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

Archive for July, 2007

Do Not Rejoice

You may think that this is a strange title for a post on a Catholic blog, since the essential message of Christianity is one of everlasting joy. But there is a place in Scripture where Jesus tells His disciples (and us) not to rejoice.jesus_nazareth.jpg This is because he is making a point about the object of true rejoicing, and He wants to make sure we get it straight.

The disciples had just returned from a very successful mission of demon-thrashing—so successful, in fact, that Jesus remarked that He saw satan fall from the sky like lightning as they worked. “Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” the apostles bubbled. Jesus, while not exactly wishing take the wind out of their sails, still had to redirect it. He noted that, yes, He did give them the power to cast out demons, and that they could be confident that nothing would harm them. But then He said, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20).

Some modern translations try to soften this command by having Jesus say, Do not rejoice so much in the demons being subject to you, but moreso that your names are written in Heaven. But He didn’t say that. He said not to rejoice in having power over spirits, but rather to rejoice in our heavenly inscription. To some people that may seem to be hair-splitting, but it is in fact an important distinction. It determines the direction of our attention and focus, which is quite serious indeed.

We all need to hear that word of the Lord, and I wish some of the ancient hymnographers of the Byzantine Church had heard it as well. It seems to me that we spend too much time in church glorying in the destruction or condemnation of others, be they enemies of the Church like the heretics or just notorious sinners like Herod or Judas (see, for example, the Offices for the Sundays of the Fathers, the Beheading of St John the Baptizer, Holy Thursday, St Josaphat, etc., in which we are expected to descend even to name-calling in our divine worship). If we are to follow the word of Jesus, we should rather grieve over sinners and enemies and pray for mercy for their souls. “Be compassionate,” said Jesus, “as your Father is compassionate” (Lk. 6:36). But for the grace of God, you and I should also find ourselves on the roster of the reprobate and be the object of ecclesiastical censures put to music.

It is true that the Lord had some harsh words for the Pharisees and other hypocrites. But when they crucified Him He asked only for mercy for them. Jesus wept over sinful Jerusalem; He did not triumphantly denounce it. When two disciples suggested that He send fire from heaven upon those who refused to receive Him, Jesus turned to them only to reprimand them (Lk. 9:51-56). Some ancient manuscripts add the following words of Jesus at this point: “You do not know of what spirit you are. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”

I wonder if we know of what spirit we are when we rejoice in the destruction of others, even if they are apparently evildoers. It will be an interesting (and perhaps a bit awkward) moment, should we see in Heaven—provided we change our attitudes and actually arrive there—men like Dioscorus and Severus, whom we self-righteously condemn several times a year in our services. Christians of Apostolic Churches other than our own venerate them as saints!

The point is that it is an all-too-human response to the acquisition of power or righteousness to glory in its manifestation at the expense of others. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with righteousness and not even with power as such—especially when it is power to expel demons, which Jesus gave to the disciples. But when they rejoiced in the exercise of that power, He told them not to. Rather, they were to rejoice in their election as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. The positive focus bears more fruit than the negative and carries no hidden dangers. Fixing your eyes on Jesus and setting your heart on Heaven is better than gloating over demonic downfalls.

What about those demons anyway? Certainly they deserve no regard or compassion from us, as do our fellow human beings. It would be dangerous indeed to develop a soft spot in our hearts for those whose only goal and unremitting efforts are toward our eternal damnation! We should rather loathe all they stand for and have nothing to do with their works.

Why, then, should we not rejoice in the authority Christ gives us over them, and in whatever victories He may grant us? It is a matter of attention. By thinking or speaking of the power you’ve exercised over the demons, you are still giving them attention, negative though it may be. The devil doesn’t care if you love him or hate him. If he has your attention, he has his wish—that is the means by which he can take your power away from you. Rail at him or denounce him all you want; he doesn’t mind. Negative attention will do just fine. But if you ignore him altogether and refuse to fear him, he can’t get to you. Why? He no longer holds your attention.

