Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spiritual Death

In the Byzantine tradition, there are several Saturdays during Lent in which the deceased are commemorated and specially prayed for (something akin to All Souls’ Day in the Latin tradition). The common Gospel reading for the deceased is John 5:24-30. I’ll give the key verses here: “Amen, amen, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

In only one of the verses above is Jesus actually talking about bodily death; the others talk about spiritual death. That is not hard to see: one who hears his word and believes has already passed from death to life, and this can only mean spiritual death, for there are many who hear and believe and have not yet endured bodily death. Twice Jesus speaks of an hour that is coming, but the first time he adds, “and now is,” meaning of course that He is talking of the present time, or at least of a moment imminently to arrive. The “dead” will hear his voice, and those who hear will live, that is, will enter the life of grace and communion with Him which is called “eternal life,” and which begins even before bodily death. The second time He speaks of a coming hour that clearly has not yet come, for he makes it clear here that the dead are “those in the tombs” who will rise at the general resurrection, the quality of whose lives will determine their permanent destination.

William Barclay is a rather well-known Bible commentator, though I don’t like him all that much—too many errors in his commentaries. But sometimes he gets it right. One of the monks here recently used his commentary in preaching on spiritual death. I think that Barclay has a few good insights here, so I’ll share them with you.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped trying. It is to have come to look on all faults and ineradicable and all virtues and unattainable. But the Christian life cannot stand still; it must either go on or slip back; and to stop trying is therefore to slip back into death.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped feeling. There are many people who at one time felt intensely in the face of sin and the sorrow and the suffering of the world; but slowly they have become insensitive. They can look at evil and feel no indignation; they can look at sorrow and suffering and feel no answering sword of grief and pity pierce their heart. When compassion goes, the heart is dead.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped thinking… When a man’s mind becomes so shut that it can accept no new truth, he is mentally and spiritually dead. The day when the desire to learn leaves us, the day when new truth, new methods, new thought simply become a disturbance with which we cannot be bothered, is the day of our spiritual death.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped repenting. The day when a man can sin in peace is the day of his spiritual death; and it is easy to slip into that frame of mind. The first time we do a wrong thing, we do it with fear and regret. If we do it a second time, it is easier to do it. If we do it a third time, it is easier yet. If we go on doing it, the time comes when we scarcely give it a thought. To avoid spiritual death a man must keep himself sensitive to sin by keeping himself sensitive to the presence of Jesus Christ.”

That’s a little something to reflect upon during Lent. We pray for the dead, but we need to pray for the spiritually dead as well, and to make every effort that we do not ourselves gradually enter their moribund ranks. Christianity is about the abundant life made available to us by divine grace, but it is up to us to hear the voice of the Son of God and believe in the Father who sent Him. Thus we will not only “pass from [spiritual] death to life,” we will at length rise to the everlasting resurrection of life!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Universal Patron

Today’s feast of St Joseph is not on the Byzantine liturgical calendar, but it has always been our custom to celebrate it here at the monastery anyway. Our founder, Archimandrite Boniface, initiated it, and far be it from me, who bear the name Joseph, to discontinue this venerable tradition! I think it is a grave defect of the Byzantine calendar that it virtually ignores St Joseph, having only a single relatively minor commemoration on the Sunday after Christmas, a day on which several other saints are celebrated as well. That seems to me to be quite unfitting for the man who was not only deemed worthy of angelic visitations, but who was the chaste spouse of the all-holy Mother of God and the foster father of the divine Savior of the world! Many good things can commonly be said about the saints, but those two incredible things can be said only about St Joseph! Who else, besides Mary, lived in such daily intimacy with the incarnate God? This, along with the fact that in the 19th century St Joseph was formally proclaimed by the Pope as the “Patron of the Universal Church,” of which we are a part, makes it truly fitting and right that we offer an extra day in honor of St Joseph as a special friend and patron. And, rather than pull a date out of thin air (we don’t know the day of his death), we chose the day that many other Catholics are celebrating his feast. Since it is Lent, however, we celebrate it in a somewhat muted fashion but, being a man of humility and silence, St Joseph won’t mind if we don’t get too boisterous on this day.

When I was preparing to enter the novitiate—many, many, many years ago!—I wanted to receive Joseph as a monastic name, partly because of my developing devotion to him, but mainly because I was aware that he was everything I was not, and, being such a powerful intercessor in Heaven, he could help me grow in all the virtues in which he himself excelled. I think I’ve proven to be something of a tough nut to crack, but St Joseph hasn’t given up on me yet!

It’s a little difficult to write about St Joseph during Lent, since his whole story in the Gospels is so, well, Christmasey. It’s all about the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, and the birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ. But what we learn about St Joseph in the Gospel accounts, especially that of St Matthew, are some lessons in virtue, which the time of Lent is perfect for developing.

The first comes from St Joseph’s righteousness under the law. When we first meet St Joseph, the grace of Christ is still a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled, so the only known word of God was found in the law and the prophets. The Gospel describes Joseph as a righteous man, faithful to the law which said he could not marry his betrothed if she became pregnant by another man, which at that moment he could only assume was the case. Yet even before the time of grace, he showed himself greater than the law, for he did not insist on carrying out the punishment the law required. Out of love for Mary, even though he must have been indescribably wounded by what he thought was a betrayal of their love and fidelity, he decided simply to quietly end the relationship, so she would not come under the condemnation of the law. Hurt though he was, he wouldn’t dream of exacting vengeance upon his beloved.

Next is St Joseph’s faith in God. That is what prepared him to be ready for what God was to do next. He could have argued his case or asked God why He allowed it to happen, but when he heard the word of the Lord from the angel, he simply obeyed. In this he is like the patriarch Abraham, about whom the Letter to the Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called…” (11:8). By faith Joseph obeyed when he was told to receive Mary as his wife, even though she was already pregnant with a child not his. What he may have understood by the angel’s words, “what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” we can only guess, but it was enough to motivate his faith and obedience. He would be required to exercise this faith and obedience again, when the angel woke him up to send him to Egypt, and then again to return to Israel. Each time, St Joseph immediately did what he was told, for it was the will of God and, remember, he was a righteous man, which means he was in a right relationship with God.

St Joseph’s humility is another virtue, one which we can all stand to grow in. It is first manifested in his unquestioning obedience, but we can speculate a bit on how his life must have been. Given his general reserve, and his inclination to act in a quiet and gentle way with those whom he loved, we can be sure that Joseph conducted himself with reverence and humble availability for the needs of his wife and foster Son. We have no indication that Joseph played the proud father, announcing to all that his boy was the Messiah, and that those who cast aspersions on his chaste bride were all wet, because this boy came straight from God! In fact, we probably can’t even say, in the ordinary sense, that St Joseph was proud of Jesus, because this type of pride comes from the fact that one’s son is one’s own flesh and blood, and that it is somehow because of the father that the son has turned out so well. If St Joseph couldn’t be proud of Jesus in that sense, he certainly stood in awe of Him, knowing that his true Father in Heaven was well pleased with the One He had entrusted to St Joseph’s care.

