Saturday, August 05, 2006

His Face Shone Like the Sun

On Sunday we celebrate the great feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, which is the patronal feast of our monastery. Six days before Jesus was transfigured on Mt Tabor, Peter had pronounced his famous confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Now, on the holy mountain, Jesus confirms Peter’s confession, by showing him what it means that He is the Son of God.

Perhaps Peter simply understood Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel—and He was that, but much more. Peter had met a man at the shore of the lake of Galilee, followed this man on his mission of preaching and healing. Yet even in recognizing in this man the Son of God, I think that Peter, without the benefit of our theological tradition, did not quite identify Jesus with the Holy and Transcendent God of the patriarchs and prophets. So Jesus did something to help change all that.

The evangelist Matthew tells us: “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as the light.” There was quite obviously something more to the Son of God than the Messiah of Israel! On Mt Tabor the glory of God shone forth from the humanity of Jesus, and the disciples were struck with awe and wonder as the voice of God spoke through the shining cloud that overshadowed them. So I think the apostles had to reflect a little more about just what “Son of God” meant.

The transfiguration was a moment of revelation—not only of the divinity of Christ but of the plan of the Father for the salvation of the world. First of all, the appearance of Moses and Elijah indicate that Jesus’ coming was in continuity with, and the fulfillment of, all that God had formerly revealed through the Law and the Prophets. In the Divine Liturgy, there is a prayer after Communion that begins: “O Christ our God, You are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets and the Father’s whole plan of salvation…” That is precisely what is being communicated on Mt Tabor at the time of the transfiguration. For it was not only that Moses and Elijah appeared, but the Father Himself spoke and approved the Person and mission of his beloved Son. When Moses spoke with God on Mt Sinai, his face shone when he returned. But that was only a reflected glory. When the face of the only-begotten Son shone on Mt Tabor, it was with a Light generated from within, from his own divine nature.

We have to look to Luke’s version to get a couple other details of this revelation. What did Jesus have to do to fulfill the Father’s plan of salvation? Luke says that during the transfiguration Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah of the “exodus” that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Of course that reminds us of the first exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The Passover lamb was slain, and its blood protected the chosen people from destruction. That was the key event, the defining moment in the history of the people of God, and henceforth God would be known as “the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” After Jesus’ exodus in Jerusalem, the apostles would henceforth preach him to the nations as the Lord who was crucified and who rose from the dead, whose Blood saves us from sin and eternal death. The plan of the Father, which was dramatically initiated in the first exodus, was to be definitively fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection, and Moses and Elijah appeared to confirm it on Mt Tabor. This is part of what Jesus meant when he said He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

There is another element associated with the exodus which helped reveal the mystery of Jesus’ divine sonship to the disciples. In chapter 24 of the Book of Exodus, God called Moses to come up Mt Sinai to meet Him and to receive his divine commandments. A cloud surrounded the mountain, and Moses entered into the cloud to meet God. On Mt Tabor a brilliant cloud overshadowed the mountain, and Luke tells us that the apostles, in fear and trembling, entered into the cloud.

There they heard the voice of the Father testifying to his divine Son. They received no commandments written in stone, for the living and eternal Word of God in the flesh was standing right before them, and the Father simply instructed them to listen to Him. Moses could only bring the words of God down from the mountain, but the disciples could hear the words of God continually from the lips of Jesus. A new revelation, a new covenant was being enacted by Christ, one that would be fulfilled at the last supper and on the Cross. Moses spilled the blood of sacrificed animals on the altar and proclaimed: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you.” At the last supper, Jesus took a cup of wine and said: “This is the blood of the covenant; the new and everlasting covenant; this is my blood, which is shed for you.”

The significance of entering into the cloud in the presence of Jesus and of hearing the voice of the Father could not have been lost on the disciples. They knew what it meant to go up a mountain, enter a cloud and hear a thundering voice. Perhaps they realized that they were suddenly in over their heads, that this mystery was too grand, glorious, and intense to endure for very long. So Peter, somewhat beside himself, thought that he could somehow manage or contain this mystery by enshrining it in booths, monuments. There, now they could fondly remember what had happened without actually having to endure it any longer! But Jesus didn’t even grace his request with a response. He wasn’t interested in monuments; He wanted the disciples themselves to be interiorly transfigured by the experience, to keep it alive, and eventually to share it with the world—as Peter indeed did, when he wrote of the experience in his Second Letter. The message from the Father was: now you know who He is; listen to Him. Then the blinding light and the cloud disappeared, and only Jesus was left.

