Friday, June 30, 2006

Theophanies

Our liturgical typikon offers an option for a cycle of readings from the Syro-Antiochean tradition, to be used at Vespers every Saturday evening. Sometimes they seem to be a more or less random selection, but recently we hit the jackpot with three readings, all of which described important theophanies of the Old Testament.

The recipients of these divine manifestations were Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah. The first occurs in Genesis 18. This has often been interpreted as a prefiguration of the mystery of the Holy Trinity: “The Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre… behold, three men stood in front of him.” So the Lord appeared as three men. This passage is the inspiration for Andre Rublev’s famous symbolic icon of the Trinity. There were no stunning manifestations here, only a prophecy that was fulfilled in Sarah’s giving birth to Isaac.

The next theophany was more mysterious; it was that of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush on Mt Sinai (Exodus 3). Here God appeared not in the form of men but in the form of fire. During this encounter Moses received his mission to be God’s instrument for delivering his people from bondage. The fathers of the Church have also seen in this theophany a foreshadowing of the mystery of the Mother of God: as the bush burned with divine fire but was not consumed, so Mary received the Fire of the incarnate God into her womb—and lived to tell the tale!

The theophany that Isaiah experienced was a vision of heavenly glory (Isaiah 6). He saw the Lord exalted upon his throne and surrounded by six-winged seraphim singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts…” This is the most stunning and explicit of all these theophanies, for the vision of God was not veiled or presented in an image like fire, but Isaiah could exclaim: “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” This theophany, like the one to Moses, also communicated a mission: “Go, and say to this people…”

What can all this mean to us who rarely, if ever, have visions of God? First of all, it may tell us that we might be having experiences of God without even being fully aware of it. Abraham didn’t realize that it was the Lord who had visited him until the prophecy came true. So it is wise to be welcoming to strangers! “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

We should also realize that God’s manifestations are not granted simply to dazzle us (though sometimes they do anyway), but to communicate his will to us. Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah were called to important roles in God’s unfolding plan of revelation and salvation, and so they were given special experiences to strengthen them to fulfill their callings.

The entire New Testament should be a kind of theophany for us. God manifests Himself through his Word made flesh, and through his Holy Spirit his will is made known to us. The accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are revealed to us. And we learn, among other things, that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ…” (Ephesians 1:4-5). To be chosen and loved by God from all eternity, and adopted as his own children, is better than seeing a burning bush! The sacraments are meant to be theophanies as well, manifesting the presence and communicating the grace of God to us. Much has been given to us, and much more awaits us if we persevere in seeking the face of God.

So let us not complain if we don’t have powerful visions of God like Moses or Isaiah. Let us rather realize that the glory of God is all around us and even within us, as we walk in faith, receive Jesus’ word and his body and blood. With open eyes, ears, and hearts, let us go forth in peace in the name of the Lord. There’s so much He wants to show us!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Peter, Paul, the Church, and You

“Labors, imprisonments, and countless beatings.” That’s how St Paul describes his vocation as a servant of Christ. He also adds “revelations,” but along with the revelations he received a demon to beat him even more. Not something we’d like to put in a vocations brochure! Yet even with such a job description for Christians, the early Church flourished. Today’s Church offers all kinds of compromises with an affluent, secular, and self-centered society, and therefore she languishes for lack of vocations, faith, and fervor. So perhaps it is good that we celebrate the Apostles today and try to learn something from them.

Since the Liturgy presents this feast of the two prime apostles as the feast of the Church, it must be that the chosen readings (2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9 and Mt. 16:13-19) tell us something about the Church and what it means to be a part of it. There are several basic elements that come across in the readings: the profession of faith, Peter as foundation, labors and sufferings, grace and mysticism. That’s a lot for a blog post, but I’ll try to touch on each one of them.

First, the profession of faith. The disciples took a while to discover who Jesus really was. They had been asking questions like, “who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Jesus decided it was time to clear things up, so He started gathering information about what others thought. Then He asked the pointed question: but who do you say that I am? As a result of what Jesus called a revelation from God the Father, Peter made the classic profession: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God! The Church has held to this faith ever since. So the first thing about being a member of the Church is to hold the faith expressed and handed down by the apostles. This faith is “foundation of the foundation,” for it was only after Peter professed his faith that Christ said Peter would be the rock upon which He would build his Church.

Peter as rock would be the strength, and hence the power and service of authority, in the Church—a Church against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail (some current events notwithstanding!). For this, Jesus gave him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. He didn’t say, “I give you the keys of the Church,” but “the keys of the Kingdom.” This shows that the two are intimately related. To have the ultimate authority in the Church is to have binding and loosing power that applies even to the Kingdom of Heaven. When sins are forgiven through the ministry of the Church, Heaven confirms it. When the Church offers the Sacrifice of Christ on her altars, Heaven “sends down the divine grace and Gift of the Holy Spirit” (Byzantine Liturgy).

We might ask how Peter being the rock of the Church applies to us. Peter may be the only rock, but he himself says in his first epistle that we are all living stones in the spiritual temple of the Lord (1Peter 2:5). We’re chips off the old block, as it were, but we have our coherence in the unity that comes through Peter (and his successors) as head of the Church of Christ. Peter as rock also expresses the teaching authority of the Church as well as her hierarchical and sacramental structures. So to be part of the Church is to hold the faith of the apostles, to recognize the authority of Peter, to accept the structure of the visible Church and to participate in her sacramental life.

But there is much more, and for this we turn to St Paul. The epistle reading highlights his labors, sufferings, and mystical experiences. So to be part of the Church is also to work for the Church, whether it be through ordained ministry, works of charity and mercy, evangelization, or any other way of making the truth and love of Christ accessible to others. Since we still live in a fallen world, this will entail suffering. We may experience opposition, persecution, ridicule, or mere indifference. St Paul was well aware of the cost of discipleship, as he detailed it in his epistle: he was scourged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked; he suffered from hunger and thirst and exposure, and from enemies—both those he recognized as enemies and those he thought were friends but who turned out to be enemies—and the list goes on. The powers of Hell will not prevail, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try, and the whole history of the Church bears that out. To be a Christian is to accept the Cross and to follow Christ, come what may.

