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.