Monday, October 30, 2006

Reason and Emotion in Spiritual Life

Now there’s a subject that could fill a book. I’m continuing with Marko Rupnik’s book on discernment that I referred to in the last post. Here I’d simply like to present something of his basic framework for understanding the rather complicated psychological and spiritual dynamics in what he calls the first stage of discernment. This is about the basic orientation of our thoughts and feelings, and about how the Holy Spirit and the evil spirit try to influence them.

He starts with two basic types of people: those who are fundamentally oriented toward themselves and those who are fundamentally oriented toward God. For each of these he discusses what it means to have reason and emotion in harmony or in conflict, and then what happens under the influence of God and of the devil. Here we will begin with those basically oriented to themselves (perhaps we can identify better with such!), and we’ll continue in our next post with those oriented to God.

Discernment begins in the psychological sphere, with thoughts, feelings, and the general observation of our inner equilibrium (or lack thereof), and then goes deeper—into the spiritual dimensions of our inner life. First we have to discover if we are at peace—in this context it means whether or not our reason and emotions are focused on the same object. If our reason points us in one direction and our feelings draw us in another, there is inner turmoil or confusion or perhaps despondency.

Yet it is not enough merely to seek the peace which comes from bringing the thoughts and feelings into harmony, focused in the same direction—because it might be the wrong direction! Here is a point at which psychological approaches and spiritual ones may begin to part company. Rupnik writes: “Under the influence of psychology, in spiritual formation today there is a risk that the art of discernment will be lost because the spiritual struggle is being avoided. As soon as someone begins to feel badly, various psychological means are instantly applied to help that person get out of a mood and to feel better. There is always someone around to rescue others from feeling badly… However, such psychologically informed coping mechanisms cancel out the possibility of a ‘spiritual reading’ of a struggling person’s day…or even life.”

What he’s saying is that if we lack peace because of a conflict between our intellect and our desires, it may very well be that the Holy Spirit is behind it, trying to prevent a union of thought and feeling if the object of these is something sinful. In such a case, we should not try to feel good or have peace about it! So the goal is not just the psychological peace that comes from focusing the mind and heart in the same direction, but the authentic spiritual peace which comes from focusing them in the right direction—toward the will of God.

The person who is fundamentally oriented toward self is not one who merely manifests occasional instances of selfish behavior in daily life. The fundamentally selfish person is one who, in his whole world view and the depths of his soul is preoccupied with himself, what we would call self-seeking or self-absorbed, with only superficial attempts to act in a selfless or Christian manner, perhaps a kind of pharisaical veneer.

On such a person the devil acts first on the emotions, feeding the self-oriented person with sensual consolations or pleasures, making sure he feels good, comfortable, secure, untroubled. Meanwhile he acts on the person’s reason by providing excuses and justifications for his self-indulgence. He supplies motivations and confirmations for self-centeredness, even to the point of making the selfish person think all this is God’s blessing. In this way the devil succeeds in uniting thoughts and feelings—in the wrong direction, towards sin—thus creating an experience of peace which will prevent the selfish person from trying to change anything in his life. Why should he? He has no inner turmoil, no goad to change. So he blissfully advances toward perdition.

How does the Holy Spirit work on such a person? Mostly by working on the intellect in order to lead it in a different direction. The Holy Spirit doesn’t act much on the emotions at this point, since the satisfaction with sensual pleasures tends to close one off to spiritual ones. Rupnik says that if someone is satiated with junk food, he is not attracted by the menu of a fine restaurant. So the Spirit will not initially offer spiritual consolations to replace the sensual ones, but will attempt to separate the direction of the reason from that of the emotion, so that the person will understand that he is going in the wrong direction and begin to change his attitudes and behaviors. This rift between thought and feeling is bound to create some inner disturbance and discomfort, but so be it. God isn’t after peace at all costs but rather that the person discovers the truth and begins to center his life on it. So rather than let us lazily slumber in sin, his Spirit functions as an Alarm Clock!

It is the logic of the Gospel which will hopefully appeal to the mind and begin to turn it away from resting in self-indulgence and toward the true meaning of life in God. But the first wake-up call or bit of illumination may not be enough to bring the mind (not to mention the emotions) all the way around to God. One may go back and forth in this struggle, like a recovering addict relapsing into his former behavior, but if one is determined to follow the flashes of insight from the Spirit, little by little changes will be made that are lasting. One is now on the way to becoming both rationally and emotionally oriented toward God, for a new and deeper peace begins to be felt, one that results from mind and heart not only turned in the same direction, but turned together toward God.

“The feeling of consolation I experience when, for an instant, my feelings adhere to the new orientation and are in harmony with a new insight from the Gospel, is often the consolation of a sweet sadness that is very different from what was experienced shortly before, when my feelings were crying out for fear of losing their attachments… These brief flashes of spiritual consolation become the criteria helping us to welcome the new peace and, in doing so, to begin breaking away from the old peace that is now understood and felt to be false… [We are] deeply moved by the drama of God reaching out to us in love. Only the Savior’s passion consoles the person God touches and becomes the leverage that makes possible a grateful, free surrender.”

Next time we will see how the Good Spirit and the bad spirit influence a soul already oriented to God.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Casting Out Our Demons

We hear several times in the Gospels about Jesus casting out the legion of demons from the possessed man. Aside from the fact that these accounts proclaim Jesus’ divine power over the evil spirits and the whole kingdom of darkness, what can we learn from this mystery? What does Jesus’ casting out of demons 2000 years ago say to us today?

Let us look at a few basic elements of this story and then make the application to our own lives. The man was driven by the demons to live among the tombs, where he cut himself with stones and terrorized all who would pass by. Then He was compelled to confront Jesus, who had mercy on him and cast out the demons. Finally, Jesus told the man to go and proclaim all that He had done for him.

The first thing to note about the evil in our lives is that it is largely self-inflicted. Certainly the devil tries to influence or even push us toward evil, but to the extent we listen to him and follow his suggestions and impulses, the fault is ours, and we can’t get away with saying: the devil made me do it. So, like the man who lived among the tombs and gashed himself with stones, when we choose to do what we know is wrong, we dwell in the shadow of death and inflict spiritual wounds upon ourselves—and perhaps on others as well, insofar as we defile the Body of Christ. We may be able at times to produce excuses for our sins, but in the end they are just that: excuses. We still have to stand before the judgment seat of God, and his judgment is final and without appeal.

The next stage is the meeting with Christ. Whether this meeting is a loving encounter, or an anguished and fearful confrontation, as it was for the demons, such a meeting with Christ is inevitable in our lives at one time or another. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things, and everyone without exception will be ushered into his presence, for he is the meaning and destiny of all creation. So we come to Him in our sinfulness. The demons cannot stand his presence and want to flee from Him, but the Lord knows that the man under their influence can still be saved, so He has mercy on him by freeing him from the presence of the evil spirits.