We must carry the mystery of transfiguration within ourselves, for it is the goal, as well as the process, of spiritual life. We are gradually being transfigured, until the day when its fullness is revealed. But this will only happen if we take it seriously, climb the mountain, enter the cloud, listen to the word of Christ and follow Him, even unto the Cross. It doesn’t happen by default or by just showing up for services. You have to want it, more than anything else, and you have to consistently employ the means given by God through the Church to open our hearts to the truth and love of God, to clear away all that keeps us blind to his glory, to make an interior space where God is pleased to dwell and to be revealed to others.

We are his beloved sons and daughters. Let us remember our dignity and act accordingly—put away all pettiness, self-indulgence, and excessive concerns about ourselves. Stop looking at yourself and your own needs, says the Gospel. Look at Jesus, whose face is shining like the sun! He will make all things new for you. Seek first his kingdom and He will take care of you. If you can’t trust Him you have no business calling yourself a Christian. So rise to the occasion, and have no fear. The Lord is with us and calls us out of ourselves into life in Him—the only life worthy of the name. St Paul says Christ will transform our lowly bodies into images of his glory; and Jesus confirms it when He says: the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father (Mt. 13:43).

Friday, August 04, 2006

On Buildings and Souls

It was suggested to me once that I go to an old building and meditate upon it. The idea was to see what it had to teach me, to see how it had weathered storms, to see where its cracks, weaknesses and strengths were. Then I was to look at my own soul and reflect upon similar things from a spiritual perspective. What I’d like to share with you now is a little reflection on our monastery church building and on souls. I won’t say my soul, because I want you to look at your soul.

The first thing I noticed was that several of the pillars had old nail holes and other defects in them. Obviously the wood was not new even when the church was first built. We were quite poor in the beginning and had to use some scrap wood even in building the house of God.

Weathered wood was evident everywhere, grayed and in some places deeply grooved. In other places it had deteriorated so badly that we just had to tear it down and replace it. Still other places remained strong even though weather-beaten. Our temple has stood for about 26 years and I have stood with it for nearly 24 of those years. I’ve seen many storms lash at the church and have felt the building shudder with high winds. I’ve seen water leaking through the roof and pip-popping into old coffee cans spread out in strategic places on the floor. I’ve heard the crunching-plastic sound of a huge tarp billowing like some great parachute over the roof when it was all dismantled for repairs. But the church is still standing and the praises of God go on within her.

I recalled the termites in the lower structure and some powder post beetles in the roof decking (that’s country living for you!). I thought of what would happen if we didn’t deal with these intruders or if we did not take care to maintain other parts of the building. Eventually they would simply collapse and the church would not be able to function according to her design, could not be what she was built to be.

Certain changes have been made, not because something was damaged or deteriorating, but simply to increase the beauty of the temple. Utility does not stir the soul, but beauty does. And the temple is beautiful, even while bearing the marks of age and the various assaults of nature.

What about our souls? We too start out from the beginning somewhat flawed and imperfect because of the lamentable legacy of Adam. Even in our childhood innocence there were signs of an innate selfishness that would later manifest in our propensity to do our own will instead of God’s. Thus we diminished the reflection of the beauty of his image in us.

We have all undoubtedly weathered some (or many) personal storms in our lives, and we have shuddered under the fury of them. Perhaps we have sustained some serious damage because of them. We may have had much to suffer or had to make hard decisions or radical changes that altered the course of our lives. But look at yourself. Are you not still standing? Have you not survived? Do the praises of God not continue within you? Maybe they have become muted with pain and discouragement and sorrow. But the Spirit who dwells in your inner temple wishes to revive them.

You must look even more deeply now. Has anything invaded your soul which can potentially destroy it or which is actually doing so now? Are there bad habits or negative thought patters or besetting sins that are eating at your spiritual integrity like so many termites in wood? You can endure their presence for a while, perhaps even a long while, before you collapse. But are you willing to neglect your soul to the point that you can no longer be what you were created to be, no longer fulfill the mission God has entrusted to you? Some “rotted” areas of the soul simply have to be cut away and replaced by that which renews, strengthens, and supports the inner temple. This may mean adopting a new way of thinking or even changing the goals and direction of your life.

