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

Archive for January, 2009

Not for You to Know

I’ve recently begun re-reading the Acts of the Apostles, a book that I confess I don’t read as often as most of the rest of the New Testament.  But it seems that now the time is right.  There are two things I read in the very first chapter that I think are worthy of reflection here.

The first is something that I usually don’t like to hear: wait.  “Wait for the promise of the Father,” Jesus told waithis disciples.  At that moment He was referring to the Holy Spirit, but for us it can refer to any of the promises of God, or anything we might be waiting for God to do in our lives.  The Scriptures, somewhat to my dismay, are always telling me to wait, especially the Psalms.  “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!” (26/27); “I waited patiently for the Lord” (39/40); “Wait for God’s help” (41/42).  Then there’s “Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 21); “wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor. 1:7), etc.

So we are called to wait.  In a sense our whole life is waiting, though not a passive or inert waiting, but an active, attentive waiting for the Lord while at the same time we try to accomplish his works.  We just can’t set the timetable but must submit to God’s greater wisdom and vision of what is to come and hence what is best for us.

The disciples weren’t too good at waiting, as we see in this same first chapter of Acts.  In their pre-Pentecost condition, they were still not really on the same page as the Lord, even though at this post-resurrection moment, they were past the point of betrayals and total cluelessness.  But it’s clear that they still had an agenda on their minds that belonged to the Old and not the New Testament, for, having witnessed Jesus’ triumph over death, they asked Him: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  They were evidently still holding on to the hope of a political Messiah, even though Jesus had painstakingly tried to instruct them otherwise.

His response to them is the second thing I want to reflect on, and it may cause even more dismay than the first: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”  Not for you to know! Could He have said anything that cuts closer to the heart of our inquisitive, controlling, information-gathering generation?  Nowadays we can learn almost anything we want to know with a few mouse clicks.  And the deeper things, which are more than mere information and hence can’t be searched online, we still think we have a right to know, and now.

But the Lord is telling us something very important here.  He’s telling us there are some things we do not have a right to know—at least not at whatever moment we may desire to know them.  Some things are fixed by the Father’s own authority and reserved for such time as He chooses to reveal them.  This is a lesson in humility for us.  We have no right to demand anything from God—not only certain things we may desire, but also the timing of his plans.  His will does not have to fit our schedule; He is not obliged to inform of what He is up to every step of the way.

Shortly after I had read that passage, a friend of mine was here on retreat.  She has been trying to discern for some time whether her vocation is marriage or religious life, but had not reached any clarity.  So, since misery loves company, I read her the above passage—if it’s not for me to know what I’d like to know, then it’s not for her to know what she’d like to know, either!  I’m being a bit facetious here; those words of the Lord are actually a kind of consolation.  Even though my friend did not immediately receive them with joy, she soon understood that the more we accept the Lord’s way of doing things (or not doing them, as the case may be), the more peace we will have.  She didn’t have to worry that there was some wrongdoing on her part that was the reason for her lack of clarity on her vocation; it was simply that at this present moment it was not for her to know the time the Father had fixed by his own authority.  When it is time, she will know.  (Of course, it is possible that some habitual grave sin could be an obstacle to discerning the Lord’s will, but after talking for a considerable time with her, I judged her to be in good spiritual health, and even extraordinarily faithful for a young woman trying to be a good Catholic amid the heavy pressures of an almost godless society.)

So, when we at times find ourselves a bit impatient with the Lord, or curious as to what He plans to do with us, or what is the next step we are supposed to take, we might have to simply rest in the awareness that it is not for us to know, not right now anyway.  When it is time for us to know, we will.  We need to humble ourselves and perhaps listen to what the Lord had to tell Job—you know, reminding him that he wasn’t around when God was setting the stars in place and making boundaries for land and sea, etc, and therefore little Job was probably just a tad short on eternal wisdom.

It’s a good reality check for us to realize that there are some things that are just not for us to know.  But the Father knows, and all times and seasons are fixed not only by his divine authority, but also by his loving providence, so we can trust Him absolutely.  And that blessed fact is for us to know.

From Selfishness to Sacrifice (Part 2)

The Gospel passage I’ve chosen for the sacrificial level of spiritual life is the following: “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”  I could have also chosen Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, to take up our cross and follow Him, or to sell all and become his disciples.  But I think this one is most appropriate, for it explicitly presents love as the basis for sacrifice.  Now, we don’t have literally to lay down our lives (although that is the ultimate sacrifice), but every sacrifice we make for love of another is a way of laying down our lives, putting others’ needs ahead of our own.

