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

Archive for April, 2008

Trees, Walking

The following is one of the strangest stories in the Gospels and is found only in St Mark (8:22-25). Not only is this account not in the other Gospels, nothing even resembling it can be found. So it’s worth examining, to see what we can learn.

“Some people brought to [Jesus] a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. And when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see men; but they look like trees, walking.’ Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes. And he looked intently and was restored and saw everything clearly.”

One detail we can clear up right away is that this man was not, as was the man in John 9, blind from birth. He must have lost his sight later in life. If, in his partially restored condition, he could say that he saw men, but they looked like trees, then he must already have known what both men and trees looked like. But this is not the point of the story.

The incredible and unique issue is that in this case only in all the Gospels, Jesus laid hands on someone to heal him, and he wasn’t completely healed! Was the Lord not feeling well that day, or did he forget his prayers that morning, or were his miraculous powers somehow defective or running out? No, of course not. There’s another unique detail in this account that makes it clear that Jesus knew exactly what He was doing. In all other healing miracles, Jesus either touches the sick person or addresses the person or the illness or the demon, without ever questioning them about the results. In this present case only, Jesus asked if he could see anything—which means He knew very well that his sight was not fully restored. He then laid his hands on the blind man again and completely healed him.

There’s still another detail that indicates Jesus deliberately wanted to handle this case differently from the others. In other healings crowds were present, or at least those who brought the person for healing. But here, once the people brought the blind man, Jesus took Him by the hand and led him out of the village. This was meant to be a personal encounter with Jesus and the blind man alone. What must it have been like for the man to walk hand in hand with the Son of God to a place where they could be alone together!

We may never know for sure why Jesus healed the man in two stages, and why the first stage was not only diminished sight, but distorted sight. The man didn’t see men that were merely blurred or out of focus; he saw men that looked like trees! We find nothing in the text of the Gospel to explain this; the narrative immediately moves on to another place and event and this healing is never referred to again. But I think the evangelist recounted this event to teach something to his readers.

It is clear from all the other healing accounts in the Gospels that Jesus has full authority and power to remove instantly and totally any illness or infirmity. But I think St Mark wanted to include this event in his Gospel so that we might understand why we aren’t always completely healed when we turn to the Lord. The likely reason is that there is some defect in us: an obstacle created by sin, lack of faith and trust, or perhaps an incapacity to receive what God wishes to grant—due to spiritual immaturity, lack of purity of heart or some other reason.

But it may also be that this is simply the way God wills it. Perhaps his gradual work of enlightenment or healing is a way of keeping us in constant reliance upon Him, constant dialogue with Him, which means being in constant relationship with Him. God didn’t become man merely to heal our illnesses or compensate for our defects. He came to take us to Himself, to deliver us from evil and to lead us to eternal life. Physical or other healings may indeed be a part of the process, but they are means and not ends.

We are also perhaps instructed by this account that a little enlightenment, like a little knowledge, can be a dangerous thing. How many people, having just begun to learn something about the Lord, think that they are already qualified to be teachers and then proceed to foist their own ideas and opinions on others as if they were the word of God? True, such people may no longer be as blind as they were; they have begun to see. But what they presently see is as far from the whole truth as trees walking are from men walking. The whole life of faith is a gradual enlightenment, and the Lord must repeatedly lay his hands upon the eyes of our souls to sharpen our perception and ensure that we see clearly what He wants us to see.

I think we ought to go to the Lord in prayer and ask Him for an evaluation of our spiritual vision. Maybe we think we see clearly while all the time there is some distortion. Maybe He needs to lay hands upon us yet again so that we can see things as they really are and thus be in a better position to do his will.

Let Jesus take you by the hand and lead you away from the crowds, that is, the busyness of daily life. Go with Him to a quiet place, you and Him alone. “Do you see anything?” Turn to the Lord, look intently, clear out all inner obstacles to the purity of heart which enables us to see God. And your sight will be fully restored.

Healing Blindness and Seeing God

There are several healings of blind men in the Gospels, but today’s is unique (Jn. 9:1-38). It is much more elaborate than the others, and the whole event and the accompanying dialogues are points of departure for theological reflection. We are offered here not simply the fact of a divine healing, but the deeper meaning of Jesus’ giving sight to the blind.

For our point of departure, let us look at the first few verses. Jesus and his disciples came upon the blind man, and immediately the disciples began their own theological reflection: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It was commonly assumed that physical infirmities were a punishment for sin, either one’s own or that of one’s ancestors. Jesus immediately challenged that assumption by saying: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” The Lord does not deny in principle that there is no relation between sin and suffering—for this relation will certainly be manifested on Judgment Day!—but that in this case, the man was afflicted not because of sin but in order that God’s glory and power would be revealed in him at the hands of Jesus. We cannot assume that a physical infirmity has a spiritual cause, but we cannot categorically deny it, either. We have to be in the grace of the Holy Spirit to know the difference.

The next question might be whether or not spiritual infirmities have a spiritual cause, and this must usually be answered in the affirmative. If we are spiritually blind—and this relates more directly to us than physical blindness—then, yes, most likely it is because of our sin that we are thus afflicted. So we ought to take a closer look, if the glory of God is to be manifested in us as well.

I read something recently that sheds some light on this issue, from the Dominican Father Simon Tugwell’s book on the Beatitudes. The Beatitude in question is, of course, “Blessed are the pure of heart,” because to be healed of spiritual blindness is to be given the capacity to see God. And to see God is the ultimate goal of our existence, yet we are called to discover his presence in this life as well, for if our souls are so blinded by selfishness and sin that we cannot recognize his presence in faith here and now, we will not be granted the eternal, unhindered vision of Him when all the veils are finally removed. To acquire a pure heart is to be healed from spiritual blindness.

Tugwell says that to have a pure heart is to have an interior life that is “unmuddied” by sin, which clouds our spiritual perception. He writes: “A very important factor here is what we may call Christian spontaneity. It does not, perhaps, in the last analysis, matter all that much what you do with forethought; what really matters, what is really revealing, is what you do without thinking… what you do when you do not have time to work out how to respond. It is this that will reveal what kind of person you are, and that is what is important. After all, the kingdom of heaven comes like a thief in the night (1Thess. 5:2), with a suddenness which will not allow us to work out how we are going to react.”