If we ignore the devil, you may say, won’t we be deceived by him, being unaware of his presence, his strategies and mischief-making? Shouldn’t we try to figure all this out so we can properly arm ourselves against his mean-spirited machinations? No, and I will give you three reasons for saying so.

The first is that we have guardian angels as well as even mightier Incorporeal Powers like St Michael to fight our unseen battles for us. They can see what we cannot see in the spiritual realm, and if we are devoted to them and implore their protection and intercession, they can thwart any and all satanic subterfuge and disarm the entire fallen-angelic arsenal. They can also warn us of anything of which we need to be aware. When I become aware of temptations from the devil, I don’t ordinarily renounce the devil—I call on one of my guardian angels to bring out his spiritual sword!

Second, arming ourselves has nothing to do with giving attention to the devil. St Paul does say that if we are properly armed we can stand firm against the devil’s tactics. But nowhere does he say we have to have them on our minds or to make a study of them. Leave that to the professional exorcists (whom we do need to deal with the big deals). Our armor is truth, righteousness, faith, prayer, the word of God, and the gospel of peace (Eph. 6:10-18). I don’t see where any of these involves paying attention to demons.

Finally, rejoice that your name is written in Heaven. That is, keep your focus on the Lord, praise and worship Him. Stay in the Light and there will be no place for darkness. The devil cannot “breathe” in an atmosphere of praise and thanksgiving directed to God. You automatically toss a spiritual tear-gas bomb to Beelzebub when you bless the Lord! If your eyes and heart are fixed on Jesus, you’ve won the battle without having to fight. Read Second Chronicles 20 and see how the praise of God destroyed entire armies. Not a single sword had to be unsheathed.

I do not mean to minimize the value of the authority Christ has given his people over the powers of darkness. If you are confronted directly by some evil spirit, by all means cast it out!—if you are spiritually mature and experienced enough to do so. But don’t dwell on it, don’t plan your next encounter, don’t even give the attention that comes from rejoicing that demons are subject to you in Jesus’ name. That is the Lord’s own command. Rejoice that God has given you angelic protectors and spiritual armor. Rejoice in his love for you and keep your attention on Him. Rejoice, finally, that your name is written in Heaven!

Walking on Perilous Waters

The psalmist says that God tested him by fire and water. In this Sunday’s epistle (1Cor. 3: 9-17) St Paul speaks of our works being tested by fire. In the Gospel (Mt. 14:22-34), we have a test by water. What manner of test is this? It becomes clear that it is a test of faith, but there is more to it than that. It is a test of one’s entire relationship to Jesus.

In Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on this Gospel, he takes seriously the actual event and its historical reality, but he sees it as a kind of symbol of our life in Christ and the tests we have to endure to prove our fidelity and trust. I’d like to look at this Gospel today from both perspectives.

It would be helpful if we could somehow visualize the scene that the Gospel describes, so that we could realize the full drama of it. It is one thing to say, “there was a storm at sea,” and quite another to hear the howling wind, to feel the lashing rain, to try to keep your balance (and your lunch) in the pitching boat. So let’s look at what happened on that fateful night.

Jesus must have planned this in advance. The text says that He made his disciples get in the boat and leave before Him. They probably had expected Him to go with them, but He refused and ordered them to leave without Him. This is already a test of obedience, which they passed. Then He took to the hills by Himself, in order to pray. By evening, the disciples in their boat were about halfway across the sea. They were having a hard time; the wind was against them, the Gospel says, and their boat was beaten by the waves. So, try to imagine it: this storm was going on all night and they hadn’t made much progress. The storm began in the evening, but Jesus didn’t come to them until “the fourth watch of the night,” which is around three or four o’clock in the morning. It was pitch black, the boat was lurching and filling with water as the waves repeatedly pounded against it. The wind was fierce and they had to shout just to communicate. It was like this for hours.

Suddenly they see an apparition on the raging waters. Jesus must have been radiating light, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to see Him in the middle of a stormy night. They were already exhausted and in fear of perishing on the sea. Now this—a ghost, or the spirit of the primordial chaos that lurks beneath the waves, was rapidly approaching them. The Gospel says that they were terrified and cried out in fear! Think of it—one fearful disaster on top of another!

