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

Archive for June, 2007

Confronting the Other Side

We notice right away in the Gospel (Mt 8:28-9:1) that Jesus leaves the holy land to go to the unholy land. That is, He goes beyond the boundaries of Israel into pagan Gentile territory, the “other side.” Geographically, this simply means the other side of the Sea of Galilee, but spiritually it means the dark side, their side rather than our side, the habitation of evil spirits and of all that is unclean and opposed to God.

Sure enough, as soon as Jesus arrived on the “other side,” He was met by two men who were possessed by demons. Lots of them. Enough to fill a large herd of swine. The swine, by the way, also belonged on the “other side,” because they were considered unclean, and no Jew was permitted to make use of them for food or anything else.

The demoniacs lived among the tombs, St Matthew tells us. That is, they lived on the “other side” of life, in the place of death and corruption. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes the devil as a “murderer from the beginning,” as one who comes only to “slaughter and destroy.” So it is fitting that those whom he possesses would not embrace the abundant life that Jesus came to give, but would dwell only in the shadowy realm of death and decay.

Was this simply the preference of these unfortunate men—an alternative lifestyle, perhaps? Did it work for them? They don’t seem to have been very happy and fulfilled, much like those people today who follow the devil’s seductions but in the end reap only misery, emptiness, and degradation. In fact, the Gospel said theyjesus-casts-out-demons.jpg were quite fierce, full of rage, and so no one wanted to be near them, which only exacerbated their lonely misery.

They tried to torment others, for the demons urged them to do so, but when the Son of God entered their dark and angry domain, they were thrown into confusion. Suddenly they felt like they were being tormented—by this Man of Peace who quietly strode toward them. They realized then who He was. They knew it even before Jesus’ own disciples knew it. In the episode immediately preceding this one, in which Jesus and the disciples were actually making the crossing to “the other side,” Jesus calmed a storm (perhaps whipped up by the devil, in order to prevent Jesus from coming to conquer him?). The disciples didn’t know what to make of it and wondered who this man could be, whom even the winds and sea obeyed. The demons knew and shouted it out in their mad rage: The Son of God! “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”

What is “the time”? St Peter and St Jude tell us: “God did not spare the angels when they sinned but cast them into hell… kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day” (2Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). We learn from St Luke’s parallel account of the demoniacs that they were bound with chains as well as lived in the tombs. So there’s a kind of projection into the visible, material world of what was happening in the invisible world. The demons are bound with spiritual chains in the nether gloom of Hell, so when they possess these men on earth, the men are bound with earthly chains and live in the gloom of the tombs. Back to “the time,” though, that is the “judgment of the great day,” when the fallen angels and all the damned will enter upon their definitive and everlasting torment. Now the demons are still allowed to roam around the earth, where it seems that they don’t suffer quite as much. That becomes clearer in Luke’s account, when he relates that the demons begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss, but rather into the swine. So even inhabiting pigs was less disgusting that dwelling in Hell! In effect they were saying to Jesus: “Hey, leave us be. We know we have to go back to Hell on judgment day, but let roam around here in the meantime. You are the Judge, the one who is going to declare our sentence at the end. Why are you here now? Don’t torment us before the time!”

Jesus was not interested in their plans or calculations, or their outraged sense of justice. They would have turned on Him in a second if He gave them half a chance, anyway. What Jesus was interested in was proclaiming and establishing his Kingdom, and preparing his people to embrace and enter it. The Gospels make it clear that in order for the Kingdom of God to be established, the anti-kingdom of satan has to be overthrown. The path has to be cleared, the rough ways made smooth, as the prophet announced. This is especially clear in Mark and Luke, in which Jesus’ very first miracle is the casting out of a demon. It is as if to say: The Christ has arrived and therefore the Kingdom of God is at hand. All uncleanness and evil must be banished and depart. The Kingdom of God will not share authority with the kingdom of satan.

Jesus also makes this clear when He says explicitly that his casting out of demons means that the Kingdom of God has come (see Mt 12:28). In a sort of allegory, Jesus refers to the devil as a “strong man” but to Himself as the “stronger man” who binds the strong man and plunders his goods. We see in today’s Gospel that the “strong man” had seized the souls of the two men and made them his possession. But the Stronger Man came on the scene, despoiled the strong man and recovered the souls of the two men for service in his own Kingdom. They went off proclaiming the wonders Jesus had worked for them.

The demons thought they were being crafty when they asked Jesus to send them into the swine. They may have thought: “OK, we have to leave these two guys, but the pigs aren’t so much worse. At least if we’re in the pigs we don’t have to go back to Hell.” They must have been momentarily surprised that Jesus actually permitted what they wanted. Imagine, the condemned demons asked a favor of their divine and just Judge, and He granted it! Maybe they then thought: “Hey, this guy is a pushover after all! All right, into the pigs we go!” Perhaps Jesus was suppressing a smile at the time, knowing that within a few minutes they would all indeed be right back in Hell, for even the pigs found them so loathsome that they would rather drown than host them for a moment!

The swineherds, however, were not privy to all this. They had no idea what was going on, except that they had just lost a year’s supply of bacon and ham. They were angry and indignant and asked Jesus to leave. Jesus had accomplished his mission by liberating the possessed men, restoring the image of God in them, and sending the demons back to Hell. But the “other side” remained the “other side” because the rest of the people, in St John’s words, preferred the darkness to the light. A great light had just shone on a people dwelling in darkness, but they did not wish to receive it. Their land remained the land of uncleanness and pagan unbelief and idolatry—until perhaps after Pentecost the Apostles brought the grace of the Holy Spirit to them. In our world today, the “other side” still exists, wherever the devil’s will is done. The saints cross over and do battle with the powers of darkness, to win souls for Jesus’ Kingdom.