This, I think, is an important point. Our spontaneous reactions to other persons and situations reveal to us, and to others, who we really are. If we spontaneously react to people and events with anger, fear, suspicion, hatred, defensiveness, unkindness, criticism, or merely irritation, then we are in fact angry, fearful, suspicious, hateful, defensive, unkind, critical, and irritable people. The evidence is uncontestable. This is the measure of our actual purity of heart (or rather, lack of it), even though we may be struggling to overcome these things. It is in fact the present state of affairs, even if we are working to correct it, and we ought to honestly and humbly admit it. This issue of Christian spontaneity is something like saying actions speak louder than words, but it is more to the point. It’s more like saying unrehearsed actions and words speak louder than rehearsed ones. St Thomas Aquinas says that as long as we have wrong desires (that is, if our interior is not yet pure), even if we do not give in to them, we are not yet virtuous. We may be on the way to becoming virtuous, but we’re not there yet. We may not find prayers in liturgical books that say, “O God, re-create my spontaneity!” But the reality to which this points is essential for our spiritual growth and hence the healing of our blindness.

Tugwell goes on to say: “We must unmuddy the very source of our reactions, so that our spontaneity itself is transformed. This can only come about through the Holy Spirit. He is given to us by God to be in us a source of living water, welling up from our own hearts… But purity of heart is not just a matter of our own interiority… If we have a clean heart, it is because God has given us a clean heart… It is God dwelling in us who gives us a true interiority that is genuinely ours, but is not simply our own… Western man…does not feel secure about his identity, and feels that as a grievance. In response to this, he generally tries to find ways of bolstering up his ‘Ego’, to reassure himself that he is something…” We ought rather embrace the “no longer I, but Christ,” which is one of St Paul’s most profound insights.

“If we can unmuddy the source of life in us, if we can allow God to re-create us from deep within, so that there is a pure life in us, Christ’s life as well as our own, then this must inevitably affect the way that we are and the way that we see. There is an interaction between seeing and being. The kind of person you are affects the kind of world that you see… And conversely what you see affects what you are. If you see the world as a rather grim affair, you will become a grim person. If you see the world as a place where there are butterflies, you will probably be a rather more light-hearted kind of person. If our life is rooted in God, so that the wellspring of life in us is God, then we shall see as God sees… If we have a pure heart, a source of life welling up from the eternity of God, then what we shall see is God.”

This is a very important teaching. Attaining purity of heart is the healing of our spiritual blindness. Purity is not merely a matter of trying to avoid impure thoughts or actions. It is a much more thoroughgoing inner transformation. It determines how we see the world and other people, and hence how we will spontaneously react to them. And if the life of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit really is the source and driving power of our whole inner life, then we will see as God sees, and our unrehearsed words and acts will reveal that we are in fact Christ-like people, both inside and out, and we will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit in all our actions and relationships.

When Jesus healed the blind man, the first thing the man saw was the face of God, that is, the face of God incarnate in Christ. This is symbolic of the movement from darkness to light, from inner blindness to sight, from a muddy interior to purity of heart. The Gospel makes it clear, however, that it was not only a physical healing of blindness. For when the man saw Jesus the second time, he fell down and worshiped Him, recognizing, with his newfound spiritual vision, the presence of God in Jesus.

We must begin with the humble admission that we are still spiritually blind, still not pure of heart. Even a quick examination of our spontaneous reactions (whether external or internal) will give us plenty of evidence for that. The greatest error that could be made here is to claim that we can see when in fact we are still blind. Jesus made that clear to the Pharisees, who resented the fact that He implied they were still blind, when He said to them: “Now that you say, ‘we see,’ your guilt remains.”

Let us also realize that, unlike the blind man in the Gospel, it is our sin that is the cause of our spiritual blindness, because only sin can destroy purity of heart. If we do not yet see everything as God sees it, if we do not yet recognize the presence of God everywhere, if we spontaneously react in unkind or self-centered ways, then we are still suffering from a sin-induced spiritual blindness, a lack of purity of heart.

So let us pray fervently—and not mechanically as we may do every day as we pray psalm 50(51)—“Create in me a pure heart, O God!” Let this be our constant entreaty to the Holy Spirit as we prepare for his coming at Pentecost. This matter is too important to be tossed in the mental dustbin with hundreds of other long-forgotten Sunday homilies. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit to effect a radical change in our inner lives—we can’t afford to remain how we are! It is crucial for our own salvation and our beneficial influence upon others that our inner life is free from all the darkness that is all too often revealed in our spontaneous reactions. The Lord can heal us, can enlighten us, but we must want it with all our hearts, and diligently strive to co-operate with his grace. For our goal is nothing less than complete purity of heart—nothing less than to see God.

Diplomacy or Evangelization?

There has been quite a controversy, and much media attention (mostly in religious but also in secular media) over the prayer for the conversion of the Jews in one of the Good Friday prayers of the restored traditional Latin liturgy. Under pressure, the Pope changed the wording, though he did so in a way that 1) did not compromise the meaning or intent of the original prayer; 2) actually added a strong element that wasn’t in the original prayer; and 3) still left most Jews, at least those who voiced an opinion about it, unsatisfied.

Now it’s not my intention here to examine the text of the prayer or comment on the Pope’s decision. I’d like to reflect rather on why this whole thing is an issue at all.

We first have to ask ourselves why the Church exists, that is, what is her mission in the world. It seems that many people, both inside and outside the Church, think that a prayer for the conversion of the Jews should be completely eliminated from the Church’s liturgy, and that any prayer for them should only be couched in the most bland and “inoffensive” terms. You see, they say, praying for the conversion of the Jews disrupts our dialogue with them and is a setback to our ecumenical relations.

Hmm. What is the purpose, the goal of our dialogue with them (or with Muslims or other non-Christians)? What is the goal of our ecumenical relations? Perhaps scholars have discovered an ancient manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus concludes his earthly ministry by saying: “Go therefore and dialogue with all nations and try to establish diplomatic ecumenical relations with them, but for heaven’s sake, don’t ask them to believe in Me!” Somehow, though, I think the traditionally accepted text is the correct one: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, and teach them all I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

Now I’m not talking here about forced conversions or jihad or arrogant denunciations of someone else’s beliefs. I simply wish to affirm that the Church has a right to her own beliefs, and hence to her own expression of them in her prayers and liturgy, and hence to the attempted fulfillment of the missionary mandate given by her Lord. I would also affirm the right of Jews and Muslims to seek the conversion of Christians in their own prayers, and with the non-violent means I would advocate on all sides.

The Jews and Muslims and Hindus do not present proposals for the prayers they wish to use in their services to the Catholic Church, so that we can censor anything in them that is incompatible with our faith, and we rightly don’t ask or expect them to do so. So I find it quite uncalled-for that people of a different religion than ours are indignant that we would use a prayer in our services that does not reflect their faith.

