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

Archive for September, 2007

On the Golden Rule and Other Hard Stuff

Perhaps I should take this Sunday’s Gospel (Lk. 6:31-36) with me to the bank and say, “Here, see? It says, ‘Lend without expecting repayment’”—and then see how well I do in the loan department!

It has been said a number of times that Christianity has not failed; it has never been tried! That is probably nowhere more true than in this Gospel and in the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts out in this sermon with what is known as the Golden Rule. That particular saying is divine wisdom, since it came from the mouth of Jesus. But that saying does turn up in other sacred books, too, in other religions—it’s an almost universal maxim of wisdom of how to live and how to relate to other people. But as Jesus goes on, He speaks of other things that are more distinctively Christian, things that make Christianity something unique. It’s the mystery of “love of enemies” that is practically unique to Christianity. I’ve seen in some of the wisest sages—Confucius, for example, and others—who, when confronted with this question, did not come to the same conclusion that Christ did. They came to a more “reasonable” conclusion: that you love your friends and you fight your enemies, or at least bring them to justice for whatever harm they have caused.

Jesus gives us a couple of examples here of this good news. The Gospel, as you know, means “Good News,” but it’s not just “news” like some bit of information about current events. It’s “news” because it’s new and because it’s supposed to make us new. The good news is supposed to give to us, impart to us, a new way of thinking, a new way of feeling, a new way of looking at the world and each other, and a new way of looking at ourselves and at God. What Jesus is giving us here is good news, and it’s something very different, and perhaps something that his listeners did not want to hear, because Jesus is not just another scribe or Pharisee who’s rehashing the Law once again in the same tired old ways. He’s really giving something new, and this is the good news of the Gospel.

So He first gives a presentation of the natural man, the ordinary person—how we would ordinarily do stuff. What we usually do is love those who love us. What we usually do, in ordinary, common wisdom, is do good to those who do good to us. Not many of us can persevere very long at loving someone who hates us, or at doing good to someone who is bad to us. We might try to do it for a little while, but after a while, we give up. Why? Because we have learned to love and to act always with a measure of self-interest. We’re going to love—and this need not be explicit, saying it to ourselves every time, but it’s a hidden assumption—because we expect to get something out of it, something in return. We do good to others because we expect to get something back from it. We don’t do good just because it’s good to do good! We don’t love just because it’s right to love; we want something back from it. Jesus is saying here that that’s not enough. Now, it’s certainly better than doing bad to those who do good to you, and hating those who love you, but it’s still not enough—it’s not yet the Gospel teaching that we’re required to integrate and manifest in our lives. Jesus says there’s no credit in that, no merit in that. The blessedness comes when you love those who don’t love you, when you do good to those who don’t do good to you.

Now, in order to love your enemies, first you have to have some, or at least you have to perceive that you have some. There are different ways that we perceive that. It’s not always someone who does evil to us. Those are clear cases where someone might be considered an enemy, where somebody actually does real evil or harm to you. Loving our enemies in that case does not require that we invite these persons into our home or community and say, “Do more evil to us and destroy us.” No; but it does mean that we still have to forgive, that we still have to refrain from being condemning and vindictive, and that we have to try to give the benefit of the doubt. But oftentimes, the enemies that we have—or those that we perceive as enemies—are simply those that are other, those that are strangers, because we have a fear of the unknown. It might even be simply because someone is of a different race, religion, or even political party.

I read a story some years ago in one of Rachel Remen’s books. She is a doctor who often works with cancer patients and people with terminal illnesses—not only with their physical health, but also counseling them and trying to help them manage the pain and the emotional sufferings and fears that go along with having a terminal illness. She told the story of one fellow who came to her, when they were having a kind of retreat for the terminally ill with cancer. This man was an old, Slavic Jew named Yitzak who had had a really hard life: he’d been in concentration camps, had suffered a lot in his life, and he’d learned how to look at other people, strangers, as potential enemies. He’d learned how not to trust, and how to have his defenses up all the time, because of everything that he had suffered.

So, when he came into this little group there, and saw how loving and free they were in sharing and opening up to each other, he was kind of confused and taken aback. So he said, and I quote, “Vat is all dis ‘huggy-huggy’? Vat is dis ‘loving the stranger’? Vat is dis?” He struggled with that during the whole retreat. And, little by little, he kind of mellowed out, until finally the clincher came when God spoke to him.

Yitzak was out walking, and he was praying about that. He said, “God, is it OK for me to love the strangers?” And God responded to him (in his own language, of course!): “Yitzak! Vat is dis strangers’? You make strangers; I don’t make strangers!”

God is trying to tell us what He told Yitzak. God doesn’t make strangers! God makes brothers and sisters! We make strangers. We make enemies. We project, and impose on people things that make us hate them, and we avoid them, and think ill of them, speak ill of them, and all the rest. God wants us to see that, and that’s why He gives us a teaching like this about loving enemies, because that’s not the way He made us. He didn’t want it to be that way. So we have to convert, we have to change, to get a new way of looking at things. One reason He wants us to do this is given in the Beatitudes, where He says, “Blessed are the merciful, because they will receive mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “And you have to be compassionate, merciful, like my Father is.” Why? Because “then you will be children of the Most High.” That’s a great thing to be. It’s something that we should examine ourselves about, that when someone sees us, observes our behavior, or listens to us speak: do they spontaneously come to the conclusion, “There is a son of the Most High; there is a daughter of the Most High”? If they can’t come to that conclusion, why not? That’s where our repentance, our conversion, has to come in—because He wants us to speak, to act, as children of the Most High.

Then let us accept this news as Good News: let it make us new! Let it change us—our lives, our thinking, our feeling, our relating. Let it be something that we will really integrate into ourselves. Let us pray that we will have the grace not only to do it, but to want to do it! You see, sometimes we don’t even want to do this stuff! We don’t want to love our enemies, we don’t want to do good to someone who doesn’t do good to us. We’ve got to start somewhere, so at least start with the desire to want to do it. And when you want to, the grace will come, and you will know it. So let us, then, make it our goal, as Jesus said, to live as children of the Most High. We will do this with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and with a little determination, and with the desire and the effort to be merciful, as our Heavenly Father is merciful.

The First Noble Truth

I don’t know much about Buddhism (and, to be honest, I’m not particularly interested in knowing all about it), but I do know that one of their fundamental beliefs is in the “Four Noble Truths.” I don’t remember all of those, either, but for my purposes here, I need only the first one: “Life is Suffering.”

