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

Archive for February, 2009

Mneme Theou

Just in case you’re already confused, that’s Greek for “remembrance of God.”  In the practice of prayer in the Byzantine tradition, remembrance of God is really the foundation of all prayer.  Often the Jesus Prayer is the principal way to do this, but remembrance of God is more fundamental than any particular form of prayer.  It is simply a conscious, attentive being in the presence of God.

I’m going to quote here from a certain author on this subject, though I can’t recommend the book without reservation (A Different Christianity, by Robin Amis).   He knows well the Eastern tradition of prayer and repentance, and has made many trips to Mt Athos and learned the wisdom of some of the monks there.  But he has the annoying habit of trying to work all this into a schema that includes far-eastern ideas and practices as well as the writings of certain authors on the outer fringes of Christianity.  He keeps using “esotericism” as a way to describe the Eastern monastic tradition (I understand what he means, but many people wouldn’t, because of the common meaning of the term), and he has evident Gnostic leanings (though he is at pains to distinguish true gnosis from Gnosticism—but he still views this “esoteric” tradition as something that went underground in the early centuries of Christianity and remains basically unknown except to a few who form a kind of elite in this esoteric knowledge).

OK, I said all that.  What follows is still solidly within the best traditions of Eastern Christian prayer and spiritual practice.  Unlike many of today’s “spiritual” self-help gurus, Mr Amis is very serious about faith in God and Christian spiritual practices, and he does not shrink from their demands.

“On Athos the exercise of turning the heart to God is called by the name mneme Theou, which is both an man-praying-aloneexercise in its own right and something that occurs almost spontaneously whenever prayer goes into the heart.  Prayer is still incomplete as long as it lacks this element of remembrance of God.  Mneme Theou is thus an essential element in a life of metanoia [the "change of heart/mind" that characterizes repentance], and an essential part of the fullest experience of metanoia itself.  The heart turned fully to God wishes to think of nothing else.  It turns for the solution of its problems not to the world but to God.  This is what Theophan [St Theophan the Recluse, 19th century Russian saint] called ‘magnetization to God.’  It was also Theophan who wrote about this in a letter: ‘Inner disorder you know from experience… The spirit has lost its natural support, which is God.  The spirit recovers this through remembrance of God.  Always be with the Lord whatever you are doing; always turn your mind to Him…’

“…mneme Theou, remembering God, means something that is more than merely a ‘subjective’ recollection.  ‘Objectively,’ if one can say that, it means reconnecting oneself to God and His grace.  The effort, the process involved, is very like that needed to remember a forgotten fact.  It too sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails.  It succeeds, paradoxically, when we ‘forget ourselves,’ forget our ordinary thoughts, our ordinary motives, our insistent but very personal hopes and fears.  Then, when it fully succeeds, it connects us not only to something past… but connects us to something, to someone existing now… We must ‘Seek first God’s kingdom,’ and if we do this, He will do everything else that we need.  What is involved, to put it another way, is to ‘remember with the heart’…

“The Jesus Prayer is essentially hesychast in nature, and hesychia, the deep stillness of the heart, is not compatible with the active, Western idea of control.  Overactivity destroys or, to use a modern psychological concept, ‘masks’ it.  Watchfulness—nepsis—protects it.  More to the point, overactivity is a symptom of the absence of true prayer of the heart… A ‘doing’ attitude, an ‘atomist’ or anthropocentric attitude that ‘I am doing it,’ ‘I am praying,’ prevents this [prayer of the heart].  It has been suggested that it does so by importing inappropriate ‘active’ energies.  Unlike these, the correct hesychastic energies… make us sensitive… They make us want to pray, and only when we want to pray can we give attention to our prayer throughout the time of prayer…

“Yet these energies, unlike the active energies, convey a certain stillness, and this paradoxical link of stillness and the will is an essential ingredient of prayer.  This comes always with a sense of something greater than ourselves, of dependence on God and on His Holy Spirit.

“In simpler terms, one common result of our Western idea that we can ‘do’ almost anything is that normally we confuse control and attention.  These are often seen as one and the same, but in fact they are different things, only linked by the fact that attention is needful before we can control something.  In prayer, these two are no longer mutually supportive.  Prayer requires attention without control.”