I want to focus here on the experience of God’s mercy, and for this I have recourse to a book entitled Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God, by a Jesuit named Marko Rupnik, who teaches Eastern Christian spirituality in Rome. The Christian life has as its foundation the experience of God’s love, and for sinners, this experience is primarily that of mercy, of the forgiveness of sins, which is the casting out of the evil of our lives. Like Lazarus, we hear a voice that calls us out of the tomb; we experience a new creation in which we enter into a regenerated life. We realize that a life without God at the center is hell, a demonic life, and we long to be liberated from it. Through accepting divine mercy, we allow ourselves to be reached by God’s love, and this changes the orientation of our whole life. Through repentance and forgiveness, the sinner meets the Savior, and all is made new.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean merely that God has cancelled our sins, but that God has taken upon Himself the life we lived without Him. By our repentance and confession, and the experience of God’s mercy, we discover what it means to be redeemed by the Lord. In forgiveness, a Christian rediscovers his whole life, gathered up into Christ. All the events of our life, even our past sins, now function as reminders of God; they speak of his love and enable the forgiven sinner to hold tightly to his Creator and Savior. For it is not just our sins that are forgiven, we are forgiven. We stand in grace before God, and we begin, as St Paul says, to live, no longer ourselves, but Christ lives in us. The penance given in confession should help us develop that living memory of forgiveness, of who we are in the mercy and love of God.

Since most of us aren’t actually possessed by the devil, the casting out of evil in our lives takes the form of repentance and forgiveness. Sin is the rupture of a relationship, and the awareness of sin brings pain to our hearts. But through repentance this pain is transformed into something like the pain of childbirth—new life is coming forth and our tears of sorrow become tears of joy. It’s not the heart that is shattered by the pain of acknowledging our sin, but rather the hard shell in which the heart was locked. When Jesus liberates us from the power of evil, our hearts can beat freely. Repentance is the movement that urges us towards God’s embrace; it is the measure of the authenticity of the path we have chosen. This is why the fathers urge us to penthos, compunction, for that keeps alive in our hearts the effects of repentance, the memory of mercy. The best memory to cherish in our souls is that of the first touch of divine love on our penitent hearts, and then constantly maintaining a living awareness of the effect of repentance, of forgiveness, and thus of rediscovered love.

Going to the last stage of the possessed man’s story, Jesus told him to proclaim all that God had done for him. For us, this does not mean merely talking about it, but preserving the state of grace in which God’s mercy has placed us, for our spiritual life can be healthy only if it is given constant care. That is why Jesus said in another place to beware, once the demon has been cast out, lest seven other demons more wicked than the first come and fill the emptiness of the soul.

In the experience of forgiveness, the encounter with God in which we surrender ourselves to Him in faith, love, and gratitude, we discover ourselves to be in Christ, in his love and truth. Christ, says Rupnik, is “God’s ecstasy” toward man, that is, God’s coming out of Himself, as it were, to meet us with his mercy; and in another way, in Christ we come out of ourselves to meet the Father. But once we have been set free from evil by God’s grace, and recognize that divine forgiveness is the element, the ambience, in which we live, we can be sure that the devil will not be content to leave us in peace.

We may stand in the grace of forgiveness, but St Paul says: “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1Cor. 10:12). This “taking heed” is the whole work of ongoing repentance, prayer, and labor to ensure that we will not fall away from the grace of God, for the devil’s seductions are many, and the more we advance in the spiritual life, the more subtle the temptations become, so vigilance is always necessary. The devil tries to tear our thoughts away from the joy and peace of the new life that God has given us through his mercy, this fundamental orientation to God that is the fruit of grace. So the tempter presents obstacles, exaggerates our struggles, multiplies reasons for not advancing or persevering, tries to make us anxious, fearful, or discouraged.

His main work, especially upon those who are not easily tempted by the cruder sins, is to get us to focus on ourselves, to make sure that we gradually slide away from focusing on God. Even in doing good, if we are concerned with how we feel or think, whether or not we are being noticed or approved or successful, or if we look with satisfaction on our own labors or spiritual exercises, then the devil is winning the battle, for we have preferred the monitoring of our own emotional or spiritual condition, that is, we have not let go of our own wills in favor of doing the will of God alone. Even in the area of ascetical practices like fasting, vigils, extra prayers, etc—if we think these are ways to reach God, we are mistaken; they will only bear fruit if they are a response to what God has already given us, if they are an expression of a grateful love becoming more sacrificial. God loved us first; God brought us out of darkness into his light; God freed us from evil; God granted us gifts of grace. We could do none of that for ourselves, so humble gratitude, a spirit of compunction, and a renunciation of our own wills can be the only proper response.

Let us, then, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and his mercy endures forever. He has healed our self-inflicted wounds through a saving encounter with Him—faith and repentance on our part, and the divine power of grace and mercy on his. Now it is for us to proclaim his goodness, not only in word but in deed, in the determined and vigilant maintenance of our new life as loved and forgiven children of God. Then evil will find no place in us, for we know the truth, and the truth has set us free.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Your Day in Court

The atmosphere was tense. There is always a strange mixture of excitement and uneasiness among those who witness an electric-chair execution. The only one who seemed to be full of unmixed joy—actually it was more like sadistic exultation—was the executioner himself, a Mr. B.L.Z. Bub. Mr. Bub was a bent, lumpy sort of fellow with vacant eyes and unusually long incisors. The joke around the jailhouse was that he also had a pointed tail which he tucked into his trousers, but no one would ever admit to actually having seen it. Anyway, his hand was on the lever, just about ready to yank it down and send the lethal shock into Mr. Mann, the poor slouch who was fidgeting in the chair and apparently talking to himself.

At that moment, the Counsel for the Defense entered the room, politely but decisively brushing past the security guards, walking with a quick yet purposeful and measured step. "Wait!" he cried, "Don't throw the switch! His case is not over yet!" Mr. Bub sneered his best sneer and growled, "You're not going to win this one, Mr. Counsel for the Defense!" With that he pulled the lever and instantly electrocuted Mr. Mann.

The onlookers gasped but the Counsel for the Defense, Mr. L.J. Christ, remained calm. He walked over to Mr. Mann's slumped body, looked upward briefly, and then touched him. To the utter amazement of all, Mr. Mann returned to life. "There will be a retrial," declared Mr. Christ. Mr. Bub's face went ashen and he wet his pants. But he regained a measure of composure as he thought to himself, "It's not lost yet. We still have the best prosecutor in the world!"

Soon came the day of the new trial. With an air of arrogant confidence, the prosecutor strode in. His name was Mr. Infernos Diablo (nicknamed “The Adversary,” because he was so darn mean and contrary). As usual, he was "dressed to kill," and he was accompanied by two of his most proficient assistant-attorneys, Mr. Principality and Mr. Power. He was leafing through his large dossier on Mr. Mann, chortling with satisfaction over all the evidence he had amassed against him.

Then the Judge appeared. Mr. Diablo looked up from his papers. His smirk changed to a grimace and he emitted a small groan which was heard only by his colleagues. He didn't like this Judge, because he was too lenient towards the accused (at least in Mr. Diablo's estimation). In fact, this Judge was so compassionate that he had earned the nickname, "The Father." "Well, it doesn't matter," muttered the prosecutor, "I have so much evidence against that imbecile in the defendant's chair that there's no way he can be acquitted."

So the trial began. Present were the Judge, Mr. Christ, Mr. Mann, Mr. Diablo, Mr. Principality and Mr. Power, and numerous curious onlookers—more than curious actually, for somehow they sensed that they had a vested interest in this case. The court stenographer was a young woman, Miss Theotokos. People would often comment that Mr. Christ bore a striking resemblance to Miss Theotokos, and wondered if the two were related. She was also a favorite of "The Father," who knew that she always let things be done according to his word.