The Gospel closes by saying that Jesus “crossed over and came to his own city.” Having crossed over to Hell, as it were, He came back to minister to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. We hear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that there is an uncrossable chasm between Heaven and Hell. Only Jesus can make that crossing. He first crossed the uncrossable chasm between Creator and creature by his Incarnation. While on earth He crossed over to unclean lands to deliver souls from the devil. When He died He descended to the “nether gloom” to rescue all the righteous souls who were longing for their Redeemer.

Today He wishes to cross over into the land of our hearts, our souls. What will He find: uncleanness, idolatry, unbelief, selfishness, sin? That is the devil’s kingdom that He has come to overturn and destroy. But since He has given us freedom, He waits for us to allow Him to come in and liberate us. We have to want it, to pray earnestly for it—as He taught us: “Your Kingdom come; deliver us from the evil one!” If we do not wish to be tormented when the time comes, the great day of judgment, now is the time to ask Jesus, once and for all, to enter our lives and hearts, to dwell and reign there and keep us safe and pure and holy. When we sin, we are like swineherds who ask Him to leave. Let us rather cling to Him, so that on that great and final day we may rejoice that the Kingdom of God has been victoriously and gloriously established, forever–and we are there!

Peter, Paul, and the Church

I sometimes wonder why the feast of SS Peter and Paul is, in the Byzantine tradition, a “holy day of obligation,” and not just a solemn feast. It is not a feast of the Lord or of the Mother of God, which all the other feasts of obligation are. But, as I’ve said more or less in passing before, it may be because this feast peter-paul.jpgis considered, as our Offices indicate, to be the “Feast of the Church” as such, and hence is something central to our lives and relationship with the Lord. Here I won’t just mention this in passing but will go into a little more detail.

We have an epistle from Second Corinthians (11:21–12:9) in honor of St Paul, and a Gospel on the essential role of St Peter to honor foremost among the Apostles (Mt 16:13-19). What do these readings tell us about the Church? First of all, we learn from the account of St Paul’s many and severe sufferings, that the Church of Christ is a Church of confessors and martyrs—those who suffer and even die for their witness to Christ. It is a Church of stavrophores, Cross-bearers, who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in and to endure all manner of hardships for the sake of Christ and his Gospel.

As this reading continues, we learn also that the Church is a Church of mystics, of those whose love is so great and whose spiritual perception is so refined that they are able to have direct experiences of Christ. Paul talks about his visions and revelations—being “caught up to Paradise” and hearing ineffable things—yet he also mentions an additional affliction that was given him in order to keep him from being conceited over these divine favors and gifts. Now to say the Church is a Church of mystics doesn’t mean that all in the Church are mystics as Paul was—though it is correct to say that all in the Church are called to be stavrophores, to carry their crosses faithfully and patiently. But the Church encourages and preserves her mystical tradition and sees this type of profound communion with Christ as something we ought to strive for, though always deferring to the divine will, whatever that may be in our own vocation.

The Church is a Church of divine grace, as we also see in the epistle. This mystery is foundational to all Christian life, and we need to hear and integrate the Lord’s words at every step of our spiritual pilgrimage, especially in time of trial or pain: “My grace is sufficient for you.” This is a precious message St Paul has handed down to us, though it came at the price of much suffering of his own. We don’t know what was the “thorn in the flesh” that he was given after his special revelations, but it must have been horrible indeed. Paul didn’t complain about being beaten or stoned or scourged after he endured those torments, on several occasions. But as for this “thorn,” he begged the Lord three times to get rid of it! So that should tell us that whatever our problems or sufferings may be, the Lord’s grace is sufficient for us. And this grace, which is mediated to us by the Church, especially through the sacraments, is not only for strength to endure hardships, but for leading us to salvation, to a deeper relationship with God, even unto mystical communion with Him this side of Heaven.

Now to the Gospel and St Peter. We discover here another fundamental dimension of the life of the Church: faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what is expressed in Peter’s solemn and definitive profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This faith was a gift to Him from the Heavenly Father. Jesus said as much: “flesh and blood [that is, a human being] has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven.” So the Church is a Church of believers in the Son of God, whom the Father has anointed as the Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The Church also holds a sacred and divinely-given authority and power to preach in Jesus’ name and to be the means of sanctification of all its members. Here again, St Peter’s role is highlighted. At the moment of his profession of faith, Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter, Kifa, the “rock” upon which He would build his Church. Then Jesus gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, to “bind and loose” in the name of the Lord, that is, to forbid or permit in all matters that pertain to salvation and the Christian life.

The profession of faith and the giving of authority are intrinsically linked. Authority will not be given to, or else it will be taken away from, anyone who does not hold to the apostolic faith in Jesus Christ. If a successor of Peter renounced the Faith, his apostolic authority would be ipso facto rendered null and void.

The “rock” is related to both faith and authority. The faith of the Church is its foundation, without which it could not stand. Yet Jesus said to Peter not that He would build his Church on Peter’s faith, but on Peter himself: “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” It was then that Jesus gave him the keys of authority. The combination of true faith and Petrine authority is what makes the Church strong enough to withstand all the powers of Hell, which Jesus promised would not prevail against his Church.