Now, without getting too pessimistic, I think we can substantially agree with this noble truth. Suffering, of course, is not all that can be said about life, but it is an inescapable and often-present reality of human experience. But Christians have a different reason for agreeing with Buddhists on this point. For Christians, life is suffering because love is suffering (again, love isn’t only suffering, but suffering is inseparable from love). The Buddhists say that we suffer because of our desires and attachments, and that suffering can be overcome by vanquishing those desires and attachments. There is some truth to that, but if one wishes to live a life of love, then suffering will never be overcome—not in this life, anyway. And, in some strange divine-human way, we will not want to entirely overcome the suffering, for we want to remain in love.

Christians are called to love one another. But when faced with those to whom we are not attracted, or by whom we are positively repelled, love takes the form of suffering. We have to go against the grain, make difficult acts of the will, love our enemies, do good to those who hurt us, pray for those who persecute us, etc. In such cases, the very act of loving constitutes suffering, for we spontaneously recoil from those whom it is easier to loathe than to love.

But there is suffering even in loving those to whom we are attracted, whom we find easy to love, and who love us. In such cases it isn’t the act of loving that constitutes suffering, but some of the consequences of being in a loving relationship. We may have anxieties concerning the health and safety of loved ones; we may have to make difficult or painful sacrifices for them; we are much more deeply hurt by an unkind word or deed from a loved one than by such words or deeds from an enemy; we suffer grief and loneliness when a loved one dies, etc. Love is always going to be mixed to some extent with suffering, and if we are living according to the Gospel of Him who calls us to love, then life itself will be mixed with suffering.

Jesus manifested this noble truth constantly in his own life. We know that He loved everyone, but rarely jesus-3.jpgdoes Scripture mention this explicitly about individuals. One of them was Lazarus, and Jesus suffered because of this love. “Jesus loved Lazarus… Jesus wept” (Jn 11). He also loved the rich young man, who disappointed Him by refusing his invitation. He loved Peter, who caused him pain by denying Him. He loved Judas, who wounded Him by betraying Him. He loved his disciples, who let Him down by abandoning Him in his hour of distress. He even loved those who condemned Him to death, and He prayed that they would be forgiven even as they drove the painful nails into his suffering body. Life and love bring suffering, but the solution to this is not the cessation of desire—it is the redemption of suffering through still greater love.

Jesus loved his own to the end, to the utmost, to the Cross. If life and love are inextricably bound up with suffering, so be it. We will make suffering the means of transformation, inner healing, and even salvation. Jesus said to St Faustina: “I have need of your sufferings to rescue souls… Rescue souls through sacrifice and prayer… I want to see you as a sacrifice of living love… You shall accept all sufferings with love… My grace will be with you… Your silent day-to-day martyrdom in complete submission to My will ushers many souls into heaven.” This is a share in the universal saving will of the Lover of Mankind. It is a common thread in the lives of saints and mystics—they are called to love to the extent of sharing in Christ’s sufferings to win graces for souls.

Suffering is not merely the irksome fallout of original sin. It is a tool of transformation wielded by the pierced hand of Christ, the Son of God, who is Love. But we have to accept and offer it as such, if it is to bear fruit. Love is tested by the level of sacrifice one is willing to make, the level of suffering one is willing to endure for the beloved. The various pleasures and joys of love are the icing on the cake. The cake itself is the gift of self, without counting the cost.

Jesus loved us by going to the Cross for us. And now He says, “take up your cross and follow Me.” To follow Jesus is to love as He loved. His love cost Him his life. Let us not flee suffering in an attempt to save this passing life, only to lose it. It is no loss to lose this life for the sake of loving others to the utmost, for the Lord says to us, “You shall be with Me in Paradise.” There alone is where life is no longer suffering, where love no longer bears fruit in pain. The Cross is the bridge—the only one—between Earth and Heaven. Suffering is part of the price of admission for an eternity of life and love. Let us learn this noble truth and embrace the transforming power of the Cross of Christ.

The One Who Conquers

That would be Jesus Christ, right? Of course, but guess what? It’s also you and I, if we’re going to be found worthy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps we don’t like the military sound of “conquer,” but if it is to be used concerning sin and death, then yes, obliterate, annihilate, and utterly crush them! This is what Jesus has done through his death and resurrection. The Byzantine Churches constantly remember this every time we make the mystery of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection present though the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Stamped into the altar bread, the “Lamb”, is a cross with the initials IC XC NI KA in the four corners, which mean: “Jesus Christ conquers.”

But behold, in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation, the promises concerning the Paradise of everlasting life in are made to “the one who conquers.” This refers to believers who conquer. (E.g. “To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”; 2:7). What do we have to conquer?

It looks like we have to conquer the same thing that Jesus had to conquer, but in its manifestation in our own lives. And we can only do it with his grace, for He alone is the true Conqueror of sin and death. But there’s something else (or rather, someone else) we have to conquer: ourselves. There’s a lot we have to “get over” before we are ready for Heaven, a lot we must deny; there are crosses to carry.

Part of the problem is that we are far too interested in ourselves to conquer these same selves. We prefer to “find” ourselves, enhance our self-image, get in touch with ourselves, and, let’s face it, coddle and pamper ourselves and expect everyone else to do the same. But it is precisely all that self-seeking that must be conquered if we are, ultimately, to realize our true selves in the light of God and his Heaven.

Thomas Howard wrote an article 3 decades ago which is, except perhaps for a bit of dated jargon, quite timely for today. For we are as much the “me generation” today as we were in the 70s. It is rather facetiously entitled, “Who Am I? Who Am I?” It is only by self-forgetfulness that true selfhood is realized. We discover our identity by seeking the Other, in whom alone is our truth and meaning. A few excerpts from his article:

“Everyone’s identity has got lost somewhere. That is the assumption. Who am I? we ask, and can find neither an answer nor any sage who can tell us where to look. To be sure, we attempt it: you can stop at a thousand roadside palmists in Florida and find solace… or you can sign in with a guru of one sort or another, or join a group that will nudge you along toward an answer by getting you to sit in a circle with them, or breathe with them, or take off your clothes, or dance with them, or work through your hang-ups with them…

“Where was it lost, this thing we pursue with such zeal? Is it not a naked contradiction for us to be asserting that such a thing as our identity can even be in doubt? Surely (a visitor from another planet might protest), you can’t mean what you’re saying—that you aren’t sure who you are! You’re you, clearly. What is it you want to know?