I think that last line deserves considerable reflection: “Prayer requires attention without control.”  The remembrance of God is not something we can control or manipulate, for it is the action of his grace within us.  But we will fail to experience or recognize it without full attention of “the mind in the heart,” as a classic description of prayer runs.  Prayer isn’t something we “do,” but rather something that God does in us when we attend to the mneme Theou, when we consciously place ourselves in his presence with no agenda but to stand before Him with a humble, contrite, and loving heart.  We must make the necessary efforts to help bring our inner chaos to stillness, but the grace is God’s, the outcome is God’s, the fruits are God’s.  He is in control; we are not.  We simply stand at inner attention and wait for the movement of his Spirit.

Metanoia, mneme Theou, and the “prayer of the heart” constitute the essential inner work of the spiritual life in the Byzantine tradition.  Ascetical practices and liturgical prayer are not merely external elements but means toward (and sometimes fruits of) the great and complete turning of the whole person irrevocably to God, which is the meaning of the Christian life.  If our “remembrance of God” becomes in us the powerful undercurrent of all we do in this life—like that hidden flowing inner stream St Ignatius Theophorus spoke of, which whispers, “Come to the Father”—then the Lord will remember us, like the Good Thief, in his Kingdom.

He Still Leadeth Me

As I continue to read Fr Walter Ciszek’s He Leadeth Me, I find more that I’d like to share with you.  One of gulag-guard-towerhis great themes is absolute trust in God’s will, and of finding God’s will in all the circumstances of life.  His insights are not those of an ivory-tower theologian, for He really learned the hard way, in the harshest of circumstances in Siberia’s gulags.  If He could see God’s hand there, we should not have insurmountable obstacles in seeing Him in our own lives, where the evidence of divine providence ought to be more abundant.  But the call is still the same: see the will of God in everything and accept it, so that you will be well-disposed to respond in the way most pleasing to Him.  In this acceptance and obedience, says Fr Ciszek, true freedom and peace are discovered. Here is another excerpt from the book.

“It is in choosing to serve God, to do his will, that man achieves the highest and fullest freedom.  It may seem paradoxical to say that our highest and fullest freedom comes when we follow to the least detail the will of another, but it is true nonetheless when that other is God.  I could testify from my own experiences, especially from my darkest hours in Lubianka, that the greatest sense of freedom, along with peace of soul and an abiding sense of security, comes when a man totally abandons his own will in order to follow the will of God… I knew only too well how shallow and unsafe it was for me to follow my own will, my own inclinations and desires, unless they were in conformity to his.  I realized then, and I felt it more deeply each day, that true freedom meant nothing else than letting God operate within my soul without interference, giving preference to God’s will as manifested in the promptings, inspirations, and other means he chose to communicate, rather than in acting on my own initiatives.

“For those who do not believe in God, I suppose, such thoughts will seem sheer nonsense or unexplainable stupidity.  For me, however, there could be no doubt: the fullest freedom I had ever known, the greatest sense of security, came from abandoning my will to do only the will of God… Even in moments of human discouragement, the consciousness that I was fulfilling God’s will in all that happened to me would serve to dispel all doubt and desolation.  Whatever the trials of the moment, whatever the hardships or sufferings, more important than all these was the knowledge that they had been sent by God and served his divine providence.  I could not always fathom the depths of his providence or pretend to understand his wisdom…

“What is required for growth is an attitude of acceptance and openness to the will of God, rather than some planned approach or calculated method.  Even ascetical practices such as penances, fasting, or mortifications can be hindrances rather than helps if they are self-imposed.  Striving instead to eliminate all self-will, to accept God’s will revealed in the circumstances of daily life, is the surest way to achieve growth in conformity to the will of God.  It will provide more than enough virtue to be practiced, suffering to be sustained, pain to be borne; more importantly still, it will make us fit instruments to achieve his designs, not only for our own salvation but for others as well…

“A spirituality based on complete trust in God, therefore, is the surest guarantee of peace of soul and freedom of spirit.  In it the soul must learn to act not on its own initiative, but in response to whatever demands are imposed by God in the concrete circumstances of each day.  Its attention must always be centered precisely and primarily on God’s will as revealed and manifested in the people, places, and things he sets before us, rather than on the means required to fulfill it.  Then no matter what these means demand—suffering, risk, loneliness, or physical hardships such as hunger or sickness—the consciousness of fulfilling God’s will in accepting them makes the sacrifice easy, the burden light.  There is no other reason to accept sacrifice or mortification… But accepting whatever comes or happens as the will of God, no matter what it costs spiritually, psychologically, or physically, is the surest and quickest way to a freedom of soul and spirit that surpasses all understanding and explanation.”