Yet this difficult and demanding life attracted countless followers. Why? Partly because they intuitively recognized its truth and authenticity, and also because they experienced the power of Christ in their lives. Along with his sufferings, Paul experienced profound divine revelations and consolations. This is the mystical dimension of the Church. The Lord doesn’t just throw us into the lions’ den; He sweetens our sufferings with the grace of his presence and divine assistance. Despite all his sufferings, it was Paul’s glory to be able to say: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” This is the fulfillment of the mystical life, the profound awareness of the divine indwelling by which our whole being is united to God. When we are able to realize that truth in our own lives, then we will be able to experience that even in the midst of severe trials or sufferings, the grace of Christ is sufficient for us. How else could Paul say he was content with weaknesses, insults, and hardships? It was only because Christ was everything to him that he could endure everything for Christ.

We see, then, that to be a genuine member of the Church Christ founded on the Rock of Peter, we not only embrace the faith and visible structure of the Church, but we are willing to labor and suffer as members of the Body of Christ, and we’re also open to the grace of divine consolations and indwelling. It is indeed a rich and complex mystery, one that involves our whole life and that prepares us to be caught up to Paradise like St Paul—not only for a brief ecstatic experience, but for an eternity of joy with God and his angels and saints.

So let us ask saints Peter and Paul to intercede for us (and for the whole Church, which is in one of the worst crises of her history) that we can manifest in our lives what it means to be members of the Church: apostles, prophets, laborers in the vineyard, mystics, servants and lovers of Christ—in a word, saints. When Christ appeared in a different form to his apostles after his resurrection, the Gospel says: no one asked, “Who are you?” for they knew it was the Lord. When we live as fervent and on-fire members of the Church, the Lord does not have to ask us, “Who do you say that I am?” For we know that He is Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Matthew 25: The End

This third section of Matthew 25 is less a parable than a prophecy or a description of the Day of Judgment. Gone are the images of oil flasks and talents, and the Lord gets right to the point. It is no longer a story about a hypothetical master and his hypothetical servants used as an analogy for the Kingdom. Here it is the Kingdom. He’s telling it like it is and will be: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another…”

All of the sayings in this chapter (and in others as well, especially ch. 13) have to do with a final separation: wise maidens from foolish, good and faithful servants from lazy and wicked ones, and now—those who loved and served others from those who didn’t.

This Gospel passage is quite striking, and not only because of the awesome grandeur of the description of the Judgment. It’s striking because of the criteria of judgment, and hence of salvation. Those who say that salvation is by faith alone are flatly contradicted here by the Son of God, the Judge of the living and the dead. One could easily get the impression from this passage that salvation is by works alone! But taking divine revelation as a whole—as we must if we are to live in the truth—we come to the inescapable conclusion that salvation is a matter of both faith and works. Some would say that we are saved by faith and that our works will serve only to increase our reward. But again this is contradicted by Jesus. Those without works are not merely granted a lesser reward, they are eternally damned!

It behooves us, then, to look closely at these saving works. At first glance, one might be tempted to say that there’s nothing uniquely Christian about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, etc. People of other faiths or of no faith can and do perform these works of mercy and charity. But Jesus makes them Christian by saying, I was the hungry one you fed, I was the stranger you welcomed, I was the sick one you visited. To those who ministered to Christ in the needy (He loves us so much He identifies with us—to Saul He said, “Why do you persecute Me?”), He says: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… as you did it for the least of these my brethren, you did it for me.”

But here is the separation: those who refused to serve the hungry, sick, and needy refused Christ, and He has no choice now but to refuse them. Like the maidens devoid of virtue and good works, and like the wicked servant who thought only of himself and not of his master, those who looked the other way or even despised the needy are suddenly faced with the gut-wrenching realization that they had been scorning the Son of God all their lives. He says to them: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… as you did it not for one of the least of these, you did it not for me.”

Note something important here: Hell was never meant to be the abode of human beings created in the image of God. The righteous were told to inherit “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This Kingdom was prepared for all of humanity. The other kingdom wasn’t prepared for us; it was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” We are not fallen angels, and this is just one more reason that Hell is so horrible—it is not meant for humans at all, but for demons, yet if we do not behave according to our humanity created in the image of God, we cannot inherit the kingdom prepared for such. All that’s left is what was prepared for the devil and the demons—and there we shall be consigned, if we do not recognize and serve Christ in other human beings, especially when they are manifestly in need of our help. If we act like devils, or in accord with their urgings, then we also have to live with them forever.

This is one of the most sobering and challenging passages in all of Scripture, and we do well to reflect on it seriously and pray to the Holy Spirit to open our eyes—that we may see Christ in others and realize that what we do to others we do to Him. Our examination of conscience may be quite lengthy on this point. But the price of looking away is far too high.

Jesus is saying that his heavenly Kingdom is already prepared for us. The righteous will inherit eternal life. Let us be aware, He has told us beforehand; we have plenty of advance notice. So that He doesn’t have to remind us of that on the Last Day, let us love and serve now the least of his brethren.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Matthew 25: Talent-ed Servants

The evangelist connects this parable to the previous one, for they are each in their own way about being prepared for the return of the Master. “…you know neither the day nor the hour. For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants…”

Christ went on a journey back to Heaven at the time of his Ascension, and a long time would elapse (v. 19) before his return. In the meantime, He entrusted his servants with various tasks as well as with the means to carry them out. In the parable the image used is “talents.” This term meant a weight used to calculate value, especially of precious metals. We read in the Old Testament of gifts consisting of so many talents of silver or gold. So it is as if the master were giving his servants sums of money with which they were to trade and bring forth a profit for him at his return.

For us, it might be better to use the word “talent” in today’s usage, as an ability to do something, which is sometimes called a gift. A talented person, if he or she is really talented, is often referred to as “gifted.” So the Lord grants us various gifts or talents, and he wants us to use them in such a way as to have something additional to show when He returns. Note that the master in the parable did not give equal amounts to his servants: to one five, another two, and another one—“ to each according to his ability.” So he did not expect equal returns on his “investments.” Therefore he was just as pleased with two extra talents from the one given two as he was with the five extra talents from the one given five. They both doubled what was given them, and so they were found worthy to enter the joy of their master.

If the one with the lesser abilities, who was only given one talent, would have produced just one more, he too would have entered the joy of his master. But no, he was like so many that have a grudge against God, don’t like the way He arranged the universe, are lazy in serving but clever in coming up with self-justifying excuses. Probably the master would have had pity on him if he had just made an honest confession: “I didn’t do what you asked; I’m sorry; I’m unworthy of you; please forgive me.” But the little nogoodnik actually responded by accusing his own master! “I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow… Here, you have what is yours.”

