demanding. It will. But it will be worth it. Let us all support and pray for each other, and help each other get to Heaven. We’ll be eternally glad we made that our number one priority.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Glimpses of Home

Just in case you are still weeping inconsolably since yesterday’s post, I thought I’d offer a few bright spots to help survive the time that remains in the land of exile. Even though the psalmist could not sing the song of the Lord on alien soil, we see that Tobit praised God in the land of his exile (Tob. 13:6), so there is still hope.

The blessings that we receive from God in this life are meant as consolations and helps to persevere in this time of trial—not as encouragements to think that this earth is Paradise or our final destination. Once in a while I go to the coast and find peace and blessing in the beauty of the ocean, dazzling me with sunny coruscations, calming me with soothing surf—coupled with the caress of a light and pleasant sea breeze. But I think to myself: this is too much like Paradise; that’s why I can only come here once in a while. I can’t start thinking that I should have this all the time, as if I could establish some permanent satisfaction in this land of exile. Wanting it all the time is precisely the error we humans make as we turn blessings into addictions. But God’s gifts, however temporary, are still glimpses of Home, reminders that the best is yet to come.

While trials and sufferings are inevitable and inescapable, we are still called to be fruitful in the land of exile, to turn to God, seeking his face, his reflection, wherever we can find it. “The commandment to love God with all our strength, to the limits of our individual capacity, does not extend simply to man, but to all nature, which was created for no other reason than to glorify him, to reveal him, to love him…in confession, devotion, and regeneration. And it is up to us, seasoned, stirred, sharpened, and whetted by the breath of the Holy Spirit, to apply to the universe that fiery tongue capable of translating it and transmuting it into splendor, fragrance, song, poetry and praise” (Paul Claudel).

Yet again, nature itself is not Paradise, for she also provides earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, and other destructive manifestations for which we are not likely to compose ecstatic hymns. We are still in exile, but with glimpses of Home. Beyond nature, however, the Lord gives us foretastes of Heaven through the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and this ought to be our greatest consolation in this Valley of Tears. This is the most profound “connection” we can experience with that Homeland from which we’ve been banished because of our sins.

The Lord still watches over us. In the Liturgy of St Basil the Great, we hear that even after Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, the Lord did not cease to care for mankind, sending angels as guardians, giving the law, speaking through the prophets, until the fullness of time saw the coming of the Son of God in the flesh.

So even though we are still in exile—and will be so until the day we die—we’re much better off than many generations of our forebears. We’re in exile, yet redeemed. We’ve been justly banished, but we’re still in possession of our passports, which identify us as citizens of Heaven. We can still sing on alien soil, though our songs are not of revelry, but of longing and hope.

As we enter into Lent, let us accept the human condition of limitation, suffering, and sorrow—and not try to escape from it, deny it, drug it, or put on a phony happy-face while constructing a flimsy sham-paradise to shore up our failing courage. Let’s look reality straight in the face, repent of our sins, take our licks, but live with a lively faith and eager hope for the coming of the everlasting Kingdom. And let us give thanks to God for giving us in the meantime, undeservedly, precious blessings and glimpses of Home.

Friday, February 24, 2006


It’s almost Lent. If we are to make it a spiritually beneficial season, we have to go beyond a perfunctory giving up of things (though we still ought to maintain the discipline). We have to develop a new way of looking at things, a new awareness of the central place God ought to occupy in our lives. We need to do things for Lent that will benefit our life, not just fulfill a temporary obligation. That’s why I sometimes say that for Lent we should give up things that we’re not going to get back on Easter. If you’re addicted to chocolate or French fries or beer or tobacco or TV, and you give them up for Lent, there is, to be sure, a certain benefit gained by the effort. But if you resume your addictions after Easter, you stand to lose what you gained, and you relativize the negative impact those things had on you in the first place. Is it the risen Christ who hands you a cigarette or a beer on Easter and says: “you can recover all your attachments now”? Isn’t it better to give up gossip or complaining or laziness or anger—and then continue to grow in virtue well beyond Easter?

One of the changes to our spiritual perspectives, which can perhaps facilitate our letting go of faults and bad habits, is to realize that this life is but an exile from our true home. In the Byzantine tradition, on the three Sundays that precede Lent, we sing at Matins, in a plaintive melody, Psalm 136(137), a lament of the Jews in exile from all that is sacred to them: Jerusalem, the temple, their cultural and spiritual heritage. For us the application is wider—we are exiled from Paradise.

That is precisely the theme of the liturgical texts for the Sunday before Lent: the fall of Adam and Eve, their banishment from Paradise, and their (our) cry to God to for restoration and return. But let’s get back to the psalm. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” Despite some liturgical encouragements to enter this season joyfully, it is essentially a time of mourning, of weeping in repentance for our sins and where they have landed us. It is also a time of hope for full restoration, but that restoration is not yet. In this sense our whole life is a continual Lent. But how many of us weep, realizing that we are in exile, and that the joys of Heaven are still far off, obscured by the clamorous seductions of the world, which only leave us empty and jaded?

The Babylonian captors asked the Jews to sing them some songs of their homeland. But “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land [or, on alien soil]?” The season of Lent reminds us that the entire earth is a strange land, alien soil, and we are here in exile. St Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven, and from there comes the Savior whom we await (Phil. 3:20). If our citizenship is in heaven and we are not there, then we are in a foreign land, away from our homeland, in a state of waiting. I often feel that quite profoundly. I am not at home here; I don’t really belong here. Nothing here really satisfies; nothing gives a sense of security, of permanence. Everything is provisional, breakable, disappointing, unfulfilling, and burdensome, occasional consolations notwithstanding. I pray with the psalmist: “How long, O Lord…?”

“O Babylon, destroyer, blessed is he who will repay you for what you have done to us.” I understand the destroyer to be the evil one. Look at what he has done to us! (though not without our co-operation). Look how weak, sick, confused, blind, and broken we are! We’re a race of walking wounded, so it’s not surprising that we should eagerly lap up the world’s narcotic solutions to our existential misery. Drink from my cup, beckons the Whore of Babylon, and you’ll forget your childish pieties; you’ll forget that I have robbed you of your only hope.