Into all this chaos, danger, and fear, a voice is heard over the wind: “Take heart, I AM; do not fear.” Jesus pronounces the divine name (ego eimi) as He demonstrates his power over the elements and calls his fearful disciples to trust in Him. In Psalm 76(77) the psalmist wrote: “When the waters saw you, O God… they were afraid, yea, the deep trembled… The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind… Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters.” When the disciples saw the waters, they trembled, but when the waters saw the Lord, they trembled! For the Lord is in control of all He has made, and all things serve Him. Jesus was trying to elevate his disciples from the level of natural fear to that of supernatural trust.

Peter’s response to the divine apparition is characteristic of our own ambivalence in our struggles with the mystery of God. Jesus had told them it was He Himself and not to fear. Peter, in the midst of this test of faith, seemed to want to test Jesus! If it is You,” he said, “bid me come to you on the waters.” Jesus had said, “It is I,” yet Peter said, “If it is You…” This was the first instance of why Jesus would call him a man of little faith. But there is more. Peter was willing to risk his own life if it really was Jesus, and so he took the plunge—literally! When Jesus called Peter to come to Him, Peter must have finally believed, for he did the incredibly dangerous thing of jumping out of the boat into the churning sea—talk about a leap of faith! (Remember that the storm was not calmed until after Peter was rescued and they both entered the boat. So this whole dialogue and drama was played out in the midst of the furious storm.)

Amazingly, Peter passed this part of the test. Jesus invited him to walk upon a turbulent sea, and Peter walked. But then he began to fail the test. His “better judgment” took over; his reason reasserted itself even in the face of an amazing miracle. He faltered. He began to lose what he had gained by his act of faith in stepping out onto the waters. He considered the power of the wind and the waves and not that of the Creator of the wind and waves, who was standing before him and inviting him to share in his divine authority by means of faith. He couldn’t do it. He began to sink and to cry out to the Lord. There was a lot of shouting going on that night. They screamed in terror at the sight of the “ghost” and now Peter is crying out as he is about to drown. The chaos of fear and doubt is here likened to that of the primordial chaos, both of which had to be calmed and ordered by the word and action of the Lord. The psalmist again describes the scene, this time from Peter’s perspective, in psalm 68(69): “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me… O Lord, let not…the deep swallow me up…”

As he sank into the water, we can imagine Peter reflecting—though I’m sure he didn’t at that moment—that it would have been better if Jesus, forseeing this predicament, would not have named him “Rock” but rather “Cork” or some other buoyant substance!

But Peter thejesus_saves.jpg Rock did sink. “Lord, save me!” the Apostle cried. Jesus reached out his hand and rescued the drowning disciple, who emerged from the waves shaken and drenched, full of fear and wonder and confusion and gratitude. Erasmo remarks: “Like Peter, I do not in the end ever actually enter into the Lord’s embrace as his love and mine blissfully and serenely proceed toward one another with unfaltering step. No: I will always fall into the Lord’s arms gasping for breath after a close brush with death, having had to be rescued by Jesus from impending annihilation. Jesus is not my ‘savior’ because in my piety I confer upon him this honorific title. He is my savior because he has in fact saved me: he has laboriously earned the title…”

Jesus, after reminding Peter that he was a man of little faith, asks: “Why did you doubt?” The Greek word for “doubt” literally means “to be divided in two,” and this is more expressive. It wasn’t merely a matter of not believing. It was a matter of believing two things! He believed in Jesus enough to get out of the boat and walk on the water, yet he began to believe more in the power of the elements and in his own reasoning, which told him that what he was doing was foolhardy and impossible. St James cautions his readers that the one who is “double-minded” in prayer will not receive anything from the Lord.

Once Jesus brought Peter back into the boat, the waves died down and the wind ceased—literally, “grew weary.” No matter how much the world, the flesh, and the devil rage against us and threaten us, if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and move steadily towards Him—not considering the violence of the storm, but only the word of the Lord—our enemies will eventually grow weary and cease, and we will remain secure with the Lord.