“Sacrifice” is a much maligned and misunderstood term.  It often carries the connotation of something distasteful or painful offered or endured for some ostensibly “greater good.”  We give up stuff for Lent as a sacrifice; we put up with some illness or disappointment as a sacrifice.  All of life’s inescapable unpleasantness we more or less reluctantly offer as a sacrifice.  This is not entirely incorrect, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

offering-sacrificeA sacrifice is an act of worship, literally a “sacred action.”  In the Old Testament, animals and various kinds of produce were offered in sacrifice for various reasons: atonement, purification, thanksgiving, etc.  These acts are always directed toward God, expressing our awareness that all things belong to Him anyway, including our very lives, which are now freely (if only symbolically at this point) offered back to Him.  Our life has ultimately to become a sacred action in its entirety, a true and personal self-offering.  There is the element of self-denial and perhaps even of suffering involved, but mainly it is a gift of oneself to God, and to others for God’s sake.  It is an act of worship.

To make the move from selfishness all the way to sacrifice involves more than merely shifting attention away from ourselves.  We have to acquire a whole new world-view, a way of looking at life and people and death and eternity that enables us to live in a different way.  In short, we have to look at life through the eyes of Jesus, that is, with eyes of love.

Not only must we overcome selfishness, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to simple justice in human relationships, either.  To love sacrificially is to go the extra mile, to give more than is strictly required, to be willing to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  To advance from the Golden Rule to the spirit of sacrifice is to go from “love your neighbor as yourself” to “love one another as I have loved you.”

One who lives a sacrificial life does not count the number of individual sacrifices that must be made, for to live is to give.  But in order to live in this way, one must truly know the love of God and be enkindled with a living hope for eternal blessedness with Him.  Christ in us is our hope of glory, and therefore we willingly toil, striving with the energy He mightily inspires in us (see Colossians 1:27-29).

Devoted spouses and parents know what sacrificial love is about, when raising children or perhaps caring for a disabled spouse.  You simply do what love requires, because it is the only way to live a Christ-like (and thus fully human) life.  Monks know about sacrificial love in a somewhat different way.  The faithful living of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the application of oneself to long hours of prayer, fasting, vigils, and the other demands of the consecrated life show that this path is designed to be sacrificial!  We do all this as St Paul did, according to his famous saying: “in my flesh I complete what is lacking Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24).  Sacrifice thus becomes intercession; walking the narrow way with Jesus bears fruit far beyond the confines of our own souls.

Once sacrifice becomes a way of life, and hence the difficulties seem less difficult, and love softens all sufferings, can we really say that we are making sacrifices any more?  Of course!  Sacrifice should not be wholly identified with pain or the harshness of some forms of self-denial.  Even if love’s requirements become easier through faithful practice and the consolation of the grace of God, our life is still sacrificial, that is, still a sacred action, an act of worship.

Jesus’ call to holiness is meant to make our joy complete. Sacrifice should mean a cheerful offering of all that life brings, not a grudging acceptance of the inevitable. The Lord came to bring abundant life, but He knows that selfishness suffocates true life, and that even justice is inadequate for the fullness of life and joy.  Nothing short of the full outpouring of our life in love will lead us to peace and everlasting happiness.  “By this we know love, that He laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1John 3:16).  Selfishness must be eradicated, justice transcended, and sacrificial love embraced as the highest good we can experience in this life.  This is because it is Jesus’ way of life, He who knows better than anyone the meaning of genuine love, the value of the gift of oneself.

The sacrificial life will inevitably lead us to the Cross.  Again, this does not mean a literal crucifixion, but it does mean a total and unqualified self-giving, without the expectation of compensation or temporal reward.  This does not mean that God will not grant such blessings (He often does), but that it should not be a condition for “laying down our lives” for our brothers and sisters.

One of the conditions that we usually let go of last is that of desiring some sort of acknowledgment from others, or some other personal satisfaction, from our gift of self (but remember, a true gift has no strings attached).  When we do something for someone, we’d like to see some appreciation; when we forgive someone, we like to receive an apology or some other expression of repentance; when we love, we’d like to be loved in return.  This is only natural, but the mystery of the Cross goes beyond all that.  Jesus’ tortured body itself is the ultimate icon of unrequited love, and his prayer of forgiveness fell on the deaf ears of the jeering crowd.  But He loved them to the end. He did not cease giving just because there was no return from others.

The Lord’s complete sacrifice removed the flaming sword from the entrance to Paradise.  Thus we know that the road of spiritual life leads to our heavenly homeland.  As we rejoice in the fruits of Jesus’ sacrifice, let us also hear his words: “No servant is greater than his master… Where I am, there will my servant be.”  We cannot elude the Cross if we wish to live in faith and love, but let us hear the rest of the above passage: “My Father will honor whoever serves Me” (John 12:26).  If we are with Him on the Cross, we will also be with Him in the bliss of heaven.