The world (like Babylonian captors) would have us forget Heaven’s “pie in the sky” and get it while we can, party hearty today, for tomorrow we die. But “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…if I do not hold you as the source of my joy.” Again, for us it is Heaven that is the source of our joy, and when we forget that, we fall into sin, self-indulgence, and the myopia that cannot see past earth’s horizon. If we’re not in exile, then go ahead, live for money, possessions, pleasure, power—be at home with the ways of the world and eat its bittersweet fruits. But if we are in exile, if Heaven is our true home, then our values, our desires, must be different. We may weep for a season, but joy comes with the dawn of the Resurrection, and that joy no one can take from us. The joy of Heaven, like love, is stronger than death. Death is the great thief and spoiler of all that this world offers, though few take time to reflect on that. Death forces us to leave behind the glory and riches of this world, which shall be pursued by future generations of fools.

So, as the Church brings us to Lent, she invites us to relax our grip on ephemeral things, things on which we rely for pleasure or security, things that dull our sense of exile and hence draw us into compromises with the short-sighted ways of this strange, alien land in which we now live. This is a time to open our eyes, see where we are, remember where we belong, and really live as if Heaven were our homeland, live as if we were awaiting the Savior—as indeed we must. For if we forget that we are in exile, we’ll never find our way back home.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Judge of the Living and the Dead

One of our preparatory Sundays for Lent is that of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). If we haven’t heeded the call to repentance on the previous Sundays, the Church gives us the “bottom line,” the outcome of our repentance—or lack of it.

If you read the liturgical texts for Vespers and Matins of the Sunday of the Last Judgment, you’ll get the clear impression that no one gets away with anything. These Offices have not submitted to the scalpel of post-Vatican II political correctness; they do not manifest “sensitivity” to the updated outlooks of “Easter people.” They are filled with lamentations and cries of woe, while unquenchable fires roar in the background, and the “worm that dieth not” is prepared to devour the unrepentant. Yet it is also filled with recourse to the divine compassion, with confidence in God’s love for mankind, while still begging Him to place us with the righteous elect and not with the unregenerate damned.

Now I don't have a particular affinity for fire and brimstone, but I rather eagerly prayed the Office this time around. It’s a bracing tonic, a wake-up call, something we all need to hear, at least from time to time. It’s not the whole of the Gospel, but the whole of our lives are leading up to that decisive moment, and if we end up on the wrong side for that Final Separation, then we have completely missed the reason for our existence, and we’ll have a really long time to think about it.

Many people these days have lost the sense of sin, believe in a “non-judgmental” God (though that’s not the One of Scripture and Tradition), and are generally heedless to the call to repentance, not believing in the consequences thereof. But I’d rather believe the truth, even if that makes life a little harder. I’d rather confess my sins and do penance than believe that God doesn’t bother with such things, as if all things are going to turn out well in the end, no matter what. But there’s a great difference between not admitting sin because you believe God is merciful, and admitting sin for the very same reason. The sin that is forgiven is the one that is confessed, the one for which there is genuine repentance. Mercy is only granted to the one who knows how desperately he needs it.

There are many prayers in the Liturgy, for both priest and laity, in which we beg that our offering of the Sacrifice and reception of Holy Communion will be “without judgment or condemnation.” It’s not without reason. St Paul said that the Corinthians were sick and even dying because of unworthy reception of the Body and Blood of Christ (1Cor. 11:27-30). We must live with the awareness that our lives are going to be judged, that there are definite standards that we are expected to meet, that there are heavenly consequences for doing good and hellish ones for doing evil.

It’s rather strange, perhaps, that after preaching rather forcefully on this mystery—reiterating the Church’s faith and pointing out the error of those who don’t even believe that Christ is coming again as Judge—I experienced a temptation about that very thing. As the Liturgy went on, I became distracted by the thought: “After all that, is He really going to come at the end to judge us?” Instantly, the choir and the entire congregation sang out: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” We happened to be singing the Creed at that moment, and it jarred me, for I was listening to the tempter more than to the Liturgy and wasn’t paying attention to the words. But at the very moment I entertained my foolish question, it was immediately countered by the profession of faith of the great assembly. The Lord was not going to let me stray for a second! Then, I looked back today at the word I noted from my morning's Bible reading, and I saw: "they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" (John 2:22).

He doesn’t want anyone to doubt the truth of his words in Scripture, especially when concerning such an essential and crucial matter. It’s good to hear the hard word about the great and fiery judgment, if that will keep us on the straight and narrow. In the final analysis, salvation is the only issue, and everything in our lives must (directly or indirectly) lead us toward that end—and woe to us if we move in the other direction! So hear the word of the Lord, know that there will be a final reckoning, and do whatever it takes—for Heaven’s sake—to secure your place at the right hand of the Awesome Judge!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What is Prayer? Living

This is in some ways both the easiest and most difficult way of prayer. It’s easy because virtually everything you do can be transformed into prayer, and difficult because you need to be conscious of it and also to avoid that which really can’t be turned into prayer.

If prayer is a dialogue with God, then it shouldn’t be limited to short periods of actually sitting down and speaking or listening, but it ought to be ongoing. People often tend not to want to pray a whole lot because they compartmentalize their lives in such a way as to set aside “religious” activities for a certain time and place—and those activities aren’t the most “fun.” But, you know, God isn’t “religious.” To be in frequent or constant contact with or awareness of God is not being religious, it is being real. God is the Ultimate Reality, the Creator and Destiny of all that is real, and without his ever-present sustaining power and love, we would instantly vanish into nothingness! So prayer is life, connection with the Source of life, without whom we cannot even exist, let alone plan our lives as we see fit.