The master was merciful, but he knew a hard heart when he saw one, so he showed him how easy it would have been at least to gain some interest for him, but the servant evidently didn’t want to produce any benefit for the master—so he had to be cast into the “outer darkness,” that is, outside the Kingdom of Heaven, separated from the joy of his Lord. That is why it is described as a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

All of us have been given talents, gifts from God, which He expects us to use for the maximum benefit of others and for enhancing the glory of the Kingdom. They may be physical, intellectual, social, spiritual, or any sort of combination of gifts, to some more and to some less. Not all are expected to produce the same results (in another place He said, “From those to whom more is given, more is required”), but all are expected to do their utmost to return to Him more than they were given. The Master is coming “to settle accounts” with his servants to whom he entrusted his gifts and talents.

How blessed we shall be if we hear these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your Lord!” This is what our lives are about: working for the Lord, for the Kingdom, storing up treasure in Heaven, living to please Him who has given us life and offers us eternal happiness. The wicked and lazy servant lived only for himself and therefore was not concerned with his master or the things of his master—he hid the talent in the ground and left it there till the master returned and demanded an account.

We have to be aware that there is going to be a settling of accounts. Our choices in this life will follow us right up to the judgment seat of God. Let us realize that our talents and gifts are not merely for our own enjoyment but for the service of God and of his people. The Lord has warned us repeatedly in the Scriptures what we are to expect, how things are going to be On That Day. The final outcome is entering either the Joy of the Lord or the Outer Darkness. Invest wisely now, as a good and faithful servant.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Matthew 25: Wise Maidens

I’d like to take a few days to reflect upon the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which is neatly divided into three distinct sections, though the whole chapter is part of what is often called the “eschatological discourse,” which is about how we need to prepare for the coming Kingdom.

The first section is the parable of the ten maidens (or virgins). This, and the parable that follows, are comparisons with the Kingdom, as the Lord said, and the final one is more of a description of what we can expect at the Last Judgment.

So, “the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom” (v. 1). So far so good, but we immediately learn that five were wise and five were foolish, the former having brought extra oil to keep their lamps burning, and that latter failing to do so. Now this parable, unlike some others, is not precisely about vigilance (since even the wise maidens fell asleep along with the foolish), but more about preparation—though it does conclude with the admonition, “Watch!”

It is sometimes said, based on some difficult or obscure sayings in the Gospels, that not only the early Church but even Jesus Himself thought that his return would be shortly after his ascension. But if we look at a number of the parables in which He speaks of the coming of the Kingdom, we see (as in the next parable, v. 19), that the master only returns after “a long time.” In the present parable, this corresponds to the time that the maidens were asleep. The precise length of time is not what’s important, however, but rather the suddenness of his arrival. It was midnight, and they were still asleep when the cry arose: “Behold the Bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

Now we’re getting to the point. All of their lamps were going out by this time, but the wise maidens added their extra oil to keep theirs lit, while the foolish ones had nothing. They asked the wise ones for some of their oil, but they said there wasn’t enough to go around, so they had better go and get their own. While they were gone the Bridegroom arrived, the wise maidens were welcomed in, and the door to the wedding feast was shut. Now if this were simply a narrative and not a parable, we might be tempted to fault the wise maidens for lack of charity. But it is a parable, and its focus and meaning lie elsewhere.

As the fathers of the Church say, the oil in their lamps is virtue, good works, faith and love, etc. We have to spend our lives keeping the lamps of our souls fueled with them, and storing up more in spiritual flasks (like treasure in Heaven), for that time when the Lord will take inventory, as it were, at his return. Since this oil is virtue and good works, etc, it is as such incommunicable to those without them. We can and should try to help others, by prayer and deed, word and example, but a holy person cannot say to an evildoer, “here, quickly add some of my holiness to your soul.” It just doesn’t work that way, because of our free will and the demands of cultivating a life of faith, love, and obedience to Christ. Therefore they have to “go and get their own.” But the point of the parable is: get your own now, before it is too late! Then you’ll be prepared, even if the Master delays his coming. You won’t be able to produce it on the spot when He suddenly arrives.

There will come a time when the doors of the Kingdom are irrevocably shut, and the Lord will say to those who did not prepare for his coming, as He did to the foolish maidens: “I do not know you.” Those are the most terrible words that anyone could ever hear. So the parable concludes: “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It doesn’t matter if the Lord might not return for another 500 years. He might return for you tonight! What if you were startled at midnight, discovered your soul rising out of your body, and heard the cry: “Behold the Bridegroom!” What panic if you had not prepared! We have a text in one of our services that says at such a moment the soul turns to the angels, but in vain. This is like the foolish maidens turning to the wise ones for some of their oil. The angels would have to reply to us like the wise maidens: “you had better get your own,” but by then it would be too late, and we would see the massive door closing before we could reach it.

I’m discovering more and more a simple, obvious truth which, however, many ignore to their peril: we have to take the words of Jesus seriously. He speaks the truth for He is the Truth. These are not mere imaginative stories with a moral; they’re not just sagacious sayings that we can admire and then forget—they’re about life and death, yours and mine, now and forever.

Time to get busy filling our flasks with the oil of faith, love, and virtue. Everyone nods off from time to time, but it is our task to be prepared for that unique moment when we are suddenly awakened in the middle of the night of this passing life…

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Deeper Turning

As we celebrate the birth of a prophet, we learn about the person and mission of John the Baptizer from two prophecies—the first one made by the Archangel Gabriel and the second by John’s father at his birth. I will first summarize the elements of the prophecies: He will be great before the Lord, He will be filled with the Holy Spirit—therefore he shall abstain from wine and liquor; He will turn many to the Lord their God, in the spirit and power of Elijah, turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, and preparing the Lord’s people for his advent. He will be a prophet, who will give people knowledge of salvation through repentance and forgiveness of sins, as the Light of God dawns on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. What a marvelous litany of graces! Only Christ Himself had greater things said of Him before his birth.

I want to focus on the word “turn,” for this is at the heart of John’s mission. He will turn many to the Lord their God, and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. He will do this ultimately by turning them toward the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. But first he has to turn them inward, that is, he has to get the people to recognize and acknowledge their sinfulness, so that they can turn away from evil and selfish behavior. One can turn to God only after one has turned away from evil—if you try to skip the repentance part and go directly to God, the first thing He will show you is your sins, so there’s no short cut! God is a God of truth, and sin must be dealt with before a personal and intimate communion can develop. This double turning is the knowledge of salvation through forgiveness that the prophet was born to declare.