We believe in the Most Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe He is, as the Pope’s revised prayer states, the Savior of all men. We have reason to believe that this is in fact the case, and even if we didn’t have much reason, we still have the right to choose to believe it. But we believe it, not as the mere exercise of the right to freedom of religion, but because we are convinced that it is in fact true. Believing this to be true, we wish to obey the Savior’s command, for like God, we too desire that “all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:4). Now if we believe that the highest good is “eternal life: to know the true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent” (Jn. 17:3), then we desire that everyone would come to this knowledge, this salvation unto eternal life. So we pray that it may be so—that those who do not yet believe in Jesus will do so, and thus be granted the gift of eternal happiness in Paradise.

It’s only if we couldn’t care less about their salvation that we would settle for diplomacy, non-confessional language, and mere friendly relations in this passing life, in our relationships with non-Christians. If we believe that Jesus is the Way to the Father, why don’t we just come right out and say it? This “I’m OK, you’re OK” stuff really has nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ.

Now we still must respect the beliefs of others, and if they wish to retain them, even after we’ve made our case for Christ, then we must not badger them about it or try to coerce them (though we should go on praying for their conversion). But we shouldn’t act as if we are embarrassed by our own beliefs or that we think one religion is as good as another for the salvation of mankind. Jesus suffered and died for the truth. He could have maintained a friendly dialogue with the Pharisees and Sadducees (and Romans, for that matter), not stepped on any toes, preached Unitarian sermons and lived a long life. But that is not why the Father sent Him! He had a very specific revelation to bring, a very distinct call to believe in Him and to follow Him unto eternal life, for many were following the wide path to perdition and He had come to save them. He didn’t ask the Pharisees to vet his discourses to make sure there was nothing that would prove “offensive” to them! He came to speak the word of God without compromise and, frankly, without diplomacy (though not without skill and certainly not without love).

I think the Church has to clear a few things up about her mission in this world. What is it going to be—evangelization or diplomacy? Are immortal souls at stake or not? If not, then by all means let’s be diplomatic; let’s not broach sensitive subjects. But if so, then let’s preach the Gospel! It’s bad enough that we don’t use every opportunity to invite the world to believe in Jesus—but to cower before the criticisms of non-Christians about what kind of prayers we should pray in our own liturgy? That is utterly abandoning the Great Commission.

The Church must be more concerned about the salvation of souls and less about a good media image or about a “let’s be friends” approach that reduces the priority of truth. We indeed ought to be friends even with those who do not share our beliefs, but let’s be clear on what those beliefs are, and let’s also be clear that we are not compromising or hiding our beliefs in order to be friends. Let’s at least try, in the case of individual friendships, to bring the love of Christ into such relationships, and perhaps God will make us instruments for the salvation of those who, for the sake of a temporary “peace,” we might otherwise allow to be lost.

Me, Me, Me

A few weeks ago the media feasted on the fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, exposing his liaisons with the high-priced hooker Ashley Dupre. I have little sympathy for him, not only because of the immorality of what he was doing, but also because he was viciously pro-abortion and was in the process of drafting legislation to make abortion a fundamental civil right in New York State, just in case Roe v. Wade ever would be overturned.

But that’s not what I’m interested in here. I did a bit of research on Miss Dupre (purely for religious reasons, I assure you!). I will quote below some excerpts from her blog, which was written before the scandal surfaced (I corrected most of the atrocious errors in spelling and syntax, but hey, if I made $5000 for an hour’s “work” I might not take the trouble to write correct English, either). Now I know that human beings as such are innately selfish, due to original sin, and that this defect has been greatly exacerbated in the past several “me-generations.” But I was under the (evidently mistaken) impression that most people try to conceal somewhat their radical self-absorption and generally avoid making public statements about how they believe the world revolves around them. But Miss Dupre seems not to have any scruples about that. I may be out of the loop, but the following sounds “me, me, me” in the extreme:

“The past few months have been a roller coaster with so-called friends, lovers, and family…but it’s something you have to deal with and confront in order to move on… I stepped away from each situation that happened and asked myself:

“1) What is this person doing to make my life better? (financial, intel [sic], drive, networking, etc.) 2) How does this person make me feel? (happy, sad, motivated, depressed, constantly doubting, drama, etc.) 3) How is this person a positive influence in my life? (do they share the same interests, same dreams, does that person make me better when I am with them, or when they are in my life… I would be the same person if they weren’t in my life, but it’s just better with them in it…is my best interest always number one in their head and heart, etc.)

“From all this, I mean… Does that person make you feel good? Does that person drive you to be better? Is that person right there behind you when things aren’t that good, or even if they are? Will that person be an asset to your life…

“If you are in a relationship, and it is ‘doing absolutely nothing’ for you, makes you feel bad about yourself or situations, just causing unnecessary drama, and ruining things that you may actually care about…why would you want that in your life? You need to surround yourself with the people that make you feel good, and that will help you get to that next step in your life. That is what a relationship is all about…

“Surround yourself with people that are making moves, and doing what ‘they want and love’ with their lives, positive energy…that’s what life is all about…living. Because if you don’t, misery loves company, they will only try to bring you down with them…but the question is, are you strong enough, to not let that happen?

“…and then from all those answers you have to decide if that person is worthy of being a part of ‘your’ life….because it is your life, your show…you decide who you want the characters to be…not the other way around.”

Instead of simply saying “how incredibly into herself she is, how she views others merely as disposable means to her own happiness!” I’d like to juxtapose a few of her sentiments with the corresponding biblical contrast or antidote. In that way, maybe we too can realize that we’re more selfish than we’d like to think, and also that the Lord has shown us a better way.

“What is this person doing to make my life better?” It must not be so with you. Whoever would be great must be a servant… even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Mt. 20:26-28).

“Is my best interest always number one in their head and heart?” They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ… Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:21, 4).

“Does that person make you feel good? … Will that person be an asset to your life?” Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35).

“Surround yourself with people that are making moves, and doing what ‘they want and love’ with their lives, positive energy… surround yourself with the people that make you feel good.” The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but… will surround themselves with teachers to suit their own likings and will turn away from listening to the truth (2Tim. 4:3-4).

“If you are in a relationship, and it is ‘doing absolutely nothing’ for you, makes you feel bad about yourself or situations, just causing unnecessary drama, and ruining things that you may actually care about…why would you want that in your life?” [If the “relationship” is a valid marriage]: They are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder (Mt. 19:6). [If not]: Shun fornication… the fornicator sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…? You are not your own (1Cor. 6:18-19).