Once we cut out the dry rot or exterminate the destructive pests, we can also do some things simply for the sake of beautifying our souls. We can grow in virtue, we can open ourselves through prayer and meditation to deeper levels of communion with God.

You are beautiful, despite the marks of age and the storms you have weathered. Or perhaps you are beautiful precisely because of them. With the help of God you can “age” gracefully. You can still stand when the wind is against you. You have to be determined to do whatever it takes to preserve the Image, to be what you were created to be. And there is one thing that you must never forget: “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1Cor. 3:17).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Time's Up

Was there ever a certain time in your life you wished would never end? A period of time spent with a loved one, a certain vacation or other happy experience, some event or encounter in which you found a special joy? It’s over now, isn’t it. If it’s not, it will be. You can’t hold on to it, no matter how hard you try. You can’t bring it back, no matter how much you would like to.

Perhaps on the other hand there was some terrible, painful time that you wanted to end as soon as possible, or something that you feared or dreaded. That too has passed. If not yet, it will. Time’s inexorable march slows down for no one. Everything comes and everything goes, swept along on the steady current of time.

cannot help but live and think in the context and concept of time. Our language is laced with it. Our days are organized by it. We might even feel harassed or oppressed by it. The clock tells us when to get up, when to go to work or to church or to some social event. It puts limits on what we can do. Depending on the nature of any given experience, time seems to drag or to rush by. In reality it is we who are dragging or rushing. Time just goes on, tick-tick-tick, steadily, without ever missing a beat. And the next hour or day or week or year arrives, right on schedule.

Where did the time go? we ask, when some pleasant experience has passed. At first that time stretched before us almost like the promise of an endless bit of paradise. But it’s over now. How quickly it passed! Yet time seems nearly to screech to an agonizing halt as some longed-for event slowly approaches, or when we’re in the midst of some dreaded ordeal. But it is moving, and it will come and it will go. And you are powerless to speed things up or slow them down. Time is merciless; it waits for no one. Yet time allows wounds to heal and pain to recede and the memory of bad experiences to fade.

Where am I going with this rather rambling reflection? Give me a little more time and I’ll make it clear. The main point is that time is leading somewhere, so we should not get bogged down in regrets about the past or fears about the future. Time had a beginning and it will have an end. It is a created reality and as such is under God’s will and control. Time is leading us to meet God face to face.

Eternity will not pass. Unlike time, it comes but it doesn’t go. Blessed are those who have spent their time in such a way as to secure an unending eternity of happiness. This everlasting “good time” will not slip through their fingers like the fleeting joys of this life; it will not be reduced to a memory. But woe to those whose misuse of time has gained them an eternity of suffering! There will be no hope for its passing. It will be infinitely worse than any agonizing wait or extended painful experience here on earth.

So take a little time to consider your own situation in life. Are you unhappy with the present condition or circumstances of your life? Don’t worry, it will pass. Are you comfortable, content, and trouble-free? Be careful, for this will pass as well. Are you dreading something or anxiously anticipating something? These too will come and go. But the most important thing to realize is that your life will come to an end, perhaps sooner than you think. Tick, tick, tick, goes the clock. There will come a moment when your soul departs from your body, just as there will come a moment when time ceases and the Lord comes to judge the living and the dead. There will be a day of reckoning and a fulfillment of the promises of God.

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come” (Rev. 12:10). This moment is still in the future, but it is coming, for time advances relentlessly. When it comes it will be the only reality, for our entrance into eternity will have begun. Are you ready to hear those words thundering in the heavens?

What do you see when you look back on your life? All the experiences of your 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years of life have come and gone. They went by like dusk to dawn. Where have they led you and where are you going now? Perhaps it is time to reflect on time. The sand is pouring through the hourglass.

You can’t retrieve the past. You can’t manipulate the future. But you can live the present moment well. You can accept the passing nature of things and not cry over spilled milk, missed opportunities, or broken relationships. You can find healing, reconciliation, and hope for radical newness of life in Him who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Master of time and the ultimate Fulfillment of every worthy desire.

