Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn

Shortly before the Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy (during which the bread and wine to be consecrated are brought to the altar), we sing what is aptly called the Cherubic Hymn: “Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, escorted invisibly by ranks of angels. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

First of all, we receive quite a high promotion when we participate in the Divine Liturgy, for suddenly we earthen vessels “mystically represent the Cherubim,” who are among the highest and most glorious of all the heavenly incorporeal powers. But there’s something else I noticed, which perhaps does not take us to quite the same dizzying heights, but which nevertheless expresses something of the profound richness of the Christian vocation. We “sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.”

That is a kind of mission statement, or even an expression of our very identity as Christians. Who are Christians? “Oh, they are the ones who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.” It’s what we do, and so it expresses who we are. You might ask precisely what is the thrice-holy hymn. Well, you have two choices, and as Christians you might as well sing them both (you already do if you are a Byzantine Christian). The first is: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.” This is aptly named the trisagion, which in Greek means (you guessed it) “thrice-holy.” This seems to be what is indicated in the Liturgy, because in the prayer that the priest prays immediately before the trisagion, he says: “Accept, O Master, from the lips of us sinners the thrice-holy hymn…” But it can also refer to the “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of hosts…” which precedes the Eucharistic canon, for those three holies equal “thrice-holy.” In the Scriptures (Rev. 4:8) and in the Liturgy (“Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed”), it is the heavenly powers who sing this hymn. It is therefore appropriate that the Cherubic Hymn is situated between these two thrice-holies and in a sense refers to both of them.

The awareness of our identity as those who sing this hymn to the Holy Trinity ought to influence the way we conduct ourselves when we’re not explicitly singing in church. One who has the awesome task and privilege to mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity cannot behave in the same manner as those who do not. In time of temptation or decision, we ought to ask ourselves which is the course that one who sings to the Trinity would take, and what are the priorities of one who lays aside earthly cares in order to receive the King of All, who comes with angelic escorts.

If the Liturgy doesn’t follow us out of the church, the practical good it does in our lives is quite limited. Of course, nothing is more noble and sanctifying than to receive the Holy Eucharist, but if this divine “seed” falls on rocky or weed-infested soil, it bears no fruit. The world of liturgical worship should not be considered a radically different—and hence more or less disconnected—world than the one in which we daily live and work and recreate. That lofty cherub-inhabited world has to penetrate this world, communicate divine grace to it, make it possible to welcome the Lord and sing thrice-holy hymns to Him in our hearts even as we go about our daily labors. If this is not so, then our liturgical worship is little more than a kind of sacred diversion, a discontinuity with the mundane—without the mundane ever being transformed by it.

Christ said He would give the Bread from Heaven, his flesh, for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51), not merely to satisfy the spiritual/aesthetic tastes of those who go in for things like the rituals of liturgy. So then, let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, conduct ourselves in this world as carriers of the Mystery, as lights in the darkness, as those who have seen the Lord transfigured and who are now called to go forth and witness to his glory. We must leave the Liturgy changed. If we lay aside earthly cares in order to receive Him sacramentally, then we must return to those cares and infuse them with his wisdom, love, and healing power, bringing his life to the world. It’s not a small thing to be a singer of the glory of the life-giving Trinity. The Cherubim and Seraphim have been doing it for countless millennia, and they still stand in awe…

Monday, January 29, 2007

He Who Sees in Secret

That is one way that Jesus speaks of his heavenly Father in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by St Matthew. He uses that expression when contrasting “hypocrites” with true disciples in the practice of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. (As we prepare to practice these during Lent, let us be forewarned as to what pleases the Lord and what doesn’t.)

The contrast is similar in each instance, and his teaching is summed up in the first verse of chapter six: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” In the case of almsgiving, the hypocrites loudly and publicly announce what they are doing, “that they may be praised by men.” When they pray, they call attention to themselves in public places, “that they may be seen by men.” When they fast, they ostentatiously make it known by their haggard looks, “that their fasting may be seen by men.” In all these cases, the Lord says: Do not do this. Why? The answer has to do with whatever return is received for these pious acts. If the hypocrites are looking for the praise, notice, and esteem of men, they will have that—and nothing else—for “they are already repaid.” But they will have “no reward from the Father who is in heaven.” What a complete waste of life!

It is different with the true children of God. When they give alms, they are do it out of the public eye, “so that your alms may be in secret.” When they pray, they are to go into their room and close the door, “and pray to your Father who is in secret” [or, who is hidden]. When they fast, their “fasting may not be seen by men, but by the Father who sees in secret.” In each of these cases, Jesus concludes by saying: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Jesus wants us to have our reward from God and not to receive mere ego-building flattery or praise from others. It is interesting to note that in the Greek text, a different word is used for the repayment of the hypocrites and the reward from the Father. The hypocrites’ recompense is a kind of “refund” for their self-serving efforts, one that they exact from others by calling attention to themselves. This repayment is cheap and vaporous, for it comes not from God but from men. But the reward of God is literally a “restoration,” as if God’s grace makes up for whatever our acts of piety may cost us in the way of humble and hidden sacrifice. And his reward is beyond all proportion to our efforts to please Him and to serve his people.

That is why genuine Christians have to live on a different level than either the general narcissistic mind-set of the world or the self-righteous self-consciousness of today’s religious hypocrites. We walk under the gaze of “the Father who sees in secret” and who alone can assess the value of our pious works, and hence grant whatever reward it pleases his heart to bestow. Perhaps we would wish to be recognized for our good works because we have a guilty conscience about our bad works. But that is not going to win us a more favorable hearing at the Judgment Seat, because the Father already sees everything, the good and the bad, and He knows that nothing is to be gained (rather the opposite) by increasing the number of people who know of our good works.

About this hidden life that Christ enjoins, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes: “One of God’s chief attributes is ‘the One who sees in hidden places.’ In a way we could say that God only sees in hidden places, that consequently the actions and attitudes of hypocrites in public places are not seen by God because they are not real. Hiddenness is here a crucial criterion for genuineness, for reality, for being-in-fact. How horrible not to be seen by God, to live in such a way that our lives are mere fleeting ghosts before him! …Hiddenness, solitude, and silence have the effect, so to speak, of gathering up the scattered atoms of our being and kneading them into an image recognizable in the eyes of God. The Father has made me a steward over myself, and interiority is the space where I do the work assigned me… No other human work can be successful unless it can be traced back to this essential activity that is purely interior: seeking the Face of God so as to abide in its presence with the deepest part of my being. The call to do this constitutes human identity.”

Here we receive a further insight into the profundity of Jesus simple words: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them… your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It’s not simply a matter of working for the better or lasting reward; it’s about realizing our true identity in the eyes of God by the way we conduct ourselves in this passing life. The attention-demanding and self-centered piety of the hypocrites will ultimately reduce them to spiritual wraiths who will who will go on trying to call attention to themselves (but with eternal frustration) in the abode of shadowy castoffs that hover on the brink of non-being—the place where even God no longer looks. But the humble seekers of the hidden Father who quietly work within the interiority of a self-effacing yet God-loving way of life, will be “restored” a hundredfold and more by Him who sees in secret. This is the “abundant life” communicated to us by the Lord.

