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

Archive for July, 2009

Up a Tree

I re-read the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke (19:1-10) a little while back, which is sufficient reason for me to post a reflection on it.  The Gospel doesn’t say much about him except that he was a rich tax collector, that he was short, and that he lived in Jericho. Jericho was an important city for a major trade route in that part of the world, so there was a lot of money and a lot of goods passing through there.  If someone was savvy enough, and especially if he was sucking up to the Roman occupation, he could make a lot of money.  That’s what Zacchaeus was doing by collecting taxes and pocketing as much as he could possibly take from everyone who had to pay them. So he was in a pretty comfortable position materially, but he was in a precarious position spiritually.

Yet grace was at work there because it says he desired to see Jesus. Now why the heck would a guy like that desire to see this preacher and magician from the hillbilly north country, when he’s here in the middle of the center of commerce and wealth and fatness and just having the time of his life?

Well, something was happening inside him. God put a desire in him, in his heart, to see Jesus, see who He is.  We can learn some lessons from this.  One of them is that in order to distinguish the desire from an empty wish, there has to be some action taken to realize it. We can wish for all kinds of things, but if we just sit there and wish and do nothing about it, it won’t come to pass. If you have a genuine desire, you’re going to do something to realize that desire.

zacchaeusSo what did Zacchaeus do?  Did he just stand there and start crying and say, “Oh I’m short, I can’t see Jesus.  Woe is me, all these tall people are around me”?  Or did he get angry and resentful and say, “Why has God done this to me, made me short that I can’t see what I want to see?”—and then just be resentful and bitter for the rest of his life?  No, he did something about it. He went up a tree.

There’s another little lesson in here. Perhaps we would like to climb up a tree too, although it might be for the wrong reasons. One wrong reason for climbing up a tree is to hide from God so that we don’t have to deal with his demands, but as we see in the Gospel, He knows you’re there, and He’ll call you out instantly. But the other kind of bad reason to climb a tree is to think that you can be an observer of life, that you can look at things from afar as they pass by: I’ll just look at Jesus and see Him passing by, but I don’t have to get involved with Him or involved with life. I’ll just sit on the sidelines and watch everything pass me by and hope that nobody notices me here. Well, that doesn’t work either, because that’s not living life. That’s just counting the days until the gravediggers come. We have to be engaged with life and with God.

Anyway, Zacchaeus is up there in the tree waiting for Jesus, and Jesus came and called him down from the tree. Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Make haste and come down.” So Zacchaeus made haste and came down and received him joyfully.

They all murmured about this. “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”  We find this in a lot of places in the Gospels. And we find it in all the history of mankind. There are always murmurers, grumblers and complainers. There’s no lack of them anywhere. But there’s a lesson to learn here as well. In some cases, Jesus rebukes and grumblers and murmurers. But here—and this is significant—Jesus ignores them completely. As soon as it says they murmured, there’s no mention of them anymore. Zacchaeus and Jesus continue their dialogue and the murmurers are just cut right out of the picture.  This is important for us to know.  Personally, I would rather be rebuked by God than ignored by God. When we are reproved or corrected, we should be glad that happens and not be angry, resentful and defensive about it, because thank God somebody is interested in us. Thank God somebody cares about us. Thank God somebody would like to help us better our lives.

Far worse is it to be ignored, for that is the lot of the damned.  On the last day, the angel who holds the key to the abyss is going to round up all the evildoers and throw them in the pit and lock the door and throw away the key. And then forget about them. That’s something we should think about and also learn that lesson from this Gospel: murmurers are ignored by God, and if they continue to murmur they will be ignored forever, and that’s really a fate worse than death.

So Jesus moves on and begins to talk to Zacchaeus, who decides at that moment to change his life. He says, “Behold Lord, I give half my goods to the poor, and if I’ve defrauded anyone”—if I have defrauded anyone? That’s kind of funny, because he’s been doing it all his life—“I restore it fourfold.”  This is another lesson for us, because Zacchaeus didn’t just say: I’m so sorry about that stuff that I did but now that I believe in You, everything is OK.  If he had said that, Jesus would have said: Wait a minute, it’s not OK yet. You stole something. Give it back.