There’s another point about Peter and Paul that Pope Benedict mentions in his new book. It has to do with their calling. Some scholars, he laments, in their attempts to present Jesus as little more than one great religious teacher and founder among many, try also to relativize the uniqueness of his primary witnesses, who testify to the absolute claims of the Master—based not only on mystical experience but on the will of God manifested through Christ in concrete historical circumstances, witnessed by the whole community.

Some scholars try to deny what we hear in the Gospel today, and say that St Peter’s confession was a later production of the Church. They say that his own authority in the Church was no different than St Paul’s, based only on mystical experience of the presence of the risen Lord. That opens wide the door to everyone claiming to know the truth of God based on subjective experience, and hence we see the relativizing of the message of the Gospel. The Pope notes that after his personal experiences of the Lord, Paul went back to Jerusalem to confer with those who were apostles before him, to make sure he was not “running in vain.” His personal experience had to be tested against the apostolic teaching and tradition if it was to be accepted as valid—which, in his case, it certainly was. But the point is that Peter’s experience, in the concreteness of Jesus’ own historical teaching—received also by the other apostles as corroborating witnesses—along with the clear commission Jesus gave to Peter, who was also a witness of his death and resurrection, guarantees the continuity of apostolic faith. Jesus gave Peter an authority He didn’t give to Paul—symbolized by the keys and the name “Rock,” expressed also in his command to Peter to strengthen his brethren and feed the sheep. Paul had his own special commission from the Lord, but it had to be carried out in union with the apostolic tradition and ministry already established before Paul became a believer and fellow Apostle. Therefore in today’s rather bizarre spiritual climate, we see the need not for mavericks or self-appointed gurus, but for the Church of the living God.

All of this gives us just a basic summary of the mystery of the Church. There is much more that can be said, but I’ve limited myself to a few main points indicated by the readings. It is now for us to “incarnate” in our own lives what it means to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ, established on the Rock of Peter and the apostolic faith. The Church is a Church of believers, confessors, martyrs, and mystics, relying on God’s grace and living under the divine authority given to safeguard the faith and morals of the People of God. Let us ask SS Peter and Paul to intercede for the Church, for if we didn’t have the promise of Christ, we might be tempted in our day to think that in many places the power of Hell is prevailing! But by the grace of God, the Rock will stand firm and the Church will one day be transfigured into the heavenly Jerusalem, where all the faithful will glorify our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, having persevered unto the end and found salvation.

Way, Truth, and Life

After Jesus said that where He is his disciples would be also, He said: “And you know the way where I am going” (Jn 14:4). Apparently Thomas did not quite agree, for he lamented: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus responded with one of his most powerful and awesome declarations: the-way-the-truth-the-life.jpg“I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” We ought to ponder these words carefully.

Jesus begins by answering Thomas’ question about not knowing the way. Jesus was going back to the Father—that’s where He was going, in answer to the first part of Thomas’ question. Jesus then says that He Himself is the Way to the Father, just as He would later say that He is the door of the sheepfold. No one gains access to the Father except through the Son. In a similar vein, Martha discussed more or less abstractly the resurrection of the dead with Jesus, who responded quite concretely: “I am the Resurrection…” Jesus shows that what people often think of as things (way, resurrection, light, etc) are fully realized only in a Person, the Son of God, who alone can say: I AM.

So Jesus is the Way to the Father, that is, one must believe in Jesus and follow Him if one is going to claim his place in the Father’s house. Jesus then takes another abstract concept and personifies it: truth. The word of the Lord is true and abides forever, and whatever in this universe can legitimately make the claim to truth must find its ultimate source in Him. Nothing outside of, or contradictory to, the great mystery of Christ can be true, for He is Truth incarnate, in person. We have a prayer in our liturgy, by which we seek knowledge of God’s truth. This is a constant quest of mine, and sometimes, when faced with quandaries, contradictions, uncertainties, etc, I urgently pray: “All I want to know is the truth!” Yet perhaps if I am going to be able to know the truth in particular instances, I must come to know the Truth, Jesus Christ, more fully and personally, so that I am capable of recognizing and understanding truth in the various specific issues that arise.

Finally, Jesus says He is the Life. Perhaps this is the most fundamental truth of all. Jesus is the Giver of Life, for He bears it in Himself as the only-begotten Son of the Father. “As the Father has life in himself, so has he granted the Son also to have life in himself” (Jn 5:26). The life that Jesus gives is not only biological temporal life, but eternal life. “Amen, amen, I say to you, he who hears my word [the Truth] and believes him who sent me [to whom Jesus is the Way] has eternal life [in union with the Life]” (5:24).

These three elements of Jesus’ identity are all related. He shares his divine and everlasting life with us if we receive in faith the truth that He is the only way to the Father, and then live accordingly. Thomas probably could not have understood all this at the time. Indeed, the Lord would say shortly afterward: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” It was up to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to make all things clearly known to them, and to remind them of what Jesus had already revealed.

Even with 2000 years of Christianity behind us, we still seem to be in the same boat. The Lord has much to say to us, but we cannot grasp or contain it. We have difficulty understanding and remembering what Jesus has already told us, and so we flounder in our spiritual lives. We need to have recourse to the Holy Spirit, and we need to keep returning to the Gospels to hear the words of Jesus, words that are “spirit and life,” words that “will never pass away.”

Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life, because all these things come from the Father. Jesus said, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.” We have to keep in our awareness, as much as we talk about the distinct Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that there is only one God, and these Three are One. To know Jesus as the Way to the Father is already to know the Father; the same with the Truth and the Life. Later we will see more about the oneness of Jesus and the Father. For now, let us make sure we are on the Way to True Life.

More Thoughts on Laura’s Passing

I’d like to share with you a few thoughts, more or less random, that have come to me during these days of mourning for Laura. Perhaps they may be of some benefit to you as you ponder the mysteries of life and death. I plan to write more on this subject for our monastery newsletter’s summer issue, but perhaps this will suffice for now.

First, I’m grateful that Laura was blessed with a holy death, even though her sufferings were prolonged (but that may have contributed to the holiness). She had the priceless and indispensable benefit of access to the sacraments of the Church, for one thing. They say that the Catholic Church is sometimes the hardest one to live in, but it’s the very best to die in! Everything that can possibly be done for the soul preparing to meet God is done through the ministry of the Church. She also had the benefit of being in an environment of love and care, where all her needs were met by her family and the hospice nurses (and the visiting priests!). So many people die alone, in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, tenement apartments, war- or strife-torn lands or even on the street. Even though the Lord called her to suffer, He gave her the best possible environment in which to spend her last days. She may have shared something of the darkness and apparent abandonment of his Passion, but at least she was not brutally tortured, and mocked and reviled on top of it, as was our Savior.

The next peternal-memory-2.jpgoint is perhaps a bit fanciful, but I can’t help wondering what the experience of her soul leaving her body must have been like. After all, she was sleeping. Did she think she was having a dream and then suddenly realized it was no dream but that angels had really come and taken her to the presence of the Holy One? Or was she actually dreaming of the Lord, and her dream unexpectedly came true, to her delight and joy? Or while to the eye of an observer she was asleep, was she really in some kind of interior communion with the Lord, who was calling her to rise and come to Him? We’ll never know that until we ask her ourselves in Paradise, but I find the various possibilities quite fascinating.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the very moment that I received the news. It is very difficult to describe everything that was packed into that instant when I heard the words: “She’s gone!” I was hoping and praying for her liberation and entrance into Heaven, yet it was as if some rushing flood had suddenly overwhelmed me, and I almost didn’t know how to react. Perhaps all the accumulated emotion and stress and prayer and waiting of the past few weeks had in that instant coalesced into a point of extreme density and suddenly found its release. I was happy, sorrowful, relieved, in pain, in gratitude, and in some other nameless feeling all at once. There’s an incredible finality to death. A loved one can be in a coma for months, but when they finally pass it is still a shock, a loss that feels like it was unexpected, even though it wasn’t. Even when Laura was mostly unconscious, there was still a possibility that she might at least temporarily revive (as happened a couple times before) and I could talk to her. Now it was no longer a possibility. She left this world and is not coming back. I was expecting that call at any moment, yet I somehow couldn’t quite grasp the full import of it when it finally came. Perhaps we have our own scenarios of how we’d like to see things happen, but death foils them all and leaves us no time to reset the stage. When the moment arrives, one must inexorably go.

Laura told me about a sort of vision she had, maybe a year ago, when she was in our monastery church. It was as if it were the moment of her death, and she felt two angels escorting her to the presence of the Lord. The vision did last long enough for her to see Him or know what happens at his judgment seat, but the thing that impressed her was the absolute certainty that that’s where she was going, and the same certainty that she had no choice in the matter. The angels were gentle, but firm enough so that she realized that she was utterly unable to turn back, even if she wanted to. When they take you, you go. You cannot resist. Perhaps she was being given a little advance notice of what to expect when her soul would leave her body. The experience did not leave her afraid, yet it was sobering.

Laura had 54 years in which to “prepare for the Kingdom.” She didn’t spend all of those years actively doing so, but thanks be to God the last three or four were quite focused on this preparation. It’s over now. Her time is up. There’s nothing more she can do—not that she needs to, but the point is that we are each allotted a certain number of years on earth in which our eternal destiny is prepared and decided. Some people have many more years than Laura did, some have many less. We don’t know when it is going to be over, when the moment will come that we have to make an account for our lives, the moment when there will be no more chances to do things differently. It may come suddenly; the Lord constantly has reminded us to watch, be ready, for we know not the day or the hour. Are you ready right now if suddenly the Lord appeared and said, “It is time”? Laura was blessed not only to have several years to take stock of her life and turn wholeheartedly to the Lord; she also had a period of decline in which she knew death was imminent and could focus all her available energies on meeting the Lord face to face so that her entrance into Paradise could be richly provided for. Many people are not so fortunate. This is why life has to be a preparation for the Kingdom. This preparation cannot be postponed until a convenient time, because that time may never materialize. We are perhaps not sufficiently aware that there is no second chance once we die. We may or may not be given many chances while we live, but we have to live in such a way as to be spiritually ready for death and judgment at any moment.

I have prayed much and with fervor and even tears, both before and after Laura’s death. I have learned that nothing wounds more deeply than love, especially if that love is rooted in the love of Christ. You can only hurt so much from the attacks of an enemy, for the hatred or malice of an enemy cannot access the depths of the human heart. Those depths can only be freely opened to others in love, but once opened they are forever vulnerable, and one is powerless to defend oneself. I think Jesus was showing us this when He allowed his heart to be pierced on the Cross. It was a symbol of what had already happened. He says to each of us, whose sins crushed Him to death: “If an enemy had done this, I could bear it… But it is you, my companion, my intimate friend” (Ps 55:13-14). His love for us made the wound all the more painful. Perhaps, when grieving the loss of a loved one, we can identify with Mary’s heart as well, which was “pierced by a sword,” according to Simeon’s prophecy, when she saw her beloved Son crucified in agony before her eyes. Love is the only sword that can penetrate that deeply. Yet love is also what makes us most fully human, and because humans are created in the image of God, who is Love, it makes us most like Him.