The prosecutor carried the contents of his bulging briefcase to the stand. He began methodically to read off a list of Mr. Mann's crimes, beginning from when he was but a child. All in the courtroom marveled at how Mr. Diablo could have had access to all that information, and at his thorough documentation, though they were a bit uncomfortable with his vicious, accusatory style.

"Objection!" Mr. Christ interrupted the litany of woes. "A number of these crimes were committed in ignorance or without full knowledge or consent." Mr. Diablo shot back with, "Ignorance is bliss, but it doesn't stand up in court!" Both looked to the Judge. "Objection sustained," he firmly stated. In a bit of a huff, the prosecutor returned to grilling poor Mr. Mann, who was by now reduced to a quivering mass of fearful jelly, though he was somewhat relieved by the Judge's ruling. At length, the prosecutor finished, saying with satisfaction, "I rest my case." The Judge asked reflectively, "Do you ever rest, Mr. Diablo?" "Not until my work is done," he replied with a phony smile (the Judge knew it was phony, because he could see the hatred in Diablo's eyes).

Now it was time for the cross-examination. Mr. Christ came up to the stand and mercifully sized up his client, who at this point looked like he could use a miracle. "Are you sorry for your crimes?" he gently inquired. "Yes, sir," the trembling man responded. "Good," acknowledged the Counsel for the Defense. "Now, are you going to change your life?" "You bet!" Mr. Mann replied, showing some signs of hope for the first time. "One more question," said Mr. Christ. "Do you believe that God forgives your sins?"

"Objection!" shouted Mr. Diablo, rising from his chair, suddenly sweating. But before he could say anything else, the Judge said, "Overruled!" Mr. Christ repeated his question and Mr. Mann cried, "Amen!—I mean, yes, I believe!" "Thank you, Mr. Mann," said Mr. Christ with a smile. Then to the Judge: "Now I rest my case."

"Stupid," thought Mr. Diablo, recovering his irrational arrogance. "He doesn't know anything about law or justice. This case is still mine."

"Before I make my judgment," said the Judge, "I would like to review the evidence which the prosecution has provided. Mr. Diablo, may I see your dossier?" Mr. Diablo's enthusiasm was returning. "Hmm," he thought, "maybe the old man is going to come around after all." He strutted up to the bench and presented the evidence, forgetting for the time being why this judge was so often called "The Father."

The Judge turned to the stenographer. "Miss Theotokos, do you have with you the special "Cross-examiner" I like to use when reviewing such cases?" "Always, Father—I mean, Your Honor," she sweetly replied. As she said this she handed him a large, cross-shaped eraser. The Judge went down the list, erasing every crime, one by one (this is sometimes referred to as "Crossing off"). As the prosecutor witnessed this, he began to get hot under the collar (come to think of it, he's always hot under the collar!).

"There!" the Judge said at last, dumping the ream into the trash basket. "Mr. Diablo, your evidence is worthless. I hereby acquit Mr. Mann of all charges, on the basis of the work that Mr. Christ has done on his behalf." "You can't do that!" shrieked Mr. Diablo, having lost every shred of composure. "It is finished," declared Mr. Christ.

Still not willing to admit defeat, Mr. Diablo held a quick conference with his crafty colleagues, Mr. Principality and Mr. Power. "We can accuse Mann of having lied in his testimony. Then he can't be acquitted—even the Judge knows that!" said Principality. "Or we can find some technicality to show that the Counsel for the Defense was not acting in accordance with the law!" added Power.

So all together they descended upon Mr. Mann, who was still on the stand. But when they looked at him, ready to begin their interrogation, all they saw was the face of Mr. Christ! "Can any of you convict me of sin?" he calmly asked. As he said this, the courtroom was filled with a marvelous and indescribable light, as a shimmering dove appeared and rested upon him. All in the courtroom then knew the truth, and they knew Mr. Mann would be set free.

At that point, Mr. Diablo and his henchmen realized it was over; they had lost, and lost big. They stormed out of the courthouse, humiliated, elbowing their way through the snickering onlookers. All that could be heard from Mr. Diablo was some muttering about a travesty of justice...

Meanwhile Mr. Mann was rejoicing and could not contain his gratitude. "The Father" and Mr. Christ and Miss Theotokos congratulated him. The Judge did give him a gentle admonishment, however: "Your faith has saved you. I do not condemn you. Go in peace and sin no more." "We'll be available whenever you need us," added Mr. Christ. "Just ask for 'The Father'—in my name."

This story was told once before, though much more concisely: "And you, who were dead in sins...God made alive together with Christ, having forgiven us all our trespasses, wiping out the handwriting of the testimony against us; this He has taken out of the way, nailing it to the Cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and exposed them publicly, triumphing over them in Christ" (Col. 2: 13-15).

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Schmemann on Joy

As you may have noticed from past posts, Fr Alexander Schmemann (+1983) is an author I respect and from whom I benefit. One of the recurring themes in his writings is joy—as an essential and all-pervasive ambience of the Gospel, and therefore of Christian life. This is something that many of us may miss, whether in our own understanding or actual experience of the life of faith. So I will here share some of his thoughts on the subject, taken from his Journals.

“The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful… The first, the main source of everything is ‘my soul rejoices in the Lord…’ The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull—or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to joy? … People continually come and ask for advice… And some weakness or false shame keeps me from telling each of them, ‘I don’t have any advice to give you. I have only weak, shaky, but, for me, unremitting joy. Do you want it?” No, they do not. They want to talk about ‘problems’ and chat about ‘solutions.’ No, there was no greater victory of the devil in the world than this ‘psychologized’ religion. There is anything and everything in psychology. One thing is unthinkable, impossible: Joy!...

“I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it. Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything—faith and vision. Where there is no joy, Christianity becomes fear and therefore torture. We know about the fallen state of the world only because we know about its glorious creation and its salvation by Christ… This world is having fun; nevertheless it’s joyless because joy (different from what is called ‘fun’) can be only from God, only from on high—not only joy of salvation, but salvation as joy. To think—every Sunday we have a banquet with Christ, at His table, in His Kingdom; then we sink into our problems, into fear and suffering. God saved the world through joy: ‘…you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy…’

“What has Christianity lost so that the world, nurtured by Christianity, has recoiled from it and started to pass judgment over the Christian faith? Christianity has lost joy—not natural joy, not joy-optimism, not joy from earthly happiness, but the Divine joy about which Christ told us that ‘no one will take your joy from you’ (John 16:22). Only this joy knows that God’s love to man and to the world is not cruel; knows it because that love is part of the absolute happiness for which we are all created. Christianity (not the Church in its mystical depth) has lost its eschatological dimension, has turned toward the world as law, judgment, redemption, recompense… finally forbade joy and condemned happiness… the world rebelled against Christianity in the name of earthly ‘happiness.’ The world’s inspiration, all its dreams, utopias, and ideologies (does it really have to be proven?) are essentially an earthly eschatology…