As you read this, you may agree that the road is indeed long, seemingly interminable, from where we are to where Christ is, in the eternal glory of the Holy Trinity.  But the only way to get there is to start taking steps.  (You can find Him at every step, by the way, for He is with us always, not just waiting at the end of the line.)  Examine the ways that selfishness may still influence your attitudes and actions.  Begin to treat others as you would have them treat you.  Keep walking along this road; don’t stop now.  You’re not there yet.  Move toward a more sacrificial lifestyle, for “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).  Turn your life into a sacred action, and do not shrink from the demands of discipleship, the call of the Cross.  Jesus walks with you, He who has overcome the world and all obstacles to an abundant, rewarding life.  If you want it, He will give it to you, and you will have no regrets.

The journey from selfishness to sacrifice is somewhat analogous to our basic human passage from childhood to adulthood.  There are stages, transitions, times of growth, success, and failure.  We don’t have a choice about growing old, but we can choose to grow up, that is, to mature, to become less selfish, more giving, more loving. It takes a lot of faith, and a lot of effort, and at least a few tears as well.  No one said it would be easy, only that it would be good.  “So you have sorrow now, but…your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).  The way of sacrificial love is the only way to true and lasting joy.  Keep walking.

From Selfishness to Sacrifice (Part 1)

[This is an article I wrote a few years ago, but I thought it worth recycling since it deals with themes that are ever-present in our spiritual lives and that are also ever-challenging, because we are ever-failing to get it right!  So here’s another reminder.]

“The road is long, with many a winding turn,” as the old song goes.  That can be said about the spiritual life, and anyone who has been at it for some years knows that it is indeed a long process of enlightenment, struggle, and growth—ultimately unto a real inner transformation or theosis.  But our inner transformation, if it is genuine, cannot be unrelated to our outer behavior.  “The mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart” (Luke 6:45), and we are expected to be doers, not just hearers, of God’s word (James 1:22-25).

In reflecting on this long, winding road of spiritual life, it occurred to me that it can perhaps be summarized as a journey from selfishness to sacrifice, with a kind of a middle stage that engages the Golden Rule.  Now it must be said at the outset that “stages” in the spiritual life cannot be fixed or inflexible, and there may be considerable overlapping and even regression to the more imperfect stages.  This is simply because free human beings cannot be forced into pre-conceived molds, and especially because the process of spiritual growth depends upon a living and personal relationship with God, which implies the somewhat unpredictable nature of any dynamic relationship.  That doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about it, because God has established certain parameters for the kind of human behavior that is pleasing to Him, and the history of the saints reveals some general patterns of spiritual enlightenment and growth.  Then there’s common sense…

I’d like to use three citations from the Gospels to help illustrate the spiritual passage from selfishness to sacrifice: Luke 12:19, Matthew 7:12, and John 15:13.

The first Gospel passage expresses the beginning point of selfishness, one which perhaps many of us have fat-man-eating-burgernever grown out of.  It is something that dogs us all through our spiritual life and is the greatest enemy to growth in love.  “And I will say to myself: you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.”  Most of us probably aren’t as wealthy as that man, but the point is not the amount of his possessions, but the fact that he “laid treasure up for himself, and was not rich in God’s sight” (v. 21).  To be rich in God’s sight would have been, in his case, to share his goods with the poor, and to live a devout life.  Divine judgment on the selfish is swift and severe: “You fool!  This very night your life is required of you…”

Original sin seems to have burdened us with an innate selfishness, which is something that we have to work at: first to become aware of, and then to overcome in practice.  Selfishness is something that lies hidden beneath much of what we think, say, and do.  People don’t often confess it, probably because they’re not aware that almost all the sins they do confess are in some way rooted in selfishness.  Any choosing of our own will over God’s, any seeking of our own advantage, especially at the expense of others, and any thoughtless assumption that our own needs take priority over anyone else’s, are manifestations of selfishness.

Even when we set out on a “spiritual” path, we usually do not leave our selfishness behind.  We find ways to build up our ego, to seem knowledgeable or holy in the eyes of others, and generally to control things until we reach a certain measure of self-satisfaction.  We haven’t really begun the true conversion process, because we haven’t begun to let go of our own desires, expectations, and self-centered approach to life.

As we begin to recognize the extent of our selfishness through prayer (and probably the remarks of others), we undertake by God’s grace the work of repentance, of changing attitudes and behaviors, so as to break out of our self-centered world view.  We begin to realize that it doesn’t work anymore, if we really want to follow Jesus.

The first step out of living for ourselves, out of storing up riches, as it were, for ourselves, is to apply the Golden Rule to our lives, which is merely a matter of fundamental justice.  You see, selfishness is a kind of injustice, because it hoards all goods and pleasures to itself, attracts all attention, honor, etc, to itself, unconcerned about the needs of others.  So we might describe the spiritual journey of Selfishness–Golden Rule–Sacrifice also in this way: Injustice–Justice–Love.

“Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”  This is the second of the biblical passages.  These words simply express the call to exercise basic justice in human relations—a morality that shouldn’t even need explanation, because it ought to be self-evident.  But alas, it is so rarely practiced, even among religious people.  If everyone put only these words of Jesus into practice, the whole world would change overnight.  We want others to do good to us, but we hesitate or resist doing good to others.  We want others to bless and encourage us, but we don’t do so for them.  We demand to be served, but bristle when called to serve.  We even expect others to go out of their way to meet our needs, but we hardly even think of doing the same for others (unless there’s something in it for us).  Why is that?  Because we are selfish, of course!

To move out of selfishness is to move toward others, to do unto them as we would have them do unto us.  “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).  This really is a major step in our spiritual progress, as I’m sure any honest examination of conscience will reveal.  It moves the center of attention from ourselves to others, so that we can grow personally and be a blessing for others.  It teaches us the value of other people; it helps purify and expand our narrow attitudes, and enables us to gain some inner equilibrium by shedding some of that ancient weight of “original selfishness.”  What we do for others, moreover, is not merely done because that’s how we too wish to be treated, but because Jesus said that what we do for them we do for Him.  There is always a deeper, spiritual dimension to the Christian life.  We are called to see Christ in our neighbor.

At the conclusion of the verse which we call the Golden Rule, Jesus adds: “for this is the law and the prophets.”  This means, first of all, that it is a summary of God’s revelation up to that point.  But “law and prophets” are not yet the fullness of the Gospel of Christ.  If we are to be fully remade in the image of Christ, we have to move even beyond justice, beyond the Golden Rule.  We have to learn the meaning of sacrifice, of love, and these must become our way of life.

To be continued…

Parrhesia

Immediately after the consecration of the Holy Gifts in the Divine Liturgy, the priest prays this prayer: “So that, to those who partake of them, they may be for the cleansing of the soul, for the remission of sins, for the fellowship of your Holy Spirit, for the fullness of the kingdom of heaven, for intimate confidence in You, and not for judgment or condemnation” (trans. Raya and de Vinck, Byzantine Daily Worship).  What I’d like to focus on here is “intimate confidence.”

That expression translates the Greek term parrhesia, which has a variety of meanings, going back to byzantine-royalty1classical antiquity.  As for its secular meaning, Raya notes: “The Byzantine-Greek expression ‘Parresia’ designates the right free citizens had to speak in the legislative assembly and before a court of justice…”  So originally it has to do with freedom to speak, and hence ease of access, to the civil authorities.  Another, and related, secular meaning is this: “Etymologically, ‘parrhesiazesthai’ means ‘to say everything’—from ‘pan’ (everything) and ‘rhema’ (that which is said). The one who uses parrhesia… is someone who says everything he has in mind: he does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely…”

Advancing to Christian usage, the term acquires other, but still related, connotations.  In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, parrhesia refers to speaking the word of God without fear, boldly and with confidence: “And now, Lord… grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness [Greek meta parrhesias pasis]” (4:29).  Yet there is more than fearless boldness involved here.  The most fundamental Christian meaning of the word is probably “confidence.”  It is used in this sense often in the Letter to the Hebrews:

“But Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end” (3:6). “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).  “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…” (10:19). “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” (10:35).

Another definition is a kind of summary: “free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance.”  As is: “free access resulting from trust.”

Now we can begin to understand the use of parrhesia in relationship to Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and through Him our relationship to the Father.  The freedom, the assurance, and the trust are what make this confidence “intimate.”  It is also the nature of this relationship, and the nature of the One with whom we are in relationship (“God is love”), that makes this confidence intimate.

Our communion with Christ gives us access to the Father.  “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…” (Rom. 5:1-2).  But this access should not be understood merely in forensic terms.  It is not simply a claim that we can make based upon an agreement into which we have entered (He died for my sins; I put my faith in Him; thus I have a right to approach the Father).  That is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go as far as “intimate confidence,” which implies a relationship of love and complete personal trust.  We don’t have peace merely because the deal is done, but because we have entered into a living, dynamic, loving relationship with Him who, loving his own, “loved them to the end,” that is unto death, unto the fullness of love (Jn. 13:1).

It seems to me that one of the great works of our Christian life is living this intimate confidence in God fully.  Perhaps in the cases we usually speak of “trust” in God we ought to replace it with the richer expression “intimate confidence.”  This implies something more profound and more, well, intimate, than a kind of intellectual assent to God’s solicitous providence which we might label “trust.”  Intimate confidence approaches in meaning that “perfect love” which “casts out fear” (1Jn. 4:18).  Intimate confidence is a trust beyond measure, a boundless trust that rests in the Lord’s goodness, mercy, and love.

