The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for February, 2006

God Meant It For Good

The story of Joseph and his brothers covers about 13 chapters in the Book of Genesis, so it is quite significant for the early stages of salvation history. Joseph is one of the most attractive characters in the whole book, as a patriarch, sage, ruler, and mystic, one whose chastity and compassion have become stirring examples for all.

Joseph was favored by his father and hence envied and despised by his brothers. When, as a youth, he rather imprudently shared with them a couple of his dreams, which were obviously to be interpreted as his entire family bowing down to him, his brothers decided to do away with him, and they eventually sold him into slavery in Egypt.

Once he was there, the Pharaoh’s wife tried to seduce him, and when he refused, she accused him of trying to seduce her, and he ended up in a dungeon for 13 years. But his ability to interpret dreams became known to Pharaoh, who had just had a couple of disturbing ones, and Joseph was rehabilitated when he spoke the word of God to Pharaoh—and not only rehabilitated, but made second in command over the whole of Egypt.

Soon Joseph’s former dreams would come true, as his brothers came to Egypt seeking grain, for a famine had afflicted the whole Near East. They had no idea who he was, only that he was the viceroy of Pharaoh and their only hope of survival. So they all bowed down to him, declaring themselves his servants if only he would give them food. Joseph recognized them and milked the situation for all it was worth before revealing himself to them—being unable any longer to restrain his tears and his joy—and his brothers were filled with both joy and fear: joy that their own brother was so powerful in Egypt, and fear that he might retaliate against them for having treated him so cruelly years ago.

The point of this whole reflection is Joseph’s answer to his brother’s concerns, which shows both his magnanimity and his faith: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:20-21).

This is perhaps the Old Testament version of St Paul’s “all things work for the good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). It is something that we need to reflect upon seriously, for in our own lives some people do mean evil against us, and we may wonder if indeed “all things” work for the good. We see from Joseph’s faith that God is always and still the Master of time and space, of persons and events, and that nothing is the last word unless it is his. God is able to bring good out of evil actions or intentions, as he did in the case of Joseph, and especially in the case of Jesus. So all is not lost if some apparent misfortune befalls us, if things don’t go as planned or expected, or if people do things that seem quite obviously to ruin what we believe are God’s own intentions or plans.

This is not meant to excuse evildoers—“as for you, you meant it for evil”—for they are still accountable, and God will prove that He will not be outsmarted, upstaged, or thwarted by any mere creature—“but God meant it for good.” God will provide, God will show compassion, God will transform even the worst of situations according to his will, which holds our spiritual well-being and salvation as the first priority.

So do not grieve, grumble, or grow angry or depressed, for God means it for good—whatever it is. Do not fear, for God will provide. But pray for the faith and trust to hold on to that, to discover the lessons that need to be learned. And pray for the patience necessary to wait for God’s plan to unfold. It took years for the realization of Joseph’s dream. But everything did turn out well—because God meant it for good.

Get Me to Heaven!

I received a rather interesting comment from one of my blog readers about a week ago. He said he wasn’t interested in too much of what is out there in cyberspace, because he was looking for something that would help get him to Heaven, and most blogs (even Catholic ones) do not provide much help in that regard. He wanted to read something that would advance his salvation, and not merely entertain him (or worse, weary or discourage him). Another friend says he uses this blog for spiritual discussions with his girlfriend, presumably for the same ultimate goal.

I thought to myself: shouldn’t that goal—getting to Heaven—be first and foremost on all our agendas? If something doesn’t positively help get us there, then it is neutral at best and a hindrance at worst. But other things actually lead us away from Heaven, and these ought to be avoided at all costs—even though they are often the things that the majority of people seem avidly and blindly to pursue.