So now I have to “switch gears” and go back to my usual rounds of prayer and work and ministry. I was able, mostly, to do so during the past weeks, but some things will be different now. There will be no anxious checking of phone messages to see if there has been any new development, no focusing of prayer upon Laura’s final preparation and purification (though I will continue to pray for her soul until she appears to me and tells me she’s already in Heaven!). There’s a kind of relief now, yet also a kind of emptiness. There’s peace, yet the grieving is not over. There’s gratitude and joy for her joy, yet there is that sword-point of loss. I think, though, that it’s not just going to be a return to my usual life. I think Laura is praying for me. My vision has improved; my life is coming into sharper focus. I’m going to spend the rest of it preparing for the Kingdom.

The Justice and Mercy of the Lord of Glory

It’s impossible to offer a brief description of who our Lord Jesus Christ is, if it is to be even close to adequate. People have come to know and understand Him in many different ways over the centuries, often in ways that were conditioned by times and cultures. The clearest picture we can receive of Him is found in the Holy Scriptures, for this is God’s own self-revelation. A very fine and profoundly insightful biblical portrait of Christ is offered to us in Pope Benedict’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth. But since I don’t have 400 pages to spare for this brief post, all I want to do is take a peek at the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation, in which we glimpse a number of different dimensions of the person of Jesus—as He is now in the glory of his Resurrection.

The first thing we hear about Him is that He is “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth” (1:5). The “faithful witness” refers both to his task of revealing the Father and to his death, for “witness” in the Greek is martys, whence comes the English “martyr.” He is risen from the dead, and has been given “full authority in heaven and on earth” (Mt 28:18). If this is a bit overwhelming for us, we are immediately assured that this glorious and all-powerful Lord “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” He has also “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father,” so that we can share in his universal dominion. Yet his love and mercy are for those who will receive it, not for all indiscriminately, for many (or at least some) have rejected his love and his offer of salvation. So they must hear this word: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Yes. Amen” (Rev 1:7).

lord-of-glory.jpgSo far we have seen a bit of his glory, his love, and his justice. His glory is again revealed when He appears to St John, with “eyes like a flame of fire… his voice like the sound of many waters… and his face like the sun shining in full strength” (1:14-16). Awestruck and terrified, the holy seer fell at his feet. Yet again the tenderness of the Lord is manifest, for the Apostle writes: “he laid his right hand upon me, saying, ‘Fear not…’” This reminds me of that great manifestation of Christ’s shining glory on Mt Tabor, before three of his disciples. They fell on their faces in fear and awe, but then “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear’” (Mt 17:7). The ineffable and transcendent God of glorious, uncreated Light is the same One who, in the person of Jesus Christ, lovingly touches us and calms our fears.

This tender love of Christ does not, however, restrain Him from dealing sternly with us if that is what it takes for his love’s designs to be fulfilled in us. “I know your works, your toil and patient endurance… bearing up for my name’s sake… But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:2-5). His love calls us to renew our love and fidelity to Him, so that we will rejoice rather than wail when all eyes see Him coming on the clouds.

Suffering in this life is inevitable, but the Lord encourages us to endure: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). He must still point out our faults, however, especially if they are serious enough to separate us from Him: “You tolerate the woman Jezebel, who…is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality.” His justice is inexorable: “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her immorality… those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent… I give to each of you as your works deserve” (2:20-23). Yet to those who are faithful He says: “I do not lay upon you any other burden; only hold fast what you have until I come.”

We see this interplay of justice and mercy, tenderness and strictness, majesty and intimacy, throughout these chapters. This is just one way of capturing something of the mystery of the person of Jesus. He demands much of us—“I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God”—yet his rewards are beyond comparison with the efforts anyone will make to be faithful: “He…shall be clad in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and his angels” (3:5). He knows our weakness and fragility: “I know you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word… I will keep you from the hour of trial… hold fast what you have” (3:8-11). Yet the Lord has harsh words for the lukewarm, and this ought to be a warning for us all: “Because you are lukewarm… I will spit you out of my mouth!” (3:16).

Finally, He sums up the exercise of his justice and mercy thus: “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten.” His severity is only for the sake of our repentance and purification, so that we can share his glory and joy forever. He comes to us in love, seeking our faith and trust and obedience. He has all of Paradise to share with us, but we must freely respond to his invitation. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:20-21). Let us open the door of our hearts to Him, to his truth and love, his glory and humility, his justice and mercy. And then we will begin to know who Jesus really is.

May Her Memory Be Eternal!

“Love never ends… when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away… now we see dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall understand fully…” (1Cor 13:8-12). My dear laura1.jpgfriend Laura now sees face to face; she understands fully, for the imperfect has passed away. Laura died Thursday at about 2:15 PM. She was 54 years old. Laura was sleeping, and the hospice nurse had just arrived, and she and Laura’s daughter Stephanie were about to change the dressings on her bedsores. They noticed she had stopped breathing and then checked and discovered that her heart had stopped as well. No violent throes, no last gasp. Her body quietly ceased functioning as her soul went to the Lord. Stephanie called me shortly afterward with the longed-for yet dreaded news, fully expected yet still a shock. When I answered the phone she said simply: “She’s gone!” We both had a good cry and talked a little. Shortly afterward I prayed a short memorial service for her, and will do a fuller service later. Stephanie was right to say “gone” and not “dead,” for Laura is not dead, only her body is. Laura has gone to Heaven to be with her beloved Lord, for whom she suffered, in whom she believed and trusted, to whom she fervently prayed.