The Divine Liturgy instructs us that this intimate confidence is a fruit of Holy Communion, for if we are in communion with Christ, we have the assured access to the Father, the freedom to speak openly, to ask boldly, to hold nothing back, to pray and to live in peace, to “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life” (Lk. 1:74-75).  In the same liturgical prayer quoted at the beginning, the Trinitarian dimension is completed when we also ask for “fellowship” (better translated “communion” or “participation”; Gk. koinonia) with the Holy Spirit.

I think it is worthwhile to reflect on this, and perhaps to examine ourselves to see if our relationship to God can in fact be characterized as one of intimate confidence.  In Christ we have the parrhesia to approach the Father, and in that free and loving relationship we have fullness of life in this world and in the Kingdom to come.  Discover where it might be that you are lacking in intimate confidence, and ask yourself why.  It requires a complete immersion in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love to actualize in daily living the confidence in the Lord which is the sine qua non of the world-view and the whole life of the children of God.

Keep Standing

The following are a few more texts on the subject of spiritual warfare and the struggle against sin. It seems to me that this is a topic that ought to be approached from as many angles as possible, since the myriad deceptions of the devil are attempts to unhinge or counter our established defenses, so we often may find ourselves in need of fresh ammunition! Included in the following texts is Pope John Paul II’s interpretation of that inscrutable mystery known as the “sin against the Holy Spirit,” which is well worth reading. Forewarned is forearmed!

“The Lord knows the thoughts and intentions of our heart. For there is no doubt that he knows them all, but we only know those that he reveals to us through the grace of discernment. For a person’s mind does not always know what is inside him, and even when he is dealing with his thoughts, whether they be voluntary or not, he thinks of them in a way that does not always correspond with reality. His gaze is so darkened that he doesn’t even discern with precision those that reveal themselves clearly to his mind. For it often happens that, for some human reason or for a reason coming from the Tempter, a person sets out by means of his own thinking in something that only appears to be pious and that, in the eyes of God, does not at all deserve the reward promised to virtue. That is because certain things can take on the appearance of true virtue, as moreover also of vice, and can deceive the eyes of the heart. Through their seductions, they can trouble the vision of our intelligence to the point that it often considers realities to be good that are in fact bad; and the other way around, they can make our intelligence see something bad where in fact there is no evil. That is an aspect of our poverty and of our ignorance that we must deplore a lot and greatly fear… Who can verify whether the spirits come from God unless that person has received discernment of spirits from God?… That discernment is at the source of all the virtues.” —Baudoin of Ford

Saint Francis maintained: ‘My best defense against all the plots and tricks of the enemy is still the spirit ofjoy-of-st-francis joy. The devil is never so happy as when he has succeeded in robbing one of God’s servants of the joy in his or her soul. The devil always has some dust on hold that he blows into someone’s conscience through a small basement window so as to make opaque what is pure. But in a heart that is filled with joy, he tries in vain to introduce his deadly poison. The demons can do nothing against a servant of Christ whom they find filled with holy gladness; whereas a dejected, morose and depressed soul easily lets itself be submerged in sorrow or captured by false pleasures.’ That is why he himself always tried to keep his heart joyful, to preserve that oil of gladness with which his soul had been anointed (Ps 45:7). He took great care to avoid sorrow, the worst of illnesses, and when he felt that it was beginning to infiltrate his soul, he immediately had recourse to prayer. He said: ‘At the first sign of trouble, the servant of God must get up, begin to pray, and remain before the Father until the latter has caused him or her to retrieve the joy of the person who is saved.’” —Thomas de Celano

“Advance with simplicity on the pathways of God, and do not worry. Hate your defects, yes, but quietly, without excitement or anxiety. It is necessary to be patient with them and to benefit from them through holy humility. For if you lack patience, your imperfections, instead of disappearing, will only grow. Because there is nothing which strengthens our defects as much anxiety and obsession to be rid of them.  Cultivate your vineyard together with Jesus. To you the task of removing stones and pulling up brambles. To Jesus, that of sowing, planting, cultivating and watering. But even in your work, it is still him who acts. Because without Christ, you could do nothing whatsoever.” —St. Padre Pio

“Why is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit unforgivable? How should this blasphemy be understood? St. Thomas Aquinas replies that it is a question of a sin that is ‘unforgivable by its very nature, insofar as it excludes the elements through which the forgiveness of sin takes place.’ According to such an exegesis, ‘blasphemy’ does not properly consist in offending against the Holy Spirit in words; it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross. If man rejects the ‘convincing concerning sin’ which comes from the Holy Spirit [Jn 16:8] and which has the power to save, he also rejects the ‘coming’ of the Counselor [Jn 16:7], that ‘coming’ which was accomplished in the Paschal Mystery, in union with the redemptive power of Christ’s Blood: the Blood which ‘purifies the conscience from dead works’ [Heb 9:14]. We know that the result of such a purification is the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, whoever rejects the Spirit and the Blood [1Jn 5:8] remains in ‘dead works,’ in sin. And the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit consists precisely in the radical refusal to accept this forgiveness, of which he is the intimate giver and which presupposes the genuine conversion which he brings about in the conscience.