The disciples’ hesitation eventually turned to adoration. Now it was no longer, “if it is You,” but rather, “Truly You are the Son of God!” Our lives are a long journey from doubt to faith, from fear to trust, from faltering to total commitment. Our lives are a perilous walk across the uncertain waters toward Him who says, “Take heart; I AM, do not fear—Come.” The storms will rage until we are safe in the boat with Jesus and his holy ones, that is, until we have reached the shores of the Heavenly Kingdom. For now we walk in faith and trust—crying out, “Lord, save me!” when we feel ourselves sinking—but always reaching out for that hand, that nail-pierced hand, which rescues us from the deep waters and carries us safely home.

An Evil World–And Yet…

I suppose one of the most discouraging passages of Scripture would be this: “The whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1Jn. 5:19). We find a few similar passages in the Bible. St Paul refers to the devil as “the god of this world” (2Cor. 4:4). Jesus Himself called him “the ruler of this world” (Jn. 14:30). A sobering fact. I don’t need to list here the litany of evils that plague our world, especially modern Western society—they are well known to all who are trying to live a Christian life in this world. How do we slog our way through the mire of wickedness and make our way to the Kingdom of Heaven?

Here I’m not going to go into all the usual (and indispensable) practices of our Faith, which I’ve already done on numerous occasions. I’d like to just indicate a few “ordinary graces” (and one extraordinary one) that help us realize that the light shines in the darkness, so that the darkness will never overcome it. To all the evils, sufferings and sorrows in the world, there is still an “and yet…”

I was taking a butterfly_monarch.jpgwalk up the mountain last week, still grieving over the death of my friend Laura. Such losses can weigh heavily on us. And yet, as I was walking, I noticed a large, lovely yellow-and-black monarch butterfly practically hovering above me. It came between the sun and my eyes, so that its already striking colors became brilliantly translucent in the bright sunbeam. The sudden appearance of this joyful splash of color was a delightful symbol of the simple, innocent, radiant beauty that comes from God’s creative hand and which will be our eternal delight in Paradise—here for me to enjoy in anticipation, a comfort in a time of sorrow. [After writing the first draft of this post I went up the mountain again. I saw a spotted fawn skipping happily through the forest, with mama-doe close by, eyeing me carefully in her maternal protectiveness. Another little bright spot in the day.]

There may be other reasons why we might feel disconsolate, lonely, exhausted, discouraged, etc. And yet, we may receive an unexpected gift, as I did a couple weeks ago. Someone has thought of us, cared for us, brought a ray of light into the darkness. This probably has happened to you once in a while. It’s just a bit of light from Heaven. It may be a small thing, but if it smoothes just one of life’s jagged edges for a while, it is a blessing.

Because of the weight of the evils of the world, some of which may be causing us great suffering, or which may apparently be claiming some of our own family members or friends, we may feel without strength or hope or wisdom. And yet, the Lord has given us the precious gift of the Holy Eucharist, his own abiding presence—He who said: “You will suffer in the world; but take courage, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). His life can be our life; his grace flows through us as we eat and drink the price of our redemption. In the Byzantine Liturgy, shortly before the offering of the holy gifts, the priest prays: “No one who is bound to carnal desires or pleasures is worthy to approach You or to draw near to You or to minister to You, O King of Glory… And yet, because of your love for mankind—a love beyond expression or measure—You became man… You were appointed our High Priest and…handed down to us the priestly ministry of this liturgical and unbloody sacrifice…” We are unworthy, full of weaknesses and limitations—and yet, the Lord deigned to become man for our sakes and to bequeath to his Church the grace to make perpetually present the mystery of his all-perfect and saving Sacrifice, that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

We experience apparent tragedies: deaths, accidents, injuries, illnesses, losses, setbacks and disappointments of all kinds. And yet, along with funerals and hospital visits and the like, there are new births, weddings, baptisms, first Holy Communions, graduations, ordinations, etc—all signs and experiences of joy and hope and blessing. We live in a fallen world; things could be much worse if we received our just due. But God in his love has chosen to sweeten our exile with gifts of grace and of simple human joys which remind us that, even if the world is in the power of the devil in many ways, the devil does not have the last word. That belongs to God, and to those who have put their faith and trust in Him. You will surely have, in your own experience, more blessings to consider. But I’m just trying to awaken that awareness in you (and in me too, now that I think about it!).