“Ah, yes, we would have to explain wearily, but there’s more to it than that… You think this is what we are, but if you were to poke into us a bit you would find that what is in there has only a very tenuous connection with what you see… We’ve tried poking, and whatever it is in there feels more and more like less and less. Most disquieting.

“But how, our interlocutor might pursue, did this state of affairs come about? I have never yet met creatures who weren’t sure who they were What would we say? It would be extremely difficult to rake back through history and locate the spot where the question Who am I? pushed its way to center stage… somewhere in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, no doubt—when, having exiled the gods, we had nothing left to contemplate but ourselves…

“If we look through ancient history, we find that the question ‘Who art Thou?’ is much more lively than the question ‘Who am I?’ … Who art Thou, Lord? … No one is asked for input. No one’s convenience or comfort is considered. And there is not a syllable’s worth of recognition given to any problems someone might have over discovering who he is…

“Perhaps, being the Word of God, [Jesus] will speak comfort to us and affirm us in our sorrowful quest for ourselves. What does he say? Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Deny yourself. Follow me. Be kind. Be faithful…

“Yes. Yes of course. All that. But is there a word about my self-image? … After all, I must find out who I am before I can do anything else.

“Must you? ‘To him that overcometh [or, conquereth] will I give a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it’ [Rev. 2:17]. Your identity, perhaps, is a great treasure, precious beyond your wildest imaginings, kept for you by the great Custodian of souls to be given to you at the Last Day when all things are made whole…

“There is a curious lack of any suggestion that our business is to find out who we are… I discover, lo and behold, my real freedom and personhood not in looking for it, but in learning to love God and my neighbor… We have no warrant to suggest alternatives. The saints are the ones who have won through to that glorious state of affairs—despite whatever frightful personal limitations they staggered along under—where giving equals receiving, and self-forgetfulness equals, lo, self-discovery. The white stone is given, not sought. If that name engraved on that stone is not our identity, then what is it? …

“[The] acute self-consciousness and self-scrutiny that has been laid on us by the sciences of the last one hundred years may be a burden beyond our capacity to manage. Our ids may be there, so to speak, but they may be none of our business, just as the fruit in Eden was there but was not healthy for us to chew on.”

Our true identity comes first from our creation in the image of God, but it also uniquely given to each of us by Him. It is definitively manifested (and understood) only at last, when all is accomplished, and we are give our own “new name.” Our task is to be the ones who conquer, who overcome, by grace and hard work, all self-centeredness and self-seeking, all maudlin agonizing over our self-conjured identity crises—and rather deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him who leads us to the fullness of life. Let our lifelong search not be “Who am I?” but rather “Who art Thou, Lord?”

Called to Heaven

We begin the cycle of St Luke after the feast of the Holy Cross in the same way we begin the cycle of St Matthew after Pentecost: with an account of the calling of the first disciples. In some religious orders, the feast of the Cross is the dividing line for their summer and winter schedules. In some Churches the feast of the Cross marks a new liturgical time: the Sundays are counted no longer as Sundays after Pentecost but as Sundays after the Cross. So it is appropriate to have a Gospel about Jesus calling his disciples: it is a new time, a new beginning, an invitation for us to renew and deepen our own response to God’s call.

Each person’s calling, like each one’s relationship to God, is unique, even though it may fit into some general category, like marriage, priesthood, or monastic life. So I can’t hope to discuss the details of every particular calling. But there are some basic elements of every calling from the Lord, for all callings come from the same source, God, and all callings are ultimately an invitation to Heaven, to eternal life with Him who calls us.

In the Gospel today (Lk 5:1-11), we see that any vocation begins with hearing the word of God and responding to it. Jesus first asked Peter to use his boat as a pulpit. Peter readily agreed. But then Jesus asked Peter something that Peter didn’t agree with—and here we might see ourselves offering some resistance to what God is asking of us. Peter’s response was two-fold: his objection to what Jesus asked, followed by his acceptance of it. We may also find ourselves struggling with the demands of God’s word to us, but we must comefishing.jpg to the point of acceptance of it—not necessarily because we suddenly understand what He means, or because we find a way to agree with it, but simply because we recognize the divine source and hence authority of the call. Peter’s objection to going out to fish again was: “We have toiled all night and caught nothing!” But he recognized the authority of God in the words of Jesus and so he immediately added: “But at your word I will let down the nets.” We must do the same. We may have our personal objections to what our vocation requires of us, but we have to recognize the authority of God in his word, and in those who have been entrusted with his authority, and respond: “OK, at your word I will do it.”

Because of Peter’s obedience, Jesus worked a miracle for him. Now our obedience may not immediately result in manifest miracles—and this is where God’s calling for the majority of people differs from that of the calling of Peter, James, and John—but Jesus is not required to work miracles in all cases, only to give the necessary grace to say yes to whatever He asks, and this He unfailingly gives. Even without a miracle, we will recognize the presence of Jesus in the context of his call to us.

The next step of our response must be like Peter’s: repentance, that is, the recognition of our sinfulness in the presence of the Lord’s holiness. When Peter realized that a miracle was worked before his eyes, he immediately saw himself in the pure light of Christ and felt his utter unworthiness, so he exclaimed: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Religious anthropologists tell us that this is one of the first and basic reactions of man to the presence of the Holy: the awareness of one’s own lack of holiness, and hence the desire, if not to flee from the holy presence, at least to completely humble oneself in repentance and confessions of unworthiness.

We shouldn’t assume that we are somehow worthy of God’s call to serve Him or even simply of salvation. When the Lord’s presence is manifested in our lives, we shouldn’t have the attitude of: “what took you so long?” Rather, we should say: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” When St Symeon the New Theologian had a profound experience of the presence of God, all he could say, over and over, was “Lord, have mercy!”

But what does it mean, in practice, to respond to God’s call? Again, I can’t speak here of the multitude of different ministries, services, and ways of life that are available to Christians. But last Sunday’s readings give us the bottom line of what it means to respond to the calling of God. We have to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. This is a basic element of every Christian vocation without exception.