“If Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this life or in the next, it is because this ‘non-forgiveness’ is linked, as to its cause, to ‘non-repentance,’ in other words to the radical refusal to be converted… Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is the sin committed by the person who claims to have a ‘right’ to persist in evil—in any sin at all—and who thus rejects Redemption. One closes oneself up in sin, thus making impossible one’s conversion, and consequently the remission of sins, which one considers not essential or not important for one’s life. This is a state of spiritual ruin, because blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not allow one to escape from one’s self-imposed imprisonment and open oneself to the divine sources of the purification of consciences and of the remission of sins. —Pope John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantum.

Stand Therefore

A few days after the feast of Theophany we came to that memorable liturgical entity called the “Saturday after Theophany.” This occurs every year on the Saturday after Theophany. It is not a mere random day of the post-feast but has its own special readings. And the readings are what make it special. This is because they tell us what to expect very shortly after we experience the glow of renewed baptismal grace and the celebration of the manifestation of the Holy Trinity: battle with the powers of darkness.

Jesus was still wet with Jordan water when he was driven out into the desert by the Holy Spirit (yes, driven out: Greek ekballei, Mk. 1:12) to be tempted by the devil. (The Gospel we read is Mt. 4:1-11.) And we also get to hear about putting on the armor of God for this same struggle in St Paul’s classic passage from Ephesians (6:10-17).

I’d like to look mainly at the text from Ephesians in the context of dealing with temptation, for this struggle is one that no Christian can armor-of-godavoid. This is not a conflict we can take lying down, and to prove it, the Apostle uses a form of the word “stand” four times in the space of a few verses. This puts us in position for battle: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil… that you may be able to withstand the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore…” If we do not stand we fall, and that is the fate St Paul most wants us to escape.

We have to know first of all against whom we have to stand. The Apostle is not telling you stand against your next-door neighbor or your co-worker or even your mother-in-law. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against… the spiritual hosts of wickedness…” Wherever sin is involved, there is at some level a battle with the powers of darkness. If we in fact commit sin, we have lost the battle, but if we stand against it with the power of God, we are victorious.

So how is the spiritual armor of God to help us in time of temptation? The first thing the Apostle says is that we are to be girded with truth. This is one of the most important elements of our divine armor. Why is that? Because all temptation is in one way or another a lie or an illusion. If the temptation is in the form of some sort of fantasy or daydream, the devil is trying to get us to pursue the illusion as if it were reality—or to try to actualize it somehow. If the temptation is in the form of a lie or deception, the devil is trying to convince us that some course of action is good when in fact it is evil. In all cases a temptation is presented as something good, but in all cases it is something evil, or, if not evil in itself, calculated to lead to something evil. Holding on to truth is the best defense against all illusion and deception. If we live in the truth of what God has revealed about Himself, and in what the Church teaches concerning faith and morals, we will not be deceived by illusions and lies.

The next piece of armor is righteousness, which is truth in action. Righteousness is manifested in both faith and morals, because it is all about relationship with God and expressing that relationship in the way we live. If we strive, with the help of divine grace, both to believe and to act rightly, we aren’t leaving loopholes for temptation to lead us along manifestly unrighteous ways. So the Apostle says our feet have to be protected as well, with the “gospel of peace,” so that we can walk in the ways of righteousness all the days of our lives. To “walk” is a common biblical expression for the way we live. If we believe in the truth, we ought to walk in it. “Walk in love,” he tells us in the same epistle (5:2).

Above all, Paul says, we need faith as a shield, for this “can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.” Temptations are seen as fiery arrows which we have to fend off, and it is our faith—which binds us spiritually to God—which we must hold before us as if it were a shield. In a prayer of the Byzantine tradition at Compline for protection from temptation and demonic disturbances at night, we pray to the Lord: “Stop the onslaughts of passion, put out the burning arrows of the evil one that treacherously assail us, and calm the commotions of mind and body.” Without faith we will not be able to withstand the evil day, because “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).