What time is it? Jesus could say at a certain moment, “the hour has not yet come.” Yet soon He realized, “Now the hour has come.” Or in a colloquial paraphrase: “Time’s up!” The hour is coming. You may be late for everything else, but let me assure you that you’ll be on time for Judgment Day. The present moment is the only one you’ve got. Whatever you do, don’t waste it. Tick, tick, tick, tick…

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Arsenius Question

The date was August 6, 1995, the feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. The time was about 5:00 AM. I went outside to pray at Our Lady’s little shrine while there were still a number of stars that had not yet deferred to the dawn, which was just whispering its arrival. Deep was the silence, fresh and fragrant the early morning air. The flame in the votive candle was doing its silent dance, alternately casting shadows and streams of soft light onto the icon of the Mother of God. She was keeping vigil, too, for a good mother cannot sleep when she knows her children are in need.

It had been a very busy time: much work, many projects piling up. I was developing a case of “deadline despair.” So the pre-dawn peace was refreshing, and the consolation of the invisible God calmed my soul. As I prayed, I remembered back a few years when I didn’t have so many responsibilities. I realized, with a certain mild surprise, that I had drifted a bit from my primary pursuit, i.e., to live for the sake of knowing and loving the Lord our God, of whom my heart had spoken: “Seek his face.”

Then it came. The Question. “Joseph, why did you come here?” It wasn’t a voice, and I don’t think I heard it all at once, if that makes any sense. It just sort of crept into me and captured my thoughts, as the dawn was imperceptibly changing the hue of the heavens and swallowing the stars one by one. Just as it is impossible to forestall the dawn, so I could not keep The Question from invading my soul.

I don’t need to tell you the rest of my story, because now it becomes your story. Many centuries ago it was also the story of a wealthy and influential man named Arsenius, who was at a certain moment seized by the Spirit of Truth. God spoke to his heart: “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always.” Arsenius left “the world” and fled to the silence and solitude of the Egyptian desert to seek the face of God. He would ask himself from time to time, “Arsenius, why have you come here?” He knew the answer, but it was important not to let it slip too far from conscious awareness of it.

This is where your story comes in. For all of us, in one way or another, whether very powerfully or somewhat obscurely, there has been a time in life when we set ourselves about the work of seeking first the Kingdom of God. We have perhaps had noble ideals, enthusiastic optimism, and high hopes for the rich fruitfulness of the life in the Holy Spirit. But we may have gotten a bit sidetracked by attention to too many non-essential (though perhaps relatively important) details and problems. We may have let weariness, obstacles, or sufferings fill our field of spiritual vision. Or we may have gotten a bit complacent and decided to settle for less than the abundant life—with all its radical demands and incredible rewards—that the Son of God came to give.

Now, however, is the acceptable time and the day of salvation. Ask yourself the Arsenius Question. Today. Why did you come to serve God? Why did you choose to believe in Jesus Christ and to follow Him? What were your ideals and goals, your hopes and expectations, when you first felt the Divine Fire fall? How does your life now reflect what you believe and profess?

In order to even be able to ask yourself The Question, you must, if only for short periods of time, flee like Arsenius to a place of quiet, a place of prayer. This place can be behind a closed door in your own home, if not a desert or a church. As the apostles learned on Mt. Tabor, Jesus is the Father’s beloved Son. Listen to Him.

If you are always driving at full speed with the radio on (that is, being constantly busy and on the go, subjecting yourself to more stimuli than you can possibly sift through to see what might be good), then you will not even be aware that The Question must be asked—and honestly answered. When you can’t hear The Question, it is very easy to be carried away by your own opinions, emotions, and desires, without bothering with the necessary interior reflection. You come down with a bad case of spiritual myopia which shrinks your horizons. Then you get spiritual amnesia and you forget what it is all about in the first place.

It cannot be that way with us. Jesus wants us to know the Truth that sets us free. A regular asking himself of The Question helped keep St. Arsenius on the path to sanctity and salvation. It helped keep him where God called him. It purified him of self-will because it reminded him he was there to do God’s will. He knew the value of asking The Question.