I tend to struggle sometimes (OK, all the time) with “accepting whatever comes or happens as the will of God,” since it almost seems to equate the will of God with chance or random occurrences, or perhaps to say that chance and random occurrences as such are the will of God, but then can they really be said to be chance or random?  And can they be part of a precise and prescient divine plan? I don’t really have an answer to this (if I did, I wouldn’t be struggling), but as far as I can tell, all the saints agree that all that happens to us is the will of God (in one form or another), and mightn’t they know a bit more about God than I do?  I guess I’ll never know for sure until I actually do surrender myself in such a radical way and find that complete freedom, peace, and security.  If I ever do discover for myself that it is true, I’ll let you know.  (Hint: it probably is.)

The Hour has Come

Well, I couldn’t avoid it.  The earth has spun sufficient times on its axis to bring us inexorably to this day.  There was nothing I could do; I was unable to prevent it.  Lent has begun.  (In the Byzantine tradition it begins on the Monday before the R.C. Ash Wednesday, or, to be more precise, in the middle of Vespers on Sunday evening.)

Many people tell me they look forward to Lent.  I like to look backward to Lent on Easter.  For me, Lent has always been a sort of Sisyphus season: rolling a huge boulder up a mountain, with enormous exertion, only to have it roll back down and then I have to start all over again.  I know it’s something I need, but it always seems to be just a little more than I’m prepared to endure.  There’s also this strange quirk of time in which Lent proceeds at a much slower pace than, say, the post-paschal season.  Perhaps it’s the severity of the fasting, tsilver-chairhe several thousand prostrations required over the course of Lent, or the heavily penitential tone of most of the services (we “groan and lament” an awful lot), or the uncanny fact that bad things always happen to me during Lent, but somehow there isn’t a moment during Lent when I don’t unmistakably know that it is Lent.  There’s a kind of heaviness that hangs over life.  If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, it’s something like living in the Underworld, with its sad-faced denizens and dreary semi-darkness, and the sense of being inescapably enclosed in a place without fresh air or sun or the stars.

OK, now I’m finished whining. I’ll try to get to some spiritual reflection on repentance, so that I too can repent of my attitude toward Lent.  There’s an element of repentance that I recently noticed in my reading of the Gospel that has a lot to do with attitude.  St John the Baptizer didn’t like the attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees when they presented themselves for baptism at the Jordan.  You sort of get the impression he wasn’t exactly pleased with them, when the first words he spoke to them were: “You brood of vipers!”  But what I’m interested in here are the next few words: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Mt. 3:7-8).

This tells me that repentance isn’t a matter of some formal or (still less) hypocritical observance.  It’s surprising, given what we know of them, that the Pharisees and Sadducees were there at all.  I can hardly imagine them freely choosing to associate in any way with that vulgar madman and his radical rants.  But he was attracting a large following, and messianic expectation was rising to fever pitch.  It seems that they didn’t want to be left out of any event that could be of some religious importance, because they were the religiously important people.  So they showed up for baptism, perhaps hoping they could eventually take this whole movement under their wings and exercise prudent control, once the wild-eyed Baptizer burned out like a shooting star.  But John saw right through them.

The first thing I would reflect on for myself is that we ought to have the right motive for repentance.  If we’re just “fleeing from the wrath to come,” or if there’s any other self-serving motive, our repentance might not be genuine.  Repentance has to come from the heart.  We have to feel the cut of the two-edged sword of the word of God that exposes our sin and lays us open to the searching Light of divine truth.  We have to know the pain of our betrayals and denials, of our infidelities and self-seeking.  We have to arise and return to our Father, for we have gone into a far country which has robbed our souls of their dignity and their ability to reflect the image of God.

So we have to ask ourselves John’s question: Who told us to come to the baptism of repentance?  Why, really, are we following the liturgical and ascetical prescriptions of Lent?  The Pharisees had their reasons for coming to the Jordan, but evidently they were not acceptable ones.  If we are going to follow the practices of Lent, our hearts had better be sincere.  We must really want to change.  And this brings us to the next word of the Baptizer.

“Bear fruit that befits repentance.”  There could hardly be a more concisely incisive (or incisively concise) expression of the call to genuine repentance.  This cuts through all pious veneers and all phony formalism.  See, the Pharisees couldn’t get away with merely being dunked in the river and then saying that yes, they too received John’s baptism and so were up to date on the critical religious events of the time.  “Bear fruit that befits repentance” demands proof that the heart is activated in the external observances.  Another translation, less literal but still getting the point across, is: “Give some evidence you mean to reform.”