“You have to decide if that person is worthy of being a part of ‘your’ life….because it is your life, your show…you decide who you want the characters to be…not the other way around.” People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant… swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… Shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness… What does it profit you to gain the world and lose your soul in the process? (2Tim. 3:2-4; 1Tim. 6:11; Mk. 8:36).

“How does this person make me feel?” Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it (Lk. 9:23-24).

Can anyone give Miss Dupre a Bible?

Memento Mori

I recently read the novel, The King’s Achievement, by Robert Hugh Benson (written in 1905). It is set in England during the time of Henry VIII’s looting and destruction of monasteries and convents, and his many executions of those who professed the Catholic faith. There are a couple of excerpts I’d like to present here, for the sake of the venerable practice of the “remembrance of death,” which is part of monastic spirituality, but ought to be part of every Christian’s awareness. The first is the description of the natural death of an old monk, and the second is a reflection on the martyrdom of several priests and monks. Life is always more profound than that which we live on the surface, and life is in continual dialogue with death, the door to eternal life.

“Outside the night was still and frosty; only now and again the heavy stroke of the bell told the town that a soul was passing. Dom Augustine had received Viaticum an hour before. Chris had heard the steady tinkle of the bell, like the sound of Aaron’s garments, as the priest who had brought him Communion passed back with his sacred burden, and Chris had fallen on his knees where he stood as he caught a glimpse of the white procession passing back to the church, their frosty breath going up together in the winter night air, the wheeling shadows, and the glare of the torches giving a pleasant warm light in the dull cloister. But all that was over now, and the end was at hand.

“As Chris knelt there, mechanically responding to the prayers on which the monk’s soul was beginning to lift itself and flutter for escape, there fell a great solemnity on his spirit. The thought, as old as death, made itself real to him, that this was the end of every man and of himself too. Where Dom Augustine lay, he would lie, with his past behind him, of which every detail would be instinct with eternal import. All the tiny things of the monastic life—the rising in time for the night office, attention during it, the responses to grace, the little movements prescribed by etiquette, the invisible motions of a soul that had or had not acted for the love of God, those stirrings, falls, aspirations, that incessant activity of eighty years—all so incredibly minute from one point of view, so incredibly weighty from another—the account of all those things was to be handed in now, and an eternal judgment given.

“He looked at the wearied, pained old face again, at the tight-shut eyes, the jerking movements of the unshaven lips, and wondered what was passing behind—what strange colloquy of the soul with itself or its Master or great personages of the Court of Heaven. And all was set in this little bare setting of white walls, a tumbled bed, a shuttered window, a guttering candle or two, a cross of ashes on boards, a ring of faces, and a murmur of prayers!

“The solemnity rose and fell in Chris’s soul like a deep organ-note sounding and waning. How homely and tender were these last rites, this accompaniment of the departing soul to the edge of eternity with all that was dear and familiar to it—the drops of holy water, the mellow light of candles, and the sonorous soothing Latin. And yet—and yet—how powerless to save a soul that had not troubled to make the necessary efforts during life, and had lost the power of making them now! When all was over he went out of the cell with an indescribable gravity at his heart…”

A priest and a young monk walked together at the place where the martyrs had just been executed:

“It was here that they had suffered, these gallant knights of God; they had stood below these beams, their feet on the cart that was their chariot of glory, their necks in the rope that would be their heavenly badge; they had looked out where he was looking as they made their little speeches, over the faces at the Tyburn-gate, with the same sun that was now behind him, shining into their eyes… The grey wood ashes had drifted by now far across the ground, but the heavy logs still lay there, charred and smoked, that had blazed beneath the cauldron where the limbs of the monks had been seethed; and he stared down at them, numbed and fascinated by the horror of the thought. His mind, now in a violent reaction, seemed unable to cope with its own knowledge, crushed beneath its weight…

“He told him more details as they walked home; as to what each had said, and how each had borne himself. Father Reynolds, the Syon monk, had looked gaily about him, it seemed, as he walked up from the hurdle; the secular priest had turned pale and shut his eyes more than once; the three Carthusian priors had been unmoved throughout, showing neither carelessness nor fear; Prior Houghton’s arm had been taken off to the London Charterhouse as a terror to the others; their heads, he had heard, were on London Bridge.

“Chris walked slowly as he listened, holding tight under his scapular the scrap of rough white cloth he had picked up near the cauldron, drinking in every detail, and painting it into the mental picture that was forming in his mind; but there was much more in the picture than the other guessed.

“The priest was a plain man, with a talent for the practical, and knew nothing of the vision that the young monk beside him was seeing—of the air about the gallows crowded with the angels of the Agony and the Passion, waiting to bear off the straggling souls in their tender experienced hands; of the celestial faces looking down, the scarred and glorious arms stretched out in welcome; of Mary with her mother’s eyes, and her virgins all about her—all ring above ring in deepening splendor up to the white blinding light above, where the Everlasting Trinity lay poised in love and glory to receive and crown the stalwart soldiers of God.”

Amen.

“The Visibility of the Fetus”

I read recently that some pro-abortion activists were getting all bent out of shape over the advances in technology—specifically ultrasound imaging of unborn babies—that make it easy to see that an unborn baby is in fact an unborn baby. So they lamented that the most formidable obstacle to their deadly agenda is the “visibility of the fetus.” Let us be glad that some states are enacting laws that will force Planned Parenthood and other baby-killers to offer ultrasound imaging as part of the decision-making process for pregnant women. This has wrought havoc in the unholy halls of “reproductive health.”

But let’s look at the dishonest attitudes and approaches of those who should have finally seen the light. One would think that if abortion providers and promoters really were honest and sincere in their assertions that a pregnant woman was just carrying a “blob of tissue” in her womb that was in no way a child (though for that they would have to ignore decades of scientific research and, for some, their own gruesome experience—as well as common sense: “if you’re pregnant, it’s a baby!”), one would expect a different response at the ultrasound image. An honest response would be: “Look, we’ve been wrong all along! It really is a baby, even at very early stages of development! We’ve got to get the news out because babies are being killed and we have been a part of it. What can we do to make up for what we’ve done?”

That would be the normal, ethical reaction when one is presented with such clear evidence—unless one isn’t interested in truth. The actual reaction was: “It really is a baby, even at very early stages of development! Damn! Now what do we do? We have to keep this information from the public. We can’t let anyone see this. Why, they won’t want to have abortions anymore if they know they are really killing their children, and our lucrative positions will simply disappear!”