But this turning from sin and turning to God is, in its fullness and depth, a rather complex and profound matter. That is precisely because it is a spiritual, ontological matter and not a legal or merely ritual one. It’s easy enough to say “I repent,” and even mean it, and then receive absolution, but still not be securely turned toward God. It’s not enough simply to perform the proper ritual. If you repent and honestly confess, you will be forgiven the guilt of your sin, but it may be that the necessary transformation still has not taken place. It may be that the will itself has not yet been reached by grace, for the will has not sufficiently reached out to grace. It still keeps it self-ward orientation, still is not sufficiently turned. Forgiveness is ours for the asking, but the deep healing of the soul can be a long process.

This mystery is too profound to articulate well in a short reflection, but it has been poetically expressed by Kathryn Mulderink in a sonnet entitled, De Nocte, i.e., Of Night. (To obtain her book of poetry, which I recommend, click here.) What she’s saying is that what Scripture calls “the mystery of iniquity” goes so deep into the human soul that no superficial or even standard treatment can fully turn toward God that which was first turned away by original sin and later through numerous choices. The remedy must be a radical one. She writes:

“There’s a dark that illumines the darkness we are
In the subterranean chambers beyond sin,
Where subtler poisons deface, debar,
And unravel every hard-won discipline.
Below repentance’s smoothly finished frame
Lurk nature’s will and inward contradictions
Though we’ve immolated sense in puring flame
And submitted to our cleansing benedictions.
More contrariety with God have we
Than sin which once we chose but now reject;
He is more than sinlessness and we
Cannot sublimate through force or intellect.
We must let go of us, arms cruciform,
To expose our hearts to Fire that transforms.”

Our genuine and deep healing, turning from sin and toward God will only come through a radical “yes” to God that takes us straight to the Cross, and only in that cruciform abandonment to God will the divine Fire be able to enter the darkest depths of our souls, purifying us of all the hidden sticky residues of our habitual sins, of all the ways that throughout our lives our saying “no” to God has profoundly disfigured us within.

This is why the prophetic mission of the Baptist is so important, so crucial. His work of turning hearts to the Lord, turning the disobedient to the way of wisdom, is not a mere correction of a few faults. It is preparing the way for God to reach down into the depths of the human soul, to the hidden place at which we are all connected to the primal rebellion of Adam and Eve, and to turn it back, uniting to the obedience of Him who became man for our salvation, who humbled himself unto death on the Cross in radical obedience to the will of the Father. To the extent that we all thus turn radically back to the Father, the power of the devil is utterly vanquished in this world.

This is the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins; this is the Light from on high entering the hidden places in our souls that are still in darkness and the shadow of death. This is guidance into the way of peace. But this way of peace and light, of mercy and salvation, is not an easy way. It is the way of the Cross, but it is the only way truly to know the mystery of God.

To have our hearts wholly turned to God is not a matter of simply saying “I’m sorry,” with God saying, “Don’t worry, it’s OK.” That is not salvation; that is not transformation. Rather, we must cry out from the depths, “O God, save me! I am lost!” as He reaches down and pulls us from the jaws of the dragon. It is being willing to mount the altar of the Cross and to allow fire from Heaven to consume the sacrifice. If we don’t know how evil sin is, we can’t know how marvelous mercy is. If we don’t tremble at the prospect of damnation, we cannot appreciate salvation.

So let us ask the Forerunner to intercede for us, to prepare the way of the Lord, to turn our hearts toward Him who longs to purify, heal, and transform us by his grace, for He loves us more than we can imagine. Thus we will not rejoice only at the birth of the prophet, but at the beginning of a new life in profound communion with the saving mystery of Christ.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Solitude of the Sea

I like to go to the ocean by myself, to enter into an enriching solitude. For me, the ocean isn’t a place to party but to pray, and to enter into a deep peace and spiritual refreshment.

As soon I found a strategic position on an outcropping of rock, I settled in to enjoy the view, as incoming waves slapped against the side of the rock, sending up playful white geysers that splattered all around me. I hope you aren’t one of those unfortunate people who have never been to an ocean (I’m partial to the Pacific, but I hear there are others, too). It’s not something you can readily imagine, and even the best of videos cannot adequately communicate its awe-inspiring grandeur, perpetual motion, and soothing song. For me it is like finding the fountain of youth, flushing my radiator, charging my batteries, defragmenting my disk, cleaning my closet, airing out my attic—whatever image works, it’s a rejuvenating immersion!

As I gazed out to the seeming infinity of its sparkling sapphire expanse, I also looked up into the boundless blue canopy of the sky and detected a slim decrescent moon—struggling to be noticed within the brighter shine of its elder brother—inching toward the slightly hazy horizon. I read in the psalms early that morning: “this is a holiday of the Lord’s own choosing,” so I knew it would be a blessed day.

To be in solitude at the sea is not, however, to be alone. Aside from the divine omnipresence, which seems almost tangible in this amphitheater of joy, I have a few other friends, like starfish and pelicans. We briefly acknowledge each other’s presence and then return to our respective reveries. I was not entirely without the company of my own species as well. From the sand a short drop below my rocky outpost arose the squeals of a few little girls who derived endless delight from fleeing each round of the advancing tide. After a while, however, they compelled me to conclude that the hour had indeed arrived for me to seek a more silent stretch of shoreline.

I turned my gaze from the western infinity to the southern shoreline to observe the white-crested waves gliding effortlessly but with great speed, as if they had some urgent business waiting on the shore. Row after row, they spent themselves in tumbling crashes on the sand. They’ve been doing this day and night for millions of years, but it’s always like seeing it for the first time, so enthralling is their majesty and power.

To speak of majesty and power is to refer, of course, to their Maker. But this time I thought more of mercy than majesty. We sometimes say in our penitential liturgies that our sins are more than the sands of the seashore. Yet behold, wave after wave of the Ocean of Mercy washes them clean! For every sin a new wave hurries to the shore, ready to scour the oft-trodden sand till it shines. It’s his nature, after all, to forgive. He delights to forgive; He must forgive. Do not disappoint his desire by your indifference toward repentance. Give the Lord the joy of forgiving your sins! Someday we will see clearly this torrent of everlasting love, and it will be our delight to plunge in it forever!

I prayed a modified “Jesus Prayer” by using the first and last lines of one of our Pentecost hymns: “Blessed are You, O Christ our God… O Lover of Man, glory to you!” It was so apropos to the moment, as were a few little verses from a hymn to the God-bearer Mary that I interspersed with the rest, like, “you are higher than the heavens, more radiant than the sun…” There were the heavens, there was the sun!

As a rather anti-climactic moment, when I was clambering down the rock, someone asked me (and this wasn’t the first time this happened): “See any whales?” So, that’s what my ecstatic contemplation looked like to the casual observer. So be it. I didn’t see any whales, but I saw the glory of God!