She has gone to the place where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). God has wiped every tear from her eyes, even though our eyes may still be full of tears. But though they are to some extent tears of pain over the loss of her, they are also tears of joy and gratitude that God has taken her unto Himself, that she has fought the good fight and run the race. She has made it! She is now entering into the realization of the reason of her being; she now knows perfectly clearly why God created her, and she “rejoices with unutterable and exalted joy” (1Peter 1:8) and will do so forever. The next verse reads: “As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.” I am really very happy for her—not too happy for myself, but very happy for her!

I am also happy that the Lord in his mercy allowed me to be an instrument in her salvation. She first came to the monastery with her husband in the early ‘80s, and we got to know each other then, though not particularly well. After a few years of regular retreats, she stopped coming and we fell out of touch. A number of years went by, and she experienced many troubles and hardships, and she fell away from the Church and the sacraments, but not her faith, which was still alive in the depths of her soul, though I think she tried to more or less ignore it. At a certain moment in June of 2003 (this has been almost exactly a four-year adventure) she providentially discovered our website and decided to e-mail me, not sure if I would even remember her. She was at a particularly low point in her life. I was glad to hear from her and invited her to make another retreat here and we would talk about her life and her relationship with God and the Church.

The Lord blessed us very much. We renewed our friendship, and most importantly, Laura responded to the grace of God and returned to the Church and the sacraments. She did so wholeheartedly, even though it took some time to enter deeply into her spiritual life. About six months later she was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas.

She had never been sick in her life; it was a devastating blow to both of us, but there were two obvious graces to be noticed right off. First, she had turned back to God months before she had the slightest idea she was sick (the cancer was only discovered “by accident” when she had to see a doctor about an apparently unrelated case of jaundice). That means she wouldn’t have to wonder if her conversion were sincere, as if she were forced to turn to God only in desperation and fear of death. The second grace is the realization that God had foreseen all of this and arranged everything so that she would be in his grace when this “death sentence” was pronounced. How loving and merciful He is! She later told me that if she had been in her pre-conversion (or “reversion,” as they call it) state when she received that diagnosis, she would have been utterly terrified and would probably have fallen into despair.

She underwent a long and dangerous surgery (in March of 2004), and I went up to be with her for a while at that time, till she was out of the hospital at least. She then underwent a grueling series of chemo and radiation treatments that nearly killed her. She cut them short and said that she would rather live the rest of her life, even if it would be shorter. She recovered slowly, but as soon as she was able (I think it was actually a little sooner than she was able!) she returned to the monastery to give thanks and to reconnect with the life and prayer of the monks, all of whom she soon grew to love. She wanted to grow spiritually. Even though she was extremely grateful to have been in the Lord’s grace when she went through her surgery and all that, she said she still did not feel spiritually prepared to die. I invested her in the Brown Scapular (she is Roman Catholic but preferred Byzantine Liturgy and spirituality), and I tried to assure her that she was on the path to salvation. She had a strong but healthy sense of repentance, as her writings show, and this kept her close to Truth.

I helped her as much as I could, teaching her the Divine Office and other ways of prayer, answering her questions about God and the Scriptures, etc.—even having a few debates once in a while. She was eminently teachable, but still had her own mind and opinions! She made fairly frequent retreats over the next year and a half, and her health improved remarkably well. Aside from a little extra fatigue, she was living a normal, healthy life, and we entertained the hope that perhaps the Lord had actually healed her completely. I suggested once in a while that she have a scan just to check, but she didn’t want to, saying that if she felt fine that was enough for her. During this time she also received the gift from God to write holy icons. She has done several that are in our church, as well as the one for our shrine of the Mother of God, which we dedicated in August of 2005. I am blessed and honored that she gave me the very first icon she ever wrote (the Holy Face, which you can see at the “Laura’s icons” site). The last icon she wrote was, appropriately, the Crucifixion.

In March of 2006, she had a routine doctor’s appointment. Afterward, she called me and said, “Fr Joseph, be strong…” My heart sank. The found that the cancer had returned and had also spread, and they couldn’t do anything about it except buy her a little time with more chemo. The prognosis: minimum lifetime left, 4 months; maximum, 2 years (it ended up being a year and three months). She went on a milder form of chemo for a short time, but then gave it up. Again, she wanted to fully live whatever time she had left.

During that time she was sharing some of her thoughts with me—good ones, too!—about life and death and getting ready to cross the threshold into eternity. That’s when I suggested she start a blog and share them with the world. She hesitated at first, but I didn’t relent, and I think many people are glad that she wrote. Six weeks or so before she died she asked me to publish her blog in a little book, as I published my blog posts in book form. I will honor her request, and add some more information about her journey toward the Kingdom, and hopefully it will be published early next year.

Even though we knew her days were numbered, she still felt pretty well and still came to Mt Tabor, and so even though we talked about her approaching death, the magnitude of it didn’t really sink in. After all, there she was, healthy-looking (if a bit too thin), smiling, talking, attending services in our church, etc. Then came Holy Week of 2007.