After the miraculous catch of fish, Jesus did not sit down with Peter and go over the package deal He had prepared for him, with its various financial incentives, benefits, stock options, and retirement plan. No, He just invited Peter and his friends to follow Him, and they did. No questions asked. Just follow. They would be briefed along the way, and they would learn just what it meant to deny themselves and take up their crosses. They would learn what it meant to lose their lives in order to save them. They would learn the theology of the Cross—not in a classroom but in their own bodies and souls, in the struggles of life as Jesus’ disciples. They would experience the agony and the ecstasy, the sorrow and the joy, the death and the resurrection that are part and parcel of the life of one who says “yes” to Jesus.

But what is all this for? Why leave everything and follow Him? Why take up the cross? Why deny ourselves? The basic reason is simply for love of Jesus, but there is another reason, an ultimate one, which is at the same time the fulfillment of our love for Jesus, and that is: Heaven. We respond to God’s calling, we take up the cross and follow Jesus because we desire eternal life; his call is to everlasting happiness. We are following Him to Paradise. We have to be clear on this, so that short-term projects and goals—or worse, our own selfish expectations of life—don’t obscure the reason we are following Him in the first place: we are on our way to Heaven.

You might say that this is obvious; we all want to go to Heaven. Yes, but is that general wish manifested in practical ways in our daily lives? And is Heaven so important to us that we are willing to forsake everything else to attain it? How do we know that we are really living for Heaven and not for this passing world?

Here are a few practical points to ponder. (We may be unpleasantly surprised to discover that in fact Heaven is just a peripheral point in our basically earth-centered, self-centered lives.) If you get disappointed because things don’t go your way, you are living for earth and not for Heaven. If you get upset, indignant, and defensive when someone points out a fault of yours—rather than being grateful for the opportunity to repent of it so you don’t have to take it with you to the judgment seat of God—you are living for earth and not for Heaven. If you resist or complain about the demands of your state in life, whether the monastic vows or the requirements of family and other responsibilities—you are living for earth and not for Heaven. If you refuse to accept sufferings, hardships, and even occasional ill-treatment, refuse to accommodate another’s wishes, or if you return evil for evil, or hold grudges or refuse to forgive, or in any way insist on your own ideas or opinions, you are living for earth and not for Heaven.

Why is this? It is simply because you thus manifest in practice—despite what you might say or think—that your own present comfort, self-esteem, personal vindication or preferences in life are the most important things to you. If you don’t act like you are living for Heaven, then you aren’t living for Heaven–let’s decide today to drop all self-deception in this matter. If you are living for Heaven, all these selfish things that belong to this passing life will be of little concern to you, for your eyes are fixed on Jesus and the fulfillment of his promises in you. You will be equally content if things go your way or if they don’t. For this is not your home, this is not your destiny. Heaven is your home and destiny, and if you really live for Heaven, you will not respond inappropriately to insignificant things of this life. This is a tall order, but Heaven is a tall place.

To have our eyes and hearts fixed on Heaven does not mean that we don’t take seriously our earthly responsibilities—for our fidelity and obedience on earth will decide whether or not we will go to Heaven—but does mean that we won’t take ourselves too seriously, we won’t be touchy, easily offended, judgmental or suspicious of others. People who are going to Heaven don’t act as if it is of utmost importance to get their way on earth.

So let us hear the voice of the Lord calling us to Heaven, calling us out of our selfishness, calling us to serve Him by serving his people, calling us to take up our crosses willingly and to follow Him, that we may let go of everything that would hinder our straight path to his Kingdom. Our answer to his call—not in mere words but in actions—will be our decision to live for Heaven.

How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place

Just in case you’ve been holding your breath waiting for this, my new book is now available. The full title is How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place: Lifting the Veils on the Presence of God. If you’re wondering what it is about, I checked the back cover and found this:

The great quest of man is to discover God. The great desire of God is to reveal Himself to man. This quest and this desire meet in the human recognition of the divine presence—and in the life of blessed communion that flows from this encounter. Or rather, from these encounters, for a life of faith and love for God is characterized by an endless series of revelations and discoveries, of calls and responses, both major and minor. In How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place, Abbot Joseph helps the reader “lift the veils” that tend to conceal the mysteries of God, so that it is easier to recognize and enjoy his presence. Since God is Creator, He can be found in the beauty and wonders of his creation. Since God has created man in his own image and likeness, his presence can be experienced through human beings. And since God has sent his Son Jesus Christ to save us from our sins and to bring us to the fullness of life, He can also be known and experienced in the life of faith, prayer and worship offered through his Church. Once you learn how to “lift the veils,” you will receive a foretaste of the great riches and profound joys of what God has prepared for those who love Him. You will begin to perceive the God who is “everywhere present and filling all things.”

It’s not too early to think of Christmas gifts! You’ll find ordering information in the blogroll on your right. Just click on “Abbot Joseph’s Books.” (This one is not yet available at Amazon.) If you’re not sure whether you can spare the cash, just think of me eating dog food and freezing all winter, trying to write another book that nobody buys. Feeling guilty yet?

Anyway, I hope it will bring some light and blessing to you. Limit: 20 copies per person :-).

On Riches and Righteousness, Part 2

There’s another point that most people don’t think about when they read about the rich young man. I think we should call this story not merely that of the “Rich Young Man,” but rather of the “Rich and Pious Young Man,” because there’s another issue here about putting your trust in something else besides God. This is a little more subtle, and therefore a little more difficult to eradicate in people’s hearts. Some people tend put their trust in their own piety, in their own righteousness. Again, it’s so easy for someone who keeps all the commandments and does everything right and is virtuous in the eyes of the whole world (and in his or her own eyes), to say: “Oh, I put my trust in God!” Well sure, it’s easy to say that, but what you’re really doing is putting your trust in yourself. You’re putting your trust in your own righteousness: “I do everything right; I fulfill all the commandments, and God has to let me into the Kingdom; it’s a matter of justice, you know. He’s not going to turn me away!” So in whom are you trusting? Yourself. Your own works, your own righteousness, your o13-pharisee.jpgwn piety. But that can be an obstacle, too.

You’ll see Jesus pointing that out in many places in the Gospel, especially when He deals with the professionally pious—the Pharisees. They kept all the commandments, down to the last detail, and they were virtuous, as the law prescribed virtue. But Jesus had little more than condemnation for them. He said to the Pharisees, “The prostitutes and the public scoundrels are going into the Kingdom before you!” Boy, how do you think that stung them! They were the pious and the righteous (and also the “church hierarchy” of the time), but Jesus is saying: “No! The prostitutes—they are better than you!” Why? Because the prostitutes and the publicans were the ones who had nothing else to trust in but the mercy of God. They knew what trust is! You can’t know what trust is if you’re the paragon of righteousness yourself, all the time, as far as your external observances and your piety and your doing everything that you’re supposed to do are concerned. If you’re not actually a genuine saint, you will end up trusting in your own self, in your own goodness and your own piety; and then you don’t even know what it means to trust in God.