I seem not to be able to get enough. Each time I leave the shore, I feel like I haven’t stayed long enough, haven’t drunk in the whole ocean. I dream of someday having a little hermitage on the coast, though I don’t yet know if that is God’s will. Perhaps He wants me only to get a few glimpses of glory, lest I become surfeited and lose my thirst. Would I regard the ocean as the frustrated rural woman regarded the great mountain under whose shadow she lived, in the song, Penny to My Name: “It’s just a dumb ol’ mountain, I see it every day”? I’ve seen Mt Shasta, one of California’s mighty boasts, but if I lived right there, would its majesty eventually fade? I can’t imagine ever calling the Pacific a “dumb ol’ ocean,” but who knows? I leave it up to God, who has prepared infinitely greater gifts, and meanwhile I embrace my precious moments of glorious solitude by the sea.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Cleansing the House of Prayer

There’s a story about Jesus that is rather unusual. Usually, He welcomes people; here He drives them away. It must have been something terrible that they were doing to incite Him to drive them away. He wouldn’t do such a thing merely to defend Himself from his attackers, for we know that He patiently endured much abuse, and even went like a silent lamb to the slaughter. Here, however, He was defending his Father’s honor, for his Father’s house was being profaned (He would defend the honor of the Holy Spirit, too: “whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven”).

The story is very short: “Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of thieves’” (Mt. 21:12-13). It is clear that this was a thorough cleansing: He not only drove out the merchants, but he overturned both tables and chairs! Now it is sometimes objected that these people were engaging in a standard practice, a necessary service, changing the gentile Roman coinage into that which was acceptable for temple offerings, and providing animals for sacrificial worship. But two things were wrong: this business did not have to be done inside the temple precincts and, to add insult to injury, those engaged in this business were cheating their customers in the presence of God—otherwise, Jesus would not have called them “thieves.” Jesus had no tolerance for those who would do evil in his Father’s house.

Let’s indulge in a bit of allegory here, though based in Scripture. St Paul says that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and therefore these spiritual temples are meant to be, following Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah, houses of prayer. But it may be that our house of prayer may need to be cleansed, may even need a radical upheaval. We have to see if we have allowed thieves into the house of prayer—not just the occasional unworthy thought, but perhaps we have become habituated to some “standard practice” that is not acceptable to the Lord. Jesus surprised the money-changers as well as the authorities, because they saw nothing wrong with “business as usual.” But we may also be surprised to find that the “business as usual” of our own inner lives needs to be cleaned up, to reflect better what it means that we are temples of the Spirit and houses of prayer. We ought to ask ourselves if the things we think or fantasize about, or allow in through our senses, are things we would bring into a house of prayer, even before the Blessed Sacrament—for Christ dwells within us.

What has to be driven out ruthlessly is all malice, hatred, impurity, rage, vengeance, falsehood, and anything else that is in itself contrary to the will of God. But even though the Lord is tough on evil, He is always compassionate with our weakness and inability—despite sincere efforts—to be all that his grace enables us to be. Note that in the very next verse (21:14), Jesus resumes his usual practice of welcoming: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” Our weaknesses and defects can be healed, once we drive out evil through repentance, absolution, and persevering self-discipline. The Lord will always have some pleasant surprises for us, even if initially we have to experience the unpleasant surprise of discovering “thieves” in our house of prayer. Notice that it was the ones who by law were allowed to be in the temple that Jesus drove out, and the ones who were forbidden by law to be in the temple (the blind, lame, or otherwise disfigured or diseased were considered ritually impure) were the very ones He welcomed! So it is that, for the sake of fidelity to Christ, we may find ourselves having to reject what the world accepts and to accept what the world rejects. As long as we are honestly seeking the will of God, we will know what the Gospel requires of us in every situation.

So be aware that you are a house of prayer. Be aware that some things are appropriate for houses of prayer and some things are not. When Jesus comes to us we want Him to reach out his hand of healing, and not overturn our tables and chairs! Let us turn to Him now so that He can reveal what still needs to be done to purify the inner temple. Then He can say of us: “These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Learning to Say the Y-word

The word really is one of the simplest words to say, and we do it all the time, in various contexts, and in various slang renderings. But in certain contexts the word is feared, shunned, or fled from in terror—even though the most important of these contexts is one of love and gentleness. Still, it is a word one dreads to pronounce because of what the implications may prove to be. The y-word, of course, is “yes.”

To be sure, there are many contexts in which we rightly refuse the say the y-word. To “just say no” to the many evils offered to us in our promiscuous and thrill-seeking society is surely the best thing to do. But I’m talking about something else here. I’m talking about saying “yes” to what is most noble, most profound in our human life and experience, which for that very reason is most demanding. I’m talking about saying yes to God—which is the perfection of saying “yes” to truth, beauty, goodness, virtue, and love.

In some ways it is not hard to say “yes” to God. If He says, “I want to bless you,” we say, “Yes!” If He says, “I want to make you strong and peaceful and joyous,” we say, “Oh, yes!” And if He says, “I want to make you eternally ecstatic, utterly fulfilled, and forever overflowing with gladness,” we say, “YES!!” But when He says, “OK, here’s how,” and shows us the Cross, we say, “Y-y-y… M-m-maybe… Uh, I-I-don’t know about that…”

One of our core problems here is that we’re willing to say “yes” to something (happiness, blessings, etc) but not to some One, the one who sets the conditions to the attainment of these things, or better yet, the One with whom a personal communion infallibly produces all blessings as a consequence thereof. If we want the gifts but not the Giver we will ultimately end up with neither. But if we desire God even to the point of an unconditional “yes” to his will, then happiness will naturally result. Jesus said it best: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all else will be given as well.”

But let’s go a little deeper. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you are really seeking God and not just a handout of happiness. There are still levels of “yes” that must be ascended. We can rather painlessly say “yes” to the minimum requirements of sacramental life and whatever it takes to qualify as a card-carrying Catholic. With a fair amount of struggle we may even be able to satisfy the basic requirements of Christian morality. Some may even follow the call to a life designed explicitly and directly to serve and worship God—that may take a near-heroic sacrifice, if one is to live such a life authentically. But there’s a deeper level still.