See, when we say we repent, we have to change our lives, or else it is not true repentance. It’s just a sham, and a pretty dangerous one too, with serious consequences. Repentance means to change your life, and Zacchaeus gives this example. I change my life, I welcome You into my house, I welcome You, Jesus, into my life and here’s what it means. I’m not going to do the things I used to do before I knew You, before I knew the word of God.  I’m going to do something else.

We pretty much know what our faults are—if we don’t, someone will quickly point them out to us—so we know what we have to change.  We have to make a serious and consistent and even strenuous (if it takes that) effort to make the changes that have to be made, to say “I pay back fourfold what I have taken.”

“What I have taken” doesn’t necessarily have to mean money or possessions from somebody. We can owe something in the sense of whatever damage we’ve done in relationships, in friendships or other things. Whatever we’ve done that has hurt somebody has in fact taken something from somebody, spiritually, emotionally, materially, whatever, so we have to make the necessary restitutions. It’s very clear in the Scriptures, in many places, that God is not so easily satisfied. We can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes. He’s not satisfied with the mere externals of worship and piety. If you don’t change your heart, He’s not interested in the rest.

If you read the first chapter of Isaiah, it’s very strong there. The Lord says: I am sick of your feasts. I’m sick of your Sabbaths and your new moons and all of your sacrifices. The smell of your incense makes me nauseous. I don’t want it anymore. Why? Because your hands are covered with blood and you’re full of sins. Repent of your sins first, then come to me and bring me your prayers and your incense and your sacrifices. Then I’ll accept them. I won’t accept them until you change your life, until you really repent.

Finally, we see that the desire of Zacchaeus is not a unilateral thing. The desire of Zacchaeus is met by the desire of Jesus. Jesus wants Zacchaeus’ salvation more than he does, and that’s why He came to him in the first place. Well, are we ready for this meeting of desires?  Is Jesus worth it?  Can we accept the sacrifices that life brings and let go of all the junk that we cling to in our own self-pity or whatever reason it is that we’re up in the tree hiding from God?

We have to come down and meet him and engage with Him. He’s saying: come down and I’m going to come into your house. I want to have supper with you tonight. He’s saying: I want to enter into a personal relationship with you.  In those times, to eat with somebody was a very symbolic and intimate kind of act. You don’t eat with just anybody. You always go to the house of someone you know, and you share something of yourself with the person with whom you share a meal. So when Jesus invites you down from your tree and wants to stay in your house, He’s saying: I want to create an intimate relationship with you. I want to share life together.

So let’s get involved with Jesus, who wants to share his life with us.  Let us be open to Him, to his invitation. Let our desire be his desire. And He will say to us too, when we come to meet Him in Holy Communion: “Today salvation has come to this house”—this “house,” this heart where He wants to take up his residence. Today salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ, in the meeting of the desires, and He has the power to heal us, to make all things new, to save us. He has promised it, and He will do it.

De Sun Do Move!

[I remember many years ago finding a little booklet in our library (the strangest things can be found in monastery libraries) of a sermon delivered by the Rev. John Jasper, a former slave turned preacher, in the late 19th century.  Evidently it was quite popular, since he was asked to give it over 250 times.  It’s a robust and delightful defense (presented here in the “original language”) of the Bible stories in which “de sun do move”---and a bit of flat-earth apologetics as well---contra the unbelievin’ scientists and “furloserfurs” of the day.  The following is a substantial excerpt from this famous sermon, which hits the main points.  It has not only historical interest and some entertainment value, it also makes it clear (though quite unintentionally) that the fundamentalist (literalist) approach to Scripture leaves something to be desired. Kin I git an Amen?]

“‘Bout seben months after my gittin’ ter readin’, Gord converted my soul, an’ I reckin ’bout de fust an’ main thing dat I begged de Lord ter give me wuz de power ter und’stan’ His Word. I ain’ braggin’, an’ Ijasper_john hates self-praise, but I boun’ ter speak de thankful word… Sence dat time I ain’t keer’d ’bout nuthin’ ‘cept ter study an’ preach de Word uv God.