“The world is created by happiness and for happiness and everything in the world prophesies that happiness… To the fallen world that has lost that happiness, but yearns for it… Christianity has opened up and given back happiness; has fulfilled it in Christ as joy… Christianity is divided between the conservatives (longing for a religion of law and recompense) and the progressives (serving a future happiness on this earth). What is interesting is that both groups hate nothing so much as a call to joy, as the reminding of a great joy announced and given at the beginning of the Gospel, which is the life of Christianity (‘Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say Rejoice’), for which Christianity longs…

“If man would see what I call joy, or if man would simply love Christ…and would come to Him, nothing else would be needed. If not, nothing will help. All begins with a miracle, not with conversations. I feel tired of the noise and the petty intrigues that surround the Church, of the absence of breathing space, of silence, of rhythm, of all that is present in the Gospel. Maybe that is why I love an empty church, where the Church speaks through silence… I love everything that usually seems to be ‘in between’ (to walk on a sunny morning to work, to look at a sunset, to quietly sit a while), that which may not be important, but which alone, it seems to me, is that chink through which a mysterious ray of light shines. Only in these instances do I feel alive, turned to God; only in them is there the beating of a completely ‘other’ life… Why do I know with such certitude that I am in contact with the ‘ultimate,’ that which gives total joy and faith, the rock against which all problems crash?”

We would do well to remember that Christianity is a Gospel of joy, which characterizes the abundant life that Jesus came to give us. Joy in the Lord is what ought to make Christians a uniquely enviable people. Yet is that what the world sees? Nietzsche’s trenchant critique is dead on: “The redeemed should look more redeemed.” If God entering this world to bring us the gift of everlasting life does not fill us with joy, we simply have no capacity for joy—or we have become accustomed to taking God’s marvelous gifts for granted. An oriental evangelist once said that we tend to esteem lightly the Lord’s blessings due to the sheer abundance of them! There certainly are plenty of causes of sorrow in this world, but St Peter urges us: “In this”—all that God has done and is preparing for us—“you rejoice” (1Peter 1:6).

Monday, October 23, 2006

On Defiling the Church

I’ve been reading First Corinthians lately, and something caught my attention in chapter 5. The issue there is that of a man in an incestuous relationship. St Paul, even in his absence, pronounced judgment on him and concluded with the exhortation: “Drive out the wicked man from among you,” though he did still hold out hope that, following repentance, “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

But what struck me was not something in the text itself, but a topical heading for the chapter, provided by the editors of this particular Bible. It reads: “Sexual immorality defiles the Church.” What does one man’s “private life” have to do with the Church? one might easily ask these days. There is so much concern to protect one’s own privacy, which in many cases means one’s “right” to do evil behind closed doors. Yet St Paul made a big public deal of it. Why?

In this same Epistle, Paul outlines his theology of the Body of Christ (chapter 12). Part of his conclusion is: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” There is a mystical connection between the members of the Body of Christ, his Church. In a sense, then, there is no such thing as an absolutely private or isolated act. If we are baptized into Christ, then we are all connected. We benefit from the holiness of the righteous members of the Body, and we suffer from the sins of the evil members. That doesn’t mean that someone else’s personal sin becomes our personal sin—for each will be judged according to his own choices—but our cross becomes a bit heavier, our labors and service are more urgently required, and we share a little more in the grief of Him who has borne all our sins, sorrows and sufferings.

There’s a kind of “ripple effect” to all we say and do, and even think. If we think in a degrading way about someone, then degradation has marred the Body. If we speak well of someone, then blessing has built up the Body. We don’t live in a neutral universe; in one way or another, all creation (especially other people) are affected by the presence of good and evil, by the outcome of our behavior. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” exclaimed the Apostle. “Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them the members of a prostitute? Never! … You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1Cor. 6:15-20). Today’s evolved and liberated people would bristle at the suggestion: you are not your own, with all that implies. But our deep interconnection with each other—and with Christ, the Head of the Body—underlies Paul’s words.

We can see why “sexual immorality defiles the Church.” To engage in sexual activity outside of marriage is not merely a private decision. The common canard these days is that one can do whatever one wishes, “as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.” But guess what? It hurts somebody. Sexual immorality defiles the Church, so it hurts you and me, even though we may never know just what is going on in other people’s lives. Perhaps we would all be more careful about what we do in secret, if we knew that a judgment was pending, not only at the end, but in an ongoing manner. “For nothing is hidden that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). We send out ripples of harm and defilement throughout the Body whenever we sin, whether publicly or privately—just as we send out ripples of goodness and life when we live according to God’s will.

I’m not sure why I bring all this up now—perhaps just because that heading caught my eye; perhaps because the world, and even the Church, are riddled with sexual immorality in our time. Everyone wants to feel free to do as they please, thinking they are not accountable to anyone but themselves (if that), thinking that no one knows, no one is harmed by their choices to violate God’s commandments. But we all suffer from it; we all carry the weight of the wounded or sick members of the Body. What is needed is extraordinary goodness, purity, and sanctity among those members of the Body who are not the cause of the defilement—so as to bring grace and cleansing and enlightenment.

The Body of Christ suffers violence every day, in one way or another. Let us resolve to be part of the solution that heals, and not part of the problem that defiles. The Church is counting on us, so that at length we can all rejoice together, as one.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Our Lady and the Logic of the Kingdom

The following is substantially my homily of October 1, 2006, which is the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, celebrated by the Slavic Byzantines. I think it is beautiful to have a feast day simply to commemorate the protection lovingly offered by our heavenly Mother. (There were two Gospel and Epistle readings, because the feast fell on a Sunday.) It’s kind of long, so go get yourself a cup of coffee and plan to sit for a while!

We heard in the Epistle from St. Paul that we are the temple of the Living God, which means God wants to dwell in our midst and He makes it clear: “I will be your Father and you will be my children; I will be your God and I will dwell with you.” But, there’s still a condition there. You know God’s love is unconditional, but our salvation is not, and as we see many times in the Scriptures He says what you have to do and what you have to avoid to be saved. Anyway, He says, “Touch nothing unclean; separate yourselves from evil and then I will be your Father and you will be my children and we will dwell together.” We have to do something on our part so that God can dwell within us, because God cannot dwell with the unclean since He is the All-Holy, and Scripture says nothing unclean can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, what does that have to do with the feast of Our Lady? I don’t know, because that reading wasn’t chosen for the feast! That reading is for this Sunday, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. But there is a connection: first of all, she herself, beyond anybody else, can be called a temple of the Living God because God lived in her bodily and not only in spirit as He lives in the rest of us. So she is that. But she’s also been “commissioned” by God to lead us along this path to separation from evil and from uncleanness toward the fullness of life as children of God. He made us her children as well, so that she could lead us to that blessed land of Paradise where we will all be God’s children and He will be our Father, with a happy ending forever.

Her protection is something that is expressed in a kind of guidance in our life, because as I mentioned before, her protection doesn’t mean that she protects us from every possible hardship or suffering in this life. If she did that, then we would be nothing but a bunch of selfish brats; we would never learn the lessons of life and we would never grow in Christ. So she’s not going to protect us from things that are going to help us grow and mature in our life, humanly and spiritually in the faith. But she will protect us from things that will take us away from God, that will threaten our salvation. However that works out practically, we leave that up to her. So basically, we shouldn’t expect her to protect us from everything, every stubbing of toes or whatever, and we shouldn’t get mad at her when she doesn’t, because some people do that. After the fall of Constantinople, I’m told that the Greeks stopped celebrating this feast because they said, well, she didn’t protect us from the Turks, did she? But that’s not the attitude that we should have.