Let us not think we’ve “heard it all before” when familiar Gospel passages are read. Rather, let us pay close attention when the Lord speaks, for He has the words of eternal life.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Moments of Contemplation

About a week ago I was walking back to my monastic cell after supper, and I paused briefly as a moment of grace and a kind of natural contemplation settled upon me. It was an unseasonably warm January day, though it was still cool and fresh. A beautiful picture formed before my eyes: yellow-orange streaks of clouds mingling with the silhouette of a leafless winter tree and its myriad tiny branches. Above it, a new crescent moon was softly setting over the forested ridge, as a puff of colored mist lightly passed before it. The tops of the firs were gently swaying in a light, clean breeze, and all creation was still, quietly joyful. It was as if the earth were breathing a sigh of contentment at the end of a blessed day, which was silently receding and giving way to the mysteries of the night.

Is this not the world as God had meant it to be?—not crammed with noisy, frenzied (and all too often self-destructive) activity, with the consequent blindness to the omnipresent beauty of a world full of life and wonder. Rather, a peace that passes understanding, a stillness that allows one to hear the sounds of life, to breathe in the serenity of a world turning by the hand of God, and hence turning toward God, lifted up on the heart-praises of his immortal images, so that the whole cosmos can join in the unceasing worship of those who have heard Heaven’s whispers in the evergreens and are longing for the light of Home.

After Compline that night I walked into further wonders. That magnificent night sky! We live about 18 miles from the nearest town, and we refuse to artificially light the pathways of the monastery. God has provided heavenly lights for that, and when the night is clear, we can find our way simply by starlight. The deep dark space, brightly populated with its innumerable glittering citizens, is but a super-sheer veil of the Divinity. It is always breathtaking, always wondrous, always captivating—therefore it must be a reflection of the mystery of God. The night air was almost intoxicating. The silence wrapped around me like the arms of the Heavenly Mother. The wind still whispered in the trees, its effects unseen now, yet felt from time to time as a caress on the cheek. If I were a saint, I think I would have levitated at that moment. The whole experience was like a cup of cool water to a thirsty man, leaving me refreshed but not satiated. Sometimes beauty is so exhilarating, I feel like I could literally drink it in.

There are intimations of God in all this. I’m not too interested in the chemical composition of the universe—though I am fascinated at times by what science discovers about the wonders of creation. Yet I can’t help but regard with a sort of uncomprehending pity those who still assert that it all exploded itself into existence and has no purpose but to gradually burn itself back out of existence. The effect that sunsets and night skies have on immortally-ensouled beings is not that of molecules upon molecules. It is rather the effect of divine grace upon spirits capable of receiving revelations from on high. A sunset is not merely a predictable daily solar occurrence, for the heavens are telling the glory of God.

We may sometimes become frustrated that God does not give verbal answers to our verbal questions, but if we can bring our souls to a stillness similar to that of yellow-orange evenings or infinite black-and-silver nights, we may discover that the Word speaks without words, that He is answering questions that we haven’t yet the sense to ask. Still, we may notice an “amen” rising from some hidden inner depth—for Deep calls upon deep, and our spirit intuitively knows its Creator—even if we are still stumbling over concepts and conundrums, or are caught up in the erratic currents of quotidian events, whose hidden meaning we’ve not yet properly understood.

So be still and know that the Lord is God. Find—at all costs—someplace where you can enter nature’s silence and recover the ancient capacity to hear angels in the wind and to know Him who created stars with the breath of his mouth. Contemplation isn’t a luxury—it is the key to the Gate of Heaven.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Waging War

A lot is said (in some circles) about “spiritual warfare,” and not all of it is helpful or even correct. It’s not about challenging the foul hordes of hell in a confrontational combat, or thinking that one can cast out demons just because he knows how to say the name of Jesus, nor is it something that requires our constant focus on the presence of the dark powers. Yet it is undeniable that spiritual warfare is an element of Christian life that is ignored only at one’s peril. I’d like to take a brief look at the Scriptures and human experience to see if we can get a good understanding of the essentials.

St Paul says, “Wage the good warfare” and “fight the good fight” (1Tim. 1:18; 6:12), and “take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2Tim. 2:3). Perhaps he was grooming St Timothy as his successor and wanted to make sure he was “complete, equipped for every good work” (3:17). What does Paul mean when he talks about this warfare, this fight? In the first instance, he says it means “holding faith and a good conscience,” and in the second he enjoins Timothy to “take hold of eternal life” and to “keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So one element of the spiritual warfare is simply living the Christian life in obedience and fidelity and perseverance. That is hard enough, given the world we live in today!

St Peter takes the warfare to a new level, a kind of gut level that speaks more to our personal struggles. He beseeches us, “as aliens and exiles” (that in itself sets the context—our citizenship is not here; we’re on pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland and so must not get complacent), “to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul” (1Peter 2:11). Our warfare is not entirely on the offensive, routing Legion’s legions, but it seems to be more often than not on the defensive, since Peter says here that it is the sinful passions that are waging war on us. Here’s what he says to do about it: “Gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all you do… Conduct yourself with reverence throughout the time of your exile” (1:13-17).

Finally (for this post, anyway), Paul gives us the classic text: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood [i.e., human beings], but against… the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (read the rest for yourself, Ephesians 6:10-18). He lists as our armor and weaponry: truth, the Gospel of peace, faith, the hope of salvation, the word of God and prayer.

Even though we have all these grace-giving counsels and alerts, we may find that in our own experience we either don’t take them very seriously, thinking that we’re more or less OK and don’t need to get all concerned about warding off demonic attacks, or that the demons are so cunning, vicious, and relentless that the spiritual remedies seem ineffectual. In the former case, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall, or have already unwittingly allowed ourselves to slide into the acceptance of a gradual deception, a noose that gets a little tighter each day until it’s too late to extricate ourselves from its stranglehold. In the latter case, we must simply increase our prayer, our efforts, our recourse to the sacraments and the saints and angels, trusting that God will not let us be hammered into submission before He comes to rescue us.

Before we can effectively fight we have to recognize what is going on, for the “passions that wage war against your soul” are not always the same for everyone, and not always the same at different stages of the same person’s life. For some, there really is a kind of face to face struggle with demonic manifestations, but these are quite rare, so we needn’t dwell on that here. For others, there are the smokescreens that lead to unbelief, indifference or despair (remember the last post—the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right), or the blinding power of money or prestige, and the sour fruit of pride in its many dimensions.

For others it may be the seductive power of lust, which also comes in many forms. This is particularly insidious, because the sexual drive, unlike inclinations to unbelief, pride and avarice, was placed in us by God as something good, part of his divine plan for love between man and woman, and for the propagation of the human race. The devil, however, is ingenious in coming up with ways to pervert it, and his works are becoming more perverse and ubiquitous every day. This inner drive is not something that can be willed away, or prayed and fasted out of existence. Insofar as it is a fundamental biological drive, it is irrational, and here is the point at which spiritual efforts may seem to stall. You can’t reason with it, you can’t quote Scripture to it, you can’t silence it even by taking up your cross and following Jesus (even though that is the only path to resisting its obstinate demands). It is the gut-wrenching power of this dark irrationality that constitutes war waged on the soul (it may be that other passions, for other reasons, exercise a similarly tenacious force in our lives; each has to examine his own experience and conscience). See, the Apostles were not just tossing around clever phrases or peddling platitudes, they were talking seriously about matters that are life or death for the soul. And that is why we have to take spiritual warfare seriously.

St James gives us the two-edged sword of spiritual warfare: "Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you" (4:7-8). Resist the devil and draw near to God. We must do both, and our primary focus must be on God. If you only resist the devil, but do not immediately draw near to God, you are setting yourself up for a major disaster (see Luke 11:24-26).