All the rhetoric about women’s rights and women’s health is pure baloney. If they cared about women they wouldn’t profit off their vulnerability and be so aloof to the physical and psychological (not to mention spiritual) damage they heedlessly inflict on them. They’re not concerned about women or children. They are concerned about money and political power. Period.

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who is viciously pro-death (Obama is just as bad), is making abortion one of her key rallying points. Here are a few things she has said about the necessity of promoting abortion (from Catholic World Report, March 2008). People who think unborn children have a right to life are, in her words, “anti-choice forces.” She says: “We should be careful about our complacency. Many of these policies [like making it a crime against two persons when a pregnant woman is harmed] sound perfectly reasonable to the untrained ear. But they are not reasonable when you realize the true intention… These policies are meant to chip away at all reproductive rights” [emphasis in original].

So one has to be properly “trained” to realize the intentions of pro-lifers. One needs special training to dislodge one’s common sense, high moral standards and willingness to follow the evidence where it leads. And the pro-abortion people like Clinton are not interested in looking at any particular cases or any particular level of abortion practice. They’re not even willing to say: this should be legal but that shouldn’t. That is because, again, they are not interested in truth but in a particular agenda. The argument she gave above is the same one given for people who promote partial-birth abortion, even when they themselves find it barbaric: we have to allow this because if we don’t, they’ll come after our other “rights.”

Then her spiritual blindness becomes obvious. I quote from the article: “As a Methodist, Hillary Clinton sees no incompatibility between her position on abortion and her views of a loving Jesus… [Clinton’s gynecologist and friend William F. Harrison] estimates that he has conducted at least 20,000 abortions since the 1970s. He candidly calls himself an ‘abortionist’ and concedes, ‘I am destroying life.’ He believes he is giving life by saving women from botched abortions, and thus declares his patients ‘born again.’” Such language is blasphemous; he is not even allowing children to be born at all, yet he speaks in Christian terms about the blessings he’s bestowing upon the women whose children he slaughters. That’s what “born again” means to this machete messiah.

There is a distinct possibility that soon our country will be led by someone who will push abortion “rights” to the maximum and enact legislation to firmly entrench it in our society. We haven’t fared very well in the present administration either, for despite the rhetoric and a few token vetoes, the abortion business goes on as usual. But at least now the veils are lifted, for anyone who cares to see. Gone are the arguments that the unborn child somehow isn’t a child. That has been scientifically proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (not to mention that it has already been known everywhere and by everyone for millennia). Now the argument is no better than: we want to do this so we are going to, and just try to stop us! Money talks, power drives, and the altars of convenience are set up everywhere for human sacrifice.

God help America. He has been patient with us for a long time, but who knows when He will finally pronounce judgment on a country that routinely slaughters its young—and this not only without lamentation but with triumph and banners of freedom and prosperity. How shall we pray, for they do know what they do?

Yet even in the midst of all this, “the fetus is visible”—for those who will see, for those who still have a shred of conscience left. The little person on the sonogram says, “I am human; I am a person; I am created in the image of God. And I will see you on Judgment Day.” The more eyes that are finally opened, the better chance we have, as a nation, to say NO to those who think they have a right to kill children. Not the White House for such, but the jailhouse.

The Risen Christ Draws All to Himself

St John the Evangelist writes profoundly of the death and resurrection of Christ. He presents to us the many-faceted mystery of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, and refers to all of it flower-cross.jpgwith one term: glorification. This Johannine theological vision has been embraced by the Byzantine Churches.

Jesus says that when He is lifted up He will draw all men to Himself (Jn. 12:32), and here He is referring simultaneously to his crucifixion and resurrection/ascension. “Lifted up” is a euphemism for crucifixion, but it also means “exalted.” This is one way that the evangelist unites the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in his Gospel. It is the glorified Christ, that is, Christ both crucified and risen, who calls us all to eternal life in Him.

It should be clear that if we are all being drawn closer to Christ, then we are also being drawn closer to each other. We all “meet” in Him. God is love, and Jesus came to reveal that divine truth, to love us to the full, and to give us the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34-35). Christians are supposed to be recognized by their love for one another.

St Paul makes a similar point when he writes that Christ has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility,” since He unites us in His peace (Eph. 2:14). We all like to sing “Christ is risen” at Easter, but do we fully understand what His resurrection requires of us? The One who draws all to Himself in love, expects us to love not only Him, but also those whom He loves. If Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, why do we insist on rebuilding it? Such walls are built not only between different churches, but even within the same church.

It is the sad situation in many parishes and communities and families that walls of hostility are still standing, that people have not learned to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We profess our faith in Christ, yet we ignore His commandments. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6:46).

Now, it is clear from St Paul’s writings (see 1Cor. 5:13) that unrepentant evildoers must be cast out of the Christian community. But most of the problems that Christians encounter with one another are simply differences of opinion or agenda, or worse, prejudices and arrogance. These are things that build up dividing walls, but Christ wants them to be torn down. Are we willing to swallow our pride and live as humble followers of our crucified and risen Lord? To love others even when it is difficult is to be “crucified,” and to experience the love of Jesus in return is to be raised up again.

The resurrection of Christ has introduced something radically new into the world and human history. He has not only broken down dividing walls, He has freed us from the evil powers that urge us to build walls in the first place. It is up to us to accept his gift, to walk in newness of life, and to experience freedom from all the negative attitudes and selfish behavior that reflect bondage to satan instead of faithfulness to Christ.

I think that sometimes people live in unchristian ways because they haven’t yet experienced the grace and freedom given to the children of God. They don’t realize what God has given them through the resurrection of his Son. So they live as if they were never redeemed, as if they hadn’t heard the Gospel of love, as if they had no hope for eternal life—that is, they live according to their own will and hold others in contempt. To bear hatred or any other disordered passion in one’s heart while participating in the Liturgy of the Church is a deplorable contradiction. This will certainly be exposed on Judgment Day, but we had better settle things before then, if we want to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven!

Jesus is risen from the dead, and He calls us to rise, too. But before we can rise in heavenly glory, we have to learn how to rise above animosity and pettiness and all that keeps us from loving one another as Jesus has loved us. If only we could look at this life through the eyes of eternity, we would see that the bottom line of life in this world is the Great Commandment: love God and love others. Without this we will not be able to enter eternal life when we cross the threshold of death.