St Joseph’s occupation was a humble one as well. Today’s carpenters and cabinet-makers are often rather well to do, and their skills command a high price. But in those days, a carpenter did not enjoy wealth or prestige from his work, for it was for the most part considered common and simple. And this was the trade he would hand on to his humble Son. Perhaps Joseph said to the child Jesus, concerning this skill, something that Jesus would later say to us concerning our whole life: “Learn from me.”

Finally, we can perhaps make some valid assumptions about St Joseph’s life of prayer and contemplation. How could he not have been a man of deep prayer, living as he did daily with the Son of God and his holy Mother? He must have learned a lot from them about God and his ways. He must have breathed the very air of holiness in their presence. For Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and St Joseph, the humble carpenter, was living under the same roof as Him who created worlds and galaxies.

So let us strive to learn from St Joseph, not carpenter’s skills, but this holy carpenter’s virtues: deep prayer and humility, faith and obedience, and the righteousness that manifests itself in love of God and neighbor, and in readiness to do the Lord’s will at all times.

As we celebrate the Patron (which means father) of the Universal Church—recall that Jesus said: he who humbles himself will be exalted; and He exalted his foster father immensely, another proof of St Joseph’s humility—let us realize that like Jesus, we have only one true Father in Heaven, who is God of all. But let us also remember that, like Jesus, we also have a foster father in Heaven, St Joseph: our friend and father and intercessor and model for a life of righteousness in communion with Jesus and Mary.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Blessed Life

On the 4th Sunday of Lent we commemorate the life and teachings of the monastic father St John Climacus, and in his honor the Gospel reading is the beatitudes from St Matthew. They open the Sermon on the Mount, which is an expression of the radical uniqueness of the Christian life, and a summary of its requirements.

In St Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the beatitudes, he begins by noticing that Jesus went up on a mountain to proclaim them, so that we can ascend with Him “from superficial and ignoble thoughts to the spiritual mountain of sublime contemplation… lit up on all sides by the rays of the true light, that from its summit all things…may be seen in the air of pure truth.” He then says that the words of blessing Jesus pronounces bring happiness even in the mere hearing of them.

I won’t comment on them one by one; that will be your work in your private meditation, for we have to ask the Holy Spirit how they apply to us individually, not just to the Church or humanity as such. I’d rather look at what they mean as a whole, as the overture of all of Jesus’ teaching, for this is his first sermon (not bad for a beginner!). He starts by showing what kind of people are blessed in the sight of God. Some translate “happy” instead of “blessed”. This is not quite accurate, but happiness is an element of blessedness, or perhaps a fruit of it. Maybe to modern people it is better to say “happy,” since the term “blessed” is incomprehensible to many today and connotes something “religious” that may not be high on their list of priorities. But everyone wants to be happy, so—you will be happy if you follow the beatitudes! If you are living in the Holy Spirit, you will be happy even in this life, but if the beatitudes don’t make you particularly happy at the moment, know that they are the keys to eternal happiness.

The goal of living the beatitudes is entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Sometimes Jesus mentions this explicitly, sometimes implicitly, in terms of “seeing God” or becoming “sons of God.” This is why the beatitudes cannot be set aside as if they applied only to those seeking perfection, only the saints. They apply to everyone who is interested in seeing God and entering the Kingdom of Heaven, so they apply to you and me. The Kingdom of Heaven is the ultimate good, and it is marvelous beyond all human imagination or comprehension. Such immeasurable happiness cannot be obtained cheaply or automatically, hence the beatitudes are demanding—they cut right to the heart, to show what we are made of; they put us to the test, to see if we shall be found worthy of the Kingdom.

It is not easy to be poor in spirit, that is, setting all your hopes on God alone and on nothing in this world. It is not easy to be pure of heart and merciful, not easy to be so focused on doing the will of God that you can be said to hunger and thirst for righteousness, not easy to endure persecution and reviling for the sake of Christ and his Gospel. For some, these may seem unattainable, or at the very least impractical. For others, the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven may seem too far off—and the heat of the struggle too immediate—to live these demanding words on a daily basis, over the long haul. Something more is needed, something that will reveal the burden and yoke of Christ to be easy and light.

That something, according to Pope Paul VI, is the joy that comes from knowing that we are loved by God. That is the power behind living the beatitudes with grace, fruitfulness, and perseverance. Here is a rather lengthy excerpt from his Apostolic Exhortation “On Christian Joy.”

“But it is necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him... If Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father. When He is baptized on the banks of the Jordan, this love, which is present from the first moment of His Incarnation, is manifested: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you’(Lk 3:22). This certitude is inseparable from the consciousness of Jesus. It is a presence which never leaves Him all alone (Jn 16:32). It is an intimate knowledge which fills Him: ‘The Father knows me and I know the Father’ (Jn 10:15). It is an unceasing and total exchange: ‘All I have is yours and all you have is mine’ (Jn 17:10)…

“And the disciples and all those who believe in Christ are called to share this joy. Jesus wishes them to have in themselves His joy in its fullness (Jn 17:13). ‘I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them’ (Jn 17:26). This joy of living in God's love begins here below. It is the joy of the kingdom of God. But it is granted on a steep road which requires a total confidence in the Father and in the Son, and a preference given to the kingdom. The message of Jesus promises above all joy—this demanding joy; and does it not begin with the beatitudes? ‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God. Happy you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied. Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh.’”

This is more evidence that the Christian life does not consist in learning and abiding by a long sheet of rules. CS Lewis says that God is not primarily interested in securing obedience to a set of rules; He is interested in forming a certain kind of people. Christianity, then, is about entering into a relationship with Someone and thus learning what makes for true peace and happiness, and then living accordingly, in constant communion with Him who grants the grace and hence the joy to do so. Pope Paul referred to the text from John’s Gospel in which Jesus prayed that his disciples would not merely be happy, but would have his own joy in them. That is what beatitude is—not the superficial “happiness” that comes from an abundance of comforts or a lack of trials, not mere fun and stimulation of the senses or simply having everything go your own way. The happiness that is true blessedness comes from Christ abiding in us, learning from Him what true joy is, for He said, “Learn from Me.” He will teach us that genuine joy is first recognized and experienced through the knowledge of God’s love for us, and then it is expressed by our loving others, communicating to them both our love and the truth that God loves them too. This is how joy is meant to spread through this world.