What I’m trying to do with Word Incarnate, in my own small way, is to help lead you to Heaven. So I write about Heaven, and sometimes about Hell—for you have to know, because of original sin and its effects, that “Heaven” is not the default setting for our souls. We have to choose it, make an effort, follow the Lord; it won’t happen automatically. And I write a lot about the word of God, how the way to Heaven is explained to us in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church. There are countless insights there into living a full and faithful spiritual life, and if the Lord has freely given a few of them to me, then I freely share them with you—because I want to see you in Heaven (and because, I confess, I share St Paul’s burden: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”).

Let’s be clear about this. The mass media do not exist to help you get to Heaven; neither do politicians, advertisers, pornographers, insurance companies, or anyone else whose main interest is taking your money, keeping you under control, or ruining your immortal soul. We must have the realistic attitude that, even with the refreshing touches of Paradise that God has allowed to remain on earth, and even with the heartwarming experiences we may have with some of those created in his image, we still have to fight hard against “the world, the flesh, and the devil” in order to get to Heaven. And for this we need a lot of help.

The Church ought to be our greatest help in getting to Heaven, for, unlike all the other groups mentioned above, the Church does exist to help us get to Heaven. That is her reason of being, even though sometimes it may seem like she exists to raise funds or handle administrative tasks or hand out a few spiritual warm fuzzies. You have the right to go to your pastor and tell him that you expect him to help get you to Heaven! After he has put his jaw and eyebrows back in their proper places, he may either dismiss you or actually realize that this is his vocation and begin in earnest to deal with your spiritual needs. The Church is supposed to provide us with all the means of grace, through the sacraments and the wise counsel of its ordained ministers. If the Church isn’t working tirelessly to help the faithful get to Heaven, she is failing in her most important and essential mission.

Perhaps this should be the main criterion when we are making a decision about some plan of action to pursue, even in the simple things of everyday life: is this going to help me get to Heaven? If it isn’t going to help get me to Heaven, why the Hell do I want to do it? Sometimes I pray to the Lord (trembling at what this might mean in practice): Whatever it takes to keep me out of Hell and to secure my place in Heaven, do that! Because nothing is worth losing your soul. Make your efforts toward attaining Heaven explicit. If you’re not actively trying to get to Heaven, be assured that you won’t. The Lord has provided more than enough helps for us to get there, for that’s where He wants us to be, but that doesn’t mean the way there will not be demanding. It will. But it will be worth it. Let us all support and pray for each other, and help each other get to Heaven. We’ll be eternally glad we made that our number one priority.

Glimpses of Home

Just in case you are still weeping inconsolably since yesterday’s post, I thought I’d offer a few bright spots to help survive the time that remains in the land of exile. Even though the psalmist could not sing the song of the Lord on alien soil, we see that Tobit praised God in the land of his exile (Tob. 13:6), so there is still hope.

The blessings that we receive from God in this life are meant as consolations and helps to persevere in this time of trial—not as encouragements to think that this earth is Paradise or our final destination. Once in a while I go to the coast and find peace and blessing in the beauty of the ocean, dazzling me with sunny coruscations, calming me with soothing surf—coupled with the caress of a light and pleasant sea breeze. But I think to myself: this is too much like Paradise; that’s why I can only come here once in a while. I can’t start thinking that I should have this all the time, as if I could establish some permanent satisfaction in this land of exile. Wanting it all the time is precisely the error we humans make as we turn blessings into addictions. But God’s gifts, however temporary, are still glimpses of Home, reminders that the best is yet to come.

While trials and sufferings are inevitable and inescapable, we are still called to be fruitful in the land of exile, to turn to God, seeking his face, his reflection, wherever we can find it. “The commandment to love God with all our strength, to the limits of our individual capacity, does not extend simply to man, but to all nature, which was created for no other reason than to glorify him, to reveal him, to love him…in confession, devotion, and regeneration. And it is up to us, seasoned, stirred, sharpened, and whetted by the breath of the Holy Spirit, to apply to the universe that fiery tongue capable of translating it and transmuting it into splendor, fragrance, song, poetry and praise” (Paul Claudel).