I’ll descend once again to a little computer terminology here. Sometimes you are given series of options as you are managing files or programs and have to make a decision. Your choices look something like this: No, Yes, Yes to All. We can say “yes” at various levels of love, fidelity, and commitment, but what God is ultimately seeking from us is a “yes to all.” This is the deepest level at which we hold nothing back, at which our lives become an oblation to God, at which He is free to do with us as He wills, knowing that our “no’s” are now behind us. This is the level at which we embrace the Cross, indeed, at which we come to the point where we must embrace the Cross as our only hope, which paradoxically leads us to our ultimate and only joy.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld was a man who said “yes to all.” I pray his famous “Abandonment Prayer” daily, but in my own case (true confessions here) I have to amend it a little. Where he says “I am ready for all, I accept all, let only Your will be done in me…” I pray for the grace to be ready for all, accept all, etc. I have to be honest with God and myself, for I know that pious veneers don’t impress Him in the least. I may not yet be ready and accepting of all (since I usually imagine the worst and most drastic interpretation of what that could mean), but I want to be. I want to be so surrendered to his will that I am fearless, at peace, ready to walk into the lions’ den if that is his good pleasure.

God gives us plenty of opportunities to practice saying the y-word in small ways in our daily lives. It’s a school, a training ground for the times when a more difficult “yes” will be required. But no saint has ever made a complaint that his “yes” was ill-advised, that he got less for his “yes” than he bargained for (not that saints bargain at all). We have to get over our tendency to count the cost, calculate the short-term liabilities, or fear the sting of self-sacrifice. It’s God we’re dealing with here, remember? The Generous Father, the Heart-pierced Son, the Spirit of Love? An unconditional “yes” to God will bring untold (as well as told) benefits, both now and forever.

So don’t follow your “no’s”; that only leads you away from truth and love, from the God who is Truth and Love. Get proficient through practice at saying “yes.” Go even to the deepest level, as the Lord leads you. He knows your capacities (better than you do, I might add, so don’t complain if you think He’s working you too hard), and He will make your sacrifice of loving obedience fruitful a hundredfold. Yes. Amen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

To You It Has Been Given

Jesus often spoke to the people in parables. Indeed, St Matthew says, “he said nothing to them without a parable.” This was, for one thing, to fulfill the Scripture, as the evangelist notes: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Mt. 13:35; Ps. 77/78:2).

There is something about uttering hidden mysteries that seems to require a kind of veiled language. Perhaps it is to avoid tossing “pearls before swine,” but more likely it is to stimulate the minds and hearts of those who hear the mysterious sayings—and if they are sincere and open, they will not cease to seek until they have plumbed their depths.

Jesus realized that there would be those who would hear and those who wouldn’t. He quoted the prophet Isaiah about those who have eyes but don’t see, ears but don’t hear, dull hearts, etc, who refuse to come to Him for enlightenment and healing (Mt. 13:13-15). These, after hearing parables, simply walked away scratching their heads and wondering why they went out to see Him in the first place. But it was different with his disciples. They went to Him saying, “Master, explain to us the parables.” Sometimes Jesus mildly reproached them for being a little slow on the uptake, but He blessed them for continuing to seek understanding, for wanting to enter into the mysteries.

So He revealed to them their singular privilege: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (13:11, 16). They probably didn’t realize how great was this gift, but once the Holy Spirit came in power, things became much more clear to them, and they became eager to share with everyone the secrets of the Kingdom.

We may not realize how marvelous is the gift we have been given, either. The very fact that you have chosen to read this now—unless you’re accidentally here while randomly surfing, but even then, welcome! and read on—means that you’ve already been initiated, at least to a certain extent, into the mysteries of the Kingdom. If you have faith in Christ and accept his revelation and his death and resurrection, then something has been given to you that has not (yet) been given to many others. There are so many people who have eyes but do not see, have ears but do not hear, and their hearts are closed to the grace and truth of Christ. They plod through life, not only devoid of the knowledge of the mysteries, but unaware that there even are mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven and untold riches of grace unto everlasting life. But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear! I wrote last weekend that the Holy Spirit enables us to see things we hadn’t seen before, that is, to perceive and understand the mysteries God wishes to reveal to us.

So what do we do, now that we realize how blessed we are? First of all, give thanks, for we do not deserve such special treatment. Second, we must seek to go deeper into what we’ve been given, for even though we see and hear well enough to embrace Christ, we may still have a long way to go before our understanding—and its practical application in our behavior—is at the level He requires. Third, we have to try to help others see and hear, so that they too may be among those to whom the secrets of the Kingdom are given. The Kingdom itself is no secret, and Christianity is not some Gnostic sect reserved to the elite—its message is to be shouted from the rooftops, and to all. But it’s one thing to hear the message and another to be captivated by it, one thing to be offered a strange parable and another to thirst for deeper understanding of it.

Realize, then, what you have been given, “for to him who has, more will be given” (13:12). There’s no end to our exploration of the mysteries of the Kingdom.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Rush Hour



A man wedged in traffic
has no patience for poetry.
Don’t tell him
that the clouds
look like angels today,
as he laments the long trail of snails

that delays access to his next
arena of frustration.

He fumes, like the massive metal beast
whose black, poison exhaust mingles with
his own exhauste
d soul.
His horn cries unnoticed by that
mountainous ma
chine
beyond which he can see
nothing.

On with the A/C, the CD,
or the DJ’s traffic update—oh,
an accident a mile ahead will
detain him anoth
er hour!
Coffee’s cold; out of smokes;
vacation’s still th
ree months away.

Was it an accident? Or was it designed
by some sadistic mi
nd,
this daily round of hurrying toward
dead-end streets,

always looking for his exit
yet never breaking free?

He’s entered the twilight zone.
It’s the spite of the gods
(he made for himself)
that sends him on
this endless trek
only to realize that it’s
Monday morning, once again…

Me, I crunch my way down leaf-strewn paths
as the choirs in the trees
herald with gentle melodies
the peaceful sun
of the morning,
enraptured, as if today’s a new creation.
And I’m given p
atience for poetry.

But I don’t dare “thank God
I’m not like other men,”

condemned to impotent rage.
True, I do prefer our rustic trails

to those highway snails, by far—

but harried, hurried hearts
can also lodge in sacred temples.

And I know that there are still souls
who drive those r
elentless roads,
who have received their Christ-key
to open the gate
to the Other World.
They see the cloud-angels
and they’ve learned the secret of blessing.

The God of mountain-top ecstasies
and inaccessible
Light
will speak his own poetry
of wordless, pure
refreshment
to anyone who's not
yet sold his soul,
who longs for eyes to see
His omnipresen
t artistry.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Called

The Gospel says that when Jesus saw James and John at the seashore, He called them. He did the same to Peter and Andrew, saying: Follow Me. This Sunday, on the Byzantine liturgical calendar, is that of the calling of the first disciples of Christ. As we begin with the cycle of Matthew in the Sunday gospels, we are looking at the beginning of the Christian mystery. Being a Christian begins with being called. But just what does it mean to be called, and what is the content of the calling, and what should be our response?