So we have to situate ourselves interiorly in the proper way. We can’t just take a look at the beatitudes and say: “Oh no, it’s too hard to be poor and pure and merciful and persecuted. That doesn’t make me happy at all!” If we look at them that way, we must admit that we are still of the mindset of the world, of those who do not know Christ, those who do not have his joy in them from knowledge of the love of the Father. We need to begin by seeking the awareness, the certainty, that we are loved by God. Then the joy of Christ will be in us, for we will be partakers of his joy in the Father’s love. Once we have that love and joy in us, God can ask of us what He will, and with confidence we will put the best of our efforts into the task. We’re not trying to measure up to a standard, we are trying to respond joyfully and wholeheartedly to a calling from Him who loves us and who prepares for us the unbroken joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us choose the blessed life, the authentic life that tests our true worth, tests the genuineness of our profession of faith and our hope for eternal life. We can do this if Christ’s joy is in us, the joy that comes from security and confidence in the Father’s love. And ours will be the Kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Akiane

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the 12-year-old child prodigy, Akiane Kramarik. She is rather well-known, if website hits are any indication (150 million annually). I heard of her a couple years ago, but didn’t pay close attention until a friend recently lent me a book about her. Any little kid whose artwork is good enough to sell paintings for over $100,000 apiece ought to attract some attention, but there is much more to her than that.

She was raised by unbelieving parents, never even heard the word “God,” was homeschooled and didn’t have a TV. One day, when she was four, she told her mother, “Today I met God.” Her mother asked her how she knew it was God. She replied, “Just like I know you are my mommy, and you know I am Akiane.” Then, “Who even taught you such a word, God?” “You won’t understand.” That marked the beginning of a series of heavenly visions and gifts from the Lord, primarily in art and poetry. She began with drawings when she was four and five, and began painting when she was six. Many of her paintings by age eight and nine were at least as good as those of professional artists of many years’ experience. Akiane never had any training in art. She painted what she saw, and she did it to draw people to God. The picture here is her self-portrait (age 11), in which she saw herself as working with God in the creation of beauty. You can see more of her paintings by clicking here.

The following are just a few stanzas from her poem, “Conversation with God,” written when she was eight years old. Quite incredible!

I receive an envelope with the seal of Your lips
As I am waiting for You I get covered with dust
My heavy rope is full of holes and now it’s in a cast
But why are Your gates always higher than us

As we used to talk to each other before
The depth for notions true friendship deepens
Would you tear the tears from my salty fists
The leftovers of my house are just the seeds…

When questions question the questions
The docile answer kneels gently on dull knife
When I see You, Lord, my eyes do not blink
For if I blinked I would lose my whole life

Can I still grow up in the same womb
Can I hide inside your whitest hair
You say the narrow mind passes the answers
And whoever screams cannot see or hear

I see Your hands without the wrinkles, bones, or veins
Just the maps, just events, just the worlds, just the time
I see the waterfalls full of songs under stairs by Your feet
The poems whisper by the millions from Your mouth in rhyme…

I’d like to share a couple of things she described from her visions of Heaven. Her parents had wondered why she cried and refused to listen any kind of music they would play in their home (she was five at the time). She said, “…the music that I hear in heaven is better than here. This music hurts my ears and my head really bad, but heavenly music is always gentle. I can’t tell you how different it is from what you hear on earth! It feels like joy, looks like love, smells like flowers, and dances like butterflies. Music there is alive! You can even taste it.”

About one of her meetings with God (at eight years old), she said, “I was with God again, and I was told to pray continually. He showed me where He lived, and it was so light… I was climbing transparent stairs; underneath I saw gushing waterfalls. As I approached my Father in paradise, His body was pure light. What impressed me most were his gigantic hands—they were full of maps and events. Then He told me to memorize thousands upon thousands of wisdom words on a scroll that didn’t look like paper but more like intense light. And in a few seconds I somehow got filled up. He showed me the endless universe, its past and its future, and He told me that from now on I needed to get up very early and get ready for my mission. I hope one day I’ll be able to paint what I’ve been shown” (all quotes are from Akiane: her life, her art, her poetry, by Akiane and Foreli Kramarik).

I think it is beneficial and encouraging for us to receive a few glimpses of Heaven through the pure eyes of a child. She could never have learned what she did, not only in art and poetry, but also in the awareness of God and his heavenly mysteries, without a special grace from on high. We tend to get so caught up in the cares of life, or our own troubles and preoccupations, that we lose sight of the One Thing Necessary. It is then that a four-year-old girl walks up to us and says, “Today I met God,” and our own forgotten longing for Paradise is rekindled. We may even hear within our hearts a faint echo of the music of Heaven. We must renew our search, realize we are on pilgrimage, and lay aside all that makes us grow old in selfishness, all that makes us give up on the promises of God. For delight and wonder beyond all measure await us in those extra-large hands of his!

I hope and pray that Akiane will not be adversely affected by her growing fame, and that she will continue to use her gifts to glorify God and draw others to Him. Her ingenuous faith and her passion for her art—along with her incredible talent—can make her an effective instrument in the hand of her Lord. Would that hardened hearts be broken open by the words and images of a child whose eyes have seen the light of Paradise!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Reparation: Our Contribution

Pray, fast, do penance! We hear these exhortations frequently, especially during Lent. Such salutary practices aid spiritual growth and strengthen our souls. But can our mortification help someone else who may be far from God? Can we really help to "repair what is shattered" (Ps 60/61)?

Scripture and Tradition say, Yes. St Paul offered his sufferings for the sake of the Church (Col 1:24), and he remained "in travail" until his people were fully alive in Christ (Gal 4:19). The lives and teachings of the saints call for reparation even more forcefully. Pope Pius XII wrote: "The salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention" (Mystici Corporis).

One of the images of the power of intercession and reparation found in some of Our Lady's apparitions is that of her "holding back the arm of divine justice." I have never found this to be a helpful image. It seems to imply a conflict of wills between God and Mary, since it apparently puts Mary alone on the side of mercy while God has to be the Enforcer of Justice. Now it is true that our Merciful Mother is not the judge of mankind, and that God is. Yet God's preferred manner of revealing Himself is as the Compassionate Savior. And whatever mercy in is the Mother has its only source in the Son.

Moses offers us a pertinent biblical paradigm (see Exodus 32). The Israelites sinned grievously, and God told Moses to stand aside so He could vent His wrath and destroy them. Moses pleaded with God to spare those with whom He had made a solemn covenant. And so God did not destroy the people.

God did not really want to destroy his people, so there was no conflict between his will and Moses'. But there was this matter of sin to be resolved, and without the repentance which draws down mercy, there remains but justice. Without someone "standing in the breach" there is no forgiveness (Ezek. 22:30-31). Moses was willing even to suffer condemnation if it would help save the people (St Paul followed suit in Romans 9:3). God did forgive them, for this was his will, but they had to endure a plague in reparation for their sin.

Now the offering of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was condemned to death that we might live, was alone sufficient to atone for all sin. Through Him God reconciled mankind as such to Himself. So where do we come in? "You are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it" (1Cor 12:27). As members of his Body, we share in the power of Christ's death and resurrection. Our own prayers, our voluntary penances and involuntary sufferings, if offered in union with Jesus' Passion, acquire a power and a meaning they could not otherwise have. We can "stand in the breach" for other members of the Body, so that God's will to save can be personally realized for them. We help forestall divine justice while we pray and sacrifice that their hearts will open to divine mercy. With St Paul we “complete in our own flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col. 1:24). What is lacking is the full incorporation of all into Christ’s Body, the personal acceptance in faith by each of their redemption. This could not happen at the moment of his historical sufferings, but must continue in time until the end of the world. Our intercession and labor toward this end is our contribution to the salvation of souls.