What happens then? You can say, when everything’s going right, “Oh! I trust in God!” But what happens when your whole life falls down around you, and you find yourself unexpectedly in a state of sin or in some situation that you can’t get out of, that compares you unfavorably with the righteous, or you’re somehow stuck, perhaps bound by some twist or quirk of church law—what do you have then? Then you’re like the publicans and the prostitutes: you have nothing to rely on in yourself! You can’t say, “I have good works. I have righteousness. I say all my prayers.” You don’t have anything! Trust becomes a life-or-death matter. You’re out of your comfort zone. You’re treading on thin ice and literally have nothing but a prayer.

The Pharisee said, “I pray, I fast, I tithe…” right to the face of God, telling Him what he does, listing the reasons why he should be admired by all and welcomed into Heaven. The Publican, in that parable, didn’t have anything to offer God. He couldn’t say, “I keep the commandments; I do what is right”—for he didn’t do any of that. All he could say was, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And what did Jesus say? He’s the one that gets into Heaven! Not the one who was parading his righteousness and trusting in himself.

That’s something that turns our common-sense mentality, and our common religious mentality, upside down—because we don’t want it to be that way. We want to be sure that if we do the right stuff we’re going to get what we tell ourselves we deserve: glory forever in Heaven! And that also usually gives us the “right” (we think) to look down on other people: “Those publicans and those prostitutes out there, and all those evil-doers and sinners—well, look at them! They don’t believe in God like I do; they don’t say the prayers like I do; they don’t do everything ‘by the book’ like I do!”

Well! You might wonder how God looks at all of this, and where we stand in the lineup. We have to learn how to really trust in God’s mercy. Now this is not, of course, an invitation to break God’s commandments, as if being unrighteous were the preferred mode of being. But if we look at ourselves honestly enough, peeling back our thin veneer of inflated self-estimation or presumed righteousness, we’ll see that in fact, as we are at this moment, we really don’t have anything of our own to trust in. We have to rely on God’s mercy. If we honestly look at ourselves, we would see that we are already no better than publicans and prostitutes, and that we really have nothing to offer God—except our need for his mercy every day of our lives.

So Jesus is saying: Don’t put trust in anything else. Riches are an obstacle to the rich for entering Heaven. Piety is an obstacle for the pious for entering Heaven. We have nothing, except the mercy of God, the love of God—that’s it. The sooner we understand that, the better—and the more our lives will become authentic, and more “perfect” in the sense that Jesus is talking about being perfect, of having our treasure only in Heaven.

It should go without saying that it is necessary and good to do good, to pray, fast, give alms, etc. This is expected of us and belongs to the life of a disciple of Christ. But the reasons that we do these things, what we expect from them, where we think they place us vis-à-vis God, and how we regard ourselves (and others) because of them, makes all the difference in the world as to what they do or do not contribute to our attainment of eternal life.

When Jesus says things are possible to God that are impossible to man, He is indicating not just the sheer fact that God has more power to shake the universe than man does, but He’s saying: “Why don’t you look at things from God’s perspective, and you will understand how things become possible when you see things in a different way, and when you’re willing to change your life, and to drop your ‘righteous’ façade, and just be who you are, and know that you are nothing without the mercy of God, and hence that that’s where your only hope lies.”

Then you start to change. Then you start to become a follower of Jesus. Then you don’t have to walk away sad, because you know that Jesus accepts you as you are and will draw you into a kind of perfection that you could never attain by yourself, that you could never attain by some program of spiritual exercises, but that you could only attain by a dynamic, living, completely open and trusting relationship with Christ Himself. For if you’re totally honest with Him and let Him see all the junk inside, you can say, “I have nothing to give You but my need for your mercy.” He can work with that.

He can’t work with someone who says, “I fast twice a week, and give ten per cent to my favorite charity,” or whatever. He would say, as He said so many times, “OK, you have your reward. Go enjoy your own self-righteousness—but that’s all you get.” But for the rest, He says, “Come into my Father’s House—you, who have nothing but Me to rely on.”

That’s the message of this Gospel passage. It’s not so much about wealth and poverty; it’s about putting your trust in the only place where you can truly place trust: in God. Not in yourself, not in things, not in money, not even in an admirable spiritual track record—not in anything but the mercy of God. Then you will see, when you begin to do that and take an honest look at your life and throw yourself upon the mercy of God—and never dare to look down on somebody else whom you think is “less worthy” than yourself—then you will see just what is possible with God.

On Riches and Righteousness, Part 1

“If you would be perfect….” Thus spoke the Lord to the rich young man of the Gospel. Thus speaks the richyoungman.jpgLord to us as well. We might think to ourselves, “Well, thanks, but I don’t really need to be perfect—I’ll just be OK.” But is that good enough? In this Scripture passage, Jesus gives the man an option concerning perfection, but in another place, perfection is a commandment. Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

Now what does that mean, to be perfect? Does it mean to be utterly flawless and infallible, as only God can be by nature? It can’t mean that, for then Jesus would have no business commanding such a thing. But in the context of the commandment to be perfect, Jesus is saying, “Be like God, who withholds his gifts from no one, and who has mercy on everyone equally.” Such is the context of that commandment.

Here, we have another context in which Jesus invites to perfection, but in a similar way it’s still for the sake of our becoming more like God, more like Christ, and this context concerns having our treasure in Heaven. That’s the basis for the perfection to which Jesus calls us. I think that if we want to have treasure in Heaven, this kind of perfection is not an option, because we need to be like Christ and his Father.

Let’s see what was going on with this rich man and why he failed to respond to the Lord’s invitation. He approached Jesus, asking what he must do to gain eternal life: what can I do for this? Now, this is interesting because it gives us an insight into the mentality of the rich, because after he’d explained himself a little further, he said, “what do I lack, what must I still do?” After all, he’d said that he had kept all the commandments. So we have an example here of even the rich having a sense of lack, of still needing something, of having a certain emptiness in life—but usually their response to that is to fill up the emptiness with more riches and possessions. They just keep doing that, but there’s still something they lack, and they seem not to know what it is. Jesus will point it out in the Gospel.