When God acts outside of Himself, He calls. He called creation into being simply by saying: “Let there be…” He called Abraham to be the father of the chosen people, called Moses to give them his law, called the prophets to be his spokesmen. God takes the initiative: He loves us first, He sends out his word to do his will, He speaks and expects a response. So when God sent his eternal Word made flesh into the world, Jesus began to carry out the Father’s will by calling people: to follow Him, to learn the revelation He was sent to give, and eventually to call the rest of humanity to salvation through Christ. Peter and the other disciples proved themselves worthy of his calling by responding immediately, leaving even their very livelihoods at the simple invitation of Jesus. “Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” Jesus could then make good on his promise to make them fishers of men.

We may understand that Christians are called by God to eternal life through Christ, but what is the content of this calling? To what are we all called? Here I don’t mean particular vocations within the Church, but that to which every Christian is called, that which makes us worthy of the name. There are several indications in Scripture.

St Paul tells us two things at the beginning of the Letter to the Romans: we are called to belong to Jesus Christ, and we are called to be saints. Similarly in First Corinthians he says we are called to communion with Christ. Belonging to Christ and being in communion with Him constitute the foundation of the Christian life. This belonging and communion begin with the sacraments of initiation: baptism, chrismation, and Holy Communion. This is only the beginning of a whole life of fidelity to the Gospel of Christ. Paul says in Galatians that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. In this context he lists the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, so we have no doubts as to how a Christian is to live.

Scripture also says we are called to be children of God, called to peace, to hope, and to glory. St Peter says that we are called to suffer as a way of following in the footsteps of Christ, and that we are called to bless, even when we are cursed or mistreated. In fact, we can say that anything that Scripture exhorts us to do (or not to do) is a calling, an expression of part of the fullness of what it means to have been called out of the darkness of sin into the marvelous light of grace and virtue and salvation.

To be among those who respond to the call of Christ is to be open to the grace of the Holy Spirit. We know from the Pentecost account in Acts that it was those who were faithful followers of Christ who received the Holy Spirit, and they were thus all the more able to live out their response to God’s call in holiness and fearless witness to the truth.

We learn from St Cyril of Jerusalem that the gift of the Holy Spirit enables us to see what we hadn’t seen before, see what others don’t see. Now, some discernment is needed here, because schizophrenics and those who use hallucinogenic drugs also see what others don’t see! But there is a crucial distinction. Those who see things by means of drugs or because of mental illness see distortions and phantasms and things that aren’t really there. Those who see by means of the Holy Spirit see what really is there, even though it cannot be seen by those with dulled spiritual perception or those blinded by sin and selfish pursuits. In the Holy Spirit the veil is lifted a bit and we are initiated into divine mysteries, to the extent that God sees is necessary for us to bear fruit in the particular vocation to which He has called us.

So let us reflect on what it means to be called by God, called to be saints, to hope, to suffer, and to bless, to choose spiritual growth over superficial happiness, and to do all that constitutes the Christian vocation. Jesus is approaching us now, saying, Follow Me. Are we willing to rise immediately and go after Him? Ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to see what you haven’t seen before, see the truth of God more clearly, experience his love more profoundly. Then there will be no hesitation. You will follow wholeheartedly, rejoicing that you are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Cutting Out Eyes and Hands

No, you haven’t accidentally stumbled onto a site that reviews horror movies. It’s still Word Incarnate, and I’m still writing about the Gospel of Christ. But our Lord does use some graphic images at times: “if your hand…causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you… And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than…to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Mt. 18:8-9). Though we cannot merely dismiss such language as idiomatic semitic hyperbole, I want to share today an allegorical interpretation that I recently came across.

St Chromatius of Aquileia, a 4-5th century bishop, wrote an interesting commentary on the above passage. When it is clear that Christ does not intend to be taken literally (He doesn’t want us cutting out eyes or hands—though He wants us to be clear that no sacrifice is too great when it comes to avoiding damnation), the fathers often interpret his sayings allegorically. According to Chromatius, the body from which the offending eye or hand are removed is the mystical Body of Christ. He says that the “eye” of the Body is the bishop. This is appropriate, not only because a bishop is required to keep careful doctrinal and moral watch over those entrusted to him, but also because the very word “bishop,” episkopos in Greek, literally means “over-seer.” The delegates and associates of the bishops, who carry out his task at a practical level, as the “hands” of the Body under the watch of the “eye,” are the priests.

All who are in any sort of position of authority need to take warning here. St Chromatius says that, according to Jesus’ words, if the eye or the hand causes others to sin, that is, cause scandal in any way, they must be cut off and cast away. We can assume that he enjoins this radical measure only after remedies have been applied unsuccessfully. If a person has a diseased or injured eye or hand, he doesn’t immediately opt for amputation, but tries to find healing in whatever way is possible. But let’s say the hand is full of gangrene. It must be cut off to save the rest of the body, to save his life. And that is St Chromatius’ point. If the faithful are so scandalized as to be led into sin (e.g. being taught by word or example that things condemned by Scripture or Tradition are now acceptable), or that the spiritual health of the body is so jeopardized that the salvation of souls is at stake, then the offending eye or hand must be removed so that the Body can live and be restored to health. For it is better, echoing Jesus’ words, that the “eye” or “hand” be cut off than for the whole body to perish with them intact, having been allowed to spread their disease.

This is a serious word for today’s Church. We are faced with the grievous specter of some bishops and priests who give scandal to the faithful by their immoral lifestyles and/or their teachings that do not correspond to the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. Rome must be diligent and careful in applying the necessary remedies for healing and restoration, but if all efforts fail, Dr Benedict must use the scalpel on these “eyes” and “hands” so that the Body will be saved. Woe to those who lead others astray, and because of whom others share their sin by following the lead of their shepherds or pastors. Let us pray that all “eyes” may see clearly and all “hands” work faithfully for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. St Chromatius may have used an allegory, but his message is dead-on and must be heard today.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Chrysologus on Peace

I recently came across a homily attributed to St Peter Chrysologus (which means “golden word”), which contains some golden words on peace. It can be applied on many levels. The psalmist enjoins us to “seek peace and pursue it,” and this is one of the important tasks in our lives. We must begin with cultivating a spirit of peace in our own souls, and then we will be able to reconcile with family, friends, co-workers, etc, and little by little peace will spread to the wider world. But if peace is to be made in the world, it must begin with ourselves, for as the saying goes, “No one can give what he does not have.” Let us then seek peace, pray for it, and do all in our power to make it happen. I now step aside and let the Saint speak:

“My dear brethren, the evangelist tells us: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ The Christian virtues come to fruition in the man who preserves the simplicity of Christian peace. No one can be called a child of God without first deserving the name of peacemaker.