The Mother of God participated uniquely in the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption, so in her the fullness of the Church's power of intercession and reparation resides. Her will and God's are as one, but He expects her as our Mother to offer intercession on our behalf. We have only to call upon her to open the floodgates of God's free gift of grace for ourselves and for others. Grace is free, but it's not cheap. Mary will call upon us to stand with her at the Cross, to repeat her "yes" to the price of our redemption. Our prayer must be from the heart, and our penance in the full fervor of love's required sacrifice.

We should rejoice that we have been made "God's fellow workers" (1Cor 3:9), sharers in Jesus' perpetually fruitful self-oblation. We are to go forth and keep bearing fruit (see Jn 15:16) until every member of Christ's Body personally accepts the gift of forgiveness and salvation. Freely we have received; now we are called freely to give.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lent with St Ephrem

I’d like to invite St Ephrem the Syrian to help us with some Lenten meditations. There is a special prayer of his we pray at all the Offices during Lent, and maybe we’ll look at that sometime soon, but for now I’d like to use some other prayers of his. We’ll begin with a few excerpts: “O only wise and merciful Physician, I beseech your benevolence; heal the wounds of my soul and enlighten the eyes of my mind, that I may understand my place in your eternal design! And inasmuch as my heart and mind have been disfigured, may your grace repair them… What shall I say to You, O Knower of the heart, who search the heart and the inner workings of men?... Impart to me just one drop of your grace, that the flame of your love may begin to burn in my heart and, like a fire, may it consume evil thoughts like thorns and thistles!... From your treasury pour out upon us restoration to heal our sores… Accept the tears of us sinners and…establish peace in our souls.”

The first point to reflect upon is St Ephrem’s petition “that I may understand my place in your eternal design.” How often do we think of this? There’s no such thing as a generic human being. We each have a place, a unique one, in God’s eternal design. And He expects us to fulfill it, for He gives us the grace to do so. We have to ask ourselves if we are responding to this grace, if we are earnestly seeking to know God’s will for our lives. Each of us has his own interior life and unique relationship to God. How does He want you, specifically, to fit into his plan, both for your sanctification and the salvation of souls? What is He asking of you in order to fulfill your mission? We cannot please God without a deep and fervent seeking of his face, and a conscious, persistent striving to grow in his grace and be all He created us to be—even at the cost of personal self-renunciation.

The next point from St Ephrem’s prayers is the great love and mercy of God by which our souls are healed, and love is enkindled in our hearts. He prays for the healing of inner wounds and spiritual “sores,” for the repairing of inner disfigurements and the burning up of evil thoughts. We all have these needs and must daily bring them to God. By the grace and love God, we seek healing and purification. But this does not come as an unsolicited miracle or something that happens to us without our co-operation. God’s love must enkindle love in us, and it is through our love for the Lord that our desire to be free from all that hinders our communion with Him must increase and be continuous. When we see how much Jesus suffered out of love for us, our hearts ought to be moved to repentance and to a longing to love Him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

So we pray with St Ephrem: “Accept the tears of sinners…”—the tears which Jesus’ ineffable sufferings draw from our repentant hearts. Meditation on the passion of Christ is therefore an important element of our Lenten spirituality, for it is at the heart of Christian life as such. It is for your sins and mine that Jesus willingly underwent his unspeakable agony. God loves us so much, yet we offer Him so very little in return, even when we are capable of more. The Pope’s theme for this Lent is “they shall look upon Him whom they have pierced,” and this ought to be for us a stimulus to greater love and deeper repentance and conversion.

Finally, let us look not only to our own spiritual lives but to the world in which we live. We live in a “post-modern” world, one in which many traditional beliefs and world-views have been rejected: in education, politics, social life, morality, and even in religion. Some of the scenarios of “futuristic” novels like Brave New World, 1984, and CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength are actually coming to pass, and are being approved by the government and society in general. We have to break out—in our conscious awareness—of the small and often petty world we build out of our selfish desires or concerns. We need to pray, but even that is not enough. What is needed is that our lives become wholly conformed to Christ, in all their dimensions, if our prayer is to bear abundant fruit for the salvation of souls. We must acquire Jesus’ humility, obedience, compassion, sacrificial love, his wisdom, his peace, his profound concern for mankind’s salvation.

All of the above is meant, as St Ephrem prays, “to establish peace in our souls.” To do the will of God is to know peace. We’ll conclude with another of his prayers:

“Like the apple of your eye preserve me, O Lord God; defend me and beneath your wings shelter me from temptations. Be the guardian of the eye, that it might not look about in the manner of a thief; be the guardian of the ear, that it might not perceive falsehood. Be the guardian of the lips, so that slander, judgment, criticism, and idle words might not come forth from them. Be the guardian of the heart, that it might not be inclined to evil and might not work iniquity. Grant us, O Lord, knowledge, both of what we should do and of how to set about it… Grant us, O our Lord, that we may love You and renounce the world…

“Grant us, O our Lord, to bring You three choice gifts…to burn three aromatic censers before You. Grant us, O our Lord, to light for You three brightly burning lamps: the spirit, the soul, and the body, these three gifts for the One Trinity… Grant us, O our Lord, to rejoice in You, and may You rejoice in us in the last day. To You is praise, from the spirit, soul, and body. And to us be your mercies. Amen.”

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sunrise, Moonset

Last week I went to a place on the coast to do some concentrated work on a new book, free from the distractions of telephones and the dozens of details daily demanding attention. The place is an old Catholic mission originally built in the 19th century and run mostly by Capuchins, but now run by diocesan clergy. It is located in a tiny town of about 250 souls. The view from the kitchen window is a small back yard and the Pacific Ocean.

On Saturday, I was planning to sleep just a little later than usual, since most of my work for that week was done. But I woke up at 4:00 AM, with moonlight streaming through the curtains. The weather had been mostly cold and rainy during the week (kept me attentive to my work!), but it cleared up on Saturday. I looked out the window and saw the light of the full moon on the water and knew that this was why I had been awakened. I went out into the chilly pre-dawn darkness sat on a little bench on a bluff where I could get a good view. I gazed at the mesmerizing moonlight on the surface of the sea. All was calm, all was bright. The surf was light, and its sound was as if to say: Shhh! Listen…

I remained in the awesome early morning silence for some time, feeling almost as if I had stumbled upon some secret tryst between moon and sea, and I dared not disturb them. The peace and the stillness were palpable, and the gentle play of the silvery light on the water was soothing. The only sound was the surf; I could have been the only man on earth moments after the Lord God had created the sea and the stars.

After a while I went in to pray Matins, and then I went out to check on the moon again. I don’t often have the chance to see the moon set over the ocean, so I wanted to take my fill of its awesome beauty. By this time it was a large, golden orb, slipping slowly down to the horizon, and I marveled as it disappeared behind the morning mist. The moon’s shift had finished, and it was time for the sun to begin his day’s labors. The sun rose as the moon set, casting pink hues across the newborn sky. God called the darkness Night, and the light He called Day. The heavens were telling of his glory.