Even more to the point concerning this mentality is that the rich, since they’re used to getting everything they want—because they can afford everything they want—think they can do the same thing with the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s like this: “What do I have to do to get Heaven? I’ve got everything else; I can afford it, just name the price! Tell me what I need to do to get Heaven, and I’ll pay for it. What do you want, more lambs for sacrifices in the Temple? Sure, I’ll buy a thousand lambs. What does it take? I’ll give it, whatever!”

But Jesus had to address that mentality. You can’t acquire Heaven on your own—not by having something that you can offer as purchase price, something other than who and what you are: “Here, I’ll give this, I’ll buy my way into Heaven; I’ll give alms and secure my place in the Kingdom.” That’s not enough, and that’s not what Jesus is looking for.

This doesn’t work for the rich young man, who wanted to “do something more.” He was a pious young man as well—and we’ll see later that that can be just as much an obstacle as riches. But Jesus starts him out by giving the basics: “Keep the commandments.” The man says, “OK. I’ve kept the commandments; now what?” So he knew there was something lacking, but he still didn’t realize just what was lacking, because he was attached not only to his riches, but also to his own mentality and his own custom of getting whatever he wanted because he could afford it. He wants the Kingdom of Heaven? Well, there must be some way to get that, too, and so he goes to the Teacher who has all the answers—but he got an answer that he didn’t expect, and not only that he didn’t expect but that he couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

This is really why he went away sad. Maybe he thought about it for a couple of months or years, and then changed his perspective and came back; we don’t know what happened to him. But it seems that it was precisely because of his mentality that he couldn’t respond at that moment: he short-circuited, he overloaded; his mind could not accept it. Because what Jesus was saying to him was this: in order to get what you want, that is, the Kingdom of Heaven, you have to give up what you think you need to get it! So it’s the very means that you want to use to get what you want, that’s what you have to give up, in order to obtain what you want. That just did not compute, for he could buy everything, and yet Jesus is saying: if you want this, you have to get rid of all that with which you can afford to buy everything.

If he were prone to histrionics, he might well have rent his garments, exclaiming, “That cannot be! This doesn’t work! How can you say such a thing?” But he just sadly went away shaking his head, probably thinking, “Who is this guy? I don’t get this!” He just walked away.

Therefore Jesus had to speak about the difficulty of the rich entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But it’s not the rich as such, or money as such, that’s the problem. You see, Jesus did not say, “Money is a bad thing.” If money were bad in itself, He wouldn’t say, “Give it to the poor.” Why would He tell him to give something bad to the poor, whom He loved so much? So it’s not the money itself, but it’s the reliance on money, on things, on possessions—the false security that comes from such reliance, and the mentality which creates the idea that by means of such things you can have what you want, even the Kingdom of Heaven.

Well, you can’t. So Jesus says you have to put your trust in something else: not in money and possessions. That’s why He said to the apostles, “It’s so hard for someone who is rich to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Not because they have a lot, but because what they have becomes an idol, a god for them: it becomes that in which they put their trust.

It’s easy for someone who’s wealthy to say, “Oh, God is so good!” when everything is going their way and they have everything they want. What if everything were taken away from them? Would they still say, “God is good; God is wonderful”? No, they would most likely be cursing God! So Jesus has to cut through the baloney here; cut through that false security, that mentality that doesn’t see things the way they should be seen, the way they really are.

As for the apostles, their mentality was fundamentally no different than this rich young man. They didn’t have the riches, but they still had the mentality because they too thought (and this was common at that time) that riches and possessions were a sign of divine favor and blessing. That’s why they said, trembling and incredulous, “Who then can be saved?” If the rich can’t be saved, or if it’s so hard to save the rich, who can be saved? The rich are the ones who have divine favor and blessing, so if those who are favored by God can’t be saved, well then, what about the rest of us?

So they had a mistaken idea, too, about this whole business, and Jesus had to patiently explain everything to them by saying: you can’t put your trust in anything other than God. That was probably another reason for the confusion of the rich man. Why should he have to give up that which (he thought) indicated he was already favored and blessed by God?

To be continued…

Do You Love Me?

It seems that Peter and the other disciples were initially not quite sure what to make of the resurrection of Jesus. We read in John 20 that they saw the empty tomb, and later they saw Jesus when He appeared to them in the upper room. Then He left, and the disciples were apparently at a loss as to what to do next. Some time must have gone by without any further appearances. So Peter decided to do what he did best—he went fishing.

Did he think that God had simply vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead and taking Him back to Heaven? Peter didn’t seem to be aware that he had any special mission at that point. Perhaps he simply figured that life would just go on, with the happy memories of the risen Messiah, in the grace of the Holy Spirit. So he and his friends went back to work (Jn 21).

But something went wrong. They were used to catching fish, and now no fish would come near them. God was telling them that after all they had seen and heard, they could not simply go back to their miracle_of_the_fishermen.jpgprevious lives. The resurrection of Jesus had permanently changed everything. So the Lord got their attention—first by preventing the catching of any fish and then by giving them a huge catch by the power of his word. John was the first to realize that this was a new appearance of the risen Lord.

Jesus made it clear that this extraordinary load of fish was not a sign that He was going henceforth to make them prosperous fisherman. Neither did He have any need of their fish, as evidenced by the fact that when they brought their catch ashore, Jesus was already cooking fish on a charcoal fire! What He needed was their hearts, their love and loyalty, and then they would be catching souls instead of fish.

So the Lord had to make Peter swear the “oath of fidelity”: “Do you love Me more than these?” This question is somewhat ambiguous, for it can be interpreted either as “Do you love Me more than you love these others?” or as “Do you love Me more than these others love Me?” I think the latter is to be preferred, since Jesus was about to make Peter the shepherd of his flock, and as such his love for Jesus ought to be greater than that of the others. Peter patiently endured the three-fold question about his love, perhaps realizing that Jesus was requiring of him three-fold repentance for his earlier three-fold denial.

Jesus gave Peter a double mission, one that belongs to all authority in the Church, even the highest. “Feed my sheep” is the mission to teach, preach, and otherwise minister to the people of God. “Follow Me” is the other side of the coin. Any delegated shepherd is still a sheep in relation to the Chief Shepherd. Only one who follows Jesus faithfully and wholeheartedly will be able to minister to others in the Spirit of Jesus.