I was reading a little snippet from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s journals, and he mentions something about preaching on this feast. He didn’t say much about what he preached, but he did say something that’s interesting in the context of wanting to be protected from every little thing. He said, there’s a kind of a symbol or icon of our present, soft, affluent society: the painkiller. That’s an image of our desire to avoid suffering at all costs. Now that doesn’t mean that if you’re in some serious, severe pain you shouldn’t take some medication to alleviate it, to make it tolerable. That’s OK and that’s good. But the mentality is wrong that thinks that every time I have a little pain somewhere I have to run and take a pill and get rid of the pain, because pain has to be excluded from my life. “I have to be comfortable, I have to be happy,” but that isn’t what life is like.

You know, I had a little experience of this just yesterday. I was up on my roof cleaning off all the last year’s worth of pine needles and junk that accumulates on there before the rain comes, and there was a branch of a pine tree that was hanging right on the roof. I like trees around me, but I don’t like them actually lying on the cabin. So I went and I snapped off the branch of the pine tree. Well, the tree was not happy with that. It snapped back and scratched up my arm in the process. It’s funny because a little bit later on—it didn’t hurt much, but it was stinging a little bit—my first thought was, oh, I should get something to put on this to soothe it a little bit. Then I said, wait a minute! What are you going to preach about tomorrow? So I just left it, and you know, aside from a few little reminders, I forgot all about it. We shouldn’t be preoccupied with such minor afflictions.

That’s why the protection of Our Lady is of a higher caliber than just keeping little aches and pains and troubles away from us. It’s meant to lead us in the right direction to teach us the truth about the Kingdom of God and what that means in our life. She dwells in a different environment than we do. She is in the Kingdom of Heaven. She sees things with the eyes of God. She has the great panorama and shares in God’s own vision of the world and of life and of our future and destiny and everything that has to go into the way we live in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s a certain kind of logic of the Kingdom of Heaven that she tries to teach us, so that we know how to live, because the logic of this world is not the same as the logic of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We see a little bit of it in the Gospel today about Martha and Mary. Martha was pretty much living according to the logic of the world. You have guests so you fuss with pots and pans, table settings, and all kinds of stuff. But Jesus said, you’re too busy. And not just too busy, but too troubled by this, and you’re yelling at your sister at the same time. But Mary was living according to the logic of the Kingdom because she was sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his word. And He blessed that. He said, that’s the good part, and it will not be taken away from her.

Then again, St. Paul makes a distinction between all these things which are really the difference between this world and the Kingdom of Heaven. He says, what accord is there between light and darkness, between iniquity and righteousness, between Christ and the devil, between the temple of God and the temple of idols? That’s the great contrast, several contrasts, between the logic and ways of the Kingdom and that of this world.

Also, Peter was all beaming with pride after having finally said something right, and Jesus blessed him, saying: my Father has revealed this to you that I am the Son of God, the Messiah. Peter was all excited, but then immediately he falls back into the logic of this world and he tries to talk Jesus out of his passion and death, our salvation. So Jesus says, you think not like God but like man. Again, there’s that contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. We see that this plays out constantly through the Scriptures, and that’s something that we are called to recognize and to live.

Again, in the other Gospel reading, that logic of the Kingdom comes in a very pointed way when Jesus says: love your enemies. That’s not the logic of this world. He says if you love those that love you what good is that? Sinners do the same thing. So the logic of the Kingdom is that you love those that don’t love you, or worse. And similarly He says, well, if you lend to those from whom you expect full repayment, what good is that? Right away He says that sinners lend to sinners and expect the full amount back. So the logic of the Kingdom, then, is you lend without expecting anything back—but that doesn’t mean we should test each other on how we live according to the Kingdom by borrowing from each other and not intending to repay anything back!

The point of it is that we have to have a different mentality, a different way of looking at things. That is what Jesus has tried to teach us through the Gospel and what this whole mystery of Our Lady as the guide and protectress in our life, what that is supposed to manifest. Because she, as our protectress, protects us not only from soul-destroying evils, but also from the wrong attitudes, the wrong ways of thinking that keep us on the level of the logic of this world and don’t allow us to transcend it and move toward the logic of the Kingdom, the way to the Kingdom by which alone we can enter.

We have to pray that we will be given this insight into the ways of the Kingdom of God because that’s how we have to live. That has to be our vision of life. You can’t get your vision of life from the TV and the movies and the magazines, because that’s the way of the world. That’s the distorted vision. That’s a vision that can get so distorted that it takes you to the exact opposite direction of the Kingdom of God. That’s why we have to constantly come back and celebrate the mysteries of God, listen to the Gospel being proclaimed, the Word of God, because that’s what He came for. God sent his Son so that He could tell us the truth about life. He’s not just another wandering prophet who had a few disciples and died and that was the end until the next wandering prophet shows up. No, He is the Son of God, and He came into the world to tell us what life means and how to live life in a way that is pleasing to Him, how to live life in a way that will take us to the Kingdom of Heaven.

We have to listen and we have to change our way of thinking and not to just go with the flow and think that everything’s OK because everybody around you thinks the same way so you might as well do the same thing. No, Christians sometimes have to stand out like a sore thumb in the crowd. But it’s the sore thumb that’s the light of the world that others should hopefully notice and want to be a part of and to join. We have to have that witness to the world. So let us pray to God that we will be open to that and not just blindly follow the reasoning, the logic, the mind of this world. St. Paul says we have the mind of Christ, so we have to develop that.

Christ has come into the world to bring that message of the Kingdom. And when the logic of the Kingdom confronts the logic of the fallen world what is given to us is the wisdom of the Cross. The way that the logic of the Kingdom functions in the fallen world is through the wisdom of the Cross, about which Paul speaks so eloquently in his writings. That is how we have to look at things. We have to look at things through the mystery of the Cross, through the sacrifice of Christ, what it cost Him to bring the Kingdom of God into a fallen world and to raise it up through his Resurrection.

But then we can’t also get haughty and think, oh, we have the wisdom of the Kingdom, and then we look down on the world and point the finger at the world, at the massa damnata of the world. Well, that’s not it either, because we have to also look in ourselves and not just say God’s ways are not the world’s ways. Well, look in your soul and you will find out, oh no! God’s ways are not my ways either! Because God’s ways are not pettiness, are not selfishness, are not grumbling and complaining, are not doing all the little things that we try to get away with when we think that nobody sees us. Well, that’s not God’s way, that’s not the logic of the Kingdom, but rather the mind of the world which we have to overcome.