Her family called me and said they had to rush her to the ER in the middle of the night because of severe pain. They thought she might die right then. I was deeply grieved, not only because of this turn of events, but because I could not be there to comfort her. It is would have been wrong for me to leave the monastery during Holy Week, for this is my primary responsibility. But as she declined further, I did go and spend a few days with her, a couple weeks after Easter. She was frail then, already on morphine, and could not walk even a few steps without assistance. But one day she insisted I take her out for an Orange Julius and to see the cemetery where she was going to be buried! I did it only because she asked, but it was a kind of reality check on her health, because that short trip so completely exhausted her that she wept, realizing that she really could never do even such simple things again.

I left with a heavy heart, knowing that it would be the last time I would see her on earth. But we still talked on the phone from time to time. Then, in mid-May she had another crisis, and everyone, including the hospice nurses, thought she had no more than a couple days left. That is when this great and painful journey to the Cross (or rather, through the Cross to the Kingdom) began. She couldn’t eat any more (the cancer was in her pancreas, stomach, and liver), and only took liquid from a wet sponge placed in her mouth. She went in and out of consciousness, pain increasing and morphine increasing apace. She went through a kind of “dark night” of fear and the absence of the sense of God’s presence—like Jesus: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”—through which I tried to help her, but I was never sure if she was really taking it all in. It was very painful for me to know she was going through this, but I just prayed more earnestly. I was able to talk to her a few times during those weeks, as you’ve read in previous posts. I was a kind of connection to God for her, and that is why she called for me in her agony. But I prayed that I would decrease and that Jesus would increase, so she would see only Him. I’m grateful to the Lord for giving me one last chance to talk to her on Tuesday, even though she couldn’t respond. I wanted to reassure her that Jesus was taking his sufferings into his and that she had nothing to fear, for nothing could separate her from his love. I also was able to tell her how proud of her I was for all she was courageously enduring. I will miss very much being able to talk to her, though I’m sure I still will go on doing so, even if I can’t hear any reply! I prayed for her much and with my whole heart, offering many Divine Liturgies for her. It was difficult, but I received this word in the midst of this trial: “Under this test…glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the Gospel of Christ” (2Cor 9:13). What I was to acknowledge, I think, is the “bottom line” of the Gospel of Christ: “He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn 11:25).

She was still not sleeping well on Wednesday, but that’s when I received the precious news that she was calling on the name of the Lord, even in her semi-conscious state. I’m pretty sure now that it meant that she had safely passed through the dark night, and all that was left was for the Lord, the heavenly Bridegroom, to come for his faithful little bride. In my daily reading of Scripture (presently the Gospel of Mark), during the week before Laura’s death, I was getting little hints: “He called to Him those whom He desired, and they came to Him (Mk 3); “Let us cross over to the other side…” (Mk 4); “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5). Then, when I was getting a bit nervous about how things were progressing, this was for me: “Peace, be still!… Have you no faith?” (Mk 6). Then back to Laura: “Take heart, it is I, have no fear” (Mk 6); “Whoever loses his life for My sake…will save it” (Mk 8).

Finally, on the morning she died I read: “Take heart, rise, He is calling you…” (Mk 10). Furthermore, the Gospel at the Liturgy of the day was: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” (Mt 11). Tears came to my eyes as I heard that, and I prayed that this would be the day that He would give her eternal rest. It was so perfect. This morning I asked for a word from Scripture to somehow confirm that she is with the Lord. I opened the Bible, and it is as if she herself gave me the word: “The King has brought me into his chambers” (Songs 1:4). God is good.

Before I close, I want to fulfill another one of her requests. She had wanted me to serve her funeral, though I will be unable to do so (I told her that, so she didn’t die with that expectation). But the reason was not so much that it would be I who did it, but that the people could hear the texts of the Byzantine service. I don’t know if they are going to arrange for the Byzantine priest from Seattle to come and do it (that was suggested) or if the local pastor would do it (it’s OK, he’s orthodox). But she did not want one of those funerals at which people tell funny stories and make a party out of it. (That can and should be done with family and friends—but not in church.) True to the Byzantine tradition, she wanted her funeral to be a “teaching moment” in which people would be reminded of the brevity of life and the inescapability of death and judgment. So here are a few typical texts from the service (this is definitely not a politically correct funeral but a sobering tonic):

“Come, brothers and sisters, let us bid a last farewell to her who has passed away, and also let us thank God. She is leaving her relatives and is hastening to the grave. No longer is she concerned about the vanity of the world and her human passions. Where are her relatives and friends? Behold, we are parting now. Let us pray to the Lord for her repose.

“What is our life? Indeed, it resembles a flower or smoke or the morning dew. Let us come and we will see: where is the physical beauty, where the youthfulness? All such things have faded like the grass and have disappeared. Despite all this, let us come and with tears fall down before Christ.”

The service even puts words in the mouth of the deceased:

“I am going to the Lord God, my Judge, to stand in judgment and to give an account of all my deeds. In the meantime I ask you to pray for me, that the Savior be merciful to me when He judges me. Thus we separate; indeed all is vanity… Just a while ago I talked to you and then the awful hour of death struck. Come, all who love me, and greet me for the last time.”