Yet again, nature itself is not Paradise, for she also provides earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, and other destructive manifestations for which we are not likely to compose ecstatic hymns. We are still in exile, but with glimpses of Home. Beyond nature, however, the Lord gives us foretastes of Heaven through the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and this ought to be our greatest consolation in this Valley of Tears. This is the most profound “connection” we can experience with that Homeland from which we’ve been banished because of our sins.

The Lord still watches over us. In the Liturgy of St Basil the Great, we hear that even after Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, the Lord did not cease to care for mankind, sending angels as guardians, giving the law, speaking through the prophets, until the fullness of time saw the coming of the Son of God in the flesh.

So even though we are still in exile—and will be so until the day we die—we’re much better off than many generations of our forebears. We’re in exile, yet redeemed. We’ve been justly banished, but we’re still in possession of our passports, which identify us as citizens of Heaven. We can still sing on alien soil, though our songs are not of revelry, but of longing and hope.

As we enter into Lent, let us accept the human condition of limitation, suffering, and sorrow—and not try to escape from it, deny it, drug it, or put on a phony happy-face while constructing a flimsy sham-paradise to shore up our failing courage. Let’s look reality straight in the face, repent of our sins, take our licks, but live with a lively faith and eager hope for the coming of the everlasting Kingdom. And let us give thanks to God for giving us in the meantime, undeservedly, precious blessings and glimpses of Home.

Exile

It’s almost Lent. If we are to make it a spiritually beneficial season, we have to go beyond a perfunctory giving up of things (though we still ought to maintain the discipline). We have to develop a new way of looking at things, a new awareness of the central place God ought to occupy in our lives. We need to do things for Lent that will benefit our life, not just fulfill a temporary obligation. That’s why I sometimes say that for Lent we should give up things that we’re not going to get back on Easter. If you’re addicted to chocolate or French fries or beer or tobacco or TV, and you give them up for Lent, there is, to be sure, a certain benefit gained by the effort. But if you resume your addictions after Easter, you stand to lose what you gained, and you relativize the negative impact those things had on you in the first place. Is it the risen Christ who hands you a cigarette or a beer on Easter and says: “you can recover all your attachments now”? Isn’t it better to give up gossip or complaining or laziness or anger—and then continue to grow in virtue well beyond Easter?

One of the changes to our spiritual perspectives, which can perhaps facilitate our letting go of faults and bad habits, is to realize that this life is but an exile from our true home. In the Byzantine tradition, on the three Sundays that precede Lent, we sing at Matins, in a plaintive melody, Psalm 136(137), a lament of the Jews in exile from all that is sacred to them: Jerusalem, the temple, their cultural and spiritual heritage. For us the application is wider—we are exiled from Paradise.

That is precisely the theme of the liturgical texts for the Sunday before Lent: the fall of Adam and Eve, their banishment from Paradise, and their (our) cry to God to for restoration and return. But let’s get back to the psalm. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” Despite some liturgical encouragements to enter this season joyfully, it is essentially a time of mourning, of weeping in repentance for our sins and where they have landed us. It is also a time of hope for full restoration, but that restoration is not yet. In this sense our whole life is a continual Lent. But how many of us weep, realizing that we are in exile, and that the joys of Heaven are still far off, obscured by the clamorous seductions of the world, which only leave us empty and jaded?

The Babylonian captors asked the Jews to sing them some songs of their homeland. But “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land [or, on alien soil]?” The season of Lent reminds us that the entire earth is a strange land, alien soil, and we are here in exile. St Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven, and from there comes the Savior whom we await (Phil. 3:20). If our citizenship is in heaven and we are not there, then we are in a foreign land, away from our homeland, in a state of waiting. I often feel that quite profoundly. I am not at home here; I don’t really belong here. Nothing here really satisfies; nothing gives a sense of security, of permanence. Everything is provisional, breakable, disappointing, unfulfilling, and burdensome, occasional consolations notwithstanding. I pray with the psalmist: “How long, O Lord…?”