Even if we are not all called to bear authority in the Church of Christ, we all have to take that “oath of fidelity.” We have to hear Jesus asking us if we love Him. But it’s not enough even to love Him. He will ask us: “Do you love me more than [fill in the blank]?” What is it that may be competing against love for Jesus in your heart? Is there anything or anyone you love more than Him? There cannot be, if you are to be his devoted follower and friend. We may think that perhaps we can simply acknowledge the death and resurrection of Jesus and then get on with our other occupations, making of Him something of a memory instead of the ever-present and indispensable meaning and destiny of our lives. We’ll find that our attempts to get along without Him will leave us with empty nets, and we will have to face Him, profess our love for Him, and follow Him—if we are to have peace in this life and eternal joy in the next.

Let Jesus, then, ask you that all-important question, and answer Him honestly, even if you think it’s not the answer He’s looking for. Just be willing to “do whatever He tells you” after that, and little by little you will discover that indeed, you love Him more than anything else.

The Word of the Cross

“We preach lauras-crucifixion-icon.jpgChrist crucified,” declares the Apostle Paul in the epistle for this feast (1Cor 1:18-24), “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Divine power, divine wisdom, manifested in the crucifixion of Jesus. This is the “word of the Cross,” as Paul said, which is “folly to those who are perishing,” but is the power of God “to us who are being saved.” On this solemn feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, we preach Christ crucified, we preach the word of the Cross.

What can we say about this “word of the Cross”? We all know something of the theology of the Cross, the atonement for our sins through the self-emptying sacrifice of the Son of God. But before we theologize too much, let us simply look at the Gospel to get the word of the Cross from the evangelist who was an eyewitness. Let us learn from what he saw and heard.

In the passion account in the Gospel of John, Pontius Pilate plays a pivotal role, moreso than in the other Gospels. There is a fairly extensive dialogue between Jesus and Pilate that we do not find elsewhere. This dialogue has to do with true kingship, true power, and truth itself.

But let’s back up just a little. The first word of the Cross is the complete innocence of Jesus, the unblemished lamb offered in sacrifice for our sins. Pilate asked the chief priests what crime Jesus was being charged with. They couldn’t produce one, so they answered evasively: “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over.”

Pilate declares on three separate occasions: “I find no crime in Him.” But Pilate was a coward. He wouldn’t stand up for the truth, because truth was a fluid concept for him; it could be invoked, ignored, or manipulated, depending on the expediency of the moment. Jesus had told him that He came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and then Pilate uttered his famously concise manifesto of relativism: “What is truth?” Pilate will prove that he is not interested in justice, but only in avoiding a confrontation with the mob.

So, after the first time Pilate said he found no crime in Jesus, he had Him scourged. Pilate thus says, in effect: I declare Him innocent; therefore I will have Him tortured. After the second time Pilate declared his innocence, he may have had a qualm of conscience. He was afraid that Jesus might be the Son of God after all, so he took Him aside and questioned him further, but ended by asserting his own supposed authority to crucify or release Him. Finally, after publicly declaring Jesus innocent for the third time, he handed Him over to be crucified. If this happens to the green wood, Jesus would say to the weeping women, what will happen to the dry? If the innocent are unjustly condemned, how much worse will things go for the guilty?

Pilate did something else that was less unjust, but it still is not to his credit, for he was but an unwitting instrument of God: He proclaimed the kingship of Jesus. (This is something like Caiaphas prophesying that Jesus would die for the people. The evangelist said he did not say this on his own, but as high priest he prophesied unwittingly.) The kingship of Jesus is another word of the Cross. Not only is Jesus the innocent Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world through his passion and death, He is also the King of Glory who is universally exalted for this atoning sacrifice.

Six times Pilate declares Jesus King. First, in their private conversation he acknowledges it: “So then, you are a king.” Later he turns to the crowd and says: “Will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?” After Jesus was scourged and crowned with thorns, Pilate presented Him, saying: “Behold your King!” He asked them: “Shall I crucify your King?” Then Pilate ordered an inscription to be posted on Jesus’ Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Finally, he reiterated this proclamation when the chief priests objected to it. He curtly said, “What I have written, I have written.”

Another word of the Cross is the fulfillment of Scripture, of the Old Testament prophecies. They divided his garments and cast lots for his robe. He thirsted and they gave him vinegar to drink. They broke none of his bones, but looked upon Him whom they had pierced. Jesus is the Messiah, the Suffering Servant of God, by whose wounds we are healed. He carried our sorrows and afflictions, He bore our punishment, He made himself an offering for sin, and upon Him God laid the iniquity of us all. He poured out his soul to death and was numbered among evildoers, yet He bore the sin of many and made intercession for transgressors.

When He knew that his sacrifice was accomplished and accepted by the Father, He bowed his head and said: “It is finished.” As He said in his high-priestly prayer, which was fulfilled on the Cross, “I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work which You gave me to do.” It is finished, and all that remains is for the world to gain eternal life through faith in the only true God and in Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.

This is the central word of the Cross. Jesus did what He was sent to do. He revealed the Father, He preached the truth about God and man, He gave us, as St Basil says, “precepts of salvation,” that we might know how to live according to the will of God. But the essence of what Jesus was sent to do is revealed on the Cross. He was sent to manifest the love of God to the point of total sacrifice, and He was to do this for the sake of sinners, reconciling us to the Father so that we might enjoy the abundant life He came to give. When Jesus knew that He had loved us fully and completely from the heart, when He knew that the reconciliation of sinners had taken place in his own tortured flesh, when He knew that in offering Himself to the Father on our behalf He was taking our sins away, when He saw from afar the flaming swords of the cherubim withdrawing from the gates of Paradise—now opened—He bowed his head and said, “It is finished.”

St John ends his account by assuring us that it is an eyewitness testimony, and that this testimony is true. It bears the seal of divine revelation.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate. The word of the Cross is truth. It is the power of God for us who are being saved. People are perishing, however, because they think this word is foolishness. They reject their only hope of salvation, of entering through the gate of Paradise, which is opened only with the key of the Life-giving Cross.

But today, we who preach and believe in Christ crucified, who accept the word of the Cross and find in it the wisdom and power of God, exalt the Cross and celebrate our liberation from the power of sin and of the “second death”. We raise the cross in our liturgical service, direct it toward the four corners of the Earth, and continuously implore the Lord’s mercy for this world which He has created—and redeemed at the price of his own blood.