“Not, my bruthrin, dat I’z de fool ter think I knows it all… Fur frum it. I don’ hardly und’stan myse’f, nor ha’f uv de things roun’ me, an’ dar is milyuns uv things in de Bible too deep fur Jasper, an’ sum uv’em too deep fur ev’rybody. …But I kin read de Bible and git de things whar lay on de top uv de soil. Out’n de Bible I knows nuthin’ extry ’bout de sun. I sees ‘is courses as he rides up dar so gran’ an’ mighty in de sky, but dar is heaps ’bout dat flamin’ orb dat is too much fer me. … I knows dat de sun burns oh, how it did burn in dem July days. I tell yer he cooked de skin on my back many er day when I wuz hoein’ in de corn fiel’. But you knows all dat, an’ yet dat is nuthin’ der to de divine fire dat burns in der souls uv Gord’s chil’n…

“But ’bout de courses uv de sun, I have got dat. I hev dun rang’d thru de whole blessed book an’ scode down de las’ thing de Bible has ter say ’bout de movements uv de sun. I got all dat pat an’ safe. An’ lemme say dat if I doan’t giv it ter you straight, if I gits one word crooked or wrong, you jes’ holler out ‘Hol’ on dar, Jasper, yer ain’t got dat straight, ‘an’ I’ll beg pardon. If I doan’t tell de truf, march up on dese steps here an’ tell me I’z a liar, an’ I’ll take it. I fears I do lie sometimes—I’m so sinful, I find it hard ter do right; but my Gord doan’t lie an’ He ain’ put no lie in de Book uv eternal truf, an’ if I giv you wat de Bible say, den I boun’ ter tell de truf.

“… Wen dey kum up so bol’ an’ brave de Giby’nites wuz skeer’d out’n dere senses, an’ dey saunt word ter Joshwer dat dey wuz in troubl’ an’ he mus’ run up dar an’ git ‘em out. … Dey had an orful fight, sharp an’ bitter, but yer might know dat Ginr’l Joshwer wuz not up dar ter git whip’t. … an’ so he ask’d de Lord ter issure a speshul ordur dat de sun hol’ up erwhile an’ dat de moon furnish plenty uv moonshine down on de lowes’ part uv de fightin’ groun’s. As a fac’, Joshwer wuz so drunk wid de bat’l, so thursty fer de blood uv de en’mies uv de Lord, an’ so wild wid de vict’ry dat he tell de sun ter stan’ still tel he cud finish his job. Wat did de sun do? Did he glar down in fi’ry wrath an’ say, ‘What you talkin’ ’bout my stoppin’ for, Joshwer; I ain’t navur startid yit. Bin here all de time, an’ it wud smash up ev’rything if I wuz ter start?’ Naw, he ain’ say dat. But wat de Bible say? Dat’s wat I ax ter know. It say dat it wuz at de voice uv Joshwer dat it stopped. I don’ say it stopt; tain’t fer Jasper ter say dat, but de Bible, de Book uv Gord, say so. But I say dis; nuthin’ kin stop untel it hez fust startid. So I knows wat I’m talkin’ ’bout. De sun wuz travlin’ long dar thru de sky wen de order come…

“Ennybody knows dat de sun didn’ stay dar all de time. It stopt fur bizniz, an’ went on when it got thru. Dis is ’bout all dat I has ter do wid dis perticl’r case. I dun show’d yer dat dis part uv de Lord’s word teaches yer dat de sun stopt, which show dat he wuz movin’ befo’ dat, an’ dat he went on art’rwuds. I toll yer dat I wud prove dis an’ I’s dun it, an’ I derfies ennybody to say dat my p’int ain’t made.