After nearly completing a draft of this post, I went into my room to pray a while. Almost immediately some sort of bee or fly, in an evidently suicidal rage, began to hurl itself repeatedly at my window, making an annoying tapping sound. I could have ended the annoyance by simply opening the window, but then what greater havoc might the little kamikaze have wrought if I had let it into my room? The situation is not unlike our struggle with temptation. Sure, you can relieve the annoyance of its insistent suggestions by simply opening the window of your soul and giving in to it. But once inside, the damage it does is far worse than mere annoyance or even harassment. It begins to eat away at your spirit and it is much harder to get rid of. Finally tiring of battering himself against a closed window, the bee gave up and I was left to pray in peace. A word to the wise…

We don’t want to focus on the devil or give him too much credit for his influence in our lives (remember that St James says that falls from grace are due to the “lure and enticement of your own desire,” 1:14). But just in case there is some spiritual enemy leading us down a path that is not good for our souls, we ought to pray that it may be unmasked, so that we can get a good look at the beast that lurks behind those suggestions to do what is not God’s will for us. We would hardly race with desire toward a stinking and grotesque drooling monster but, as I also mentioned in the last post, evil can assume pleasing forms in order to seduce us—before zeroing in for the kill.

So put on that armor of God! There may be some things that are not within our power to control, but our will is always ours to exercise freely, and that, once we have sustained ourselves with all possible means of grace, will be our final stronghold. Fierce though the attack may be, we can still say (or scream, or croak): No! “Man does not live by bread [i.e., material things, human satisfactions] alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.” That is how Jesus waged war in his own time of temptation. He will stand by us, even if apparently unhelpful in the fray (as St Anthony the Great once complained after a terrible tussle with demons). But his grace is invisibly with us, his reward is in his hand, and his mercy is upon those who struggle for his sake and the sake of the Gospel. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Witchery of Paltry Things

There is a curious passage in the Book of Wisdom, rather poetic actually, that expresses a basic spiritual insight. “For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right, and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind” (4:12). This occurs in the passage reflecting on one who dies “before his time.” When this book was written (perhaps 150 BC), the understanding that our souls are immortal was beginning to take hold, probably through Greek influence (this book was originally written in Greek). So the reflection upon someone who dies early is filled with hope for everlasting life, not sorrow at a promising life cut short, as we would find in earlier writings. Indeed, it is even seen as a blessing: “Snatched away, lest wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul.”

The lament is not over one who would die early, but rather over those things that distort or pollute life in the meantime. We can be “bewitched” by paltry things, by passing fads, foolish pleasures, or corruptible goods. Such things “obscure what is right.” It seems like the advertising and entertainment industries see it as their task to bewitch us with paltry things, for if we could see clearly what is right, most of them would go out of business.

I often have rather weird dreams, and not long ago I had one that made me think of the above passage from Wisdom. I had come across a large serpent, which was quite unfriendly to me, and I engaged in battle with it, seemingly defeating it. But it somehow recovered from the wounds I inflicted upon it, and then it transformed itself into the image of a witchy-looking woman. I remarked (to no one in particular) that such an image wasn’t the least bit attractive to me. Then the demon revealed its tactic: “I can appear in any form that pleases you.” Suddenly, a priest who had been at the monastery many years ago, and who had subsequently renounced his priesthood, was standing next to me, and he followed after the image, which was evidently appearing in some form pleasing to him. I tried to warn him, but he went after it anyway…

So I learned a little something about the way idols and temptations beguile us. The witchery of the pleasing appearance obscures the reality of the evil behind it, and thus obscures our perception of what is good. We tend to forget that one of the effects of original sin is a vulnerability to deception, an inclination toward concupiscence, and a general tendency to take the path of least resistance, or the path that seems to promise some immediate and tangible benefit. Deceit beguiles our souls, and if we follow after the demonic chameleon, wickedness will eventually pervert our minds, and the serpent will have his victory.

That is why St Paul urges us to put on the armor of God (Eph. 6) and in many other places we are urged to be awake, sober, alert, able to discern the spirits, to distinguish between the true and the false, the authentic and the spurious, reality and illusion. It is in our best interests, to say the least, to be able to recognize paltry things for what they are, and to dismiss them in favor of what is really good, true, and beautiful, that is, what lasts forever, what is of God. There is a terrible price to pay for mindlessly following what superficially seems pleasing or attractive. Bewitched by paltry things, you could be playing the devil’s game. And everyone who plays that game ends up a loser.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Waiting

Well, what are you waiting for? Or maybe I should ask: are you waiting for anything at all? I think that one of the fundamental reasons for the secularization of the Church is that people aren’t waiting anymore. They don’t know what Christians are supposed to be waiting for, so they live their lives essentially without any sort of eschatological hope.

Christians aren’t supposed to be too settled in this world, not too concerned with building a secure and comfortable environment in which to enjoy the few decades they’ve been granted here. No, here is what Christians are supposed to do: “renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:12-14). We’re supposed to be waiting for the return of the Lord!

Now this doesn’t mean we have to engage in all sorts of apocalyptic speculations about dates and times and the geopolitical configurations that indicate his imminent return (in fact, we shouldn’t). But it does mean that we should have a goal, a vision, a direction of our thoughts and actions toward the coming of the Coming One. For if we’re clear on our ultimate goal and expectation, we will know how to organize our lives in this world so as to move steadily toward that goal, living in readiness and earnest desire for the fullness of life in eternal joy.

The New Testament is full of this teaching about the “orientation” of disciples of Christ: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 3:20). “The creation waits with eager longing… we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies… if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:19, 23-25). “Set your hope fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:13). “We wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells… since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2Peter 3:13-14). “You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1Thess. 1:9-10). Etc, etc.

This waiting, however, is not like the bored or irritated waiting of people in doctor’s offices or traffic jams. It is an active, attentive waiting. “Watch and pray, for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). “Be sober, be watchful” (1Peter 5:8). “Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time…” (Eph. 5:15).

Many Christians seem to have lost the awareness that we’re supposed to be watching and waiting, living in such a way as to be found worthy of Him who has died for our sins, so that “you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1Peter 4:13). As people tend not to look for his coming anymore (even though they express this conviction every time they say the Creed), and hence gradually fall away from a life-giving relationship with God, we have to ask, with Jesus, the dreaded question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

Be aware, then, what Christians are supposed to be waiting for, and by the way you live your life look to Him who is coming. If we do not believe in the return of the Lord and hence the resurrection of the dead, Christianity becomes devoid of its life and power, and is reduced to the status of a set of moral guidelines, or worse, one more self-help technique for acquiring a bit of inner peace, or still worse, a mere social convention that has no effect whatever on people’s actual convictions or behavior (it already is this for Communion-receiving, baby-killing politicians).

Let your life reflect your hope; let it indicate what you are waiting for. Take the necessary steps toward Him who is coming back for you. “I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). This is the hope of Christians.

Wait a minute. Wait a year. Wait as long as it takes, but make sure you are found waiting for Him when He comes.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Zacchaeus, Come Down!

It’s that time of year again. We’re beginning the series of preparatory Sundays before Lent. Every year after Lent is over, I think: I’ll never be able to do that again! Yet it always comes around and we just do it. For some, “Lent” may be a “four-letter word,” denoting a long period of rigorous fasting and self-denial, and heavily penitential liturgical texts and services, but essentially it is something we all really need. These five preceding Sundays are kind of an overture of Lent, giving us an idea of its inner meaning and what we need to live it fruitfully, so we don’t wander aimlessly through the 40 days, waiting till the last moment to get serious about our spiritual efforts.