I myself went from glory to glory, for as the moon set and the sun rose, I went back into the church to offer the Divine Liturgy, the Mystical Sacrifice, to meet the Creator of all I had just seen, to crown the cosmic celebration with communion in the deified flesh and blood of the incarnate Son of God. At one point I turned around to bless and was greeted with sunlit stained glass sending brilliant colors throughout the chilly yet intimate church. As I approached the time of Communion, I was struck by the preface to the Lord’s Prayer in which “we dare to call You, O God of Heaven, Father, and say…” It was a moment of revelation, of communion before Communion. All the grandeur and glory I had witnessed, all the wonders and beauty, all the awe-inspiring power came from the hand of the infinite Omnipresence sustaining the universe—whom I was invited to call “Father.” The Creator of the ocean, of the sun and moon, called me his son. I could not restrain the tears.

After the Liturgy, I went out to the front porch to make my thanksgiving. Welcoming me was a warm, brilliant sun and a joyous choir of songbirds. My heart sang with them as I gave thanks unto the Lord. Before I returned to the monastery I went out to look at the ocean again for a while. By this time the water was a bright, deep blue, and the sky was streaked with a few light clouds. The back yard was sporting hundreds of yellow flowers. As the sun warmed my back, a light, cool breeze filled me with a breath of Paradise. It is not easy to get up and walk away from this, but it was time for me to return home.

I was not too eager to return to all the inevitable responsibilities and difficulties I would face when “ordinary” life resumed, so I asked the Lord for a word to guide me through this transition. I opened the Bible and read: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20). So wherever I go in this world, be it a paradise or a purgatory, He will be with me. The One who made the Ocean is my Father, and his sun and moon rise and set daily as tokens of his providence and love. I have only to remember what I have seen and heard and felt, and the cosmic liturgy will resume.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

On Paralysis and Faith

Several times during the liturgical year we are presented with accounts of Jesus healing a paralytic. While it may be somewhat tedious for preachers as we struggle to produce a fresh approach to these repeated Gospel readings, it is important to try to discover what the Church wants us to learn today, for the mystery of the word of God is inexhaustible. Lent is probably the most appropriate season for reflection on the healing of paralysis and the forgiveness of sins, for on the spiritual level they are virtually one and the same thing.

In one of St Ephrem’s prayers, he laments being paralyzed by intoxication with sinful pleasures, so in this case sin and paralysis are related as cause and effect. Sin produces a kind of intoxication which results in spiritual paralysis, that is, the inability to function in a normal and healthy way, which, if left untreated, becomes a sickness unto death. Ephrem uses the image of intoxication, which renders a person’s thoughts and speech incoherent, makes him unable even to walk steadily, and finally renders him completely unconscious and hence unable to move, somewhat like a paralytic. The physical and mental state of an unconscious drunk is analogous to the spiritual state of one who is filled with sin, for the effects of sin upon the soul and spirit are like the effects of disease or severe intoxication on the body—remember that the word “intoxicated” literally means “poisoned.”

We aren’t told in the Gospel if the paralytic’s physical disability was an effect of his sin. That was a common assumption in those times, though in the case of the blind man in John’s Gospel Jesus said that the affliction was not a result of sin but was permitted so that God could be glorified through it. Perhaps that was the case here as well, but unlike the case of the blind man—in which Jesus simply healed his eyes—here the Lord first forgave the man’s sins and only then worked the miracle of bodily healing. Regardless of the cause of the physical ailment, Jesus placed the priority on removing the sin. It is not uncommon today when people are praying over others for physical healing that it is revealed that the person seeking healing must first confess his sins, or a least that some spiritual issue is at the root of his physical symptoms.

So the paralytic may have been suffering from a spiritual paralysis as well. Perhaps he was bitter because of his affliction, or angry at God, or full of self-pity and complaints. In any case, he evidently was burdened with sins, for Jesus forgave them. The Gospel tells us that it was because of the faith of the four men that carried the paralytic that Christ forgave and healed him. “When he saw their faith,” it says. This “their” cannot have included the paralytic, at least grammatically. For they (not the paralytic) removed the roof, they made an opening, they let down the pallet, then Jesus saw their faith. For us this highlights the importance of both charity and intercession. Out of love for others—especially those who may be lacking in faith or otherwise unable or unwilling to come to God—we bring them to Him in our prayer. Through our intercession we help them gain access to God’s grace and mercy, opening up the roof, as it were, and carrying them into his presence. And in his mercy the Lord will see our faith and forgive and heal them. As members of the Body of Christ we are able to influence others in this way and to help them, even before they have the good sense to go to God on their own—though ultimately everyone must personally and freely believe in Christ and follow Him if they are to be saved.

The Gospel says that Jesus saw their faith. If we were speaking about anyone else, we would assume that this means their faith was recognized in a sort of deductive process based on their actions. They went to great lengths to bring their friend to Jesus; therefore they must have faith. But Jesus does not need to reason from external events; He really saw their faith! He looked into their souls and knew precisely their relation to God and their belief in his own power to heal. Jesus’ ability to read souls is made explicit when it comes to the scribes who “questioned in their hearts” why Jesus forgave sins, considering it blasphemy. The Gospel says that Jesus immediately perceived in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves. And he publicly answered their inner doubts and accusations with a miracle that confirmed his divine authority to forgive sins.

The scribes are the real paralytics in the story. They were spiritually intoxicated—by their own pride, self-righteousness, and condemning attitude—to the point of paralysis. They were unconscious of the presence of God in their midst and thus unable to respond appropriately to his wonderful works. In so many instances in the Gospels where Jesus works wonders, all the common people are rejoicing and glorifying God, while those who regarded themselves as the learned and righteous ones ended up angry, bitter, humiliated, and went away muttering indignantly and plotting Jesus’ destruction. The crowd shouted with joy and wonder after witnessing the miracle: “We have never seen anything like this!” The scribes too never saw anything like that, and they were probably hoping they never would again, for to them it was a defeat and not a reason to rejoice.

What is the difference—besides pride—between those who benefited from God’s mercy and power and those who attacked it? It is faith. The Gospel begins by saying Jesus was “preaching the word” to the people. What does Scripture say about the word? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit…discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I recently discovered something in this same section of Hebrews that I hadn’t really given sufficient thought to before, and it explains why the scribes and Pharisees remained paralyzed, and why the word of God, the message that Christ was preaching, did not reach its goal in them. The same message was given to all, but, according to Hebrews, “the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers.”