Now it’s your turn.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

One Way

As you drive through pretzel-like highway interchanges, with off-ramps and on-ramps going every which way, you will at times see signs directing you not to go down a road which will introduce you to the front end of someone else’s car. These signs usually have messages like “Wrong Way,” “Go Back,” “Do Not Enter,” or “One Way.” Such signs are helpful and can even save your life. Wouldn’t it also be helpful if at the clover-leaf junctions of our spiritual life we had such signs indicating which way to go and which way not to go? Actually, they are there, but they’re not quite as easy to see as we might wish. I’d like to point out a few of them now so they will be easier for you to recognize.

ps the most easily-noticed sign (at least for you and I) is the “One Way” sign, which was put in place personally by the Word of God. I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” said our Lord Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6).

There is a growing number of people today (many of whom actually profess membership in the Church) who have difficulty reading that sign. They may be termed the “I’m OK, you’re OK” bunch. They are “tolerant,” “non-judgmental,” and “open-minded” (= empty-headed?) about matters of eternal life and death! Jesus may be my way (they say), but if He’s not yours, that’s OK. Any way is good, as long as it works for you and it doesn’t hurt anybody. I would never impose my beliefs on anyone else. Let’s just dialogue! Now evangelization is not an imposition of beliefs on others, but it is also not mere “dialogue.” Evangelists present the Gospel of salvation “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1Thess. 1:5). The outcome of preaching Jesus Christ as the Way is not “I’m OK, you’re OK,” but more often than not: “Brother, what must I do to be saved?”

Allow me to point out a few more road signs for you. If you miss the One Way sign, you will inevitably end up with a dangerous alternative. There is a road taken today by an increasing number of people in search of spiritual experience. It is the road of syncretism (the “a la carte” approach to spirituality) and of undiscerning acceptance of various spiritual and mystical traditions—and a little making up of their own!—which neither come from nor lead to Jesus Christ. (I hesitate these days even to say “Christ” without also saying “Jesus”; so many are using the title “Christ” to mean all kinds of things that have little or nothing to do with Jesus.) The sign on this road is “Wrong Way.”

If you take that way, you may indeed have spiritual experiences, but you will not know what spirit they originate from or lead to. It is so easy to be deceived when opening yourself to “the spiritual.” Now if a person is already a member of the Church and decides that he or she would like to experiment with various sorts of dubious spiritual practices in search of mystical experience or “the meaning of life” (as one eclectic author describes his own departure from the true faith), this sign appears on the road: “Go Back.” You will not find the meaning of life, you will not find God (though you may become so absorbed with yourself that you think you’ve found Him, and behold, He’s you! Or you are He, or both of you are He, or both of you are you, or everything, or nothing, or Shirley McLaine, or all of the above, or none of the above). You will not find the true God because you have either left the Way, Jesus Christ, or you have reduced Him to a prophet or sage on a par with all the rest (which is pretty much the same as leaving the Way). Open your eyes and read that sign: “Go Back.” Back to the Church, the Sacraments, the Bible, Christian prayer. There’s more than enough there to feed your soul and prepare you for eternal happiness.

You will find elements of all the above in what is called the New Age movement, but you will find even spookier stuff there. New Age “spirituality” to a great extent borders on the occult, if it is not wholly immersed in it. People who follow this movement (I'm speaking here of those who aren't actually witches, devil-worshippers, or politicians) often consider new-age belief and practice as the appropriate spiritual adjunct to radical feminism or radical environmentalism, etc (I stress “radical” here, because there are acceptable forms of feminism and environmentalism). Others just find it quaint or curious or even fascinating. Still others are just a little too open-minded and tolerant of the whole business. Meanwhile, their black-lipsticked children play with ouija boards, muddle their minds with occult video games, and sit around empowering each other with crystals, witchy rituals, and the like.

The sign you should notice at the very beginning of the New Age on-ramp is: “Do Not Enter.” Don’t even get interested. Learn to discern. It’s not always obvious that a certain book or video or spiritual method is leading the wrong way. Don’t get fascinated by the unconventional, the mysterious, the new, the secret. That’s the first step down toward the dungeon where dragons dwell. Talk to someone who has been heavily involved in New Age or occult beliefs and practices (let alone actual satanic cults). It’s hard to get out. Real hard. It follows you.

Before you look for signs in the sky, look for the signs on the very road you are traveling. Know which is the wrong way, when not to enter, and when to go back (if you missed all the other signs). Above all, follow the One Way sign. Jesus Christ is Lord, the only Savior, the Way, the Truth, the Life. If you do not follow this Way, when you pass from this life to the next, you will find, to your eternal dismay, one more sign: “Dead End.”