So let us ask Our Lady to be with us, to help us, to protect us by teaching us the ways of the Kingdom and leading us carefully, step by step, all the way there. And then we will rejoice as being part of that great family of God who wants to say to us: I’ll be your Father and you will be my children. He wants that for us, forever. We can do it. We can follow Him if we choose that. But to choose God is to renounce evil and to renounce the ways of evil, which are all around us. We must decide and make that choice. God has given us Our Lady and the Saints, and our Guardian Angels, to help us. Let’s take their hands and let them guide us step by step on our daily pilgrimage toward the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Seed, the Word

We’re all quite familiar with the parable of the sower, as well as with its interpretation, for Jesus Himself gives it to us in the Gospel (I’m using Luke’s version here, 8:5-15). So our part is not so much figuring out what it means as putting it into practice. For to his disciples—and I trust you fall into this category—it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said. Now that we know, what then will be our response? We might ask why fruit springs up in only one of the four places in which the seed is sown, that is, in one of the four categories of people who hear the word of God. In the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, the servant, when seeing the weeds springing up along with the wheat, asks the master: “Did you not sow good seed?” Someone who really doesn’t know Jesus might ask Him the same question—putting the blame on God, a popular pastime these days (and perhaps for millennia). But He would give the answer that the master in the parable gave: “I see the hand of an enemy in this.” The word of God is always pure and fruitful, so if it happens that the seed does not mature and bear fruit, the fault lies not in the seed but in the soil, that is, not in the word of God, but in those who hear it, and who may have allowed themselves to be influenced by the enemy of our salvation.

The enemy is explicitly mentioned when Jesus says in his explanation of the parable: “the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts.” Those are the ones who are indifferent to the word, who hear it not with openness, reverence, or desire, but who hear it casually as if it were just one word among many words which fill the ears and minds of today’s information-oriented society—one which manifests a glaring lack of discernment of the relative value of all these words. But even in the next two categories of fruitless hearers of the word, the enemy is implicit. For the temptation to fall away when things get difficult, as well as the lure of riches or pleasures, all come from the enemy, who sows his evil seed or who tries to render the seed of the word of God fruitless.

In a culture in which the written word played a very minor role, and the spoken word the major role, Jesus emphasized hearing the word—though hearing can be extended to mean any form of receiving the word. I quoted John Tauler a few days ago on hearing the word or becoming deaf to it. We can’t think that we can listen to the word of the Lord sometimes, listen to the words of the enemy at others, and then simply come back and pick up where we left off listening to the word of God. That is because listening to the temptations of the enemy reduces our capacity for the word of God, reduces our ability to hear it. As Tauler implies, we become a little more deaf to the Word of God each time we listen to another voice, a voice that leads us away from the source of life and truth and love. So we have to work hard and pray hard, to be healed of our deafness to the word of the Lord. It is hard to recover what has been lost, but with the grace of God all things are possible. But on the other hand, if we fancy ourselves pious or virtuous, we may think we are hearing the word of the Lord, not realizing that we have already become deaf through following other voices. If what you think is God’s word brings you only a confirmation of your own opinions or doesn’t disturb your complacency, then it is not the word of the Lord. But if you hear a call to repentance, to grow out of your comfort zone; if you hear a word that challenges and stretches you beyond what you find easily manageable, and calls you to think and pray and live more genuinely and sacrificially, then this truly is the word of God. If it is the word of the Lord, it will surely come in peace, even if it is a hard saying. It will resonate in our hearts as true, even if it goes against our usual way of looking at things.

Let us not be, as St James says, forgetful listeners, who hear the word but don’t put it into practice. The Lord describes the fertile soil of the soul in this way: the fertile receptors of the seed, the word, are those “who hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with perseverance.” So there are three stages, and hearing the word is only the first. It has also to be held fast in an honest and good heart—the word of God cannot be held in a heart corrupted by selfishness, unforgiveness, deceitfulness, bitterness or hatred. Such a heart is neither honest nor good.

Finally, the fruit is brought forth through perseverance, perhaps one of the most important virtues needed for maintaining all the others. We can be sure that the enemy will practice perseverance in trying to ruin us, making us deaf to the word of God, so we must always be vigilant and perseverant in doing what we know is right. Then we will truly hear and hold fast the word, and bear the fruit of holiness—without which, says the Letter to the Hebrews, no one will see the Lord. So let’s get busy preparing the good soil to receive the word of God!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Report from the Field

I’d like to share a bit of what I experienced when I was away—not so much the family reunion or the good food or even the autumn colors, which I will simply hold in memory, but rather some things that prompted reflections on the experience of God and the Church, for better or worse.

Since it takes the better part of a day to get from California to New York, I prayed the Offices on the planes. Actually, I began while waiting at the gate. I was surrounded by the excitement of vacationing families and the boredom of businessmen on yet another trip. A cell phone was attached to every ear in the place, and the chatter was unceasing. It would have been impossible to exclude everything that went on around me, in order to enter a silent world of prayer, so I didn’t even try. Nor did I have the sense that I was the “holy one” praying while everyone else drank coffee or listened to their iPods. I did experience, however, a kind of secret joy in being able to praise the Lord while all were apparently oblivious to Him. Yet I had the sense that we were all together, that I was praying for them, as one of them, yet as one called to represent them. And I think the Lord’s blessing was upon us all.

Then it was on to the plane. While the inside of the planes did not provide the best environment for prayer, what I saw outside was inspiring indeed. On one flight I saw the moon rising over the clouds, and the brilliant sun making them all look like a snowy infinity. I was in a position at one point to see the shadow of the jet in a circle of light on the clouds. I also had the unique (for me) experience of being at the source of the heaven-like rays of the sun that pierce the clouds from time to time. On the ground, we see the rays coming down from the sun through the clouds, but I was able to see the rays going down to the earth from above—quite a different perspective! And as we took off on the return trip, the colored trees looked like a vast field of poppies as far as the eye could see.

So I rejoiced to pray: “Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise Him in the heights. Praise Him all his angels, praise Him all his hosts. Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, shining stars. Praise Him, highest heavens, and the waters above the heavens. Let them praise the name of the Lord; He commanded, they were made…” (Ps. 148).

Oddly enough, my experience of God in airports and jets over the clouds was for the most part much more inspiring that what I experienced in his Church. Aside from the two Divine Liturgies I celebrated at the Ukrainian church (my “home” parish) on the weekend for the family events—which were filled with light and joy and an abundance of grace—I was deeply disappointed and almost horrified at what I experienced at daily Masses in two different Roman Catholic parishes. In one the homilist flatly denied one of the dogmas of the Church and gave a bizarre, subjective, and meaningless interpretation of it that seemed to suit his own lack of faith (and he changed a few of the words of the consecration). Ironically, in the epistle of the day, St Paul declared: “If anyone brings you a different ‘gospel’ than the one you have received, let him be condemned!” I stayed afterward to pray the rosary with a few old ladies. I recognized one old couple and later made sure that they knew that what Father had said in his homily was a load of b.s. (though I didn’t put it quite that way!).

In the other parish, the priest ad-libbed almost the entire Mass, with his own rambling commentary added to (or substituting for) the liturgical texts. Pardon me, Father, but I’m not interested in your personal opinions, your rewriting the texts of the Mass, or your “take” on whatever issue happens to surface in your mind during the Mass! I come here to worship God in communion with his whole Church, not to watch some ludicrous sideshow! Somehow, in one homily, he managed to teach us that the Ten Commandments are not binding upon us, that Christians were responsible for the Holocaust, and that Jesus couldn’t care less if we have women priests—in fact, those stodgy old hierarchs in Rome are forcing male priests on the Church against God’s will!

Then there was a great ruckus in another parish. One of the priests who was there for a long time had to leave (against his will—too orthodox, or he somehow ruffled liberal episcopal feathers). His replacement, evidently a good priest, but not to the liking of the more influential parishioners, was threatened. After his first Mass a number of parishioners encircled him like mafia hit-men and said: “We’re gonna to take you down!” Next followed threatening graffiti on his garage door and nails in the tires of his car.