“O Babylon, destroyer, blessed is he who will repay you for what you have done to us.” I understand the destroyer to be the evil one. Look at what he has done to us! (though not without our co-operation). Look how weak, sick, confused, blind, and broken we are! We’re a race of walking wounded, so it’s not surprising that we should eagerly lap up the world’s narcotic solutions to our existential misery. Drink from my cup, beckons the Whore of Babylon, and you’ll forget your childish pieties; you’ll forget that I have robbed you of your only hope.

The world (like Babylonian captors) would have us forget Heaven’s “pie in the sky” and get it while we can, party hearty today, for tomorrow we die. But “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…if I do not hold you as the source of my joy.” Again, for us it is Heaven that is the source of our joy, and when we forget that, we fall into sin, self-indulgence, and the myopia that cannot see past earth’s horizon. If we’re not in exile, then go ahead, live for money, possessions, pleasure, power—be at home with the ways of the world and eat its bittersweet fruits. But if we are in exile, if Heaven is our true home, then our values, our desires, must be different. We may weep for a season, but joy comes with the dawn of the Resurrection, and that joy no one can take from us. The joy of Heaven, like love, is stronger than death. Death is the great thief and spoiler of all that this world offers, though few take time to reflect on that. Death forces us to leave behind the glory and riches of this world, which shall be pursued by future generations of fools.

So, as the Church brings us to Lent, she invites us to relax our grip on ephemeral things, things on which we rely for pleasure or security, things that dull our sense of exile and hence draw us into compromises with the short-sighted ways of this strange, alien land in which we now live. This is a time to open our eyes, see where we are, remember where we belong, and really live as if Heaven were our homeland, live as if we were awaiting the Savior—as indeed we must. For if we forget that we are in exile, we’ll never find our way back home.

Judge of the Living and the Dead

One of our preparatory Sundays for Lent is that of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). If we haven’t heeded the call to repentance on the previous Sundays, the Church gives us the “bottom line,” the outcome of our repentance—or lack of it.

If you read the liturgical texts for Vespers and Matins of the Sunday of the Last Judgment, you’ll get the clear impression that no one gets away with anything. These Offices have not submitted to the scalpel of post-Vatican II political correctness; they do not manifest “sensitivity” to the updated outlooks of “Easter people.” They are filled with lamentations and cries of woe, while unquenchable fires roar in the background, and the “worm that dieth not” is prepared to devour the unrepentant. Yet it is also filled with recourse to the divine compassion, with confidence in God’s love for mankind, while still begging Him to place us with the righteous elect and not with the unregenerate damned.

Now I don’t have a particular affinity for fire and brimstone, but I rather eagerly prayed the Office this time around. It’s a bracing tonic, a wake-up call, something we all need to hear, at least from time to time. It’s not the whole of the Gospel, but the whole of our lives are leading up to that decisive moment, and if we end up on the wrong side for that Final Separation, then we have completely missed the reason for our existence, and we’ll have a really long time to think about it.

Many people these days have lost the sense of sin, believe in a “non-judgmental” God (though that’s not the One of Scripture and Tradition), and are generally heedless to the call to repentance, not believing in the consequences thereof. But I’d rather believe the truth, even if that makes life a little harder. I’d rather confess my sins and do penance than believe that God doesn’t bother with such things, as if all things are going to turn out well in the end, no matter what. But there’s a great difference between not admitting sin because you believe God is merciful, and admitting sin for the very same reason. The sin that is forgiven is the one that is confessed, the one for which there is genuine repentance. Mercy is only granted to the one who knows how desperately he needs it.

There are many prayers in the Liturgy, for both priest and laity, in which we beg that our offering of the Sacrifice and reception of Holy Communion will be “without judgment or condemnation.” It’s not without reason. St Paul said that the Corinthians were sick and even dying because of unworthy reception of the Body and Blood of Christ (1Cor. 11:27-30). We must live with the awareness that our lives are going to be judged, that there are definite standards that we are expected to meet, that there are heavenly consequences for doing good and hellish ones for doing evil.