Repentance has certain requirements.  Since it means a change of mind and heart, it must necessarily be expressed in a different way of speaking and acting and relating to others.  This is the “fruit that befits” it.  Living the same way you did before you made a declaration of repentance is not bearing befitting fruit.  While Lent is replete with formal observances, the intent is to actually bear fruit that befits what those observances indicate.

This reminds me of a somewhat tangential, but still related, point which I noticed in the First Letter of John.  When I discover that my prayers go unanswered, I search the Scriptures to discover what are in fact the conditions under which prayers are answered (I did some research on that a couple years ago and wrote a detailed article; I’ll publish it here sometime in the future).  There are quite a few conditions, the bottom line being that we have to pray according to the will of God (1Jn. 5:14).  But perhaps even this hasn’t quite reached the bottom of bottom lines.  For there are some things that are clearly the will of God, and I pray for them, but they don’t always come to pass.  I scratch my head, thinking: Well, I can see why He wouldn’t answer my prayer if it wasn’t his will, but why doesn’t He answer it if it is his will?

Then I found what is perhaps the bottomest of bottom lines, in the same epistle: “We receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (3:22).  Aye, there’s the rub.  At certain times I may pray according to his will, but if I’m not at other times doing what pleases God, I’m still disqualified from receiving what I ask for.  This is something like repenting with the mouth and not with the heart.  I can go through the motions of Lenten observances, but if I don’t actually bear fruit that befits repentance (which is doing what pleases the Lord), then there will be no spiritual benefit or growth.  I’ll be like a Pharisee going to John for baptism, and he will publicly question my motives and my sincerity. The reason that many saints are also wonder-workers is that they pray according to the will of God and do what pleases Him.  So their prayers are answered.

Let us then take courage and enter the Lenten arena with hearts truly turned toward God, seeking to do what pleases Him and bearing the fruit that befits a change of heart.  We may be run through the wringer these next seven weeks, but if we are sincerely seeking to do God’s will, we will emerge purified and prepared to celebrate the Feast of feasts, the Resurrection of Christ.  For repentance is really about rising from the dead, as it is written: “purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).  And, concerning the repentant prodigal, “this my son was dead, and is alive again” (Lk. 15:24).

There, I feel a little better about Lent now.  Remind me in a few days that I said all this.  I think I’ll need it…

Poor Banished Children of Eve

I’m not scheduled to preach this Sunday, but I’d still like to say something about what we are celebrating (if that’s the right word in this case) on the Sunday before Lent begins, as its preparation.  This really is an appropriate preparation, for it situates us in our existential plight: we have been banished from Paradise and are livingmasaccio-adam-eve in exile until the Lord calls us home.  Lent is about repentance, that is, about returning, walking the path that leads toward—and not farther away from—our heavenly homeland.

The Offices for Vespers and Matins focus on the fall of Adam and Eve, the poignant laments of the newly-banished, the gut-wrenching realization of what they foolishly and permanently lost, and that they are powerless on their own to recover it.  I will first present a few liturgical texts that convey something of the pathos of this mystery, for it belongs not only to Adam and Eve, but also to us.

“Adam sat before Paradise and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept: ‘Woe is me!  By evil deceit was I persuaded and led astray, and now I am an exile from glory.  Woe is me!  In my simplicity I was stripped naked, and now I am in want.  O Paradise, no more shall I take pleasure in your joy; no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken.  O merciful and compassionate Lord, to You I cry aloud: I am fallen, have mercy on me.’

“When Adam saw the angel drive him out and shut the door of the divine garden, he groaned aloud and said: ‘I am fallen, in Your compassion have mercy on me.’

“Woe is me, for in place of a robe of light I am clothed in shameful garments.  I weep for my loss, O Savior, and cry to You with faith: Despise me not, O God of love, but call me back.

“O blessed meadow, trees and flowers planted by God, O sweetness of Paradise: let your leaves, like eyes, shed tears on my behalf, for I am naked and a stranger to God’s glory.

“Adam was driven out of Paradise, because in disobedience he had eaten food; but Moses was granted the vision of God, because he had cleansed the eyes of his soul by fasting.  If then we long to dwell in Paradise, let us abstain from all needless food; and if we desire to see God, let us like Moses fast for forty days.  With sincerity let us persevere in prayer and intercession; let us still the passions of our souls; let us subdue the rebellious instincts of the flesh.  With light step let us set out on the path to heaven, where the choirs of angels with never-silent voice sing the praises of the undivided Trinity; and there we shall behold the surpassing beauty of the Master…”

So the Liturgy would have us not only reflect on the tragedy of our fall, but it encourages us to do what is necessary to return to the place from which we were cast out because of our sin.  There’s a constant plea to God to call us back to Paradise, for “I cannot enter unless You, O Savior, grant me free approach.”