The Lord is drawing us to Himself. Let us go to Him willingly and humbly, denying ourselves and bearing the crosses that life brings, for they pave the way to resurrection. On Easter we sing the following words, which must be manifest in our daily lives if we wish to call ourselves Christians: “This is the resurrection day. Let us be enlightened by this feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us call ‘brethren’ even those who hate us, and in the resurrection forgive everything, and let us sing: Christ is risen from the dead…”

Heavenly Man

I’ve just read a remarkable story, that of Brother Yun, a Chinese evangelist who suffered repeated imprisonments and tortures under the Chinese Communists over a period of 25 years or so. He managed miraculously to escape China and is still active evangelizing in the West. He was one of the main catalysts of the house church movement in China and was personally responsible for the conversion of thousands of souls to Christ. The book is entitled The Heavenly Man. What is most impressive is his dogged and determined faith and obedience to the Lord, his joy in times of severe hardship and suffering, and the total dedication of his life to the glory of the Lord and the salvation of souls.

As you may have noticed, my interest in the persecuted Christians throughout the world has been recently revived. They really deserve our support and prayer. Their Christian faith is not a mere social convention or something that is peripheral to their lives. It is something that they embrace at a high price, which may include imprisonment and even death. They would be appalled at what passes for Christianity in the West, so affluent, so apathetic, so self-absorbed. Brother Yun writes:

“Before I traveled to the West I had absolutely no idea that so many churches were spiritually asleep… Many meetings are cold and lack the fire and presence of God that we have in China. In the West many Christians have an abundance of material possessions, yet they live in a backslidden state. They have silver and gold, but they don’t rise up and walk in Jesus’ name… When I’m in the West I see all the mighty church buildings and all the expensive equipment, plush carpets and state-of-the-art sound systems. I can assure the Western church with absolute certainty that you don’t need any more church buildings… God’s Word is missing. Sure, there are many preachers and thousands of tapes and videos of Bible teaching, but so little contains the sharp truth of God’s Word…

“Not only is knowledge of God’s Word missing, but obedience to that Word. There’s not much action taking place. When revival came to believers in China, the result was thousands of evangelists being sent out to all corners of the nation, carrying fire from the altar of God with them… You can never really know the Scriptures until you’re willing to be changed by them…

“I’ve seen people in Western churches worshipping as if they’re already in heaven. Then someone invariably brings a comforting message like, ‘My children, I love you. Don’t be afraid, I’m with you.’ I’m not opposed to such words, but why is it that nobody seems to hear a Word from the Lord like, ‘My child, I want to send you to the slums of Asia or the darkness of Africa to be my messenger to people dying in their sin’? … I’ve watched men and women during offering time in church. They open their fat wallets and search for the smallest amount they can give. This type of attitude will never do! Jesus gave his whole life for us, and we give as little of our lives, time and money as we can back to God. What a disgrace! Repent! This may sound strange, but I even miss the offerings we used to give in China. On numerous occasions the leader of a meeting would announce, ‘We have a new worker who is leaving tomorrow to serve the Lord.’ Immediately every single person would completely empty their pockets of everything they had…

“The main speaker [at a conference in Finland] was a well-known American preacher. Every time he spoke it was about the love and goodness of God. During the prayer time everyone fell down on the floor and laughed. After I spoke I commanded people to kneel down at the foot of the cross of Jesus, and they wept! Tears always come first before the Lord truly moves. He will never pour his blessing out on unsanctified and selfish flesh. The cross of Jesus must be at the center of everything we do… Are you willing to give your all to God and to his service?”

Brother Yun and others are working on an ambitious project to travel from China to Jerusalem, by northern, central, and southern routes, preaching the Gospel all along the way through areas heavily dominated by Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Here are a few elements of their training:

“1. How to suffer and die for the Lord. We examine what the Bible says about suffering, and look at how the Lord’s people have laid down their lives for the advance of the gospel throughout history.

“2. How to witness for the Lord. We teach how to witness for the Lord under any circumstance, on trains or buses, or even in the back of a police van on our way to the execution ground.

“3. How to escape for the Lord. We know that sometimes it is the Lord who sends us to prison to witness for him, but we also believe the devil sometimes wants us to go to prison to stop the ministry God has called us to do. We teach missionaries special skills such as how to free themselves from handcuffs, and how to jump from second-story windows without injuring themselves.”

Not your average seminary fare! It is true that their circumstances are not ours, but look at the dedication, the willingness to suffer anything for the sake of the Lord and the Gospel! This is Christianity in action; this is total devotion and loving self-sacrifice. They do not live for this world, and this world has no hold on them, so they are fearless!

We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters who live in “restricted” countries, where Christianity is often illegal (or reduced to government-controlled churches full of spies) and heavily persecuted. As the Olympics are being prepared in China, the government is making extra efforts to crush the underground church so that no one will be around to tell the world how they are still brutally persecuted. I recently read that the U.S. State Department has just removed China from their list of human-rights violators, sacrificing many Christian lives to political and economic idols. We are going to go down as the biggest suckers in world history as the powers-that-be in China shrewdly manipulate us.

There are millions of persecuted believers throughout the world, whom we complacent and (comparatively) wealthy Christians routinely ignore. I have decided that I’m going to send Bibles to the underground church in China every month. Click here to find out how (I know that the state-controlled church prints Bibles, but they are only available to state-controlled citizens). Click on the Voice of the Martyrs link to the right and get updates and more information. Pray for them, and empty your pockets, for what you do for Jesus’ suffering brethren you do for Him.

Search Heaven and you will find no lukewarm souls there, no apathetic, indifferent, complacent or self-absorbed souls. Brother Yun describes his missionary movement: “It isn’t a group of well-dressed, slick professionals. It’s an army of broken-hearted Chinese men and women whom God has cleansed with a mighty fire, and who have already been through years of hardship and deprivation for the sake of the gospel. In worldly terms they have nothing and appear unimpressive, but in the spiritual realm they are mighty warriors for Jesus Christ!”

So where do we stand?

Be Healed–If You’re Ready

We have come to a sort of turning point in our Easter celebrations. In a few days we will be celebrating what is called “mid-Pentecost,” that is, the midpoint in the paschal season. On this third Sunday after Pascha we begin a new series of Sunday Gospels, which do not recount the events surrounding the resurrection of Christ. These Sundays are meant to begin what was known in the early Church as the “mystagogical catechesis,” that is, the ongoing teachings concerning the mysteries of initiation into the Church, which the newly-enlightened received at Easter. So these three Sunday Gospels have some sort of baptismal imagery: today the healing pool at Bethesda, next Sunday the living water at Jacob’s Well, and the following Sunday the waters of Siloam which enabled the blind man to see. Each has its own special message for the Christian community.