It’s rather strange, perhaps, that after preaching rather forcefully on this mystery—reiterating the Church’s faith and pointing out the error of those who don’t even believe that Christ is coming again as Judge—I experienced a temptation about that very thing. As the Liturgy went on, I became distracted by the thought: “After all that, is He really going to come at the end to judge us?” Instantly, the choir and the entire congregation sang out: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” We happened to be singing the Creed at that moment, and it jarred me, for I was listening to the tempter more than to the Liturgy and wasn’t paying attention to the words. But at the very moment I entertained my foolish question, it was immediately countered by the profession of faith of the great assembly. The Lord was not going to let me stray for a second! Then, I looked back today at the word I noted from my morning’s Bible reading, and I saw: “they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22).

He doesn’t want anyone to doubt the truth of his words in Scripture, especially when concerning such an essential and crucial matter. It’s good to hear the hard word about the great and fiery judgment, if that will keep us on the straight and narrow. In the final analysis, salvation is the only issue, and everything in our lives must (directly or indirectly) lead us toward that end—and woe to us if we move in the other direction! So hear the word of the Lord, know that there will be a final reckoning, and do whatever it takes—for Heaven’s sake—to secure your place at the right hand of the Awesome Judge!

What is Prayer? Living

This is in some ways both the easiest and most difficult way of prayer. It’s easy because virtually everything you do can be transformed into prayer, and difficult because you need to be conscious of it and also to avoid that which really can’t be turned into prayer.

If prayer is a dialogue with God, then it shouldn’t be limited to short periods of actually sitting down and speaking or listening, but it ought to be ongoing. People often tend not to want to pray a whole lot because they compartmentalize their lives in such a way as to set aside “religious” activities for a certain time and place—and those activities aren’t the most “fun.” But, you know, God isn’t “religious.” To be in frequent or constant contact with or awareness of God is not being religious, it is being real. God is the Ultimate Reality, the Creator and Destiny of all that is real, and without his ever-present sustaining power and love, we would instantly vanish into nothingness! So prayer is life, connection with the Source of life, without whom we cannot even exist, let alone plan our lives as we see fit.

All we do can be an offering to God, a prayer. Some people say “my work is my prayer,” and that can be true, but only if at other times your prayer is your work. Daily activities can only be transformed into prayer if the deep relationship with God that this requires is cultivated through sufficient time devoted to nothing else but speaking and listening to God. What kind of relationship would parents have with their children if, for example, they said: “I work all day to provide for them,” but never spent any time with them? But if sufficient time is spent with them to build up a personal and loving relationship, then your time at work which provides for them will also be a fruitful part of the relationship. So it is with God. Don’t say that you serve Him if you don’t spend any time with Him cultivating a loving relationship. When you do that, however, then your other activities can contribute to fostering this relationship, and all will bear fruit.

We ought to start the day with some sort of dedication of it to God, so that his providence and presence will be manifest throughout, and so that you can be a living prayer, even when your duties are so absorbing that you can’t explicitly say the words of prayer or take time to be silent. Then try to “connect” with God regularly throughout the day. This is not that hard, if only you can leave yourself some sort of reminder. Every now and then, take one minute—sixty seconds—to stop whatever you are doing and re-invite God into your day, your heart, thoughts, and work. This may not seem like much in the way of prayer, but it is quite significant. You are breaking through the wall of your unawareness that makes it seem like God is far away. You are piercing the insulating bubble of the world with all its demands and seductions, and you are letting God in to bring his peace and holiness and divine refreshment. Try it and see if it doesn’t make a difference in your day and in your spiritual life. Then when you return to your time of more explicit prayer, you won’t feel as if you’ve been away from God since your last prayer time.

We have to keep recalling ourselves to the meaning of our lives, to our reason of being, to the awareness of where we came from and where we are going. The meaning of life isn’t mere biological survival, emotional satisfaction, or the pursuit of anything that can only bring ephemeral pleasure or security. We were created by and for God, who has revealed to us that He wants us to have everlasting happiness with Him.