All we do can be an offering to God, a prayer. Some people say “my work is my prayer,” and that can be true, but only if at other times your prayer is your work. Daily activities can only be transformed into prayer if the deep relationship with God that this requires is cultivated through sufficient time devoted to nothing else but speaking and listening to God. What kind of relationship would parents have with their children if, for example, they said: “I work all day to provide for them,” but never spent any time with them? But if sufficient time is spent with them to build up a personal and loving relationship, then your time at work which provides for them will also be a fruitful part of the relationship. So it is with God. Don’t say that you serve Him if you don’t spend any time with Him cultivating a loving relationship. When you do that, however, then your other activities can contribute to fostering this relationship, and all will bear fruit.

We ought to start the day with some sort of dedication of it to God, so that his providence and presence will be manifest throughout, and so that you can be a living prayer, even when your duties are so absorbing that you can’t explicitly say the words of prayer or take time to be silent. Then try to “connect” with God regularly throughout the day. This is not that hard, if only you can leave yourself some sort of reminder. Every now and then, take one minute—sixty seconds—to stop whatever you are doing and re-invite God into your day, your heart, thoughts, and work. This may not seem like much in the way of prayer, but it is quite significant. You are breaking through the wall of your unawareness that makes it seem like God is far away. You are piercing the insulating bubble of the world with all its demands and seductions, and you are letting God in to bring his peace and holiness and divine refreshment. Try it and see if it doesn’t make a difference in your day and in your spiritual life. Then when you return to your time of more explicit prayer, you won’t feel as if you’ve been away from God since your last prayer time.

We have to keep recalling ourselves to the meaning of our lives, to our reason of being, to the awareness of where we came from and where we are going. The meaning of life isn’t mere biological survival, emotional satisfaction, or the pursuit of anything that can only bring ephemeral pleasure or security. We were created by and for God, who has revealed to us that He wants us to have everlasting happiness with Him.

So let prayer be life and life be prayer. When you learn how to stop during the day to give thanks and praise to God, the next step will be to develop the ability to use the Jesus Prayer or something similar frequently throughout the day, so that it eventually becomes a constant, quiet, murmuring stream in your heart, in your conscious and unconscious mind. Then you can even take prayer into your sleep!

Speak to God, listen to God, live for and in God. This is the life of prayer. It’s so much different (and better) than merely “saying your prayers.” It’s being your prayers!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What is Prayer? Listening

It is often, and rightly, said that prayer is a dialogue with God. I don’t think it has ever been said that prayer is a monologue directed towards God. But that’s what it often becomes if we don’t become quiet after we’ve said our piece and give God a chance to say his.

For a while those “Question Authority” bumper stickers were popular, until someone came out with one that read: “Question Authority: Then Listen for the Answer.”

An essential part of prayer is listening, though that may be the part we’re somewhat uncomfortable with. We may get a little fidgety, anxious, or discouraged, if we don’t “hear” anything while we’re trying to listen in prayer. Even so, it ought to be clear to us that listening is still more important than speaking, when it comes to prayer (and most anything else). We already know what we have to say; wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to listen to what Eternal Wisdom and Love has to say?

But what can you expect God to say, anyway? Is He going to give you tips on how to manage your day, or will He point out your faults, or will He speak words of blessing and comfort, or will He just give a sermon? I don’t know. Ask Him! Then listen.

The first thing to do is to try to get a little outer, then inner silence. You can’t expect to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit with the stereo on, or with a lot of commotion going on around you. Go find a quiet place and do your best to set aside all your cares and worries for just a little while. Remind yourself that you’re not going to solve your problems in the next 20 minutes anyway, so just put them on hold. Now, if you want to hear what God has to say to you, where’s the first place you’d go? To his word, of course! The Bible is full of God’s dialogues with man, and many people have found that God really answers the cries of their hearts (and even their specific questions) through the words of the Scriptures. So open the Book, read until something moves you, then put it down and let the word sink into you, let the Holy Spirit enlighten you and show you how the word of God is living and active, penetrating your very soul, making clear the way of salvation.

You may wish to pray the Jesus Prayer or some other short, repetitive prayer in case your attention wanders, but even that prayer is meant to turn into silence while you just rest (not sleep) in the presence of the Lord, who loves you and wants to engage in an ongoing dialogue with you. Focus on a holy icon of Christ or the Mother of God if that helps keep your attention and sense of communication with God.

You may find (or not) that your mind clears, your body and spirit relax, that the truths of revelation become more lucid, more meaningful to you, and that you become aware of the presence of the Lord. Actually, the various possible “effects” of prayer are not all that important at any given time. The Lord, not you, will choose when the moments of grace and clarity and revelation and peace will come. What you are doing when you try to listen in prayer is at the root of all contemplative prayer: you are creating an inner “space” for God, you are cultivating an interior disposition of readiness, surrender, openness, and loving docility to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Your prayer may seem dry and even boring sometimes, but as long as you are opening that interior “place of the heart” for God, He will respond. Perhaps not during your time of prayer; perhaps when you least expect it. But leave it up to Him. When you make a place for God, He will fill it.

This reflection has been rather brief and scattered (like our prayer sometimes), but you shouldn’t really expect anyone to be able to tell you how to pray. Does anyone have to tell you how to appreciate a sunset or a starry sky, or how to enjoy the company of someone you love? It just happens—though you have to put yourself in the place where the sun or stars or your beloved are, and pay a little attention. (If you’re so burdened that you don’t even look up, you won’t see the stars—but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, waiting to fill you with wonder and delight.) Someone once said that you learn to pray by praying, and you pray well by praying much.

So, be still and know that the Lord is God. Give Him some time, let go of your diversions and ceaseless activities for a while. Make the effort to listen during times of prayer, and you’ll end up being able to listen to Him all the time, and in all different circumstances. Then you’re ready for the dialogue of love.