Finally, there are prayers of commending her soul to the Lord. There is actually much hope reflected in the service, but the texts do not flinch at the hard and final reality of death. It actually helps us grieve now, so we can rejoice in hope before too long. Here is the final prayer (personalized):

“O God of all spirits and of all flesh, You trampled death and broke the power of satan and granted life to your world. Now grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of your handmaid Laura, in a place of light, joy, and peace, where there is no pain, sorrow or mourning. As a kind and gracious God, forgive every sin committed by her in word, deed, or thought, since there is no one who exists and does not sin. You alone are without sin, your righteousness is everlasting and your word is truth. For You are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of your departed handmaid, Laura, O Christ our God, and we glorify You, together with your Eternal Father and your All-holy, Good, and Life-giving Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

“In blessed repose, grant eternal rest, O Lord, to the soul of your departed handmaid Laura, and remember her forever.”

The choir then sings: “Let her memory be eternal, let her memory be eternal. With your saints, O Christ, grant her rest—and eternal memory.” At the end of the burial, the priest blesses the four sides of the grave, saying: “This grave is sealed until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Amen, Laura’s “passion” is over. Consummatum est. I’m so glad that the moment of her soul’s liberation has come. All that remains is life everlasting. So this is not an end but a glorious beginning. I’m sure she is happier at this moment than she ever imagined she could be. We used to say to each other, on her journey of growing faith, when we had some experience that confirmed what we believe: “It’s all true!” If only I could see her now and hear her say those words to me, with her big smile! But the day will come when we will all share the same glory and joy—if we live this life as a preparation for the Kingdom.

Goodbye Laura, for now. We will miss you. Please pray for us that we may one day join you in Paradise. For love never ends…

 

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled

I’m beginning now a little series of reflections on the “Farewell Discourses” of the Gospel of John (chapters 14-16, and perhaps 17 as well). This series will probably be interrupted with other reflections, as the Spirit moves, but I’d like to take my time in meditating upon these most precious words of our Lord.

Chapter 14 begins right after Jesus announced that the hour of his glorification—which would necessarily begin with his Passion—had finally come, and then his prediction of Peter’s denial. The disciples were understandably dismayed and confused, so Jesus granted them some of his most profound and consoling revelations.

He opens his discourse with words we all need to hear, at least from time to time: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” This is another form of the “do not fear” that echoes reassuringly throughout the word of God. Yet this has a still more intimate feel to it. Jesus speaks of the heart: that which we feel breaking when sorrows or anxieties threaten to overwhelm us. Sometimes we even feel a real physical pain in the area of the heart when the burdens of life seem too heavy. Jesus’ answer to this is: “Believe in God; believe also in me.” We can’t carry the weight of our heavy hearts all by ourselves. We need a lifeline from Heaven to rescue and support us. Faith is that lifeline. Our faith in the Father and in the One whom He sent is the key to eternal life. Without a genuine “connection” to God, we could never meet the challenges and trials of this life with grace, peace, and hope. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit” (2Cor 13:14) can enlighten, heal, and strengthen us sufficiently to persevere unto the end and find salvation.

How does Jesus image salvation in this passage? To be saved is to find a place in the Father’s house, a place that Jesus reserves for his faithful followers and friends. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” Heaven is spacious enough to accommodate everyone that God has created, if only they will claim their inheritance. We will have our unique “place,” that is, a relationship to God that is not quite like anyone else’s. The Lord told us in the Book of Revelation that He would give us a new name, known only to us and to God (2:17). This “new name” symbolizes our unique relationship, the special intimacy that each saved person will enjoy with the Lord. Yet we are called at least to begin this relationship here on earth, through faith and love.

The next thing Jesus says is, I think, one of the most important and consoling things that He has ever said, since it has its application to everything He has said: “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” What I’m referring to is not only the fact that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us—comforting as that thought is. It is Jesus’ assertion that if it were not so, He wouldn’t have told us that it was! That seems so simple and obvious, but it forcefully underlines all his other promises: if they were not true, He wouldn’t have told us that they were! This is the seal of truth and reliability on his words. He will say in a few verses that He Himself is the Truth, but now He reminds us of something that perhaps we tend to forget when we have doubts or fears, when we are feeling low or confused or rejected: He only tells us the things He tells us because they are true! So as we read through the Gospels and hear the words of the Lord, we can remind ourselves, especially when we come across promises of his that seem to be “too good to be true”: the only reason He made them is because they are true. With so much modern biblical “scholarship” trying to take Jesus’ words out of his mouth as if He didn’t say them, or trying to deny the doctrines of which his words are the essence or foundation, we should not let our hearts be troubled but rather remember that these divine words would never have been handed down to us if they were not true.

What folloinmyfathershouse.gifws is another immense consolation: “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.” The first phrase we’ve already heard, but the next two are new. It’s great that He has prepared a place for us in the Father’s house, but how do we get there? Let not your heart be troubled. He Himself is coming for us, and will bring us there personally. Now He doesn’t say that we can simply follow Him there, or even that He will take us by the hand. He says He will take us to Himself, a much more intimate expression. For we are not only going to be with Him, but, as He often said, we shall abide in Him, and He in us. So then, where He is, we will be also. This is the goal of all human life; this is why we were created. To be where He is, however, is not only to be in Heaven, the place of everlasting joy and peace, as utterly wonderful as that is. “Where He is” is in the Heart of the Father, in the eternal and undying love of the Holy Spirit—“where He is” is in the unfathomable mystery of the glorious, joyous life of the All-holy Trinity. And He wants us to be where He is.

There, I’ve made it through three verses. God willing, there will be much more to come. But even the consolation of these three verses is enough to last a lifetime.

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