The power of evil and the crushing weight of sin, sorrow, and pain are only temporary. The eternal reign and authority belong to God alone, who grants eternal happiness to those who love Him. Even though we may walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we ought not fear, for He is with us. The darkness of night may find us sorrowful—and yet, joy comes with dawn (see Ps. 29/30:6).

The End is Near

 

No, I’m not predicting the end of the world. If anything can be called a universal failure, it has been every the_end_is_near.gifattempt to predict the end of the world. But in a sense I am predicting the end of your world, and of mine. For if anything can be called a universal success, it is the assertion that each of us will die.

Ever since Laura died, I’ve been thinking more about death, about Heaven (about Hell, too, I suppose), and about preparing for the Kingdom. This is really the life’s work of each of us who aspires to an everlasting life of happiness. But how can I express the urgency of this work without sounding like a nut, like a bearded fanatic holding a sign? How can I stem the tide of the wholesale rejection of belief in the afterlife and of the righteous judgment of God?

I guess all I can do is ground myself in the word of God, which also sees our salvation as the only ultimately essential thing. St Paul urges us to “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 of earth” (Col. 3:1-2). What does he mean by exhorting us not to set our minds on “things that are of earth”? After all, our daily lives cannot but be immersed in things of earth, for we are on earth. He explains: “Put to death therefore 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.” So then, in this context what is “earthly” is the opposite of what is heavenly. It is that which deflects us from our advance toward the Kingdom.

We can fruitfully enjoy earthly things only insofar as they are reflections of heavenly things: the beauty and the joy that give us a hint of Paradise, that bring us closer to Him who created us and who loves us. But our focus is still to be Heaven, where Christ reigns in glory with his Father. Thus our lives have to be lived in such a way as to constitute a preparation for Heaven. The things we devote our time and thought and energy to must in some way contribute to our progress toward our heavenly goal. Anything that proves an obstacle to this progress must be overcome. This is so important that Paul says we must put to death anything that takes us away from Christ and the “things that are above.”

Through baptism we have mystically died with Christ, and we carry this saving truth within us. “You have died,” asserts the Apostle, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We “die” to this world, that is, the world is not our goal, our life, our reason of being. Our life has another Source, another Center, another Goal. Therefore the claims that this world can make on our lives are necessarily limited. We belong to another world, “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” But even before we fully and definitively enter that world at our death, our present lives are “hidden with Christ in God.” We live with Him in faith and love, we walk according to his word, we draw life from communion with Him through prayer and sacrament. We are hidden with Him, while the world goes its godless and hedonistic way. Our minds are set on things of Heaven, while we work out our salvation here on Earth. This mystery–looking toward Heaven while living on an often unheavenly Earth–is expressed succinctly in a passage from a poem of Pope John Paul II: “I wander on the narrow pavement of this earth/ not turning aside from Your Countenance/ unrevealed to me by the world” (“Hope Reaching Beyond the Limit”).

Time passes, our energies become depleted, we age, we approach death. The end is near, relatively so at least, for all of us. It may be much nearer than we think. It is time to see whether we are really preparing for the Kingdom, setting our minds and hearts on things of Heaven—or if we are still engaged in earthly (that is, sinful, according to the above context) pursuits and activities. Nothing is more important than that our lives be hidden with Christ in God while we are on Earth. There will come a time when all that is hidden will be revealed. We are called to live our lives hidden with Him, looking with faith and hope for his coming Kingdom, so that “when Christ, who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).

First Fruits

Much has been written about the fruit of the Holy Spirit. (Some say “fruits,” since nine are listed, but the word “fruit” is singular in the Greek, so it must mean one fruit with nine elements or qualities—but I will probably lapse peace_love_joy.jpginto “fruits” simply for convenience’ sake.) I have written about it myself, but like anything that is of God, the mystery is not easily exhausted.