What the hell is going on? By saying it that way, I think I answered my own question. Pope Paul VI said that the “smoke of satan” had entered the church, and things sure were smoky in these parishes—and this in a little town in upstate New York! I was deeply grieved by all of this, and discouraged to see the Bride of Christ so battered. I nearly wept when I saw the priest grab the chalice of Precious Blood with one hand and quickly toss it back as if it were a flagon of ale, bang it back down on the altar, and then lumber down to distribute Communion. Can someone really believe that this is the Body and Blood of Christ and still behave with such shameful irreverence?

Perhaps the Lord wanted me to see all that to realize just how urgent is the need for prayer for the restoration of true faith and worship in the Church, for the conversion of those who would lead others astray or defile the holy sanctuary of the Lord.

All in all, the trip was very blessed, but I returned with a burden to pray specially for the healing of the Church and for its renewal in the grace of the Holy Spirit. I was glad to return to the monastery, where the Gospel and the Tradition are still alive and unadulterated by silliness, heresy, and the blowing of dissenting horns. The Lord will surely have the last word, but let us pray that He speak it soon!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Not Yet Unto Blood

I wrote a while back that Our Lady “spoke” to me about the treasure of the heart when I was praying before her icon. Not long ago I had a similar experience, but in a different context, and with a somewhat more stern (though always loving) response.

The situation was that of a trial or temptation, though I don’t remember precisely what it was. But I was struggling with something, and in prayer I just sort of lifted my eyes to her with an inarticulate plea for help or deliverance. Again the response came, and as usual she replied in the words of Scripture, but these were words that I wasn’t exactly ready to hear: “you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). Yikes! It wasn’t, “there, there, everything will be all right,” but it was more like, “stop complaining, you have not yet begun to fight!” I have to then reflect: did the Lord tell St Paul, for example, that He would smooth his path and preserve him from severe struggles? No, He said (to Ananias, about Paul): “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).

Perhaps that is a message that we Christians who live in an affluent society ought to reflect upon more seriously. We would like our life in Christ to be not too demanding, but rather consoling—or at least not constantly yanking us out of our comfort zones! Millions of Christians face persecution or even death every day as part of their fidelity to Christ. But we would rather use our weakness as an excuse to be dispensed from the demands of the Gospel, instead of being spurred on to the limits of our endurance, whether it be in resistance to evil or laboring for righteousness’ sake. We would like to set boundaries around the extent of struggle we feel we can handle, and then struggle no further. We grow weary or fainthearted instead of looking to the example of Christ (Heb. 12:3). But we are shamed by the examples of the saints, those who really did shed their blood for Christ. I just read a historical novel on the life of St Francis Xavier (Set All Afire, by Louis de Wohl), who was a zealous missionary, converting many pagans in India and Japan in the 16th century. He didn’t die a martyr, but he did shed his blood, whether from enemy arrows or his barefoot treks to the far reaches of heathendom to baptize and preach the Gospel.

Perhaps in excusing ourselves for our lack of fervor or willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake—and for the keeping of his word, come what may—we may actually be setting a course for ourselves that gradually drifts away from the fullness of truth and life. I recently read this in Ephesians: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart… Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:17-24). What struck me most was the phrase, “alienated from the life of God.” That is the state of sin, a state which is brought about through ignorance, hardness of heart, and “corruption due to deceitful lusts.” When we do not resist evil, or do not labor for the Gospel, unto blood, that is, with our whole heart, mind, and strength, then we gradually slide into a state in which we are alienated from the life of God. For if He is not worth giving our all in the keeping of his commandments, then little by little He will not be worth much of anything to us—in actual fact, if not in our perfunctory confessions of faith.

In one sense, all this is to say that the little things count—the little victories, the little defeats. Our choice to fight temptation or to give in to it, to give of our best in service of the Lord or to “get by” with doing the minimum—all this reveals who we are and whether or not we are in fact alienated from the life of God. It seems to belong to fallen human nature to be rather forgetful, drowsy, and slothful regarding the demands of our higher commitments, and so we often need wake-up calls, proddings, exhortations to give a little more, fight a little harder, love more genuinely, think of ourselves less frequently.

So I thank the Mother of God for reminding me that I have not yet resisted unto blood, which means that there are untapped resources of grace within me, and the Lord expects me to make use of his every gift in order to manifest the glory and power of his Kingdom in my own little life, a life which nevertheless can have a “ripple effect” throughout the Body of Christ, making more grace available to all who desire to fight the good fight and be crowned in the Kingdom of Heaven. All efforts in service of the Lord, in witness of his truth and love, are worth it, as long as they are willed and guided by his Spirit. Christ sacrificed Himself unto blood, for He knew that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22), and now He calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Don’t paralyze your spiritual growth, however, by fear of what it costs. Just take the next step. As long as you keep moving toward Him, your eyes will not be on the cost, but on the reward.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hearing God

“I will hear what the Lord God has to say,” wrote the Psalmist. Hearing the voice of the Lord seems to be one of the main concerns and desires of those who seek Him in earnest. I think we would all love to hear what the Lord God has to say to us (unless we have a particularly guilty conscience, but even then…), yet if your experience is like most, trying to discover precisely what the Lord is saying can end up as a frustrating, confusing, or generally discouraging endeavor, simply because of the lack of clarity and certainty.

Well, don’t get your hopes up too high; I’m not going to provide some foolproof answer or secret for discerning the voice of the Lord. But I will share a couple points that may at least help you clear out some obstacles that may hinder your search.

John Tauler, OP (+1361) has something to say about hearing the voice of the Lord. He says we don’t hear it because we have made ourselves deaf. Listen: “It is very important to understand what makes men deaf. From the time that the first man opened his ears to the voice of the Enemy, he became deaf, and all of us after him, so that we cannot hear or understand the sweet voice of the Eternal Word. Yet we know that the Eternal Word is still so unutterably near to us inwardly, in the very principle of our being, that not our humanity itself, our own nature, our own thoughts, nor anything that can be named or said or understood, is so near or planted so deep within us as the Eternal Word. It is ever speaking in us; but we do not hear it because of the deep deafness that has come upon us… What is this deeply hurtful whispering of the Enemy? It is every disordered image or suggestion that starts up in your mind, whether belonging to your creaturely desires and wishes, or this world and every thing that belongs to it; whether it be wealth, reputation, even friends or relations, or your own nature, or whatever lays hold of your imagination. Through all these things he has his access to your soul…” (Second Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity).

This is worth sustained reflection. As soon as we open our ears to evil, we become deaf to God. This doesn’t mean only externally listening to something bad; it means “listening,” that is, paying attention, to all that enters our consciousness that is not of God, all that we allow to inhabit our thoughts and emotions and desires. All these things create an interior clamor, a sub-conscious cacophony that drowns out anything the Spirit of God might wish to say. For the Lord does not wish to compete with other voices; his is not merely one among many. He is the Word from all eternity, through whom all things were made. He does not need to out-shout the deceitful hawkers of happiness that so many flock to hear. He simply is, and his very being is Word and Truth. We must explicitly seek Him, casting out all the noisy inner idols and anything that disturbs the serenity of truth and love. Close yourself to the seductive and insistent voice of the enemy, and you will be ready to open yourself to the voice of the Word.