I think there are three main themes to this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 19:1-10): desire, repentance, and, on the negative side, the pride that manifests in criticism and contemptuous indignation.

First, desire. Fr Alexander Schmemann offers this as the main theme of Zacchaeus Sunday in his book, Great Lent. We’ll never make any progress during Lent if we don’t want to, if we don’t have a real desire to change our lives, to grow spiritually, to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s 40-day struggle in the desert as well as his passion and resurrection. The first stage of this spiritual exercise is shown to us by Zacchaeus: the Gospel says he “sought to see Jesus.” His desire was not a vain or superficial curiosity, for when he met an obstacle, he went to great lengths to overcome it, making up for his natural deficiency by climbing a tree to obtain a better perspective. So, despite his sins—and the people would readily testify that they were many—something within him drew him to Christ. This is the beginning of his salvation, for as Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” So, if Zacchaeus was drawn to encounter Jesus, it was the grace of the Father at work in his soul.

Jesus rewarded this God-given desire of Zacchaeus. Perhaps Zacchaeus initially wanted to remain hidden and anonymous. For one thing, since he was a tax-collector, the most despised occupation in the eyes of the people whose money he was stealing, he would prefer not to have to face all those angry citizens. For another thing, he might have wished to let this first glance at Jesus pass by in silence, and then he could decide later if he wished to become his disciple. But if the Father was drawing him to the Son, then it had to be done the Father’s way. So Jesus stopped at Zacchaeus’ tree, looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” This was not only a calling out of a tree, but a call to repentance, to discipleship and salvation. Come down, Zacchaeus! Begin a new life; embrace the salvation that is being offered you this very moment! Whatever plans Zacchaeus might have had he instantly discarded and joyfully hurried down. He may have perceived this as a great honor for himself, but it is clear that the grace of God was already working in him, for his desire to see Jesus immediately bore fruit in repentance.

When the crowd voiced their disapproval of Jesus’ choice of dinner company, Zacchaeus proved the sincerity of his repentance. He didn’t engage in the externals of repentance, saying “Woe is me!” or making some other pious show of remorse. He immediately promised to change his life, and that’s what real repentance is. And he changed in a big way. He had made a lot of money by overcharging people at the tax booth, but suddenly he’s giving half of all he owns to the poor. And he doesn’t stop there. Half a fortune would still have left him wealthy. But he then said: “If I have defrauded anyone of anything [and he most certainly did!], I restore it fourfold.” There goes the rest of his fortune, and he has suddenly become one of the anawim of the Lord. The Lord knew he was sincere and therefore pronounced a great blessing: “Today salvation has come to this house!” Wouldn’t we all love to hear that from the mouth of the Lord! There was rejoicing among the angels at that moment, for the Son of Man, who came to seek and save the lost, had won another soul for the Kingdom of Heaven.

One would think that everybody would be rejoicing by this time. But it seems that only Jesus and Zacchaeus were the happy ones, for pride and bitter criticism were poisoning the spirits of the rest of the people. In this case it was not only Pharisees, but it says that all the people murmured: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” There are many components of this poison—contempt, indignation, envy, anger, and haughtiness—but they all flow from pride. They did not want the one they despised to be blessed by Christ, for after all, they were more righteous than he was. Why didn’t the Master come to their houses instead?

Archimandrite Sophrony, in his book, We Shall See Him As He Is, has written an incisive description of the evil of pride. He says: “Nothing that is…proud can draw near [to God]. Pride is abomination, the opposite of Divine goodness. Pride is the principle of evil, the root of all tragedy, the sower of enmity, the destroyer of peace, the adversary of divinely-established order. In pride lies the essence of hell. Pride is the ‘outer darkness’ where man loses contact with the God of love… Repentance alone can deliver us from this hell… He who has experienced divine love finds himself revolted by the poisonous fumes emanating from the passion of pride… Pride separates man from God and shuts him up in himself… The manifestations of pride are innumerable, but they all distort the divine image in man.” That’s why Christ didn’t go into their houses as a guest!

St Augustine has an interesting take on this mystery in his commentary on the Psalms. He’s referring to Levi as the sin-sick soul that the Divine Physician came to heal and save, but it applies just as much to Zacchaeus, the repentant sinner at whose house Jesus chose to stay. Augustine says, about the proud who judge the sinner and who judge Christ for having compassion on sinners: “There are some strong men…who place their confidence in their own righteousness… the Lord came not to call these strong men, but the weak… O, you the strong, who do not need the doctor! Your strength does not come from health but from insanity… The Master of humility, who shared our weakness and who made us take part in his divinity, came down from heaven to show us the way and to be himself our way… to teach us to confess our sins, to humble ourselves and thus become strong… Those who pride themselves on being strong, who, in other words, claim being just by their own virtue, ‘stumbled over the stumbling stone’… They had placed themselves above the weak who hurried to the physician… and [finally] they killed the physician of all men. But he, by dying, prepared through his blood a remedy for all the sick.” Not content to allow a sinner a chance to repent, they ultimately turned on the Master Himself, who still offered his life to save the lost.

So what shall we learn from all this as we turn our eyes toward the coming of Lent? First, let us desire to see Jesus, to encounter Him personally in the Gospels, in prayer and the sacraments, and in all the events of our daily lives. Let us be willing to overcome all obstacles to getting a new perspective from which to see Him more clearly, and know and love him more deeply. When He sees the sincerity of our desire, He will call us: to repentance and salvation, so let us hasten joyfully to Him and to welcome Him into our hearts more than ever before. And let our repentance be genuine, not just in words, but in practical action, changing for the better, as Zacchaeus did.

Finally, let us avoid pride and all the rotten fruits of it: judging and criticizing others, not allowing them the same chance for repentance that we expect for ourselves, being envious, contemptuous, counting ourselves more righteous than others. For these, all that remains is the outer darkness, cut off from the life and love of God, who receives humble and repentant sinners as his prodigal children. So let us begin our Lenten pre-preparations by making ready our interior homes, our souls, because the Lord wishes to dwell within us, to stay with us. Then we will rejoice to hear those words that all those who hope for eternal life long to hear: “Today salvation has come to this house!”

Friday, January 19, 2007

In Not Of

We are often reminded that as Christians we are to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. Here the term “world” is used equivocally, for we are “in” the world as the place of God’s creation where we dwell and experience life, but we are not supposed to be “of” the world—the world in this sense being the arena of apostasy, everything in the world that is not of God or is set against Him, the degeneracy of certain elements of our culture, etc. This idea has been taken, at least in part, from Jesus’ high-priestly prayer to the Father, for his disciples: “I am not praying for the world [in the negative sense]… they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:9, 14-15). Since He doesn’t ask them to be taken out of the world (the world He has created), they are to be in the world, but He also makes clear that they are not of the world, that is, not belonging to it, not following its godless ways (“I testify of it that its works are evil”; John 7:7).

All this is true, but perhaps does not exhaust the meaning of being in the world and not of it, since it is mainly a negative approach, that is: be not of the world so as to avoid all its evils. St Paul also deals with the issue, though not in precisely the same terms, but he supplies a positive dimension as well.