Finally, then, the word of the Cross is divine mercy. Many people tend to think of the Cross as a burden, something we have to haul around like a ball and chain, something that restricts us in the free exercise of self-indulgence, something that hangs over us like a threat of punishment. It may very well be all that if you are among those who are perishing, those who think the word of the Cross is folly. But the mystery of the Cross is essentially the mystery of mercy, of the God who so loved the world that He gave his only Son to suffer and die on the Cross to take away our sins and bring us to everlasting life. The Cross is our refuge, our hope, the only light when all is darkness, the only anchor when we’ve lost our moorings, the only way to get out of the mire of sin that we’re always getting stuck in.

Let us, then, not limit our experience of the mystery of the Cross to our liturgical celebration, but let us welcome that self-sacrificing love of Jesus into every aspect of our daily lives. Let us seek from Him the grace to love as He loves, to walk the demanding but life-giving way of the Cross, which is indispensable for our salvation and eternal happiness. Let us not only preach Christ crucified but embrace and follow Him wholeheartedly, and thus be lifted up to the joy of the heavenly Kingdom—where we will behold our King, not humiliated and condemned, but radiant with the glory of his everlasting love.

On the Mystical Life

Why must the Church’s “ordinary time” be interrupted with extraordinary time? Is it to relieve the tedium of the same round of services day after day? I don’t think so, since feast-day services can be even more tedious due to their extra length, making your tired body and word-weary mind wonder if this is not a penitential service after all! It seems to me that we need to keep returning to the celebration of the mysteries of Christ and the Holy Mother because we need to be reminded often that the meaning of life is discovered only in the quest for communion with the Mystery of God.

What is it that is most needed today in the Church, in her mentality and practice, and in Christianity as a whole? Is it more focus on the external trappings of religion, more bureaucracy, more programs and projects, more uninspired worship? No, we don’t need that. Still less do we need insipid preaching, shady politics, corruption and hypocrisy, self-righteousness, narrow-mindedness, superficial spirituality, loveless truth and truthless love, irrelevant or misguided agendas, and emphasis on extraneous and petty concerns at the expense of the One Thing Necessary. We already have plenty of all that. Simply put, what the Church (and all humanity) needs most urgently and fundamentally is genuine mysticism. That is the lifeblood of souls and of the Church, the hidden “river of life” essential to spiritual vitality and the fulfillment of God’s dream for the perfection of his Bride.

If we trade in the search for God for the search for self-satisfaction, divine truth for political correctness, contemplation for committees, inner stillness for restless busyness, and silent solitude for back-slapping fellowship, we are fleeing from the essence of the Christian mystery. Not that there is no place for external activities and functions. They are necessary in their own right. But the Church is essentially the mystical Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ—not the “Office For Trying to Solve More Problems Than We Can Handle and For Creating New Ones of Our Own.”

Christ came to reveal the Father and to prepare us to receive the Spirit in order to live the “abundant life,” even the “eternal life,” starting now on Earth. He died and rose again to restore mankind and all creation to its original blessedness, to liberate us all from “the law of sin and death.” So the Apostle Paul exhorts us, who through baptism have mystically died and risen with Christ, to set our hearts and minds on “things above,” for our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:1-3). He was not writing only to monks or hermits but to a whole Christian community of people in all walks of life.

All too often Christianity is understood as a kind of moral code or social program. Rather, it is primarily the revelation of a creating, saving, transcendent, immanent God, and of a divine-human communion that is meant to begin on Earth and last for all eternity. One has only to consider the Johannine mysticism of mutual indwelling, the Pauline vision of the glorified Christ who fills the universe (and us) with Himself, the biblical language of Christ in us and us in Christ, as well as the metaphors of the Vine, the Body, and the Temple of the Spirit, to understand that Christianity sets us squarely within a vast, profound and inexhaustible mystery. (Of course, a genuine spiritual life will naturally overflow and be manifested in the practice of virtue and charitable works. Here, however, we are not discussing the outward expression but the inner essence. For practical applications, read the rest of Colossians 3.)

The interior life, what we may call our mystical relationship with God, is an essential and irreplaceable dimension of our Christian and human existence. When I speak of mysticism, however, I do not identify it with the experiences of “visionaries,” of those who see heavenly visions or hear voices or receive divine messages for the world. Those experiences—I speak here of authentic ones, not those created by psychological disorders, demonic interference, or uncontrolled pious imagination—are relatively rare and not given to all. Visions and voices are not the essence of spiritual life, but mystical union with God is. Our life in God does not need to be dramatic to be real and transforming.

Mysticism is no more and no less than the experience of God, an undeniable communion or communication with God in the depths of the soul. This experience may be granted us during prayer or sacramental communion or reading the word of God, or in the awareness of his presence in the beauty of creation. Many are the ways in which we can experience God, but it is always God who takes the initiative. All we can do is be well-disposed for that interior divine manifestation or loving advance. We cannot manufacture mystical experiences. That is why they cannot be identified with emotional or spiritual “highs” or with altered psychological states, even though such may sometimes accompany mystical experiences.

in-god.jpgFundamentally, the mystical life is a life lived with and in God, being led and “walking” by the Spirit. God is both the goal of our pilgrimage and our companion on the way. In God we live and move and breathe and have our being. We were created for divine communion. “Birds fly, fish swim, and man prays,” is a patristic dictum. When prayer and the awareness of the presence of God characterize your whole life and define your reason of being, you have become a mystic. Congratulations!

We must give much “quality time” to the exploration of the world of prayer and meditation, to the search for “Him whom our hearts love.” Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the renewal of the Church and the transformation of the world. We can think that we make no difference in this grandiose endeavor only if we do not believe that we are united to Christ, the Wisdom and Power of God. We have to give what is possible to give according to our state in life, whether we are monks or mommies, hermits or hard-working heads of households. All alike are called to drink of the life-giving waters of spiritual union with God, and thus fully realize the divine dream for us that was first expressed at the moment of our creation.

I seem to have undertaken an immense and unwieldy topic in this post. All I really wanted to say is that we need more than ever to “seek out and save what was lost,” i.e., the comprehensive vision of the mystery of Christ and the true essence of the Church. I wanted to say that we need to open ourselves to be permeated with the Divine Energies and led by the Spirit into the depths of this mystery, that our lives need to be hidden with Christ in God, through contemplative prayer and the experience of the God who transcends all and indwells all, who renews the face of the earth and transfigures our souls unto the likeness of Christ, who loves us with an everlasting love and who invites us to life and joy without end. That’s all I wanted to say.

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