I don’t know if there is any way to rightly divide them into categories, but it seems to me that the first three (love, joy, peace) form the heart or inner circle of this spiritual fruit. Learning how to be patient, gentle, self-controlled, etc, seems to be a prerequisite for entering into love, joy, and peace. One can hardly find peace if one is not patient, or become truly loving without self-control (which is sometimes translated “chastity”).

But what about those first fruits? The words have been so overused and misused that they have been reduced to little more than greeting-card sentiments or pop lyrics. They are used to describe superficial or ephemeral feelings and experiences, and so we forget that they are of the very essence of our calling and destiny.

We learn from the Scriptures that these first fruits, in their purest and most profound realization, transcend our ordinary human experiences. The love that is from Christ “surpasses knowledge,” the peace from Him “passes understanding,” and the joy to which we are called is “unutterable and exalted.” These are mysteries of the life of the world to come which are nevertheless offered to us now—insofar as we have a capacity to receive them—by divine grace.

It is difficult for us to be aware—burdened as we are with sins, passions, anxieties, fears, sorrows and pains—that the little shreds of joy and peace and love that we manage to experience here are just that: little shreds. The full reality, which we will know in Heaven, is such an overabundance that in Paradise we simply exude them, we live and move and have our being in them—for we live and move and have our being in God, the inexhaustible Source of all that is good, true, and beautiful, all that is joyful, peaceful, and loving.

I recently read an account of a “near-death experience” that a certain woman had. In the moments that her body had died and her soul was released, she seemed to be approaching Heaven. Her beloved grandfather, who was deceased, came to greet her. He held out his hand to her and she did the same to him and touched him. (Don’t ask me how souls can have hands; God somehow enables us to experience things in ways that are intelligible to us.) Immediately an ineffable light surrounded her, and then her whole being was pervaded by pure, intense, overflowing love and peace, unlike anything she had ever experienced on Earth. Since it was not her time to die, she had to return to her body, but she never forgot what real peace and joy and love are like.

That’s something I think we ought to reflect upon. We Earthlings are very limited and incomplete beings, and our experiences of the holy and the good are fragmentary, diminished, and filtered through our near-opaque spiritual “lenses” and capacities for perception and experience. So even our most profound or enlightened moments cannot hold a candle to the brilliance and wonder and total experience of love, joy, and peace that will be ours in the life to come—if we bear the fruit of the Spirit in this present life.

If only we could reach out and touch a saint, an angel, even the Lord Himself, and be instantly enraptured by the heavenly fullness of what we call love, joy, and peace! In this present life we have only the foggiest notion of what they really are. The time we have on Earth is meant to be a preparation. We are learning the catechism of Heaven, so to speak. We are taking only our first trembling steps (and this takes a lifetime) toward the knowledge of the love that surpasses knowledge, toward the understanding of the peace that passes understanding. But take those steps we must, for if we don’t at least set out on the journey, we’ll never arrive. We have to put our faith in what awaits us in Heaven, in that which alone will give meaning and joy and fullness to our lives. “Set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” But how do we dispose ourselves for this? “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1Peter 1:13-15). Jesus told us not to live like the unbelievers, who are always running after material pleasures and security. We have a Father in Heaven who is preparing undreamed-of joys for us, if we will only trust Him now, live by his saving commandments now.

Even though our spiritual experience may seem meager in this life, if we live by faith and hope we will enter into the utter fullness of love, joy, and peace—beyond anything we could experience or even imagine in this world. Let us not sacrifice our heavenly treasure for the baubles and trinkets of this passing world. Rather, reach out to Him who loves you with an everlasting love, and bear the fruit of his Spirit. At length you will “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). All the fullness of God! Does that sound too good to be true? Well, if you understand even a little of the love of God, you will know that it is too good not to be true!