He begins by saying: “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (Col. 2:20). This presupposes that Christians know who they are, what God has done for them, and what their destiny is. The negative part is that Christians have “died” to the world, that is, have severed their inordinate worldly attachments and have thus become free to focus on divine and eternal matters. Therefore, he says in another place, let “those who deal with the world act as though they had no dealings with it, for the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties” (1Cor. 7:31-32). Again he says that our citizenship is in Heaven, so we ought not get so entangled in the world’s affairs that we lose sight of our reason for being here in the first place. We ought not adopt a “Heaven can wait” attitude while we attempt to make our fortunes here and now.

To be a Christian is to live a radically different form of life than those who are not—though externally it may not at first glance seem so different—but unfortunately the Christian Gospel has become so watered down, so compromised with the world as to seem to require little more than a bit of religious practice pasted onto an otherwise worldly life. But to accept that is to deny true Christianity and Christ as well.

St Paul now gives us the positive thrust of being not of this world: “If, then, you have been raised with Christ [i.e., if you really are a Christian], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4). So, we are not of this world because we have died to it and our lives are inserted into that of Christ, who lives in the heart of the Holy Trinity. In my last post I looked at a few ways (from this same section of Colossians) in which we “die” to the evils of the world—those sinful “pleasures” that are opposed to goodness—but here are the ways in which we live in the grace of Christ, while still in the world: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience… as the Lord has forgiven you, you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful” (3:12-15). That is how we live in the world without being of the world. The Lord may not take us out of the world, but as we cling to Him in faith and love He will protect us from the evil one and all the cunning seductions he offers through the agency of this world.

In order to be not “of this world,” we have to be “of God,” of Christ, that is, belonging to the world of the Spirit, of Heaven, of the grace and truth and love of the Lord. We are in this world, which is so often set against God, so as to witness to the real world, the world “hidden with Christ in God,” the world we enter through faith, the sacraments and prayer, and to which we bear witness by the way we live. To be not of this world is not simply to avoid its evils, but to infuse it with good, to help win it back for God, who so loved the world that He gave his only Son to save it.

We can’t help but be in the world as long as we live. But we have a choice about being of the world. Let us make no mistake: to be “of the world” is to be “not of God” (see John 8:23, 47, and James 4:4). And the only thing that matters on Judgment Day—which means the only thing that ultimately matters at all—is to be found to be of God.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Goodness and Pleasure

If something is good, is it pleasurable? If something gives pleasure, is it good? Well, maybe, but that certainly can’t be a rule to live by. That is mainly because original sin (along with all our unoriginal sins) has distorted our perception of the good and has misdirected or perverted the energy of pleasure.

Medicines and surgeries may be good if they result in improved health, but the experience of them does not give pleasure. Self-denial for righteousness’ sake is definitely good, but can be a painful experience, especially if we are attached to pleasurable things that are not good for us. I think you’re probably already well aware of many available things or experiences that are designed to give pleasure, but are not good, either for body or soul. So we have to set some criteria so that goodness and pleasure both serve the will of God.

The ancient philosophers said that to the virtuous person, practicing virtue is pleasurable. I suppose your level of pleasure in practicing virtue will tell you just how virtuous a person you really are! Most of us do find some struggle or even distaste in being virtuous, because we have not yet been fully cleansed of all our inordinate desires or attachments. But I think that we generally do find some satisfaction in doing what is right, in serving God and his people with integrity, generosity, and cheerfulness. Goodness does bring its own sort of pleasure, but it is pleasure of a higher level than mere bodily satisfactions. That is why it may seem, at least in the beginning, less intense and tangible than baser gratifications. But the pleasure of goodness is ennobling, elevating, while the cheap thrills that our sensation-seeking society offer are often degrading or dissipating.

The pleasure that follows in the wake of goodness is of God; it is a warm ray of his blessing. It therefore necessarily excludes sinful pleasure. But pleasure sought for its own sake often entails sin, because discernment is lacking, as well as the explicit intention to do only good. If we seek the good solely because it is good, then pleasure (perhaps simply that which comes from a clear conscience) will follow—even if doing what is right entails some hardship or suffering, as it often does. But if we seek pleasure merely because it is gratifying, then selfishness, sin, and corruption will likely follow. We have to have our priorities straight if goodness and pleasure will exist in harmony, bearing fruit for spiritual maturity and sanctification.

St Paul makes it clear what our focus should be: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). In another place he exhorts us: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is…” And he is not afraid to come right out and say: “Put to death what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander and foul talk… do not lie…” (Col. 3:1-9). He knows this is a formidable task, for they “lived in them.” But you see that he urges them to seek goodness, for it brings blessing. And he urges them to set aside many things which give pleasure, even if it is merely a perverse or bitter pleasure.

Pleasure isn’t bad in itself (though you might get that idea from certain of the monastic fathers or some Byzantine liturgical texts), but it only becomes so when it is sought for itself, sought outside of God’s will, sought for an immediate gratification, perhaps at someone else’s expense. God created us with the ability to experience pleasure, so He must have intended us to enjoy life, as long as our pleasures are not immoderate, inappropriate, untimely, or simply sinful. But we’re not always accustomed to seeking what is good precisely because it is good, so we get off the track and begin serving ourselves instead of the Lord. Then the relationship of goodness and pleasure becomes unbalanced or distorted. Then we become "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (2Tim. 3:4).

I came across a little poem by Kathryn Mulderink a while back, a “test of fidelity,” which we can perhaps reflect upon when we need to recover the priority of goodness over pleasure. The reward of fidelity to goodness is an eternity of pleasure, but we’re still in exile from paradise, so it’s important now to discipline ourselves to seek “what is above, what is true, honorable, pure,” etc. God loves us infinitely, and asks from us only faithfulness. We owe Him the best of our love. With this I’ll close:

The test of fidelity
(every love affair has them, of course)
is not in the fire,
nor in the peace;
not in the most visible things,
nor the most obvious.
The test of fidelity
(and faithfulness is the first principle, of course)
is in the tilt of the heart’s valves,
the delicate pathways of the brain,
what glances eyes are allowed to steal,
the secret strengths and hidden weakness.
The test of fidelity
(without questions, we fail before we begin, of course)
is in what we do in secret,
what we keep from human eyes.
Yes, this is where the Beloved’s light penetrates—
this is where we must be free.
The test is in the darkness—
it is temptation overcome
that betrothes us at last.

Monday, January 15, 2007

House of Representatives

As a monk I sometimes have to ask myself just what I am doing in all the hours I devote to prayer. Am I trying to better myself, repent of my sins, detach myself from the “world,” come closer to God, invite Him to come closer to me, offer Him praise and thanksgiving, bring to Him the needs of others? Yes, all that. But many of the “official” prayers I pray (psalms, texts of the Divine Office, other set or prescribed prayers) may not quite “fit” my actual intentions for prayer, and may even require that I say things that aren’t quite true in my case, or adopt some attitude or mind-set that is simply not mine, at least not at the moment. What does this mean, or how can I attach a meaning to it?

One important point to remember (this may apply mainly to monks and nuns, but it also applies to anyone who prays consciously as one with a mission in the mystical Body of Christ) is that our prayer is often a representative prayer. Especially when we pray the Divine Office, we do not come before God primarily as individuals, with our personal histories, attitudes, and needs, but as representatives of the Bride of Christ, the Church. A monastery, then, is a house of representatives! So, when I pray in a Lenten Office, “David once joined sin to sin, adding murder to fornication, yet then he showed at once a twofold repentance; but you, my soul, have done worse things than he, yet you have not repented before God,” the fact may be that I myself have not done worse things than murder and fornication (or if I have, maybe I have repented). But there are people in the world who have done worse and have not repented, and at this moment I am standing before God on their behalf, praying for mercy. On the other hand, when I liturgically confess, “No one has ever sinned as I have,” I can certainly apply it to myself, since my sins are unique to me in number and kind, as everyone else’s are.