Today’s Gospel is about healing, but there is much more to this Gospel than the physical healing of paralysis—as astounding as that is in itself. The dialogue of Jesus with the paralytic is at least as important as the healing itself. We’re given a little warm-up in the reading from Acts (9:32-42), in which St Peter also heals a paralytic in the name of Jesus. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, through the instrumentality of his chosen and faithful disciples, Jesus continued to heal long after his ascension to the Father, and He still does so today, at least where he finds sufficient faith. Peter evidently found faith in the paralytic Aeneas, for without any sort of introduction or questioning, he simply said, “Jesus Christ heals you,” and the man arose and walked.

We have a different situation in the Gospel (Jn. 5:1-15). The paralytic had been sick for decades but was unable to get into the healing pool in time to receive the gift. Jesus came to him and asked him a question which would seem to be a no-brainer: “Do you want to be healed?” In fact it is a profound question, one which Jesus also asks of us, as we’ll see in a minute. But first let us get back to the paralytic. He was probably a bit miffed, though he did manage to restrain himself from saying, “Of course I want to be healed! Why do you think I’ve been lying here all these years by this pool?” Still, he did not give a simple, “Yes, Lord,” as did others of whom Jesus asked similar questions. He responded with a complaint: “I have no one to put me into the water, so another goes in before me.”

I think that perhaps we are like the paralytic in this. We instinctively (or perhaps unconsciously) dodge the deeper issue by bringing complaints or other issues to the fore. Maybe we have an inkling as to the real meaning of the question, and we don’t want to face it or are afraid to give the honest answer. When Jesus asks, “Do you want to be healed?” He is not merely saying, “Do you want me to fix this problem?” Jesus is addressing a question to our whole being, our whole life, our whole future. “Do you want to be healed?” means: “Are you ready to bear the responsibilities of life? Are you ready to abandon whatever excuses your sickness has afforded you up till now? Are you ready at last to take up your cross and follow Me, holding nothing back but being willing to sacrifice your life for My sake and that of the Gospel?” It is at this point that we avoid the simple “Yes, Lord,” and start with complaints and with reasons why we in fact cannot be healed.

For the better part of the past two weeks I was something of a paralytic myself, enduring an illness that kept me confined to bed some of the time and unable to work or even pray as I usually do. While sickness is always unpleasant (especially when it keeps you awake at night), it is true that it does, depending upon the severity of it, prevent one from meeting one’s responsibilities. So, sickness became for me an excuse not to work or to pray all of the Offices. I did not find this to be any particular advantage, since I tend to get a little nervous when my work piles up, though I confess I didn’t mind not setting the alarm in the morning and just getting up when my body finally got some rest. But for some people sickness can be the grounds for a terminal avoidance of the responsibilities of life. Sometimes people even manage to get sick precisely at those moments when something is demanded of them, and their fear of failure or simply of exerting a sustained effort triggers a psychosomatic reaction which leaves them, alas, unable to meet the challenge of the cross.

Others may be on a permanent search for healing. They never quite attain it, for in fact they secretly don’t want it. They would rather simply attend endless healing conferences, at which they can endlessly make their woes known. What would happen if they actually were healed? There would be no more need for healing conferences! They would actually have to get on with the business of living life, and there would be no further opportunity to seek sympathy from others. How unhappy they would be if they were thus healed! Well, in that case I suppose they would go to a healing conference to deal with their heartbreak over not needing to be healed anymore.

It is that fear, which is at the root of our refusal simply to say “Yes, Lord, I do want my heart and soul to be healed so I can give my whole life unreservedly in your service”—it is that fear that the Lord wishes to address and to overcome. For He knows that we seek refuge in our own woundedness; it’s a good place to hide from the demands of life; it’s a good way to avoid responsibilities; it’s a good opportunity to indulge in self-pity and to criticize life and everyone in it for being indifferent to our feelings.

So we really have to listen carefully, and prepare our answer well, when Jesus asks us: “Do you want to be healed?” Let us at least be honest and, if we fall into any of the categories I just mentioned, say to Him: “No, Lord, I do not wish to be healed, for I do not wish to make the effort to carry my cross after you as a whole person.” Well, the Lord may be somewhat grieved at that, but He will accept that answer more readily than a phony, “Oh, yes, Lord!” when we have no intention of following through and meeting the demands of life by the power of his grace. He can work with honesty but not with pious façades. The Gospels make it very clear that it was easier for prostitutes to accept Christ than it was for those who professed religion. The sinners knew just who they were, and in the searching light of Christ they decided that they didn’t like who they were and resolved to change, resolved to follow Jesus and be like Him. The professional religious however, were quite comfortable with their own piety. But in the light of Christ their self-righteousness was like darkness and, as John’s Gospel testifies, they fled the light, preferring not to be exposed by it.

The Lord knew that the paralytic wasn’t really ready for a full healing, but for his own reasons He granted him a partial, that is, a physical healing. But Jesus knew the character of his soul, so he warned him: “Sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” And the man predictably became something of a traitor as he immediately pointed out Jesus as the Sabbath-breaker whom the authorities straightway began to persecute.

We still must be aware that even if we are honestly open to the healing grace of the risen Christ, and in fact receive it, we will not be transformed into angelic beings. We will always be human, and as long as we walk this earth we will be in some ways incomplete, unfinished, perhaps limping a bit. But our response to Christ makes the crucial difference. Our wounds can be sources of self-pity, self-absorption, or of endless excuses—or they can be, like Christ’s, powerful testimonies to the extent to which we are willing to sacrifice everything for the love of Christ. To get up and walk, despite our wounds, is the sign of a healed soul. To follow Jesus, even when it is demanding, painful, costly, is to testify that we answered “yes” when Jesus asked us if we wanted to be healed. I recently read this saying: “We should not ask God for a lighter load but for a stronger back!”

It’s easy to think we’re willing to give all for love of Christ as long as “give all” remains in the abstract. Sure, we’ll do anything for Him. But will we give up this particular grudge, this pet peeve, this annoyance, this complaint, this bit of self-indulgence—for love of Him? No, that’s way too hard! Well, let us begin to be honest with ourselves and with our Lord. He wants to heal us so that we are fully equipped to do his will and to live for Him without counting the cost. And He warns us that if we lazily remain in our sins or uncorrected faults, worse things will happen to us.

So let us rise and walk; let us know that healing grace and divine power and new life and inner cleansing and spiritual renewal are readily available to us, if only we will throw down own excuses like some dirty pallet upon which we’ve been nursing our wounds for decades—for Christ is risen!