We have to put on the helmet of salvation. It’s not clear exactly what the Apostle means here, for if we were already definitively and irrevocably saved, it wouldn’t make any ultimate difference if we fought the devil or not. Our only real enemy is the enemy of our salvation, as the devil is sometimes called, so I would think that the spiritual helmet is our hope for salvation—not hope in the weak colloquial sense of “wish” but in the confident sense of the theological virtue. To put the helmet of hope for salvation on the head is like protecting the mind from thoughts of despair or of anything that can threaten our salvation.

Finally, we have something that is not only defensive (like armor), but offensive as well: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” We can parry the thrusts of the devil with this sword, but we can also drive him back and wound him with it. For one thing, the word of God is truth, and this slices through all the illusions and deceptions of temptation. Returning to the Gospel of the Saturday after Theophany, it seems that the sword of the Spirit was Jesus’ chief weapon in overcoming the temptations in the desert. He answered each temptation with a quote from Scripture, the first one in a sense summing up the rest, for it reminds us that we are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. To do that is to be victorious at all times; it is to stand firm in the face of temptation and to “just say no” with the words—and hence the power—of God Himself.

Stand, therefore, when you are driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert of spiritual struggles. In this life we are not permitted to bask indefinitely in the warm graces of spiritual consolation. There are those “hosts of wickedness” to contend with, and everyone has their assigned position on the battlefield. Our victories are not only for our personal spiritual growth, but they pave the way for others to receive the mercies of God, and perhaps to be extra-protected until they themselves have the strength and sufficient armor to “withstand the evil day.” Make no mistake, we must “look carefully how [we] walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, for the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). As long as “we are in Him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ” (1Jn. 5:20), we shall stand.

[In case you want some more detail on the dynamics of temptation, I did a series of four posts on this from October 6-10, 2005. You can find them by clicking on the October 2005 link in the archives]

That I May See

We find ourselves this Sunday in a kind of liturgical no-man’s land. Last Sunday was the Sunday after Theophany, and a few days ago we liturgically “took leave” of the feast, coming to the end of its post-festal period. Thus we have effectively completed the Christmas-Theophany cycle. Next Sunday we begin the Lenten-Paschal cycle with the first of the preparatory Sundays for Lent. Today, then, we have a little island of ordinary time in between these two great liturgical seasons. So what shall we do with it?

Last Sunday the Gospel told us that the people sitting in darkness have jesus-heals-blind-manseen a great light, and today we have a blind man receiving his sight (Lk. 18:35-43). It seems to me that during the Christmas-Theophany cycle we’ve already worked the light-and-darkness theme fairly thoroughly, so I don’t want merely to rehash that here. I won’t then try to describe the transition from blindness to seeing in terms of moving from darkness to light, though it can, of course, rightly be explained that way. I would rather place this mystery in the context of the movement from unbelief to faith, or, more precisely, from an incomplete or distorted spiritual vision to one that is clear and true.

The result of the purified and clarified vision is faithful discipleship, as we can see from the Gospel story. Once the blind man was healed, he began to follow Jesus and give glory to God. If it weren’t a spiritual as well as a physical healing, the man might simply have gone his own way and started making up for lost time in pursuing the wealth and pleasures he was denied by his former infirmity. I suppose that one could object that the man simply followed Jesus as a sort of instinctual reaction, as a dog might follow someone who was tossing him food. But I think St Luke (and the Holy Spirit who inspired him) would have us see more into this miracle than that.

Since most people aren’t physically blind, and those believers who tend to suffer from spiritual blindness usually aren’t totally blind (since they are in fact believers), we ought to start from the standpoint of seeking healing from a distorted or unclear spiritual vision, because in fact we may not see at all as clearly as we think we do. This tends to make the healing all the more difficult, because if we refuse to admit that we have a problem, we aren’t going to be seeking healing. And if we are not seeking healing, we aren’t going to receive it.

I recently read a series of lectures by the late Malcolm Muggeridge on the theme of “Christ and the Media.” One of his main themes was that the media, especially the visual media, offer us fantasy disguised as reality, whereas Christ gives us only the truth, only the actual reality. Muggeridge often quoted a line from William Blake, who said we are led to believe a lie when we see with, and not through, the eye. To see with the eye is to see as a camera sees, and this is his critique of the media. The camera doesn’t show us reality, but rather a series of images that can be manipulated to present whatever the editors or producers want us to see. There was some famous footage, for example, of Hitler doing a funny little dance when informed that France had fallen to the Nazis. His little “dance,” however, was created by dropping a few frames from a film clip which merely showed him walking.

Muggeridge himself was present at a certain demonstration in New York. He saw many people standing around carrying signs, with police present, but no one was doing anything. He asked why and was told the cameras hadn’t shown up yet. As soon as they did, the protesters began to raise their signs and shout, and the police started roughing them up. When the cameras had filmed enough, the demonstrators and police went home. He said he watched it on the news that night, and it looked very impressive! The point is that even though the camera accurately recorded what was in front of it, it didn’t present reality, only a staged event calculated to produce a certain reaction from the viewers. So, as Jesus said in one of his parables, they see but they do not perceive.