Monday, February 20, 2006

What is Prayer? Speaking

Just in case you’re a little overwhelmed with the past few days’ posts on punishment and suffering (don’t forget all the positive aspects, though!), I thought I’d go back to prayer and offer a short series of reflections thereon. Many volumes can be (and have been) written on prayer, so I won’t go into much detail here. I would just like to give a little refresher course on three very general dimensions: prayer as speaking, listening, and living.

We’re probably mostly familiar with prayer as speaking, talking to God (though sometimes it degenerates into “instructing” Him about how things ought to be, or yelling or complaining). Liturgical prayer is full of words, though these are better sung than spoken. Most of our various devotions are full of words, too, and this is OK, as long as it isn’t the sum total of our prayer.

We really must speak to God, because we need to unburden our hearts, to know that there is Someone there who will listen to us and who understands both our inner and outer situations, as well as our stumbling attempts to express ourselves. We don’t have to walk on eggshells around God or polish our grammar. He wants us to be ourselves, because He has no use for phony piety or a veneer of righteousness presented to Him. All He really wants to do is heal our broken or defiled hearts.

So the first thing is to be honest. Once you’ve offered some formal or traditional prayers, just sit down and open your heart and tell the Lord about your day. Sometimes the above-mentioned yelling and complaining might enter here, but even that is not so bad, as long as it isn’t mean-spirited or self-indulgent. After all, even the psalmists, whose prayers are part of the Bible, yelled and complained. One of my favorite introductions is from Psalm 63(64): “Hear me, O God, as I complain…” No pious fa├žade there! But your prayer must not end with your complaint. Tomorrow we'll talk about quietly waiting for God’s answer.

Words can be helpful for expressing what we wish to offer to God in prayer, be it adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, or repentance. We have to be a little careful, though, especially if we happen to be rather good with words, that we don’t end up offering prayers that have for us a satisfying sound, when they may not be so satisfying to God! Yet we were created as the only earthbound beings that can think and communicate with words, so it’s of our very nature to want to speak to God, to praise and thank Him, to enter into a dialogue of love with Him. The mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart, and the Lord is waiting to hear from us.

Probably the bulk of most people’s prayers are prayers of petition. In fact, the word “prayer” literally means a request or entreaty. This kind of prayer is often considered the lowest form of prayer, unless your entreaty is an act of intercession for others. But it’s clear in the Scriptures that God knows we’ll be praying for our own needs as well, and He welcomes such prayer. Pope John Paul II, one of the great men of prayer of this century, said when he was young, he didn’t use this kind of prayer much. “A prayer of supplication seemed to be something unworthy,” he told one of his biographers a few years ago. Asking for things seemed too small. But as he grew older, he changed his mind. “Today I ask very much,” he said.

The Lord told us to ask and we shall receive—perhaps not exactly what and when our prayers specify, but we shall receive good things from the hand of the Father, as He does everything for our spiritual growth and salvation. But it is still important to ask. Once a man was healed from a certain affliction, and he gave the credit to God. A friend taunted him a bit: “How do you know it was God who healed you?” “Simple,” he replied, “He was the only one I asked!”

So let us open our hearts and our mouths to bless the Lord and pray to Him. So much evil is done with words, so many mouths need a good washing out with soap! Let us use ours to adore the Lord and give him thanks, to make reparation for those who blaspheme or sin with words, to repent of our own sins and to seek his assistance in our needs and those of others. For even if speaking to God isn’t the highest form of prayer, it is one He cherishes and expects from us, his children. But let us ask the Holy Spirit to inspire our words, for we know not how to pray as we ought, yet the Spirit can give us words that will find their way to the Heart of God. “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto You… Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!” (Ps. 101[102]).

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Next Level

Hopefully after the last couple of posts we’ve come to a greater understanding and acceptance of that presence of the Lord in our lives that manifests as necessary correction and even therapeutic punishments for our failures to be faithful to his will. Now we have to go a step further and see things in the most profound and positive light.

Jesus Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1Peter 2:24). Bearing our sins means not only “absorbing” them in Himself to neutralize their evil, but experiencing the penalty or punishment for them. The punishment that would last all eternity for us was concentrated in the body and soul of Christ for a relatively short time. When we today are required to endure any sort of divine chastisement because of our sins, it is not only instructive or purifying: it can also be granted to us as a share in Christ’s own sufferings for the same sins.

We have first to realize that all suffering has some relationship to sin. It is true that some people suffer innocently, that is, not as a consequence of their own sins (little children, for example). And it is not always easy or even possible to connect one’s suffering with a particular sin. Yet it remains true that the only reason there is suffering in the world is because there is sin in the world. There was no suffering in Paradise before the fall. But there has been ever since, and it is given in the Book of Genesis as a curse because of sin. “Suffering cannot be divorced from the sin of the beginnings, from what Saint John calls the ‘sin of the world,’ from the sinful background of the personal actions and social processes in human history… one cannot reject the criterion that, at the basis of human suffering, there is a complex involvement with sin” (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris).

So the fact that we suffer at all, whether it be a divine discipline or simply a result of causes built into the nature of things, or the result of other circumstances beyond our control, still has some relation to sin, which is at the root of the “fallenness” of this world. That means that you and I do not suffer innocently as Christ did on the Cross. Yet God in his mercy gives us the opportunity to make even his chastisements fruitful for us, and for those for whom we may offer our sufferings.

Since God laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all, and since He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, and upon Him was the chastisement that makes us whole (see Isaiah 53:5-6), the penalty for our sin was transformed into the sacrifice of our redemption. Thus the meaning of suffering has changed. “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering,” writes Pope John Paul, “Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”

We don’t really have to deal with the issue of whether we suffer innocently or not (and hence whether or not our sufferings are worthy to be united to Christ’s), because we are all guilty and hopelessly in arrears. But the gift of God in Christ is that, having made Christ’s suffering the means of our redemption, all further sufferings of mankind can be elevated to a new and fruitful level. The Pope continues: “The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man [henceforth] has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed.” All human suffering has been redeemed, i.e., carries the potential for great spiritual fruitfulness—if accepted as such through faith and love for Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us (see Galatians 2:20). Therefore even what we suffer from divine punishments—administered as discipline or to help us learn life’s lessons and avoid future sins—can share in the redemptive power of Christ’s sufferings.