So let prayer be life and life be prayer. When you learn how to stop during the day to give thanks and praise to God, the next step will be to develop the ability to use the Jesus Prayer or something similar frequently throughout the day, so that it eventually becomes a constant, quiet, murmuring stream in your heart, in your conscious and unconscious mind. Then you can even take prayer into your sleep!

Speak to God, listen to God, live for and in God. This is the life of prayer. It’s so much different (and better) than merely “saying your prayers.” It’s being your prayers!

What is Prayer? Listening

It is often, and rightly, said that prayer is a dialogue with God. I don’t think it has ever been said that prayer is a monologue directed towards God. But that’s what it often becomes if we don’t become quiet after we’ve said our piece and give God a chance to say his.

For a while those “Question Authority” bumper stickers were popular, until someone came out with one that read: “Question Authority: Then Listen for the Answer.”

An essential part of prayer is listening, though that may be the part we’re somewhat uncomfortable with. We may get a little fidgety, anxious, or discouraged, if we don’t “hear” anything while we’re trying to listen in prayer. Even so, it ought to be clear to us that listening is still more important than speaking, when it comes to prayer (and most anything else). We already know what we have to say; wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to listen to what Eternal Wisdom and Love has to say?

But what can you expect God to say, anyway? Is He going to give you tips on how to manage your day, or will He point out your faults, or will He speak words of blessing and comfort, or will He just give a sermon? I don’t know. Ask Him! Then listen.

The first thing to do is to try to get a little outer, then inner silence. You can’t expect to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit with the stereo on, or with a lot of commotion going on around you. Go find a quiet place and do your best to set aside all your cares and worries for just a little while. Remind yourself that you’re not going to solve your problems in the next 20 minutes anyway, so just put them on hold. Now, if you want to hear what God has to say to you, where’s the first place you’d go? To his word, of course! The Bible is full of God’s dialogues with man, and many people have found that God really answers the cries of their hearts (and even their specific questions) through the words of the Scriptures. So open the Book, read until something moves you, then put it down and let the word sink into you, let the Holy Spirit enlighten you and show you how the word of God is living and active, penetrating your very soul, making clear the way of salvation.

You may wish to pray the Jesus Prayer or some other short, repetitive prayer in case your attention wanders, but even that prayer is meant to turn into silence while you just rest (not sleep) in the presence of the Lord, who loves you and wants to engage in an ongoing dialogue with you. Focus on a holy icon of Christ or the Mother of God if that helps keep your attention and sense of communication with God.

You may find (or not) that your mind clears, your body and spirit relax, that the truths of revelation become more lucid, more meaningful to you, and that you become aware of the presence of the Lord. Actually, the various possible “effects” of prayer are not all that important at any given time. The Lord, not you, will choose when the moments of grace and clarity and revelation and peace will come. What you are doing when you try to listen in prayer is at the root of all contemplative prayer: you are creating an inner “space” for God, you are cultivating an interior disposition of readiness, surrender, openness, and loving docility to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Your prayer may seem dry and even boring sometimes, but as long as you are opening that interior “place of the heart” for God, He will respond. Perhaps not during your time of prayer; perhaps when you least expect it. But leave it up to Him. When you make a place for God, He will fill it.

This reflection has been rather brief and scattered (like our prayer sometimes), but you shouldn’t really expect anyone to be able to tell you how to pray. Does anyone have to tell you how to appreciate a sunset or a starry sky, or how to enjoy the company of someone you love? It just happens—though you have to put yourself in the place where the sun or stars or your beloved are, and pay a little attention. (If you’re so burdened that you don’t even look up, you won’t see the stars—but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, waiting to fill you with wonder and delight.) Someone once said that you learn to pray by praying, and you pray well by praying much.

So, be still and know that the Lord is God. Give Him some time, let go of your diversions and ceaseless activities for a while. Make the effort to listen during times of prayer, and you’ll end up being able to listen to Him all the time, and in all different circumstances. Then you’re ready for the dialogue of love.

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