Now seeing through the eye refers to perceiving the significance of what is seen, and not merely looking at it superficially. It is a seeing that leads to true spiritual perception and hence to understanding and wisdom. This is the direction in which our healing of spiritual blindness must take us. Our faith is supposed to be that which gives us the capacity for spiritual perception, a seeing that is more than mere looking. The sight that is faith looks through things and beyond things to the deepest eternal Reality, which is God. But isn’t faith by definition believing in something that we cannot see?

I’d like to share a rather lengthy quote on this point, but this time I’m not merely copying the words of others, because the one I’m quoting is myself! This is taken from my wildly best-selling (a few hundred copies, anyway) book, How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place: Lifting the Veils on the Presence of God. The devout and pious author says this: “When I speak of a vision of reality that is radically Christian, that sees beyond the surface of things to reality as God has made it, I speak of a vision generated by faith and grace, that is, a sharpened spiritual perception. When we Christians say that we see ‘with the eyes of faith,’ we’re not talking about religious imagination, wishful thinking, or seeing something that isn’t objectively there. On the contrary, we need the assistance of the gift of faith and spiritual awareness to perceive what really is there.

“What do I mean by faith? I am coming to the conclusion that ‘blind faith’ is a contradiction in terms, at least when we are talking about faith in God… Faith has to be a kind of vision, a kind of perception. Faith may begin with simply believing in what we cannot see, but that will not endure the long haul… Faith cannot remain at the level of blindly believing the invisible, if it is to come to full maturity.

“There will always be an element of believing without seeing, and the Lord pronounced his blessing upon it (Jn. 20:29). But He was talking about seeing Him with our bodily eyes, not about the spiritual perception that faith is meant to cultivate. To live in faith is not to walk in blindness, but to have the capacity to lift the veils and perceive the presence of God, however dimly. The full awareness of the mysteries of God and of Heaven may be beyond our grasp in this life, but it is just beyond…

“Our human consciousness, our daily awareness of reality, lies waiting, as if dead, for that lightning bolt of faith that will be for it a true resurrection, a true illumination. For our human awareness to be truly alive to all that is, it must be raised up to the level of faith. That is another reason why faith is not a mere believing without seeing. It is an inner resurrection that opens vistas to us that would be impossible to perceive without it. We see with new eyes, for our moribund consciousness has been resurrected by the gift of faith.”

Later in the book I go on to say that one of the essential elements for that true spiritual perception which is faith is purity of heart, and there’s sufficient evidence in Scripture and the fathers for that. But what I’m saying here is, among other things, that we should read the Gospels through the eye and not merely with the eye. We shouldn’t read, for example, today’s Gospel and think that the details of the story exhaust the whole meaning of it. It’s not enough to walk away from this Gospel, saying: “Well, evidently Jesus was some sort of wonder-worker since He gave sight to that blind man. The power of God must have been at work in Him.” That’s true enough, but how is that going to change your life? How are you going to develop a deep and clear spiritual perception if you only observe the facts of the story? What is going to make you get up and follow Him, glorifying God all the way?

The public ministry of Christ begins with Him saying: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” The root of this word “repent” is the Greek metanoia, a change of mind and heart, literally change of the nous, that spiritual/intellectual capacity we have which the fathers sometimes call the “eye of the soul” or the “eye of the heart.” This means we have to start seeing things a different way; we have to perceive with understanding rather than merely observe events. St Paul prayed that the Ephesians would have the eyes of their hearts enlightened, so that they would know that to which God had called them, and that they would thus acquire a spirit of wisdom and revelation and knowledge of God (see Eph. 1:17-20).

So let us, when we hear in the Gospel that Christ has given sight to a blind man, not give the jaded response: “Oh, it’s another one of those healings He performed,” and walk away unmoved. Let us rather see through the eye, the eye of the soul, and perceive that God is trying to heal our vision, to remove all distortions and impediments. He wants to be able to tell us, as he did the blind man: “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”

Jesus said: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (Jn. 12:46). This means that if we don’t acquire spiritual perception through faith, it’s our own darn fault! Jesus has come as the Light, and He gives us the grace to see. It is only our stubborn selfishness and our refusal to break out of our own little narrow world that keeps us blind to the glory and goodness and love of God. He wants us to discover Him everywhere, for that’s where He is. And through the gift of faith He has given us eyes to see. Let us open them fully at last, and receive clear vision and the capacity for spiritual perception, that we may, without holding anything back, follow Jesus and give God the glory.

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