That is a great gift, so St Paul could say to the Philippians: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake” (1:29). This brings what may have been our rather reluctant acceptance of the discipline of the Lord to a higher level. From the irksome daily annoyances to the most intense pain we may be called to endure, “all human suffering has been redeemed,” so we should be willing to offer it to God in union with Christ, grateful that He has given it a power, a value, and a meaning far beyond what it has in itself. Nothing we suffer is useless, nothing is wasted, if we choose to unite it to the redeeming sufferings of Christ.

Uniting our sufferings (regardless of their cause) to those of Christ is an act of faith and love, and only through this act are they spiritually beneficial and powerful. To paraphrase the Pope from the same Apostolic Letter: Faith enables us to know the love that led Christ to the Cross. And if Jesus loved us by suffering and dying for us, then with this suffering and death He lives in those whom He loved in that way. He lives in us. And Christ thus unites Himself to us to the degree that we, conscious of this through faith, respond to his love with our love.

We’ve now come a long way from merely resigning ourselves to the necessary and inevitable “punishments” of God which we suffer. Guilty and deserving of much more than He imposes on us, we still are granted further gifts by being allowed to increase the value of our sufferings by uniting them, through our faith and love, to those which secured our redemption. “Christ has led us into his Kingdom through his suffering. And also through suffering, those surrounded by the mystery of Christ’s Redemption become mature enough to enter this Kingdom.” Amen.

Friday, February 17, 2006


This topic is even scarier than yesterday’s, but again, it does us no good to try to deny it. Better to learn the hard truth now, when we can do something about it, than when it’s too late, and we can’t.

In reading over my last post, I realized that some could get the impression that since Christ atoned for our sins, our salvation is thereby automatically assured, though we might have to be taught a few painful lessons in the meantime. That sounds too much like the erroneous “once saved, always saved” idea put forth by some Christians. But Scripture makes it clear that we have to endure to the end if we are to be saved—enduring in faith, hope, and love, in obedience to the will of God, which alone is the way to salvation. It’s true that we ought to have confidence in God’s mercy, but confidence is not the same as presumption.

So let’s look briefly at what happens when God’s therapeutic punishments go unheeded, when we don’t learn our lessons, persevering in sin and refusing to repent. God will do everything He can to bring us to salvation. He already cleared out the biggest obstacle—our absolute banishment from Paradise due to sins for which we are essentially and radically unable to atone—by sending his Son as a sacrifice for our sins, reopening Paradise to all who would believe and follow Him. But during the span of our earthly lives that work of believing and following has to be accomplished. Part of that work, as I wrote yesterday, involves the divine discipline or temporal punishments that open our eyes and help us to know and do God’s will, that we may change whatever needs to be changed—with the help of grace—so that we may be found fit for the Kingdom when Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.

But what about that atonement for every sin? How can we lose our souls if all our sins are already atoned for? Since Christ’s sacrifice was not some mechanical act that produces a pre-determined or universally-guaranteed result, we have to choose to accept his sacrifice, allow it to mark our lives, that is, to personally appropriate his gift, for He wishes to grant it personally to each of us. If we do not say “yes” to the atonement of our sins, then that atonement will not apply to us personally, even though it is objectively available to the whole world.

Therefore I suggest the following (you may not find this explanation in the Catechism, so just think about it and discern for yourself). The question is often raised why the damned have to be punished eternally, when, say, a few billion years of torment ought to suffice. Well, look at it this way. Those who die in a state of unrepented mortal sin have willfully cut themselves off from God, have spurned his repeated offers of mercy and hence of salvation, and have therefore rejected the atonement of their sins that Christ accomplished on the Cross. I said yesterday that man is utterly incapable of atoning for sin; only the God-Man could do it. So the punishment of the damned may perhaps be understood like this: since they have rejected Christ’s atonement for their sins, they now have to do it themselves, as it were. Hell is being forever burdened with your own sins, knowing—all too late—that Christ was willing to take them all away and receive you into Paradise, but you said NO. The damned have to bear intense sufferings for their sins, but all eternity won’t suffice for it—yet they still have to stay in Hell until their sins are atoned for. You can’t enter Heaven if you are still in your sins. That’s why Hell lasts forever.

That’s also why eternal punishment has such a different character than temporal punishment. God’s punishments in our lives are actually graces, helps, instructions, and purifications, but none of that applies in Hell. Hells punishments are just that—punitive; they cannot be remedial or therapeutic. That time is past. The definitive rejection has been made toward God (God doesn’t reject us; He just accepts the consequences of our freedom, even if we use it to permanently reject Him). Now all that remains is the impossible task of suffering for one’s sins, which will never result in atonement.

So let us soberly examine our lives. It’s not sufficient that we once make a profession of faith and then live in sin, blithely talking of God’s mercy but ignoring the better part of Scripture. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,” says the Apostle. “Whatever you sow, that you will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). He goes on to say that only by sowing according to the Holy Spirit will we reap eternal life.

Let us also be willing to accept divine punishments now, so we don’t have to endure them forever. Life is not to be taken lightly or carelessly, even though we are called to live in joy and gratitude. Christians are happy and thankful that they’ve been warned beforehand! We are then to bring the Good News of salvation to others, so that they do not waste and destroy their lives and have to hear the Bad News of damnation. The choice is ours; God has done and is doing his part. God does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he repent and live—so say “yes,” repent, endure to the end, and be saved!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Punished—For Now

I hope I’m not scaring you with this title, but it’s time to look at an issue that most people these days discount, undoubtedly to their spiritual peril. The idea of a God who punishes sin seems to have flown out of the Church when the Vatican II windows were opened. But a rejected idea does not mean the reality behind it ceases to exist.