I’ve said this before, and I can’t seem to help saying it again, but to me all of life in this world seems like exile from Paradise.  To be sure, this world has its share of blessings, joys, and even breathtaking beauty, but the fallenness of this land of exile is still evident and unmistakable, and a day doesn’t pass without it being unpleasantly “in my face.”  God didn’t design this world to be fallen, and that’s probably one reason for the strange juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, joy and misery, pleasure and pain, life and death that we find in this world.  But since the world is fallen, I think God wants us to keep that truth in mind, lest we try (as so many have) to create some utopia or paradise out of this world, without any reference to the Other World, to God and the true Paradise.  This necessarily results in disappointment and failure.  We have to know that we are in a land of exile, or else we will never begin the homeward pilgrimage.

At Matins on the three Sundays preceding Lent we sing Psalm 136(137), a mournful lament of those recently exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem.  The holy city is a kind of icon of Paradise, of God’s dwelling place, of life that is full of joy and blessing and peace.  This reminds us that we are exiled—and for the same reason, our sins—not merely from a blessed earthly city but from Heaven itself.  Lent is a time for reflection upon the mystery of our exile: how we got here and how we intend to return.  We start simply with the words the Liturgy puts on the lips of Adam: “I am fallen; call me back!”  Then we engage in the various penitential practices like fasting, prostrations, almsgiving, etc, but “penitential” should not mean “penal.”  We shouldn’t be trying to punish ourselves—life in exile and putting up with our own fallenness and that of others is usually punishment enough!—but we should see them as positive spiritual aids, as the text above says: “Moses was granted the vision of God, because he had cleansed the eyes of his soul by fasting.”  It doesn’t say that Moses was punishing himself by fasting, but rather that he was cleansing the eyes of his soul, so that he would be prepared to be granted the vision of God.

So perhaps we ought to look at the “exile” of Lent, as well as that of our whole earthly life, as a time of preparation for the vision of God, for the return to Paradise, because “there we shall behold the surpassing beauty of the Master.”  For Christians, all of life has this ultimate goal and we ought to be clear about it and order our lives accordingly.  No one in exile automatically (or accidentally) returns to Paradise after living a self-indulgent life, heedless of the divine commandments.  Only those who first recognize that they are in fact in exile, and then consciously and deliberately set out on the journey—perilous as it is—will arrive at the longed-for destination.  And it will be worth every effort made to return to the “precious Paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints…”  May our Savior count us worthy to partake forever of the Tree of Life.

It All Fits

The revelation of God, and the teachings of the Church which are derived from it, cannot be adopted a la carte.  Everything fits together according to divine design, and you can’t add or subtract anything without somehow distorting the whole.  If some structural element of a building, for example, is left out, it is likely to collapse eventually, or at least to lose something of its physical integrity and strength.

All this came to mind as I read the recent statements of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in support of “gay marriage.”  His “20 years of study and prayer” brought him to a “definitive conclusion” which is contrary to the entire Christian tradition and the teachings of Scripture and all the Apostolic Churches (to whom, then, was he praying?).  He thinks that homosexual activity can “reflect the love of God”—even though God Himself has condemned it repeatedly in Sacred Scripture.  But the good archbishop has an answer for that.  You know all those texts in Scripture that prohibit homosexual activity as an abomination before God?  Guess what—they were not addressed to homosexuals!  How foolish we all were to think so!  No, the archbishop enlightens us to the fact that these misinterpreted texts were actually addressedall-mixed-up to “heterosexuals looking for sexual variety.”  Well, I’m glad he cleared that up.  We had been deluded for millennia in thinking that it was homosexuals who were forbidden their unnatural sort of sexual expression.  Now we know that those prohibitions apply only to heterosexuals looking to spice up their sex lives!  How have we survived thus far without the wisdom of such spiritual giants as Rowan Williams?

But that is not even the main point.  There’s something else he said which got me to thinking about how the whole of Christian doctrine fits together, and what havoc is wrought when one tries to delete parts of it, or rearrange it in such a way that it suddenly means other than what it has always meant.