“It is peace, my dear brethren, which frees a man from slavery and ennobles him. In God’s eyes his condition as well as his character is changed, for peace makes a son of a servant, and a free man of a slave. Peace in the community is God’s will; it is the sweetness of Christ and the perfection of sanctity. Peace is the rule of justice, the mistress of learning, the guardian of morals; its restraining influence is everywhere to be commended. It is the goal of our prayers, an easy and effective way of making atonement, the complete fulfillment of all our longings. Peace is the mother of love, the bond of friendship, the clearest proof of that innocence which craves satisfaction of God, which seeks fulfillment and has its longing satisfied. Peace must be preserved by precepts which have binding force, for the Lord Jesus Christ has said: ‘I leave you peace, my peace I give you,’ that is to say: I parted from you in peace and I will find you in peace; he wanted to leave us with something which he hoped to find in every man’s heart on his return.

“God has commanded us to preserve his gift; there is no ambiguity in what he said: I will find what I have given. It is the very nature of God to plant a well-rooted peace; it is the devil who wishes to uproot it completely. Just as brotherly love comes from God, so hatred comes from the devil. Accordingly we must condemn hatred, for it is written: ‘He who hates his brother is a murderer.’

“So you see, dear brethren, why we must love peace and cherish harmony, for they are the very conditions which produce charity and sustain it. You know that the apostle tells us: ‘Charity comes from God.’ A man is godless without charity.

“Let us therefore keep the commandments which make for life. The community should be closely knit in peace. Let us be motivated by mutual love and bind ourselves in bonds of saving charity, which covers a multitude of sins. We should embrace love with every desire of our hearts, for it can have as many graces as rewards. We should guard peace before all the virtues, for God is always present in peace…”

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Not Happiness But...

As you know, I’ve been reading a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn lately, and I’m quite impressed with his vision and conviction. He is a man seeking, both intellectually and spiritually, the most profound awareness of what it means to be a human being, on many levels of life—political, cultural, spiritual. He speaks out against what threatens the dignity and nobility and true freedom of our humanity, and he has suffered much for standing against the prevailing winds of a shallow, self-absorbed consumer society.

He said something that he admitted would be considered, in the modern world, “something strange, something almost insane.” Yet it is a bombshell, and it jarred me into a more awakened state. It is extremely simple, perhaps almost a truism for people who seriously follow the Lord, yet it is outrageous to many: “the goal of Man’s existence is not happiness but spiritual growth.” Go back and read that again. Simple. Simple as dynamite.

How dare he tell modern man that his goal is not happiness! Sure, everyone wants to be happy, there’s nothing evil in that, but the kind of “happiness” that most people seek will actually deprive them of spiritual growth, while true spiritual growth will produce the only happiness worth the dignity of man.

He’s telling the world that there is something more important than feeling good, more important than living in luxury, more important than making the fulfillment of one’s needs and desires the goal of life. To discover one’s spiritual nature, one’s capacity for courage, self-discipline, and for embracing truth and inner freedom even at the price of much suffering, and to learn the profound lessons of life which alone make it truly worth living—all this is infinitely more important than the “happiness” hawked by the mass media, for which they demand that we barter our better judgment and all that is most noble in our souls. The illusion of happiness through immediate gratification is coveted and pursued by the mindless masses of a high-tech, low-culture society. But modern-day prophets like Solzhenitsyn stand up and say that man’s moral greatness consists in, among other things, “standing before the things which are temptations to him and showing himself able to overcome them.”

How often do we find (if we are paying attention) that even in our daily lives we are ruled by self-interest? We seek our own advantage, our own happiness, in the choices we make, and we habitually assess persons and situations according to their effect on us, and we judge our day a success if we end up feeling happy or if we gained some advantage. Do we ever ask ourselves if, in the decisions of the day, we chose spiritual growth over happiness, if indeed it came down to that?

One reason we don’t choose spiritual growth (and here I don’t mean in the abstract—“Oh sure, I’d like to grow spiritually”) is because it means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Jesus. The way of spiritual growth is the way of the narrow gate, but it is the only truly meaningful way to live your life—and not just meaningful (that term can be ambiguous), but manifestly fruitful in blessing others and preparing for the fullness of life to come.

For Solzhenitsyn, the path to spiritual growth was “repentance and self-limitation.” He wrote the following about spiritual growth on the level of society, but it has its applications to personal spirituality as well: “Here is the true Christian definition of freedom. Freedom is self-restriction! Restriction of the self for the sake of others! …this principle diverts us—as individuals, in all forms of human association, societies, and nations—from outward to inward development, thereby giving us greater spiritual depth… If in some places this is destined to be a revolutionary process, these revolutions will not be like the earlier ones—physical, bloody, and never beneficial—but will be moral revolutions, requiring both courage and sacrifice, though not cruelty—a new phenomenon in human history…”

It should be clear that such a development toward spiritual depth through courageous self-sacrifice is far from the agenda of the “if it feels good, do it” crowd. What will our lives mean—both now and in view of the day we stand before God—what will be the judgment of the time granted us on earth to live as images of God, if we only live for ourselves, for passing pleasures and ephemeral “happiness”?

To live a life in preference of spiritual growth and all it requires does not mean the renunciation of all legitimate recreation, simple pleasures, family joys, etc, for these too are blessed by God. But we have to be clear on what is the goal of our lives, and what are the means we employ to attain it. If we seek first the Kingdom of God, Jesus told us, everything else we need will be graciously given. But if we run after the things the unbelievers run after, we will not only ultimately come up empty in human satisfactions, we will be found unworthy of that for which we were created—and we will be eternally frustrated and miserable. Better to practice a little self-denial now, seeking to know the will of God and to do good to others as we grow in the wisdom of the true meaning and goal of life, than to seek happiness at all costs and thus to degrade our own humanity. Self-seeking dulls spiritual awareness, but the wisdom of "repentance and self-limitation" sharpens it, and opens the door to deeper self-knowledge and spiritual growth.

I’m really just scratching the surface here. We have to reflect on these matters carefully and at length, and make the necessary changes in our perspectives and behavior. Our attention to spiritual growth today will ensure a joy that no one can take from us, beginning now but fulfilled only when our humanity is fully revealed in that of the One who became man in order to enable us to live with God.