That is important, not only for our understanding of this story from the Gospel, but for our own lives. We hear the word of God day after day in the Liturgy and in our own personal reading of Scripture. Does that word meet with faith when it reaches our hearts and minds? If we are not bearing fruit, if our lives aren’t changing for the better, if we have any interior resistance to the truth and power of the word of God, then it will not benefit us, for it is not meeting with faith in us who hear it. It is not sufficient merely to have a kind of vague understanding or acceptance of the Bible as a sacred text that may at times be a useful guide. We have to believe that when we read the Gospel, Jesus Christ is personally preaching to us! And when we read the letters of the New Testament, the apostles are preaching to us through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

As we read the Scriptures, Jesus sees our faith, as he saw the faith of the men who brought the paralytic to Him. He also perceives our inner questioning, grumbling, or contrary attitudes and resistance. Among whom to we want to be counted—those who receive the word with joy and glorify God, or those who question and accuse, and who thus do not benefit from the word, since it did not meet with faith in them?

So, as we continue with our Lenten spiritual efforts, let us come to Jesus for healing and forgiveness, and bring others to Him as well, through our intercession and genuine concern for the enlightenment and salvation of all. We must be aware that Jesus perceives, at all times, all that we keep within our hearts, both good and bad. So let us not be among the spiritually paralyzed but among the liberated, those who receive his word with faith, and who glorify the Lord with joy and thanksgiving.

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Bit of Joy

When we’re in a penitential time like Lent, the focus is usually on sorrow for our sins and the ascetical efforts necessary to overcome our bad habits, turning away from evil and embracing the good. Yet the Byzantine tradition, notorious for its heavy emphasis on repentance and self-accusation of all sins ever committed, often speaks of Lent as a time of joy. So I thought I’d try to inject a bit of joy into these somber days with some encouragement from the “farewell discourses” in the Gospel of John. For if we are without joy, we will also be without a genuine spirit of repentance and an eagerness to be restored to life in Christ, the source of our joy.

First, our joy is to be associated with love of Christ and of the Father’s will. “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father” (Jn. 14:28). Joy doesn’t come merely from having things our own way—the disciples would rather that Jesus didn’t leave them—but from recognizing the perfection of the Father’s will. Why did Jesus obey the Father’s will? “So that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31). So He says, if you loved Me, you would rejoice that I do what the Father says. For the Christian, love and obedience are sources of true joy.

The next thing to note is probably the most important, for it defines what we mean when we speak of joy. The joy that God wants us to have is not mere “fun” (which often entails sin, at least if we follow the “world’s” juvenile concept of fun), nor is it even the superficial happiness we might experience simply through the absence of hardship or the presence of comfort, health, or general well-being. Partway through his discourse, Jesus said this: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (15:11). We come immediately to the essence of true joy: Christ’s joy in us. That is the only way our joy can be full. I don’t pray anymore merely for joy. I pray that his joy may be in me. That way I know it’s the real thing; that way I know I’m not seeking some sort of selfish happiness outside of Him.

As soon as Jesus said that our joy would be full because of his joy in us, He went on to speak of the world’s hatred and the persecutions that would be a result of it, and of the sorrow his disciples would experience at his death. At that time, they would be sorrowful while the world would rejoice with its savage and godless revelry. A great contrast is made here, as oftentimes in this Gospel, between God and the “world” (insofar as it rejects the truth and refuses to believe in Christ). The world hates the ones who love God; those who are of God are not of the world.

Despite all this, the Lord says that they will see Him again, “and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). This is another element of the true joy that comes from God. It is not ephemeral, fluctuating, easily lost. It is a joy that is permanent, enduring, not susceptible to the world’s efforts to destroy it. That is because it is not based upon material wealth, sensual pleasures, or high emotions. All those are transitory by nature, but the joy of the Lord is meant to be a permanent state of soul, an abiding presence, a dynamic inner energy that propels us toward the fullness of life in Christ.

Finally, as Jesus prayed his “high-priestly prayer” to the Father, He asked “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (17:13). This text is sandwiched in between others about keeping them in his name, guarding them from perdition, and protecting them from the evil one. So, like lambs in the midst of wolves, the disciples are to go forth with Jesus’ joy fulfilled in them, as that which enables them to do his will in a hostile world and to persevere in the truth.

We will find it very difficult to do what our Christian vocations require of us if we don’t have the Lord’s joy fulfilled in us. As I pray for the Lord’s joy to be in me, I notice that He reminds me of that—I’m supposed to be rejoicing, not just going through the motions. That occurred to me during the Divine Liturgy a while back, as I was going back to bless the “throne on high” (the special chair in the apse reserved for the bishop, where Christ invisibly presides), saying: “Blessed are You on the throne of your glory, enthroned upon the Cherubim, always now and forever, amen!” I thought to myself: How can you say that with a long face? Say it with joy!

There’s so much about Christian worship and prayer and life in general that should be cause for rejoicing, cause for us to recognize Jesus' joy in us. If we love Him, we will rejoice, and his joy in us will sustain us in the midst of the opposition of the “world” and all that is against the truth and love—and hence the joy—of the Lord. So pray that the joy of the Lord will be in you, that your joy may be full. And let’s not see that long face during your Lenten penances, for the world must come to know that you love the Father!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

An Image of the Kingdom

At the beginning of Lent I mentioned our “Forgiveness Sunday,” and the fact that we have a forgiveness service at Vespers that evening to prepare ourselves for the season of cleansing and conversion. But I didn’t give any details about it, so I’d like to do it now.

The service is really very simple, yet its effects are profound. At the end of Vespers, the people come one by one to the front of the church and venerate the icon of Christ. Then each in turn prostrates before the priest, saying: “Pray for me and forgive me; I am a sinner.” The priest blesses them and says: “May God forgive you.” Then the priest prostrates and says the same thing to the one he has just forgiven (you don’t see that very often, do you?), and the person responds with the same words; then they embrace in the liturgical “kiss of peace.” This goes on until everyone in the church has offered and received forgiveness from each other, with the mutual prostrations (this is not impractical for us; we have a small church). It is our custom also to anoint each person with holy oil at the end, as a further preparation for the coming Lenten efforts. While everyone is prostrating and forgiving each other, the choir softly sings Easter hymns, so that the goal of Lent is already in sight, and so that this first dawning of the Light of the Resurrection will be a source of quiet strength and hope in all the struggles to come.

It may be that the above description is not particularly powerful, but “you have to be there.” If you experience it yourself it is profound and moving. It’s one thing to talk about it, and quite another to throw yourself down before people with whom you may have had many or serious problems, and ask forgiveness, and then offer it to them as they ask for it. I remember, it was quite a few years ago, that I had had a really long and difficult year with one of the brothers in the monastery. As I approached to prostrate before him, I couldn’t even get out the words, “pray for me and forgive me; I am a sinner.” I just burst into tears, and then we reconciled. Words were not necessary after that.

It isn’t always that dramatic, but it is always moving. It feels good to reconcile, to start fresh, to put the old animosities away. Strength and encouragement are given to live the Gospel more fully and faithfully, beginning now. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s irritating idiosyncrasies are going to disappear, or even that the reasons for repenting and forgiving have vanished, but it does mean that we have made a choice to do things Jesus’ way henceforth, and with our eyes fixed on Him there will be more peace and mercy and wisdom in our hearts.