Too sharp a distinction is often made between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, as if they were two different Gods. The Old Testament God is a punishing God and the New Testament God is a loving, merciful God, they say, so we can discard those archaic images of inexorable divine judgment. It is true that you can find numerically more expressions of divine wrath in the Old Testament, but you can also find much tenderness there. On the other hand, you will also find the wrath of God in the New Testament.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him… I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks… My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred…” (Old Testament God, Hosea 11:1-8). “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he paid back everything. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless you forgive…” (New Testament God, Matthew 18:34-35). So, it’s the same God in both: loving by nature, severe when circumstances demand it.

Why then have we decided that Jesus and his Father are merciful and that other God is harsh and vindictive? Sure, Jesus revealed God as a loving Father, and even sacrificed Himself out of love for us. But the divine nature hasn’t changed just because now there is a Jesus. There’s still no free pass for sin: “Whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him” (John 3:36, the same chapter in which we read: “God so loved the world…”). I could overload you with more citations, but I think you get the point.

There's a description of God in Psalm 98(99) that seems to hold together the two sides of this divine coin. I used to have some difficulty with this, but I don’t anymore: “For them you were a forgiving God, yet you punished all their offenses.” We seem to want forgiveness to mean merely looking the other way, saying everything is OK without any honest accounting. And somehow punishment (or correction, or discipline) seems to be little more than a vindictive demand for the satisfaction of justice. But both of those are wrong. So is the image of God (explicit or implicit) as a benign old Grandfather who sits in his rocker saying, “There, there, everything’s OK. I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Punishment and forgiveness are both bound up in the mystery of the Cross. There is no punishment we could endure to atone for a single sin. We are utterly incapable, so we would not be able to satisfy divine justice by any sort of punishment or discipline from God that He may require. We received forgiveness because Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice, enduring all that was due to us, atoning for every sin ever committed. Therefore God doesn’t punish our offenses as a way for us to atone for them; He does it for didactic and therapeutic purposes—because He loves us.

You see, we have a lot of lessons to learn, and our tainted nature tends to resist the path of righteousness and hence needs constant instruction and correction. This our Father graciously supplies, though sometimes it is in the form of a punishment. Certain “punishments” are administered not directly by God but as a result of the nature of things or the structure of society. If you jump off the roof of your house, you will likely break some bones; if you rob a bank, you will likely get caught and go to prison; if you commit sodomy, you will likely contract AIDS or some other related disease (yet other punishments may be forthcoming); if you have an abortion, you will likely suffer physical and emotional (and definitely spiritual) harm. Probably you who are reading this rarely, if ever, do any of those things. But there are a host of smaller sins that we commit all the time which, even though atoned for by Jesus (God is a God who forgives), require that we bear the fruits of repentance and accept divine discipline. "The anger of God I accept," cries the prophet, "for I have sinned against Him." Yet once we acquiesce to God's judgment, "He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance" (Micah 7:9).

Remember this important passage from Hebrews: “Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines the one whom he loves, and chastises [literally, scourges!] every son whom he receives” (12:5-6). So rather than deny that God punishes—thinking that He somehow has evolved from a strict God to a lenient one, a punisher to a forgiver—let us simply embrace the truth: He is a merciful Father who, out of love for us and concern for our spiritual well-being and salvation, has recourse to punishments, corrections, and whatever it takes to help us learn the lessons of life that are essential to our lasting happiness. Easy forgiveness without clearly-felt correction may not reach deeply enough into our hearts and minds to effect the required change. We must not take the horror of sin or the gift of divine mercy lightly. God intends that we be fully aware of what we have done and the price of the atonement thereof. If we just say, “Sorry about that!” and dance off happily, without having felt the painful reality of sin in our hearts and our very bones, chances are we won’t learn our lesson and won’t think twice before offending Him again. But thus we flirt with blasphemy.

To accept that God may be disciplining us because of our sins, even if we have repented and received forgiveness, is not to have a false or negative image of God (you’d have to deny practically the whole of Scripture to assert that). The authors of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament are always saying that if a wise man accepts reproof, discipline, and correction, he becomes wiser still. For everything that comes from God bears good fruit—if we allow it. If it is God who punishes, then it is a blessing, for God is love. We can reduce our confusion and anxiety over the events and sufferings of our lives if we simply accept that we are in God’s hands, and that even his punishments are advancing our salvation.

But we have to co-operate; we have to say “yes” and prove that we are learning our lessons. If we’re on the way to salvation we’ll only be punished for now. Tomorrow I’ll have something to say about those who are punished forever—quite a different state of affairs.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Meditations on a Dysfunctional Water Heater

The other day I turned on the hot water and cold came out. I have one of those energy-saving propane water heaters that only turns on when you turn the water on. But this time it didn’t turn on at all.

As I pondered how long it might be before I would have hot water again, and what I might do in the meantime, I thought I’d bring the whole mess into my meditation, since it was distracting me anyway.

I came to the following conclusion: the water heater broke down because it was supposed to break down. Now don’t think that I’m indulging in fatalism here. The heater was designed to cease functioning—not only by unscrupulous manufacturers with their cheap materials, shoddy workmanship, and planned obsolescence, but by God Himself. You see, it was just “going the way of all flesh,” which inevitably wears out, breaks down, ceases functioning, decomposes. It is the rule of all bodies, machines, vehicles, and monks. If the water heater had refused to malfunction, it would have been lying to me about its true nature, and I may have been deceived into thinking I would never need a new one, that I could rely on it forever. But I can’t, so I ought to be told the truth. Thank you, #*!% machine!

Things don’t go as we would like them to, because they’re not supposed to. We’re not in Paradise, remember—we’re in exile. All things pass because the heavens and the earth themselves are going to pass. Everything here is provisional, temporary, fragile, brittle, and subject to innumerable failures, diseases, and problems. Now, take my computer—please! My septic system is also slowing down fearfully; when that finally backs up, I’ll give you a meditation on Hell.

