Friday, May 19, 2006

First Love, New Name

I’d like to return to the Lord’s messages to the seven churches in chapters 2-3 of the Book of Revelation. We’ve looked at the major themes already, but I want to focus on a couple of specific sayings.

The first message is to the Church in Ephesus. Notice that it doesn’t say the church of Ephesus, but the Church in Ephesus, and it’s the same to all the others. This is not a minor distinction, for it indicates that the Church is one, even though its particular manifestations are spread over the world. Today’s bishops would do well to remember that the Church in Los Angeles, for example, is supposed to be the same Church as that in Rome, where the universal leadership resides. It is not the church of Los Angeles, as if the local leadership had authority to re-invent Christianity according to contemporary trends.

Anyway, the Church in Ephesus was hardworking, discerning, and patiently enduring for the Lord’s sake, but He still had a reproach for them: “You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, then, from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first” (2:4-5). This can probably apply to many of us, especially those who have been laboring in the Lord’s vineyard for many years. The first fervor, the first love, tends to wear a little thin—“the thrill is gone” as one succumbs to routine or becomes a bit weary under continual burdens, even if they are borne in faith and hope.

I remember a kind of spiritual springtime back around 1980, when I was beginning to discern my vocation. (Come to think of it, it was springtime. I was living in Orlando, Florida, and the air was filled with the scent of orange blossoms. And I mean filled. You could be driving down Interstate 4 and, despite the freeway traffic and pollution, orange blossoms would still be flying in through your open windows.) During that time, everything was fresh, I was re-discovering the presence of the Lord and my soul was being cleansed and invigorated as I turned from a dead-end way of life toward the boundless horizons of the Kingdom of God, sweeter even than orange blossoms. And my early years in the monastery, though laced with hardships and deprivations, were full of grace and fervor, and at times I even went beyond the call of duty in vigils, penances, etc.

Now, well, I have to go back to the Book and hear the Lord tell me how far I’ve fallen from my first love! In some ways, though, I think (I hope) I have matured since then, though I must confess that with advancing age and decreasing energy I’m not exactly turning cartwheels for the Lord. Each of us in our own way has to receive the word of the Lord and see where we might have slipped from a level of joy and generosity that He would like us to recover. This is for our sake, because our falling away from fervor can only be harmful to us, and can make us vulnerable to even more destructive failures.

There’s something that the Lord promises to the saved (that is, to “him who conquers”), something that has often intrigued me: “I will give him…a new name…which no one knows except him who receives it” (2:17). This is an expression of a very personal intimacy, a secret shared with Jesus. Our founder Fr Boniface, who was for many years a missionary in Africa, told us that in certain tribes, along with the name the child is known by in the family and public society, the mother gives the child a name known only to her and the child, and by which she will address the child at certain special times. This creates a unique bond between the two, for no one else is allowed into this particular intimacy. So, along with our baptismal or religious names, by which we are known to all, the Lord will give us a special name, known only to Him and to us. It will be something that expresses our inner essence and beauty and perhaps the witness of our life—as only He knows it, so it will fill us with delight to learn of the way He sees and loves us. So many wonderful things await us in the heavenly Jerusalem!

Let us, then, both recover our first love and realize the unique intimacy that Jesus would like to establish with us. Perhaps He will give us a hint of our new name even before we leave this earth. In any case, nothing is lost and everything is gained by our increasing fervor, fidelity, and love for the Lord. Through his grace and mercy, may this prophecy of love and pure intimacy come true for us: “They shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (3:4).