Being the first to finish, I was able to look out upon the church and the rest of the people. This service is really an image of the Kingdom of God as it is meant to be on this earth. Husbands and wives are prostrating before each other, embracing and forgiving; friends and community members are doing the same, while the air is full of hymns to the risen Christ, who by his death and resurrection reconciled us to the Father and to each other in Himself. There is hardly a dry eye in the place. Hearts are softened, and even if the moving power of this experience is only temporary, we have seen how things are supposed to be, and we are called to remember and put it into practice. We have felt the touch of grace, we have experienced the reconciling power of the Cross, and we have felt the relief of the liberating experience of both offering and receiving forgiveness.

I wish this service could be done in all churches. It should be done in families as well. Why don’t you try it this Lent? Prostrate before each other, husbands and wives and children, siblings and friends; ask for forgiveness and then offer forgiveness to those who ask it of you. If you are in the grace of the Holy Spirit it feels good thus to humble yourself. It brings healing and inner peace and freedom. You walk with a lighter step after that. You begin to understand how the Lord wants us to live in this world as we prepare to enter the next. This is what Lent is really about—not just giving up a few things that you’re going to take back on Easter anyway. If you want to give up something, give up resentments, grudges, animosities, hard-heartedness, and that critical or contemptuous spirit that leaves you unreconciled with everyone.

Repent and forgive. Bow down and be raised up. Embrace and rejoice. Then go forth in peace to serve the Lord, and be a part of that holy and life-giving image of his Kingdom on earth. Many more will be drawn to Him when they see how his disciples love one another.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Snowballs from God

It doesn’t snow here very often, but when it does it’s usually an occasion for wonder and joy (except when the power goes out from some snow-laden branch breaking and falling on a power line; then it’s just a little less wonderful). This year, like last, the snow came after some unseasonably warm weather had tricked the trees into blossoming. We’ll have to wait and see how all that turns out. The poor bees are probably confused.

I went for a little prayer-walk up the mountain, though by that time it was slightly warmer and the snow had morphed into a kind of thick rain, but there was still plenty of the white stuff around to add some extra beauty to the forest. As I trudged up the hill, breathing in the cold, clean, wet air, a pine branch somewhere above me suddenly released its slushy burden, which landed with a thud on my head. Hmmph, I muttered (but with a smile beginning to emerge), God is throwing snowballs at me! I briefly considered throwing one back, but I figured He’d be too fast for me and easily dodge it. Then again, since He’s everywhere present I did stand a chance to hit a piece of Him. Well, I decided to just walk on and see what else might be in store.

More slushballs came plopping down on me and I began to enjoy the game. The mountain path was part snow and part packed earth and part streams of melting snow. The higher I went, the more the snow was still intact. I stopped at a little shrine on the path and prayed for a moment, thanking God for the beauty of his creation and even for his bit of playfulness, since I’d been feeling somewhat burdened with certain difficulties that had recently arisen. I think He wanted me to lighten up, so He tossed a few snowballs at me! But there were more delightful things to come.

On the way back down the mountain, I noticed a few streaks of sun cutting through the trees and splashing about here and there along the mountain path. I looked up and beheld a few bright blue patches above, nicely contrasting the billowing gray-white clouds and fog that had been swirling around. (I had to be careful about looking up, though, lest I receive another cold surprise right in the face!) The farther I walked, the brighter it got. I turned toward the east and saw the sun shining through the falling rain, making it all light up like liquid glitter, dazzling the eye and delighting the soul. Then a certain large drop resting on a fallen branch started throwing around the colors of the spectrum as a sunbeam hit it just right. It really is breathtaking to stand in a cold, bright, sunlit rain in the midst of a snowy forest. I wondered if Paradise would be something like this—new marvels around every bend, fascinating things seen in ways we have never quite seen them before, new delights from that infinitely creative Mind.

Around the next bend a tall pine was carefully holding a droplet on each of its needles, and they glistened as the sun found a new patch of blue from which to shine. Everywhere I turned: blue, white, green, crystal, light, rain, snow, glory! I walked farther down and the sun made glistening rivulets out of the melting snow, while a patch of it still hid under cloud cover in order to retain is frozen character. I wanted to get my camera and capture some of these marvels, though I had a feeling the Lord just wanted me to enjoy it while it lasted. Sure enough, as I turned around, furious gray fog-clouds were already rushing in from the northwest, and soon everything was dark and the rain came down harder. So, that bit of shining glory was just for me!

When I returned to my cabin, I knew I would want to share this moment of brightness and joy with you, so I sat down at my computer. Hmm, what should I call this? “Snowballs from God,” of course!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Surpassing Worth

St Paul was a rather intense kind of guy. Or perhaps we could say, when it came to his relationship to Christ, he was an all-or-nothing kind of guy. Sometimes I can be a rather intense and all-or-nothing kind of guy myself (that’s one reason I landed in a monastery), so one of my favorite passages from St Paul is found in Philippians 3.

When Paul discovered Christ, he discovered everything: his joy, his love, his salvation, his reason of being. But in order to receive everything, he had to lose everything—everything he had worked so long and hard to construct as a way of life. He lists all his credentials as a righteous Pharisee. He was impeccable, blameless, had the perfect religious pedigree. He was even so zealous that he persecuted any threat to his own tradition, any infringement on the rights of God as he saw them. But then he met the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

What then did this intense, all-or-nothing kind of guy do? He tossed it—all his credentials, his position, the direction of his life and energies. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”

Let’s take a look at this. The only thing that could get him to abandon his former prestige, way of life, and deeply-held convictions would have to be something of “surpassing worth.” He didn’t think there was such a thing until he discovered it in Christ Jesus his Lord. Nothing mattered to him anymore. Not position, not wealth, not esteem—nothing. He even had to suffer much persecution himself because of Christ. Didn’t matter. Everything is rubbish compared to Christ and what He offers.

Paul not only desired to share in the power and glory of Christ’s resurrection (don’t we all?), but to that end he also desired to share in his sufferings (don’t we all not desire that?). Paul wouldn’t be found among today’s “Easter people,” who like to celebrate the joyful things and discard the difficult ones. But Paul knew that the Cross was the only way to the Resurrection and, being an all-or-nothing kind of guy, he went for them both. He recognized surpassing worth when he saw it. God didn’t have to tell him twice what the true way was. He ran to the Lord Jesus with open arms and never looked back.

Today’s religious landscape is littered with compromisers, the lukewarm, the “a la carte” pickers and choosers of what suits their spiritual sensibilities, the poseurs who use religion for political or other ends, and, let’s face it, “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the fornicators, idolaters, and liars” (see Rev. 21:8). Where are those for whom Christ is everything? Where are those who recognize the surpassing worth of wholeheartedly embracing Christ Jesus our Lord? Where are those who regard all else as rubbish if only they can have Him? Where are those who embrace both the Cross and the Resurrection? They exist, and they are holding up the world, and even if they are numerically many they are far too few in a world in which all nations are supposed to be filled with fervent disciples of Christ (see Mt. 28:19-20). It’s time to take stock of our lives and see what really matters to us, see what is worth giving up everything for, see what is going to last forever and what is not. Clean out the rubbish: the attachments, the idols, the “other masters,” whatever is of inferior worth.