The Church has always condemned both homosexual activity and artificial contraception.  The prohibition of both is part of the integral moral teaching of Christianity.  The Anglican Church was among the first to break with the teaching on contraception in the 1930s, and many other denominations fell like dominoes.  But not the Catholic Church.  Anyway, here’s how the good archbishop links the two: “In his 1989 essay ‘The Body’s Grace,’ Dr Williams argued that the Church’s acceptance of contraception meant that it acknowledged the validity of non-procreative sex. This could be taken as a green light for gay sex.”  See what happens?  When you tear the fabric of the seamless garment of the Church’s moral teachings, the tear only gets larger and larger, until the garment is in shreds.

There are other, and weightier, arguments which the Church uses to support her teaching on contraception besides its relation to homosexual behavior.  That is not the main one, but it is—especially in today’s changeable moral climate—an important corollary.  In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI warned about the evil consequences, like abortion, that would follow from the use of contraception and the adoption of the mentality that justifies it.  I don’t think he mentioned the issue of using the acceptance of contraception as grounds for validating homosexual activity, but we see today that this argument is in fact being used—and by a man who is supposed to be speaking for God!  He links the issues by implying that since contraception is OK, then “gay sex” is OK.  But the proper and traditionally Christian linkage is that since contraception is not OK, homosexual activity is also not OK (though of course, there are other serious reasons why it’s not OK—its condemnation by the word of God being a rather significant example).

The world seems to be willfully descending into a kind of moral chaos, where good is evil and evil is good, where you can use the Bible to justify sin by grossly misinterpreting it, and where those who are supposed to be shepherds of the flock are mere hirelings who care little for the salvation of the sheep.  Archbishop Williams has practically publicly confessed that he is a hypocrite.  After advancing his bizarre beliefs about what the biblical passages on homosexuality mean, and saying that this was his definitive conclusion, he goes on to say that as a bishop, he must teach the traditional view.  So he’s flat-out saying that he does not believe what the Church teaches on homosexuality, but a man of his rank still has some responsibility to the tradition.  What is it to teach one thing and believe another—especially when what you actually believe is broadcast in public statements, even though kept out of the pulpit?  Who can take him seriously when he does present the traditional teaching, after he has already publicly proclaimed that he himself doesn’t buy it?

This is what happens when people don’t respect the divine design of things in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.  It doesn’t fit anymore, and you have to keep re-arranging or deleting things to try to regain some coherence, but it gets more unwieldy and unbalanced until it all finally collapses.

I do have to thank the archbishop, though, for directing us to the connection between contraception and homosexual activity.  Though this wasn’t his intention, it confirms us in our faith that the Church has been right all along.

He Leadeth Me

I’m re-reading, after many years, the profound spiritual reflections of Fr Walter Ciszek, SJ, He Leadeth Me. Fr Ciszek spent 20 years in Russian concentration camps (simply because he was a Catholic priest), going through incredible crucibles of suffering, yet entering deeply into knowledge of God and himself, he-leadeth-meand being spiritually transformed.  I would like to share an excerpt here, which follows upon a moment of his deepest darkness, almost unto despair, when nearly broken in body and spirit he signed a “confession” over which the interrogators were ceaselessly bullying him.  What follows is what he learned from the experience, and how he subsequently embraced the will of God absolutely, after having reflected on Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane.  It is something we all have to learn sooner or later, though it demands all our inner resources—and more.

“In the Garden of Olives, [Jesus] too knew the feeling of fear and weakness in his human nature as he faced suffering and death.  Not once but three times did he ask to have his ordeal removed or somehow modified.  Yet each time he concluded with an act of total abandonment and submission to his Father’s will… It was not just conformity to the will of God; it was total self-surrender, a stripping away of all human fears, of all doubts about his own abilities to withstand the passion, of every last shred of self, including self-doubt…

“If my moment of despair had been a moment of total blackness, then this was an experience of blinding light… I knew that I must abandon myself entirely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God… I can only describe the experience as a sense of ‘letting go,’ giving over totally my last effort or even any will to guide the reins of my own life…

“I had always trusted in God.  I had always tried to find his will, to see his providence at work… At times of crisis, especially, I had tried to discover his will and to follow it to the best of my ability.  But this was a new vision, a totally new understanding, something more than just a matter of emphasis.  Up until now, I had always seen my role—man’s role—in the divine economy as an active one… God’s will was ‘out there’ somewhere, hidden, yet clear and unmistakable.  It was my role—man’s role—to discover what it was and then conform my will to that, and so work at achieving the ends of his divine providence.  I remained—man remained—in essence the master of my own destiny…