Accessing God

When you wish to access a particular web site on the internet, you need to go through a few steps. First, of course, you need to turn on your computer and locate your internet access icon. Then you may need to enter your password as you log on. Once you are online, you click on your browser icon and go the home page. Then you can type in the address, hit “enter” and, voila! You have accessed the desired site.

wireless_access2.jpgSuppose you are trying to access God. Are there certain techniques or steps you have to follow in order to connect with Him? If you do this, that, and the next thing correctly will you automatically get online with the Divine? To hear some people talk and to read certain pieces of spiritual literature, one might think so. But two questions arise here. Can God be so routinely “accessed” by anyone who has learned a technique? Are those people who use such techniques really connecting with the true God?

We have to realize two basic facts when we speak in the present context of our seeking God in prayer and meditation. First, there are a few steps we ordinarily do need to take if we wish to prepare ourselves for an encounter with the Lord. And second, even if we do so, our actual meeting with Him depends not on our “access procedures” but on his will alone.

It should be clear that if we’re sitting in front of the TV or are having a couple beers with our friends we are not in those moments prime candidates for mystical experience. So, ordinarily we must remove as much noise, activity, and distraction as we can so as to be able to attentively listen and await the presence of God. This may mean going to a particular room where it is quiet. It may mean doing other things to create a sacred environment and to promote relaxed attentiveness, like lighting a candle, burning incense, breathing rhythmically, and slowly repeating the name of Jesus. All these things may be helpful, but none is infallible in facilitating an experience of God or even in bringing us into his presence. Why? For one thing, He is already there, and we don’t need techniques to attract Him. But more importantly is the fact that God, being sovereign and free, decides if and when and how He will manifest Himself to the one who comes to Him. God is the One who loved us first; He is the initiator. It is within his power to allow Himself to be experienced or not. You may meditate for hours and not find Him, or you may splutter your opening “O my God…” and be inundated with the awareness of his loving presence. It’s up to the Lord, precisely because He is the Lord.

God cannot be manipulated; His divine energy cannot be “tapped into” at will by the spiritual technician who has completed his courses. There is no metaphysical necessity for God to be accessed by anyone proficient in spiritual disciplines who tries to do so. There is only divine grace and love, freely given to those freely chosen by God to receive this gift. Why? Because God is personal and not some sort of cosmic “force”. God is not merely the anonymous Source of varied spiritual energies waiting to be discovered and used for the benefit of individuals or of mankind. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and He has personally revealed Himself as such.

God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what will help us grow and mature as human beings and as his disciples and friends. Even though He dwells within us, there will be times at which it will be in our best interest that He not manifest his presence to us. There will be times when we need to experience his absence so as to overcome our complacency or our taking Him for granted. God may also wish to increase our desire for Him by making Himself more difficult to find in our prayer. He may even wish to call attention to any unrepented sin that itself is keeping us from communion with Him. Whatever the reason, God is personally working all things for our good.

What about those who say they can access God more or less at will by means of certain techniques? We would have to ask whether it is the true and living God they experience or simply an altered psychic or spiritual state. There is much we still do not know about the inner world of human beings, and there are levels of consciousness and various powers that can be accessed which may be quite extraordinary. But we cannot presume to equate such states or experiences with actual communion with God. There are also more aggressive ways of inducing extraordinary experiences besides meditation techniques. But we have to ask again: can we say that these induced altered states are true mystical experiences or connections with God?

This is an area in which distinctions have to be made, in which confusion and even deception can enter in. Remember, “even satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2Cor. 11:14). There is a danger in seeking spiritual experience for its own sake, because there are spiritual experiences available that do not proceed from the Holy Spirit. This is where many seekers lack the necessary discernment and prudence. I do not doubt that many who practice various forms of meditation or prayer actually do attain a “higher consciousness” or experience various spiritual or psychic phenomena. But I would not automatically arrive at the conclusion that therefore they have accessed God.

To assess the validity of anyone’s spiritual experience is a complex undertaking, but from a Christian perspective we can safely (and generally) say that the basic criteria are true faith and morals. If there is nothing contrary in one’s experience to what God has revealed and required us to believe, and if one’s behavior reflects that which God has revealed as pleasing to Him, chances are that one is on the right track and may indeed be in communion with the Lord. We should expect that one who has direct experience of God will manifest the fruit of the Spirit in his or her life, and will not manifest the works of the flesh (see Gal. 5: 19-23).