So go ahead. Get intense. Be an all-or-nothing kind of person. Recognize the surpassing worth of life in Christ Jesus. Dump your extra baggage, for it won’t fit through the narrow gate to Paradise. Run to Him who loved you first. And never look back.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Love and Passion

When Valentine’s Day came around last week, I had just arrived at the account of the Lord’s passion and death in my daily reading of the Gospel. It occurred to me—on the day when love is celebrated, though often in a superficial, silly, or even sinfully sensual way—that there is no greater love than that one lay down his life for his friends, and especially no greater love that that of Christ, who not only laid down his life, but bore the intolerable burden and pain of all the sins of mankind.

Perhaps we don’t realize often enough, or deeply enough, that our sins have had a personal and painful effect upon the One who takes them away. We do something wrong, we say we’re sorry, and then walk away forgiven, as if we had just slighted a friend and then quickly made up. But there’s something else going on here. We can only easily make up with a friend because Someone Else already absorbed the evil and pain of sin into his own body and soul. Sometimes I wish that the evangelists went into great detail in describing Jesus’ sufferings so that we could have a better idea of what it cost Him. But even the brief descriptions we are given—struck on the face, spat upon, insulted, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified, crushed by apparently God-forsaken agony, etc—should be enough to bring us not only to awestruck wonder at what his love was willing to endure for us, but also to tears of repentance for what our sins did to Him, how deeply they hurt Him who loves us.

I wrote in my last post that to sin is to say of Christ: “I do not know the man.” Once we have realized the gravity of what this means, we need to exclaim: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood!” (Mt. 27:4). But despite all our denials and betrayals, we have recourse to St Paul’s eloquent and concise summary of the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death: “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Lent is a time for meditating upon the passion of Christ. We do this not merely to work ourselves into an emotional sorrow for what He suffered (though even this is beneficial if it endures beyond the moment), but to deepen our relationship with Him through awareness of his love for us and what it cost Him to save us. Our Lenten meditations aren’t meant to be discarded come Easter, as if we’ve suddenly been permitted to be in a lighter mood. What we discover of Jesus’ love manifested in his passion must remain with us all the days of our lives, for it is all too easy to fall back into mediocrity, self-indulgence, and our former denials and betrayals. It is time to grow into a mature and permanent commitment of fidelity to Him who loved us first and who calls us to enter into the mystery of his sacrifice, which is the mystery of his love.

On Valentine’s Day, some lovers give heart-shaped gifts. Jesus has one for us too, but look, there seems to be something terribly wrong. There’s a large hole torn in the side of it and all its contents are spilling out. He gave us a Heart full of blood and water, a Heart full of sacrificial and self-emptying love. In the Byzantine tradition, when we prepare the bread for the Holy Eucharist, we take the ritual lance and cut into the side of the Lamb (the main host), saying: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came forth blood and water. He who saw this has borne witness, and his testimony is true.”

Amen, his testimony is true. The Lord loved us unto death, unto bearing the horror and filth and agony of our sins, that we might find happiness in the eternal Paradise. Let us learn about love and passion—His. And let us spend our own lives in making some sort of a return. It will never even begin to be adequate, but He will be satisfied with our love if it is offered in sincerity and truth. Cor ad cor loquitur. Heart speaks to heart. Let us spend this Lent with Him learning about love.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I Do Not Know the Man

St Peter is one of my favorite apostles, because he is not a “plaster saint.” The evangelists have not papered over his faults, and so he is one of the most genuine and believable figures in the Bible. He was headstrong, impulsive, prone to speaking before thinking, and at a critical moment he not only broke a public promise but vehemently denied his beloved Lord.

But it is not faults as such that make him attractive, but his response to grace in the midst of them. He always accepted correction or even rebuke when the Lord gave it, and he repented wholeheartedly when he recognized his sin. The incidents of his life and relationship to Christ are not, however, presented merely as a character portrait, but as a mirror of our own struggles, a guide for the healing of our own faults.

St Peter’s lamentation (after his denial of Christ) in one of our liturgical texts from Holy Week puts it succinctly, and this could be our own general confession: “I said I would keep the faith, and I have not kept it.” Is not this the essence of every confession of sin? Can we not all make these words our own?

Shortly before the Lord’s passion, Peter boasted: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” A few hours later he insisted: “I do not know the man.” It may be that the same cycle plays out in our own lives. When we’re feeling spiritually strong or secure or joyful, when our spiritual awareness seems heightened, and in general when things are going well for us, we may (at least implicitly) boast that we would never deny our Lord, never turn away from Him or do anything that seriously grieves or offends Him. But when we have been weakened by fatigue, illness, or relentless temptations, when we lose the awareness of his presence or when things suddenly start going wrong all at once, increasing our stress and frustration—and perhaps our suspicion that He is not, after all, hearing our prayers—we say or do things that are translated thus: “I do not know the man.”

It’s not that we hate God or have become apostates, any more than Peter did, but like him we lose courage at the time of trial, or when we sense our well-being threatened, or when we just can’t hide our inner cowardice anymore. But there’s a remedy for our denials, and it is called repentance. St Luke recounts an element in the story which the others don’t, and which makes it all the more dramatic: after the third denial, the Lord looked at Peter, and he remembered Jesus’ prophecy and began to weep bitterly. The Lord did not need to say “I told you so,” or anything else. The combination of pain and pity in his eyes was enough to pierce the heart of the apostle like a two-edged sword, tearing open the floodgate of tears.

There are times when we may perceive that look of Jesus after we have denied Him through sin. We feel its penetrating heat and we know we have done what is displeasing in his sight. The only appropriate response from someone who loves Him is tears and repentance. Yet the Lord does not wish merely to bring us to our knees in shame or self-reproach. He wants to renew us by his love. Recently I came across a text in our liturgy that is rather unusual. Generally in penitential texts we pray for tears of repentance or sorrow. But in this text we pray for “tears of healing.” That outward release from an inwardly contrite heart not only expresses sorrow, it already begins to soothe the self-inflicted wound resulting from sin.

Regrettably, we probably all too often have been caught in that cycle of “I will not deny You…I do not know the man,” but in this our example is not Judas but Peter. Judas despaired of mercy and took matters into his own hands. Peter sought mercy with tears, not because he thought he deserved it, but because his heart was too big to simply walk away. With vehemence he denied Christ, and with equal passion he wept over his denial—and so the Lord’s look was not only one of poignant reproach but also of infinite mercy, for He learned from his Father how to welcome prodigal sons.

So we too must always return to the Lord, no matter how often or grievously we have denied Him, shedding tears of repentance—and of healing—for we know that his mercy endures forever. Then at last, despite all the denials, the falls, the misdirected energies, we can look back over our lives in the presence of the risen Lord and say to Him what the endearingly forthright Peter said to Him over a charcoal fire by the sea: “Lord, you know that I love You.”