So, my water heater was preaching a homily to me—on the brevity of life, the unreliability of ephemeral material goods, the ultimate decomposition of all living and non-living things—and hence was pointing me in the direction of That Alone which endures forever. Jesus said we would have suffering in this world; He said that unrighteous mammon (and all that it provides) would fail us. It is common wisdom that you can’t take it with you—no U-hauls are ever seen attached to hearses, as they say. So we ought to get more or less used to everything going wrong, for here we have no lasting city. We must, however, take reasonable care of ourselves and our loved ones and whatever God’s providence has entrusted to us, but we can’t guard anything too jealously, for nothing is ours to keep—nothing except that which survives death. Our outer selves are wasting away, said the Apostle, but our inner selves are being renewed each day. Focus, then, on the renewal of the inner self; don’t cling too tightly to outer things or put your trust in them. They’re going to break down, because they’re meant to. It’s one way God teaches us the truth about life, and about what really matters.

In case you’re wondering, I tinkered with the heater for a while and got it to work—for now.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Psalm 49(50): Give Me Your Heart

One of the things for which Jesus often criticized the Pharisees was their emphasis on the minutiae of external observance without any real inner devotion: they worshiped God with words and rituals, but their hearts were far from Him. Yet God had said similar things to his people centuries earlier. I guess it takes a long time to catch on. Psalm 49(50) is a good example (I’ll be using the Knox translation here, but without the archaic English).

The Lord begins with a solemn summons: “It is the Lord God that speaks… He will keep silence no longer… He summons heaven and earth to witness the judgment pronounced on his people.” It’s clear that God has something terribly important to say here.

“Listen, my people, to these words of mine… I do not find fault with you over your sacrifices; why, all day long your burnt offerings smoke before me! But the gifts I accept are not cattle from your stock… I own already every wild beast… Would you have me eat bull’s flesh and drink the blood of goats?” This is quite striking, for sacrificial worship was at the heart of Israelite religion. Suddenly God was saying: OK, enough slaughtered, smoking animals before Me. We’ve more important things to discuss here.

So what is God interested in? “The sacrifice you must offer to God is a sacrifice of praise.” That is, God wants something from the heart, not just a contribution from the herd, which can be made without any love or devotion whatever. But what was wrong with the offering of the prescribed sacrifices? Evidently, the people offered sacrifice perfunctorily but lived evil lives, thinking that God would be appeased by the external offerings. “Swift you are to welcome the thief… to throw in your lot with the adulterers. Malice wells up from your lips…speaking evil of your brother… Such are your ways, and should I make no sign? Should I let you think I am such as you?... Think well on this, you that forget God, or his hand will fall suddenly, and there will be no delivering you…”

God is not mocked, as St Paul said. We reap what we sow. God looks at the heart, not the formal observance of religion. Sometimes I’ve wondered, as I send up clouds of incense before the tabernacle or the icons, if God cares anything for the sight or smell of incense. I’ve concluded that He doesn’t, but He cares much for the soul that offers it. Incense is pleasing to Him when offered from a loving, adoring heart. Otherwise, it’s just smoke in his eyes. Likewise, a widow’s mite is more pleasing to God than the rich gifts of hypocrites.

The psalm concludes with the point of the whole thing: “Live aright, and you shall see the saving power of God.” That is, do the will of God if you want salvation; don’t just go through the motions of religion. An evil (or lukewarm) heart bringing offerings is detestable to God, and He says so in even stronger terms through Isaiah: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me… I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me… Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen… Cease to do evil, learn to do good…” (Is. 1:13-17, RSV).

We see images of hearts everywhere on this day, a day which for many is merely an opportunity for some increased self-indulgence or illicit pleasure. God sees hearts, too—yours and mine—and He knows what is in them. He asks from us pure hearts, loving and devoted hearts, willing to serve Him and to offer the acceptable sacrifice of praise and fidelity to his word. Give Him your heart today, and every day. He sees right through all phony piety. If you come to Him honestly and humbly, even with a damaged heart, He will accept you. Turn the page of the psalter and you will find that a broken, humble heart is a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord. Then you shall see the saving power of God.

Monday, February 13, 2006

In a Holy Family Way

To conclude (for now) my reflections on the Mother of God, I’d like to return to Paul Claudel and a little reflection of his on the relationship of Mary and Joseph and her divine pregnancy. A spiritual writer who also happens to be a poet always makes the reflections richer. Perhaps this testimony of love and grace will help put the coming Valentine’s Day in perspective—because genuine love, says the Apostle, is of God.

“The screeching of plane and saw; it is Joseph in his workshop… Mary is there. Morning, noon, and evening they pray together; sometimes they sing; they eat from the same plate at the same table; they divide the chores between them… And one day, suddenly…Mary and Joseph look at each other; he guesses the truth and she sees that he has guessed. She says nothing and he says nothing. ‘And her husband Joseph, being a just man…resolved to send her away quietly’ (Mt. 1:19).

“…Notice how she ushers God into the world: in secret, as an intruder, under suspicion. And watch this righteous man who must be sacrificed, first victim of Him who said that He had not come to bring peace, but the sword. What can she do? Her lips are sealed; it is not in her power to breathe the Word that is there within her.

“He who becomes the friend of God must be prepared for surprises. It is not Judas; it is my love, my beloved wife, bound to me by a tie stronger than marital love, who has betrayed me. In his pain, he hurriedly devises a plan.

“There is something strange in the atmosphere; some new element has been introduced that works against the carrying out of that decision he reached so sorrowfully. Joseph has now the feeling that if he sent this woman away, it would be he and not she who would be excluded.

“And then occurs the event of which we are told in the Gospel: An angel appears to him in a dream, the angel of the Annunciation, we may be sure… Good God, he has understood!

“A day, two days pass. And on the third day Mary does not rise from the table; she lingers there, looking at her husband. She does not look at his eyes, she looks at his lips. His eyes are closed, and tears are rolling down over his beard. His lips are moving; they begin silently to form that first salutation which passed from the mouth of the angel: Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you

“The time passes: an hour, two hours, and each is distinguished by an increased solemnity. Joseph’s heart repeats the psalms. He understands; he trembles: a certain verse in Hebrew characters appears to him with sweet authority, and another—look, he begins to weep—takes it place, bearing the irrefutable Word!