Marko Rupnik, SJ, offers another helpful point: “Discernment is prayer, the constant asceticism of renouncing my own will and thoughts… Such an attitude is possible only if one is enraptured in a wave of love, because to accomplish this a radical humility is necessary. Humility…best guarantees the process of discernment. However, as we well know, humility is like freedom: it is only found in love and is a constant dimension of love, and outside of love it does not exist, in the same way that love without humility is no longer love… The exercise of discernment leads us to this foundational experience of God’s love, which can them become a constant, prayerful attitude of discernment, of acquiring the humility that is above all docility, that is, the attitude of ‘letting speak’” (Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God).

So, in order to “let God speak,” and to be able to hear, we must not only clear out the evil or cluttersome thoughts and intrusions, we have to have a disposition of humble love. God is not going to speak to someone who is angrily shouting at Him, or who is telling Him how He should run the world, or who is whining about trifles. God speaks to those who say, “Speak, Lord, your servant listens,” or “Let it be done to me according to your word.” He speaks to those who, like Mary of Bethany, sit at his feet and listen to his word, who listen because they love, and because they know He has the words of eternal life. He speaks to those who come without self-interest, without curiosity to know the future or the answers to life’s inscrutable mysteries, but who come saying only, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”

Let this be enough for starters. I may have more to say in the future, but for now I still have to listen for what the Lord God may be saying about how to listen to what He is saying! Even the two points above can help us go a long way toward developing a listening heart. But are we willing to sacrifice our familiar inner idols in order to hear the living God? Are we willing to close our inner lives to every voice that is not of God? Every time we entertain the voice of the enemy, we become a little more deaf to God, yet we blame Him for not speaking more clearly.

If we are trying to tune in a radio station and are just a little off, there will be other stations interfering, or there will be static, and we will not hear our station clearly. Tune in to God, precisely—tune out interfering voices. Then begin to enjoy the music of Heaven!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

My Half-Life

This year marks a curious phenomenon in my life. I entered the monastery 24 years ago. Now I am 48 years old. So I have spent fully one half of my entire life in this monastery. Henceforth, I will have lived the majority of my life in the monastery.

It’s not as common as it used to be, that someone would spend the better portion of his life in a monastery. Some people might even think it rather strange that I would have “left the world” at the (relatively) tender age of 24 and lived the monastic ever since and, God willing, will do so until death doth me and this world part. It’s not like I’ve retired to some inaccessible mildewed cave, however, wearing skins and eating bugs, growing several feet of hair and beard, while communing with nature and battling demons. The very fact that you’re reading this means that I do have some contact with the world, and have fairly modern means to do so.

I haven’t exactly “stayed home” the whole time, either. I went to school in San Francisco, and in Connecticut and Oregon, made a few visits to my family in New York, went on a couple pilgrimages to eastern Europe and Mexico, did a brief tour with the missionary image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Virginia, went to my grandmother’s funeral in Pennsylvania, spent a few months in southern California, made a couple trips to Washington State, was ordained a deacon in Chicago (but a priest here at Mt Tabor), saw Mt Rushmore on a return trip from Chicago, co-piloted (once!) a single-engine airplane with a friend who just got her license, walked through a glitzy Nevada casino in my monastic habit (didn’t have my “Repent!” sign with me, though), visited the dying son of some family friends at an alternative health clinic in Tijuana, attended conferences in Anaheim, Omaha, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and Chicago, preached a few retreats here and there in New York and California—and every now and then I go to the coast and contemplate the ocean! I’ve slowed down some over the years and am not much inclined to travel anymore (though you’ll be seeing an announcement very soon that I’m going to NY for a little while). Sometimes we would say: “Enter a monastery, see the world!” Yet it is primarily the interior world, the world of the indwelling Trinity, that we enter a monastery to experience. The monastic environment is one in which the “ultimate questions” of life can be pondered—not as an academic exercise, but as an immersion in Truth and Love, an opening of the eye of the heart, an insertion into the rhythms of visible and invisible creation.

I have learned a lot here at Mt Tabor, from many sources: the Scriptures and the Fathers, our founder Archimandrite Boniface and others who have offered spiritual guidance and, perhaps most fully, from simply living the monastic life as it is, with all its challenges, lessons, and illuminations. Sometimes I think that everyone should spend a few years in a monastery before they attempt to get married or even to make their way in the world. The monastery not only instills a profoundly Christian vision of life, its very set-up enables one to stand back a little from the hurly-burly of life, to reflect on one’s inner and outer experiences, and so to live not merely by impulse, fashion, or emotion, but by the serene inner light of grace and truth, which is necessary for living any life in a manner worthy of our God-given dignity and destiny. It’s rather ironic that not having gotten married (almost did though, when I was about 20—would have been a disaster), I at times have reflected that the monastic life has taught me much of what is essential in love and relationships, so that by time I was mature enough for marriage, I was in monastic vows! But the Lord has placed me on a more solitary path and, all told, I’m quite grateful for that. Certain external restrictions or limitations seem actually to foster my creative freedom. Even though no vocation on earth is the ultimate fulfillment (every choice in one direction requires a renunciation in the opposite), I think God knows us well enough—our capacities and incapacities, potentials and dead ends, what will “work” and what won’t, given the raw material of our personalities and other factors—to call us to the life most suited to inner peace and the bearing of good fruit for the Kingdom of God. We have to follow that call, however, for stubborn self-will can only produce a life of turmoil and emptiness.

I can’t say that I have any regrets about the monastic vocation, though I confess there have been a few times when I wished I were doing something else. But those were passing fancies or “greener-grass” daydreams—nothing that really could have materialized into a life, especially a life in accord with God’s will, for if He has called me to be here, then He quite obviously has not called me to be elsewhere. It seems that many people are rather restless inside (I’ve known married people who wanted to be monks, and monks who wanted to be married), but I think that restlessness is really an inarticulate longing for the All—not for an impersonal, metaphysical Absolute, but the living God, who is Himself the fullness of life and love and joy everlasting. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, there’s a subtle, haunting feeling that this is “not it.” That is basically true, while we are still on this side of Glory, but we still can have peace and a growing sense of fullness if we are on the path that leads to “it.” We haven’t “arrived” until we’re actually checking in at the Front Desk of the Heavenly Jerusalem. While in this mortal flesh we are in transit, straining forward, growing toward the fullness of the stature of Christ. The monastic life, while externally seeming a bastion of stability, is actually a perpetual pilgrimage, constant movement toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is largely an interior movement, and hence something of an obstacle course, yet we are motivated, as was St Ignatius of Antioch, by that murmuring inner stream that ceaselessly whispers, “Come to the Father.”

Am I satisfied with my half-life as a monk? God forbid I should ever be. To be satisfied is to be dead in the water. (Many years ago a novice told me he was satisfied with his prayer life. I shuddered and thought to myself that he would not persevere. He didn’t.) One can only be satisfied as a thirsty man, while he drinks, not after he is finished, for to live in God is to have a thirst that is ever gratified yet never quenched, for God is the ever-greater Reality, and with Him there is always more. And if we desire it, He will always increase our capacity for more. So I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of me.