Paradise–Not! (Part 2)

Without becoming pessimistic or fatalistic, we can still accept the fact that bad things happen to us because that is the nature of things in a fallen world. We simply can’t manipulate things consistently to turn out to our advantage and satisfaction—and reality will resist all our attempts to do so. God made everything good, but paradise-desire-and-panic-1.jpgman, through sin, has brought about creation’s “bondage to decay” (Romans 8: 21) until the universal transfiguration at the end of time. This does not mean, however, that Murphy’s law—“whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”—is the inflexible law of the universe or of your own life. In fact, if you spend more time counting your blessings and your reasons for giving thanks, you will discover that you are much better off right now than the vast majority of people in this world.

The good news of aligning our world-view with the understanding that we live in a fallen, imperfect, and trouble-ridden world—and correspondingly modifying our expectations—is that we can in this way let go of the bulk of our frustration, anger, and endless “whys” concerning the events, experiences, and relationships that characterize our lives. Having a more realistic perspective will not necessarily take the pain out of the hardships and tragedies of life or enable us to fully figure out the apparent absurdities and randomness of our unlucky existence. But it will remove the insult from the injury by enabling us to realize that the deck is not deliberately stacked against us, that we have not been predestined for punishment, and that we shouldn’t expect things to go better, because they’re not meant to. (In some cases, however, certain sufferings may be allowed by God that ordinarily wouldn’t be, if they are necessary to shake people out of their complacent sinfulness or apostasy, and thus to bring straying souls back to God.) The new perspective will also help keep us from thinking that people who are apparently better off than we are, are somehow exempt from life’s left hooks. We can never know the secret agonies of those whom we mistakenly envy. We have no idea how many “whitewashed tombs” are walking around, sporting the look of success.

Yet we may wish to ask: What’s God got to do with all this? Is God just standing on the sidelines of the great cosmic contest of Hapless Humanity vs. Unfriendly Universe? Surely, despite the Original Blunder, there is a way of making ourselves comfortably at home in God’s good earth? I can only answer: Yes and no and yes and no.

Yes, because we can see that the Lord has sweetened our exile in many ways: the beauty of creation, the love we share with fellow human beings, the simple joys of food and drink and rest and creative activity, etc. No, because we really are in exile and must be always (even painfully) reminded of it if we are not to create ultimately self-destructive illusions. One sage, when asked the unanswerable question of why there is suffering in the world, responded simply that if there were not, we would never yearn for heaven, for God, or for anything that transcends our far too limited and inadequate earthly experience. We need the goad of some sort of pain to stimulate that restless inner longing that will refuse to buy into the mentality of the modern media-created sham society. We need a push to seek sufficient clear-sightedness to unmask false prophets, and we need sufficiently strong and pure desire to stretch beyond ourselves in order to realize our divine calling and destiny.

Again, yes, because it is possible to taste, through prayer, sacraments, and other dimensions of the spiritual life, a bit of the deep mystery of God that we will explore fully in the hereafter. We can be happy on earth if we are happy with God while on earth, finding peace, wisdom, and hope even while hacking our way through the jungles of life’s endless difficulties. I have written before and will probably write again about ways to discover inner peace and joy even before passing through the pearly gates. But this bit of spiritual paradise cannot result from today’s desperate quest for material comfort or psychological and emotional security and fulfillment. That’s where you find the crushed expectations and the ensuing inner meltdown.

And finally, no, because even on the spiritual level we are still on pilgrimage, still incomplete, still ignorant and hence subject to trials and crises of the spirit, which feel like anything but Paradise. We receive a taste of Divine Wisdom, but we are immediately reminded: “he who eats of me will hunger still, he who drinks of me will thirst for more” (Sirach 24:20). So we’re not at rest here, we’re straining toward the goal. We cannot be satisfied with earth, we must long for heaven—if we are to be true to ourselves, i.e., to the image of God within us that is our deepest, most authentic self.

Let’s get back to what God has to do with this. The Incarnation is the entrance of the Son of God into our exile from Paradise, to share it with us and ultimately to lead us out of it. Evidently God was not satisfied with the justice of the primordial banishment from Eden. Since God is Love, we would not be left forever to languish in our estrangement, even though our sins may have cried to heaven for vengeance. He came to promise us that our yearning for Paradise would ultimately be fulfilled.

But look at Him! He looks just like one of us. He didn’t even spare Himself the trauma of birth. And He was born into a poor family, suffering all kinds of deprivations and aligning Himself with the have-nots. Things often did not go well for him, as we read in the Scriptures. His foster-father died when Jesus was young (somewhere between 12 and 30, as far as we can tell). He had no permanent home (“the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”), and He was often met with misunderstanding, derision, and even hostility. Jesus experienced fatigue, hunger, and temptation. He was slandered as a profligate, even as one demon-possessed. He was betrayed, abandoned, unjustly condemned, tortured, and put to death. But He wasn’t crushed by disappointments and frustrations. Jesus’ only expectation was to be able to do His Father’s will, and that He did. No one promised Him a rose garden either, and He didn’t get one—only the thorns, wrapped painfully around His head. He never complained that life wasn’t treating Him fairly, that things did not go the way they’re supposed to in a perfect world. Jesus accepted the fact that He too was in exile, only for a different reason than we are. He would not only re-open the closed gates of heaven, but He would teach us how to live wisely in the meantime. He knew it would not be easy for us, but He promised to be with us till the end.

Christ did not come to take away our suffering, wrote Paul Claudel, but to fill it with His presence. Bishop Kallistos Ware adds that Christ offers us, not a way around suffering, but a way through it, not a substitution for our suffering, but saving companionship in the midst of it: Jesus filling our pain with His presence, our emptiness with His fullness of love. “Of this fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).

Think about what you expect from life, and how you react when your expectations are not met. What might it be like to simply accept the fact that things will not always (or often) go the way you would like them to? Life will be much more rewarding if we free ourselves from the illusion that the universe owes us peace and prosperity, for then we can release all frustrated grumbling and self-pity and can use our energies to love and serve others and actually make this fallen world a better place in which to live. You don’t want to end up being, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, nothing more than a “feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Decide to adopt a new perspective; learn to look at life in new ways. Think about the value of discipline, of struggle, of growing and gaining wisdom through hardship and sacrifice. Think about Jesus, who chose the same painful human condition, though He could have done it some other way. He must have seen the value of it, too.

It’s time for us to get over our self-defeating fantasies of desiring what we cannot have, or of escaping from that which we are required to face. If you can’t have what you want, learn to want what you have. Peace of mind, purity of heart, and spiritual communion with God can be had even now. Paradise cannot. Are you disappointed because I told you that? Well, what did you expect me to say?

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