It is important, however, not to immediately assume that I am praying about someone else’s sins, but when truth demands that I apply to myself only what actually applies to myself, then my representative function is engaged. I can’t literally repent for another, since everyone has to make that choice freely for himself, but by my bringing the whole mass of sinful humanity before the Lord, seeking his mercy, the grace to repent is granted, to some and perhaps to many. They still have to make the choice, but now they have extra help.

This representative function works in other ways as well. I may be in a bad mood and the Church requires me to say: “Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord!” Or I may be in a good mood and the Church requires me to say: “Why, O Lord, do you reject me; why hide from me your face? I am afflicted and in agony from my youth; I suffer your terrors, I am helpless.” Well, somebody somewhere is rejoicing when I’m in a bad mood, so as their representative I am to bring their praise and thanksgiving to God. And somebody somewhere is miserable when I’m in a good mood, so I am called to bring their woes to the Lord. When I pray the Divine Office or any other formal prayer, my prayer is not about me, and it doesn’t matter what my mood is or whether or not the texts fit it. My task is to serve the Bride of Christ by bringing both her joys and her woes to the Lord, so that his grace and mercy will cover all.

I also thought about this in other ways. When I was praying the Hail Mary at a certain time I remember thinking that it was quite an honor for me to say: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” because many people do not bless her today, and many do not bless her Son. So I, the representative of the others, bless her and bless Jesus, and hopefully God will look kindly upon us all. And when I hear someone take the Lord’s name in vain, I immediately say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” so that I can make reparation, restore blessing where a curse has brought dissonance into the harmony of life on God’s earth. We can all do that, and we should.

There’s a passage from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which I think I’ve quoted before, but which nicely expresses this representative relationship with other members of the Body of Christ, not merely as an official function, but as a work of love: “Remember too, every day and whenever you can, to repeat to yourself, ‘Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee today.’ For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, and dejected, so no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not. And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God, though you knew them not, nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that for him too there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him. And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much more will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you. And He will forgive him for your sake…”

A monastery may be a house of representatives, but your house can be the same. Let us persevere in prayer, not merely focusing on ourselves, on our own needs or relationship with God, but as representatives of all those whom the Lord created in love—and He will bless them all for our sake.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

His Love Gives Us Confidence

In the Byzantine Offices there are a lot of penitential prayers, and one could perhaps feel the weight of the constant expressions of our sinfulness and need for mercy as just a bit too heavy. But the balance is usually maintained by many expressions of the Lord’s compassion and love and mercy. Indeed, if all we had to look at was our own track record of failures, sins, and selfishness, we might think that despair is the only route left to us. But the liturgy insists that even if we have fallen into the murky depths of the abyss of sin and separation from God, we can call out for salvation and receive it.

On what do we base this extraordinary trust? The love of God, of course. I thought of that as I prayed this text: “In sin my mother conceived me, and like the publican I dare not look up toward heaven. But your love gives me confidence and I cry aloud to You: “O God, be merciful to me and save me!” His love gives us confidence—that is the bottom line of the hope of sinners. One of the most common titles for Christ in our liturgy is “The Lover of Mankind.” That’s how He is known and addressed. That’s what gives us confidence. Often in the texts as we lament our incorrigibility in sin, our plea to Him begins: “but since You are the Lover of Mankind…”

I don’t think this is presumption, because there is real agony expressed in the penitential laments, and real fear of just judgment. But God’s love gives us confidence that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). I’ll share a couple more texts here: “If the just are scarcely saved, what is to become of me, sinner that I am? I have endured neither the burden nor the heat of the day. But number me among those who came at the eleventh hour, O my God, and save me!” “I have foolishly wandered far from You, O Lord, and like the prodigal I have wasted my whole life. Day after day, like a slave, I have served my senseless passions. But I pray to You, O compassionate Father, through the intercession of the angels: receive me back like the prodigal son and save me!”

Notice the “but” in all the above texts. We state the case of our sinfulness, often in very strong terms (“Dragging around a multitude of sins, weeping under the weight of my offenses and filled with confusion, I cry out to You in fear…”), yet there’s always the “but”—we are full of sins, but God is full of mercy. “In the excess of my misconduct, I have gravely stained my soul; but in the excess of your love, O Lord Jesus Christ, receive me as the prodigal son…” God does not grant us his grace because we are good, but because He is good.

Sometimes the Byzantine Offices are criticized because of their heavy penitential character and meditations on death and judgment, but nowhere else have I seen such radical trust in God’s mercy and power to save. I guess we’re a Church of extremes, but I prefer that to a bland, “I’m OK, you’re OK” kind of religion, which never reaches the depths or the heights of the human condition in its agony and ecstasy.

So let us not fear to make an honest self-assessment, recognizing how far we often fall from grace, and crying out for mercy. Be not afraid, for the love of the Lord gives us confidence that we will indeed be received by Him. To recognize sin for what it is is also to recognize mercy for what it is. Nothing is greater than the power of God’s love. Archimandrite Sophrony, a monk who knew both the depths of darkness and brilliance of God’s light wrote this on repentance: “Sometimes the upsurge of repentance is overpowering. To the exclusion of aught else, mind and heart are filled with the agonizing sensation of being held fast in evil darkness. And then, unforeseen, the Light of the uncreated Sun penetrates the dungeon of the soul: the Light which fills the whole cosmic expanse. It lovingly embraces us. We see Him and dwell in Him.” We are only a sincere cry away from the embrace of the divine love that gives us confidence to run towards Him in joy and gratitude.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Not OK

“We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please men but to please God, who tests our hearts” (1Thess. 2:4). This call to be faithful to the preaching of the word of God is made to all ministers of the Gospel of Christ, though I wonder if all have read it and take it seriously. For it seems that many wish to please men instead of God, or at least they talk like they do. One of the major serious issues of the day, in which those entrusted with the Gospel tend to please men rather than God, is that of homosexual behavior. Though I’ve written about this occasionally, I do not make it a crusade, but something I read recently made me realize that it is time once again to stress the Catholic position.

One of the errors that is commonly preached is that homosexual acts are not greater sins than heterosexual acts committed outside of marriage. It is true that all sin is offensive to God, but as St John reminds us, some sins are worse than others (see 1John 5:16-17). The reason for this is that homosexual acts (like abortions, for example) are evil in themselves, not just in a particular context, e.g. outside of marriage. There is no situation, no context, no set of circumstances in which they could ever be anything but intrinsically disordered and hence evil. Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is in itself a good thing, but can become evil if abused, i.e., practiced without the benefit and blessing of marriage (be it pre-marital, post-marital, or extra-marital sex). But within marriage it is not only morally acceptable, it is a means of grace, part of God’s design for the joy and the propagation of the human race, as is clear from Scripture, Church teaching, and in detailed theological presentations like John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. So, heterosexual activity is good within certain bounds; homosexual activity is never good, can never be a means of grace. It is unnatural and contrary to the design and will of God for human beings and therefore cannot be good.