“O my God, then is it true? This is to be placed in my heart, in my arms? I, the heir of Abraham and Jacob and Judah and David! I have been chosen to be the witness, and more than the witness, You say—the father! ‘Jesus…being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph’ (Lk. 3:23).” (La Rose et le Rosaire)

Perhaps we take the Incarnation for granted. Perhaps we are not sufficiently aware of the very human drama that accompanied the divine. If only we could look upon the Blessed Virgin as Joseph did, with the dawning realization that in her alone, his beloved, God was entering the world as man, to save us from our sins. It was happening right before his eyes, in his own house—and his own heart was about to burst from wonder, fear, joy and gratitude. He could scarcely grasp who she is, the Mother of the Messiah, of the Son of God. Indeed, O Mary, the Lord is with you.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Love Your Mother

I’ve used this icon of Our Lady of Vladimir in several posts already, but she’s worth seeing again. And if you look into her eyes, you will see that she thinks you are worth seeing too, for those eyes full of love and compassion.

The Mother of God is one of the most beloved figures of all time, even though many have tried (and still try) to denigrate or ignore her, unknowingly depriving themselves of a fruitful relationship with their own spiritual Mother. They ought to be honored, as was St Elizabeth, that the Mother of our Lord should come to them. But they have made her out to be an enemy, as it were, a supplanter, a stealer of the glory due to God. They are afraid to turn to her, and when they speak about her it is only to warn everyone not to speak to her! But look at her. Is she pushing Christ aside, robbing Him of his light? Is she not rather receiving his love, and showing unto us the blessed Fruit of her womb? How can anyone disdainfully look the other way in the presence of the one who gave flesh to the Son of God and Savior of the world?

A friend of mine who used to be a Protestant (a Wheaton graduate, no less!), and who is now a devout Catholic, told me recently of the way the above icon opened her heart to Our Lady. “You see that little hand around her neck? That’s what drew me to love the Mother of God. If Jesus could love her so tenderly and intimately, then I wanted to do the same.” This style of iconographic representation of the Mother and Child is called the “tenderness icon.” Jesus is cheek-to-cheek with her and is embracing her lovingly. Mary looks at us, showing us the Savior, holding Him up for our adoration, calling us to repentance and holiness. Their love is not a closed circle. When she experiences the love of her Son, she invites us to share in it.

Why is it, though, that so many who call themselves Christians reject this feminine, maternal dimension of the Faith? In many non-Catholic (and non-Orthodox) churches, there’s something sterile about their approach to God. It is either hyper-spiritualized and cerebral (i.e., disincarnate, the word without flesh, so to speak, devoid of sacraments and sacramentals), or it is characterized by unbalanced emotion. One of the reasons for this is the exclusion of the Mother, that gentle, profound, sweet, nurturing, guiding, protecting, praying presence offered to the Church by Christ, who experienced it in his own life. To exclude the Mother is to break up the family. To exclude the Mother is to produce a spirituality that is "masculine," individualistic, suspicious of mysticism and of the deeper dimensions of spiritual life as well as those that are most profoundly human.

So the modern response to the absence of the feminine, maternal dimension in their forms of Christianity is to cast women in the roles of men, make them more prominent, put Roman collars on them and send them to officiate at altar or pulpit. This is like wresting a woman from hearth and home and telling her to get out there and act like a man, for she needs to be better represented in a man’s world, a patriarchal church. But trying to make women fathers does nothing to restore the gift of femininity in the Church. Rather, it obscures it. And the Mother remains excluded.

It is men that need to be told to act like men, for many have been cowed and emasculated by the arrogant brutality of modern radical feminism, and so they in turn act like women and want to marry other men. Men want to be women and women want to be men, but the Mother of God still looks at us with those sad eyes, full of sorrow over our missing the whole point of our calling, our creation.

Mothers, sisters, brides, the Church needs your courage, your grace, your tenacious fidelity, your creativity, femininity, and love! We need to you be icons of the Mother, whose beauty and inner strength is all too often obscured by the noise and smokescreens thrown up by the witches, barracudas, baby-killers, and gender-benders of our bizarre and pathetic culture. We need you to be the contemplative heart of the Church. Mary didn’t complain that she wasn’t chosen to be one of the Twelve, who would be priests of the New Covenant. She didn’t demand it as a right. She was the Handmaiden of the Lord, and therefore his will alone was her sanctification. (And what about that twelve? One betrayed Christ, one publicly denied Him, and they all deserted Him in his hour of need in Gethsemane. And they were in fearful hiding when the women, who alone dared to brave the enemies of Christ, brought them the news of the Resurrection. The women didn’t need to be priests to be heroines of the Faith.)

The Mother of God was not a “liberated” woman in the modern sense, yet the Truth set her free. She was not self-sufficient or independent of her religious tradition, but she rejoiced in God her Savior. She lived the unsung life of a simple disciple, yet all ages have called her blessed. She gave herself to humble service, and now she is the Woman clothed with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head. She is the Child-bearer, the God-bearer, the new Eve—Mother of all the living. Her whole life teaches us that whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Her eminent place in the life of the Church is well-justified and is a source of consolation, peace, and strength for all those who rely on her prayer and protection, who know the blessing of the holy Mother’s love, who deeply appreciate and welcome her presence in their lives—her quiet, gentle, yet uncompromising encouragement to do whatever Jesus tells us.

So love your Mother. Go to her. It’s OK. Wrap your arms around her neck, just like Jesus did. You’ll see the divine compassion shining through her eyes. Just open your heart. You need a mother. The whole Church does. Jesus knows that. He loves you and so He shares with you that which is precious to Him, as he shared it with his beloved disciple at the moment of the consummation of his sacrifice: “Behold your Mother.”