“Now, with sudden and almost blinding clarity and simplicity, I realized I had been trying to do something with my own will and intellect that was at once too much and mostly all wrong.  God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me.  What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal.  He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate.  He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back.  It demanded absolute faith: faith in God’s existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me, and in his love protecting me. It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God will not be there…

“Of course we believe that we depend on God, that his will sustains us in every moment of our life.  But we are afraid to put it to the test.  There remains deep down in each of us a little nagging doubt, a little knot of fear which we refuse to face or admit even to ourselves, that says, ‘Suppose it isn’t so.’  We are afraid to abandon ourselves totally into God’s hands for fear he will not catch us as we fall.  It is the ultimate criterion, the final test of all faith and all belief, and it is present in each of us, lurking unvoiced in a closet of our mind we are afraid to open…”

“For my part, I was brought to make this perfect act of faith, this act of complete self-abandonment to his will, of total trust in his love and concern for me and his desire to sustain and protect me, by the experience of a complete despair of my own powers and abilities that had preceded it… It was the grace God had been offering me all my life, but which I had never really had the courage to accept in full.  I had talked of finding and doing his will, but never in the sense of totally giving up my own will.  I had talked of trusting him—indeed I truly had trusted him—but never in the sense of abandoning all other sources of support and relying on his grace alone… There were always boundaries beyond which I would not go, little hedges marking out what I knew in the depths of my being was a point of no return…

“That moment, that experience, completely changed me… I have to call it a conversion experience; it was at once a death and a resurrection.  It was not something I sought after or wanted or worked for or merited.  Like every grace it was a free gift of God.  That it should have been offered to me when I had reached the limits of my own powers is simply a part of the great mystery of salvation… It was, however, a deliberate act of choice on my part… I chose, consciously and willingly, to abandon myself to God’s will, to let go completely of every last reservation.  I knew I was crossing a boundary I had always hesitated and feared to cross before.  Yet this time I chose to cross it—and the result was a feeling not of fear but of liberation, not of danger or of despair but a fresh new wave of confidence and of happiness.

“Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple.  There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God’s will.  I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it.  God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things.  To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see his will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust.  Nothing could separate me from him, because he was in all things.  No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me… The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in his will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring.”

The book is aptly titled.  This is what it is like to be led by God.  This is what it is like to surrender to his will.  This is what Christians are called to do; this is how we will change the world and how we ourselves will be transformed by divine grace.

He Will Come Again in Glory to Judge…

Lent is just a little over a week away, so the Church is getting serious about us getting serious about Lent.  That’s one reason we have the Gospel of the Last Judgment today (Mt. 25:31-46).  We have to be reminded last_judgementand exhorted to realize that the choices we make in this life will bear fruit in the next life, for good or bad, for eternal happiness or eternal torment.  We have to realize that we are accountable to God for our lives.  There are many parables in the Gospels that bring out the fact both of our accountability and of the final separation of the good from the wicked at the end of time—though at the end of our time on earth, we will already know our eternal destiny.

There are different approaches to the mystery of the Last Judgment.  The Byzantine Offices tend to take the terror approach, which is a legitimate one, but which perhaps is not, at least for everyone, the most effective one.  Let’s take a look at that one first.  Most of the texts in the Offices focus on the eternal punishments of unrepentant sinners: the unquenchable fire, the “worm that dieth not,” the groans and howls of the damned who have lost their last chance to be saved.  Several texts speak of a “river of fire” that flows before the Judgment Seat of Christ, but I have wondered where they got that, since it isn’t mentioned in the Gospel account of the judgment.  But then when I was praying Psalm 49(50), I found this: “Before Him goes a raging fire… from on high He summons heaven and earth to witness the judgment pronounced on his people.”  So that comes from the Bible after all.

Of course, the image of fire for the description of Hell is common enough in the New Testament.  At the end of today’s Gospel Jesus says to those who failed to see Him in others and thus to help them in their need: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…”  So the threat of hellfire is not just a scare tactic used by the Church to keep the unruly in line: it comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself, the Lover of Mankind.  This Gospel reading comes just before Lent because Lent is the time of special focus on repentance, and without repentance no one will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  So if the threat of damnation for not obeying Christ will get you to repent, all well and good.  It’s better to repent out of fear than not to repent at all.  But that’s not the best or fullest way to approach the mystery of the Last Judgment.  We should rather direct our thoughts and efforts toward doing what is pleasing to God and thus gaining entry into the everlasting joy of Paradise.