There is much pressure these days: social, political (both secular and ecclesiastical) and ideological, to accept homosexual behavior as something normal or at the very least tolerable in modern society. I won’t deal much with the ludicrous and blasphemous assertions of some who go so far as to insist that it is a “gift from God.” Such “devout” gays are only worshiping an idol of their own creation and are willfully standing against the word of God while they try to somehow paste a little spiritual respectability onto their disordered lifestyles. They either lack all integrity, are purposely pushing a “legitimizing” agenda, or are hopelessly blind.

Many civil and religious leaders are giving in to the surrounding pressure so as not to rock the boat or to appear as behind the times or reactionary or fundamentalistic or even as old fuddy-duddy sticks in the mud. Some are doing so in the name of a misguided “compassion” or a “who am I to judge?” attitude, which only tends to confirm “gay” people in their sin. (Let me make it clear here that in dealing with homosexual sin I am not lumping all homosexuals together, for some people with same-sex attractions very courageously and virtuously struggle to carry their crosses and to be faithful to the word of God and the teaching of the Church. But when we speak of someone as “gay,” that implies the embracing—either in actual practice or simply in mind-set—of the lifestyle, the sub-culture that promotes and practices homosexual acts and lobbies for social, political, and ecclesiastical change to that end.) Surely it is not right to point out others’ sins if we do not sincerely repent of our own. But to cast the whole issue in terms of tolerance or not judging is to miss a crucial point.

God made human beings male and female and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Obviously this is only possible for a man and a woman (new aberrations in reproductive technology notwithstanding ). God did not say to explore all possibilities of sexual expression, and when you find what you like, enjoy it. Nor did he even say to follow our inclinations wherever they might lead. In fact, St Paul makes it clear that living “in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind” makes us “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:2-3). So God has designed human beings in a certain way and for specific purposes. Let no man, then, experiment with and alter what God has designed and proclaimed as his will for mankind.

Here we come to another issue. Scripture is very clear in several places in its denunciation of homosexual activity. But great efforts are being made to so radically re-interpret Scripture as to deny all negative statements concerning homosexuality. But this is patently deceitful and is the manifestation of a particular agenda of those who wish to please men instead of pleasing God. One manipulates the word of God at his own peril. It cannot be forced to serve modern trends but stands on its own timeless merit. “When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God…” (1Thess. 2:13). It really is the word of God and you can’t make it say what it doesn’t, or not say what it does. For a detailed interview with a Bible scholar on the teaching of the Bible on homosexuality, click here.

It is a clever and all-too-effective tactic of gay militants to describe anything that is said in disagreement with their agenda as “hate speech.” There, no one wants to be accused of hatred. How convenient if every argument, even the most cogent, rational, and even-tempered, is immediately labeled “hate speech” if it unmasks their deceptions, sinful acts, and bad will. We are to speak the truth with love, and in this neither truth nor love may be sacrificed. I do not align myself with those who really do hate gays, for God hates no one. If God hated sinners, then He would hate you and me too, and everyone else. Let me assure you, if I really hated gays I would keep silent and smile as they died in their sin. But as “one entrusted with the Gospel,” I speak not to please men (or to tolerate current trends) but to please God, who desires that all come to knowledge of the truth, repent, and be saved.

We need the witness of the Bible and the teachings of the Church to face the deep crises of our time. When we abandon the objective norms of faith and morality, chaos ensues. As soon as the gays came out of the closet and began demanding rights, the issues of polygamy and “polyamory” (multiple lovers) surfaced, and the disintegration of society and human dignity will only continue if things move in this direction. Because some people are inclined to homosexual activity, must society and the Church accept and bless their subjective preference? Some people are sexually “oriented” towards children, animals, or sado-masochistic acts, or can find sexual satisfaction only when raping someone else. Is that aberrant or deviant behavior? Who decides? Should we tolerate and bless their behavior too? It’s their preference, after all. Who are we to judge what works for them? Where do you draw the line once you accept a major deviation from millennia of Judeo-Christian morality? Why not accept another, or two or three?

I believe that since the Pandora’s Box of “alternative sexuality” has been opened, this moral plague will not go away. Society will probably degenerate still further. But the word of the Lord stands true, as does the teaching of the Catholic Church, whether is it followed or not, despised or not. It is up to us as Christians to see the issues clearly, to desire and labor for the salvation of all, by speaking the truth in love and trying to bring the Gospel of life, love, and salvation to a society that is (literally) hell-bent on its own perverse satisfactions. We do no one any favors—rather a grave disservice—by tolerating evil in the name of compassion. Homosexual people need to hear the word of the Lord, for it is not only a word of uncompromising truth and admonition, but also of forgiveness and salvation. (Tolerance is not at all the same as forgiveness, which presupposes repentance and greatly benefits the one who receives it.) They must then earnestly seek healing and the grace to live under the blessing of God’s will unto eternal life. It may be a heavy cross to bear, but the alternative burden is infinitely heavier. The love of God and the hope of salvation are sufficient for those who are committed to doing what is right and living according to the dignity of humans created in the image of God.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Destined

I read a passage in Scripture recently that made me think of predestination, though it was not about that. Predestination, in the strict Calvinistic sense that some people are predestined to Heaven and some are predestined to Hell—without their being able to do anything about it—is an abhorrent and un-Christian doctrine which should never have escaped the confines of a confused mind. A priest I know once responded to someone who espoused that doctrine by saying, “Your god is my devil!” For only an evil mind could devise a system in which immortal beings are created in the image of God for the sole purpose of eternal torment in Hell. One would have to try really hard to work the few texts of Scripture that use the term—and ignore the other 99%—in order to come up with that. Yet there must be some proper interpretation of the word, since it does appear in the Bible.

The whole “destined for Hell” business can be easily exploded with only one text: “God our Savior desires all people to be saved” (1Tim. 2:3-4). If God desires all to be saved, then He can’t predestine them to be lost without radically contradicting Himself, which He doesn’t do. But it is not my intention to argue this point in this reflection. I want to look at what it looks like to move toward the general human “destiny” of salvation.

God the Father “destined us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” (Eph. 1:5). To be destined is to be set on the right course, directed in the right direction, with the divine intention of attaining a specific goal, which He makes possible by grace. The only fly in the ointment here is that we have the capability of changing our destination. If you board a flight for New York, you are destined for New York. But if, at your layover in Chicago, you decide to get on a plane for Baltimore, you are no longer destined for New York. This may work as a very general analogy for our “predestination.” God destines us for Heaven, even pays for the ticket, but we are free to change destinations along the way if we choose. That goes against God’s desire for us, but since He honors our freedom He lets us make that choice if we wish. We may destine ourselves to Hell, but God doesn’t. He destines us to Heaven, but this is not absolute, because of our freedom; we have a say in the matter.

We can (and must) live like we are destined for Heaven. The passage I referred to at the very beginning was from a blessing of St Paul to the Colossians, that we may be strengthened “for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:11-14).

First we are called to endurance and patience amid the trials of life—and this with joy!—and at the same time called to give thanks to God the Father. Why? Because He has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints, thus reducing all our problems (even serious ones) to relative insignificance. He has transferred us to the kingdom of Christ. That’s a great word to use there. It’s as if we had been slaving under a wicked and harsh middle-manager in our company’s department of darkness, and suddenly we receive a memo directly from highest level of authority. We’ve been transferred! We shall henceforth—if we choose—labor in the offices of light. We have been qualified for this unheard-of promotion by the CEO Himself!