Do you want to access God? Come to Him, believe in his love for you and in his presence in and around you, wait for Him patiently, and be confident that sooner or later the Lord will choose to access you.

Back to the Damned

There’s one more point I’d like to make, to conclude the reflections that I began last week concerning unrepentant sinners and the damned. In speaking of damned souls, I spoke of “them,” yet we should not hell2.jpglose consciousness of the dreaded possibility of having to say “us.” That is, we must vigorously renew our efforts and prayers toward the salvation of our own souls, for to lose them is the ultimate loss, the unthinkable, unspeakable horror of an eternity without God, in the utter solitude and despair of “the long-forgotten dead” (Ps 142/143).

Some people dismiss Hell as some perversion of medieval imagination and regard as unenlightened the images of souls roasting in furious flames and being punctured by the pitchforks of horned and hoofed devils. Perhaps we ought to jettison some of the imagery, but not the reality of eternal separation from all that is good and holy and lovely and joyful. I mentioned in a previous post that the joy of the blessed in Heaven is not diminished by the absence of some of those whom they knew on Earth, because they are simply not aware of who is not there. But let’s look at it from the other perspective—that of those who indeed are not there—and if nothing else makes you want to avoid Hell, perhaps this will.

When people suffer, whether it is self-inflicted or not, there is some consolation in the fact that someone knows that they are suffering, that someone cares, even that someone feels sorry for them. If it doesn’t take away the pain, it at least provides the comfort that comes from someone else acknowledging your plight, your very existence. In Hell there is none of that, and this may be one of its chief torments. Imagine being in a place of unspeakable suffering and misery, knowing that at least some of your family and friends are in a place of ineffable joy and fullness of life—and then realizing that they don’t even know that you are not there. They can’t pity you or comfort you or even mourn for you. They are perfectly and utterly happy without you, and they don’t miss you at all. They have forgotten you! This is Hell. You can rage and scream and beg and plead, but no one hears you. You have been completely excluded from everyone’s lives, from everyone’s joy. There will be no search and rescue team sent out for you, for no one even notices that you are missing, and there’s no hope that they ever will. But you are to live in this state of being unremembered by the blessed—forever. When this realization sinks in, hatred takes over and you then attempt to vent your (impotent) rage and blasphemy, just like the demons, with no satisfaction, no relief, only eternally-increasing misery.

This is one reason we pray at our funeral and memorial services: “Let their memory be eternal!” It means only in part that the living on earth will remember and pray for them, for that can only be temporary. In a few generations after our death, there will be no one on Earth who remembers us. We are praying that God and all his saints will remember us. When God is said to “remember” in the Scriptures, it usually means that He is going to act on behalf of those He remembers. The Good Thief asked Jesus to remember him in his Kingdom. So, eternal memory is being known and loved by God forever, the God who acts on our behalf by saving our souls in his mercy and love for mankind.

On the other hand, a frequent curse in the Scriptures is that someone’s memory, or name, be forgotten or blotted out forever. Not to be remembered is the greatest curse, and that is the lot of the damned. But isn’t there a bit of commiseration among them, especially if people they knew on Earth are with them in Hell? No, because even if they were friends on Earth, they would hate each other in Hell. There isn’t the slightest bit of love or friendship there, only hatred. It cannot be otherwise.

It is so important—and the world largely ignores this these days—to secure our everlasting remembrance in the Kingdom of Heaven, and to avoid at all costs the condemnation to the place where no one remembers us, where no one pities or comforts us. The Scriptures warn us repeatedly about the danger of the eternal loss of our souls and instruct us on what to do and what not to do if we are to end up in the place of joy and “eternal memory.” Let us hasten to examine our souls and rid ourselves of anything that can be an obstacle to our salvation. God loves us and wants us to be with Him in Heaven forever, but this ineffably blessed destiny requires faith and obedience on our part. The present life is short enough; let us make whatever sacrifices are necessary—even at the cost of our own pleasure or “fulfillment” or “self-realization”—so that we will not be eternally forgotten while the blessed are escorted to their everlasting happiness, the only fulfillment worth striving for.

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