Let’s start at the beginning of the Gospel: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.”  The very first word here is important: “when.”  When the Son of Man comes, not if the Son of Man comes.  Many people today, even among Christians, don’t really believe that Christ is coming back to judge the living and the dead, though we say we do every day in the Creed.  Some tend to hyper-spiritualize his words so that they end up meaning not at all what He actually said.  But we ought to get this straight: Since the Lord said “When the Son of Man comes,” that means precisely that the Son of Man is coming.

When He comes, all the nations of all ages will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them into two groups.  He gives the example of the way a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  Goats have gotten a bad rap ever since they had to symbolize the damned.  I wonder if this Gospel is where the goat as a satanic symbol comes from.  Maybe, though, it’s just the horns and the, uh, goatee.

Anyway, the Lord begins by blessing the righteous: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  Next He gives the criteria for whether or not one goes to Heaven or Hell, and there are some people who don’t like these criteria at all, especially those who say we are saved by faith alone.  All the criteria that Jesus says will be used on Judgment Day are works.  All of them.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc.  Where then does faith come in?  Faith is presupposed in what Jesus says here, because it has to do with the reason we do the works.  The Lord says to the happily bewildered “sheep” on his right: “As you did it for one of the least of my brethren, you did it for Me.”

If we didn’t believe in Jesus and accept all that He has done for us, we wouldn’t be able to see Him in others, for we wouldn’t believe in the mystery of the Body of Christ.  So it is precisely because we have faith in Jesus that we must do these works in order to be saved.  St James says that faith without works is dead, and that faith is expressed by means of works (2:17-18).  And it is clear from the Gospel that Jesus places the highest importance on doing good for other people as a way of serving Him.  This importance is so high that it is literally a matter of salvation or damnation.  It is because Jesus loves us so much that He chooses to identify with us.  By means of the Incarnation Christ became our Brother, for He took upon Himself our human nature.  But the grace of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection has done even more.  He is not only related to us by sharing a common nature, He identifies with each one of us by uniting Himself to us, by dwelling within us.  That is why He could say: if you did it to them, you did it to Me.  That is also why He said to Saul, who was persecuting Christians: “Why do you persecute Me?” Not why do you persecute “my people,” not even “my brothers and sisters,” but “Me.”

If all Christians could learn this lesson, really learn it and have it penetrate the way we think and feel and relate to others, the world would change in a short time.  How often do we think, when we speak against another, or harbor ill will toward another, or judge another, or in any way take care of ourselves while neglecting another, that we are doing that to Christ?

The damned in the Gospel of the Judgment are horrified to find out that in choosing to neglect their brothers and sisters they have spurned Christ and merited eternal punishment.  We have to see both sides of the matter to get the full impact: Recognize and serve Christ in others and be saved, or neglect Christ in others and be damned.  Now I think that the Lord would have us focus on the positive aspect and simply apply ourselves to obeying his word so we can have a lively hope for salvation.  But He must include a warning for the lazy and the selfish, so that they don’t end up being quite unpleasantly surprised when it is time to stand before God and render an account of their lives.

I said that doing God’s will gives us hope for salvation.  It is interesting that in Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), he actually has a section entitled: “Judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope.”  I’ll quote at some length from this, so that our efforts to put the Gospel into practice may increase our hope for everlasting happiness.

“…we find the phrase [in the Creed]: ‘he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.’ From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgment has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God’s justice. Faith in Christ has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed. This looking ahead has given Christianity its importance for the present moment. In the arrangement of Christian sacred buildings… it became customary to depict the Lord returning as a king—the symbol of hope—at the east end; while the west wall normally portrayed the Last Judgment as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives—a scene which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine…”

Referring to St Paul’s image of the fire that burns up inferior works (1Cor.3:12-15), he continues: “the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy… The judgment of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgment and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation ‘with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge…”

So let us understand this Gospel in terms of both justice and grace.  The Lord loves us and wants to save us, but in order to do so He has to get us to learn the truth about who He is and who we are, and to live in such a way that reflects this truth.  For if we have rejected the truth, or have simply accepted it in theory while neglecting to put it into practice, we will have no place in the Kingdom prepared for those blessed by the Father.  Let us then, during the coming Lent, focus not only on the interior work of prayer and fasting, but also on Christ in others, and make a sincere effort to serve them.  For whatever we do to others, we do to Jesus.

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