It is a gift; we didn’t earn it. But we’ve still got a job to do, and it is demanding. And if we decide to quit, we have that choice: our former position in the department of darkness will be held open for us, and our old nasty boss will be only too glad to have us back under his merciless authority! But we don’t have to go back there if we don’t want to. We’ve been destined for great things in the Company, and all will be fulfilled if we co-operate, enduring all with joy and giving thanks to God for qualifying us for this position.

A little further on in Colossians we read that God forgave us our sins, having canceled the legal indictment against us by nailing it to the Cross, and thus disarming the evil spirits (2:13-15). That is how He predestines us, by clearing the path, removing the obstacles to our salvation, taking away the charges justly leveled against us. Now it is for us simply to choose his way, accept what He has done. The only obstacles left are the ones we create within ourselves, and only in that way can we change our destination.

There’s much more that we could say about this issue, and I’ve taken a rather unusual approach, perhaps, but here’s the point. We don’t have to live in fear that we may be damned if we do and damned if we don’t! Nor do we have to walk around like anguished Puritans trying to prove they’re among the elect by their squeaky-clean and forced righteousness, which results in a conspicuous absence of joy. The Father has already qualified us, transferred us, destined us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ. It is up to us to say yes, and to show our gratitude by meeting the demands of the Gospel and enduring life’s trials with an abiding trust and a quiet joy, for all manner of things shall be well.

Check your ticket. What’s the destination? Mine says “Heaven”. All passengers please begin to board…

Monday, January 08, 2007

A Great Light has Shone

Today we are extending the theme of light [Mt. 4:12-17, for the Sunday after Theophany] as we continue celebrating the feast of Theophany, and we are going more into the theme of repentance that we hinted at last time.

On the feast itself, which is rich in theological significance, we realized that the light of God is communicated in the sacrament of baptism—thus we become spiritually illuminated—and it was manifested as well in the extraordinary revelation of the Persons of the Holy Trinity at the River Jordan. Today’s Gospel looks at the mystery of God as Light in a somewhat different but complementary way.

Christ is revealed as the Light of the nations, the Fulfillment of the prophecies about the enlightenment of the Gentiles. Those who remain in the ignorance or even God-rejecting malice of unbelief are considered to be living in darkness and the shadow of death. Therefore Christ, after having been revealed as the Light-bearing Son of God in the Jordan, by the Father’s word and the Spirit’s anointing, is sent on his mission to enlighten and save the unbelievers and sinners, all those whose works are done in darkness, as St John says, and who fear to come to the Light.

Today’s Gospel opens with the arrest of St John the Forerunner, who now must decrease so that the Master can increase. But Jesus picks up where John left off by beginning his preaching just like John did: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Why did Jesus begin by preaching repentance? Wouldn’t He have attracted more people by beginning with the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, or with the promised blessings of the coming Kingdom? Jesus knew—as many people do not wish to hear today—that neither blessings nor birds nor lilies will be granted to anyone if they don’t change their direction and turn toward the One who is the Source of the blessings. If someone is about to step off a cliff you must first—and urgently!—get him to turn around and walk in another direction before you are at leisure to describe to him the lush gardens on the other side of the mountain.

It may seem inappropriate, or at least unwelcome, to bring up repentance while we still have our Christmas cheesecake between our teeth, but in the present context there are two reasons for it. The most obvious is that it is the subject matter of the Gospel, and the other is that in a very short time we will begin our series of preparatory Sundays before Lent.

But viewed in the context of the present feast, repentance does not have to be understood in a purely negative way: “Repent, or go to Hell!” I don’t hesitate to say that is the bottom line of it all, but that compact exhortation doesn’t even begin to exhaust the meaning of the mystery. Jesus did make it very clear what are the consequences of refusing to repent, but He didn’t always preach repentance in the same way. For example, today He says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” and perhaps the message of Theophany could be something like, “Repent, so that you can become children of God.”

This is what Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis was trying to get at in his commentary on Theophany. Christ’s ineffable humbling of Himself to become man and to bow his head before the Baptizer was not only an expression of his own divine self-sacrificing love, but it was an invitation for us to follow Him, to do likewise, as He said after He washed the feet of his disciples: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do… If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.” “Blessed are you if you do it” seems like an understatement in the face of the glory and grace given to those who embrace the mystery of God’s will. Let Erasmo explain further:

“Could John have foreseen that his life of asceticism and preaching in the desert, and in particular his obedience in baptizing one whom he knew to be his Lord, would culminate in this awesome revelation of the interior life of God before the world? Now the ‘axis of love,’ the divinely instituted ladder of God’s descent to man and man’s consequent ascent to God, has been firmly established… This thoroughfare to God is, as it were, the essential feature of the architecture of the new creation. And everything points us, draws us, to the Father…”

Once we see what God is doing in the mystery of his self-revelation, we see that the Father invites us, through the Son, to share in it, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the first word of this invitation is: Repent! Erasmo continues:

“[Jesus’] present task is to show what human repentance in the presence of God is to be, and it surely comes to Him as no surprise that the gift of the Spirit is the result of such repentance and turning to God… The glory of the Father is to show forth his goodness by begetting his only Son, and the glory of the Son is to do the will of the Father, thus making his Heart rejoice. By living out this essential relationship, no longer now only in the eternal bosom of the Trinity, but before the eyes of repentant mankind, the Son and the Father are representing on the stage of the world the origin, the means, and the final goal of salvation… By coming into our midst, the Son, the living tabernacle of the Father’s glory, has brought the burning presence of the Lord of Hosts into our world, into our flesh, our minds, our hearts.”

As Jesus rose up from the waters of the Jordan, the Father was well pleased to glorify Him as his Son. Thus in our turning away from sin, and toward the Great Light that shines on those who sit in darkness, the Son unites us to Himself—for He has already borne all our sins in Himself—and brings us, through the power of his Spirit, into a filial relationship with the Father. Through sharing in the mysteries of Christ through his Church we become beloved sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. The first step toward this spiritual and divine life is always repentance. Therefore the first word of Jesus’ preaching was: Repent!

We are now perhaps in a better position to understand the grief of God when He views the world today—a world similar to the world of millennia past that sat in darkness, with this crucial difference: the world of the past was in darkness because the Light had not yet come, but today’s world is in a culpable darkness, a chosen darkness, because, as St John said, “the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light.” We sing in our Theophany liturgy: “You, the Light, have come, You have revealed Yourself…” All that the Lord wants to do for us, taking us into the intimacy of the Divine Trinity, making us children of God and preparing for us innumerable glories and joys in his eternal Kingdom—all this many people routinely toss aside in their blind search for trinkets and pleasures and all manner of passing satisfaction or rebellious self-assertion.

So Jesus has to say again, and perhaps a bit more forcefully: Repent, the Kingdom is at hand! It will not be spurned forever. There is still time, but eventually time will run out. Believe in the Gospel; it is Good News; it is an invitation to such a joy that your present cheap thrills will seem like sorrow and pain and filth in comparison. That's all you will be left with, if you don't repent, and you can have them—but you will no longer want them!

The hardest darkness to penetrate with the Light is the self-chosen darkness, for this Light is personal, respecting human freedom. It will not enter where it is refused. But Christ the Light still calls, and will call until the Last Day, urging us to repent and to ascend with Him to the Father. As we reflect on the mysteries of the Christmas-Theophany season, and turn our eyes toward the coming paschal season, let us follow the Light and…repent!