“But let us git erlong, for dar is quite a big lot mo’ comin’ on. Let us take nex’ de case of Hezekier… He tell him He gwine ter give him a sign by which he’d know dat what He sed wuz cummin’ ter pars. I ain’t erquainted wid dem sun diuls dat de Lord toll Hezekier ’bout, but ennybody dat hes got a grain uv sense knows dat dey wuz de clocks uv dem ole times an’ dey marked de travuls uv de sun by dem diuls. When, darfo’, Gord tol’ de king dat He wud mek de shadder go backwud, it mus’ hev bin jes’ lak puttin’ de han’s uv de clock back, but, mark yer, Izaer ‘spressly say dat de sun return’d ten dergrees. Thar yer are!  Ain’t dat de movement uv de sun?  Bless my soul. Hezekier’s case beat Joshwer. Joshwer stop de sun, but heer de Lord mek de sun walk back ten dergrees; an’ yet dey say dat de sun stan’ stone still an’ nevur move er peg. It look ter me he move roun’ mighty brisk an’ is ready ter go ennyway dat de Lord ordurs him ter go.

“I wonder if enny uv dem furloserfers is roun’ here dis arternoon. I’d lik ter take a squar’ look at one uv dem an’ ax him to ‘splain dis mattur. He carn’t do it, my bruthr’n. He knows a heap ’bout books, maps, figgers an’ long distunces, but I derfy him ter take up Hezekier’s case an’ ‘splain it orf. He carn’t do it. De Word uv de Lord is my defense an’ bulwurk, an’ I fears not what men can say nor do; my Gord gives me de vict’ry…. All I ax is dat we will take wat de Lord say ’bout it an’ let His will be dun ’bout ev’rything. Wat dat will is I karn’t know ‘cept He whisper inter my soul or write it in a book. Here’s de Book. Dis is ‘nough fer me, and wid it ter pilut me, I karn’t git fur erstray.

“But I ain’t dun wid yer yit. As de song says, dere’s mo’ ter foller. I envite yer ter heer de fust vers in de sev’nth chaptur uv de book uv Reverlashuns. What do John, und’r de pow’r uv de Spirit, say? He say he saw fo’ anguls standin’ on de fo’ corners uv de earth, holdin’ de fo’ win’s uv de earth, an’ so fo’th. ‘Low me ter ax: ef de earth is roun’, whar do it keep its corners? Er’ flat, squar thing has corners, but tell me where is de cornur uv er appul, ur a marbul, ur a cannun ball, ur a silver dollar. Ef dar is enny one uv dem furloserfurs whar’s been takin’ so many cracks at my ole haid ’bout here, he is korjully envited ter step for’d an’ squar up dis vexin’ bizniss. …But, mer brutherin, in my po’ judgmint, dey karn’t do it; tain’t in ‘em ter do it. Dey is on de wrong side of de Bible; dat’s on de outside uv de Bible, an’ dar’s whar de trubbul comes in wid ‘em…

“But wat der mattur wid Jasper? I mos’ furgit my bizniss, an’ most gon’ ter shoutin’ ovur de far away glories uv de secun’ cummin’ uv my Lord. I beg pardun, an’ will try ter git back ter my subjik. I hev ter do as de sun in Hezekier’s case—fall back er few dergrees. In dat part uv de Word dat I gi’n yer frum Malerki—dat de Lord Hisse’f spoke—He ‘klars dat His glory is gwine ter spred. Spred? Whar? Frum de risin’ uv de sun ter de goin’ down uv de same. Wat? Doan’t say dat, duz it? Dats edzakly wat it sez. Ain’t dat cleer ’nuff fer yer? …Walk up yere, wise folks, an’ git yer med’sin. Whar is dem high collar’d furloserfurs now? Wat dey skulkin’ roun’ in de brush fer? Why doan’t yer git out in der broad arternoon light, an’ fight fer yer cullurs? Ah, I un’stans it; yer got no answer. De Bible is agin’ yer…

“I preach dis sermon jest fer ter settle de min’s uv my few brutherin, an’ repeats it ’cause kin’ frens wish ter hear it, an’ I hopes it will do honour ter de Lord’s Word. But nuthin’ short of de purly gates can satisfy me, an’ I charge, my people, fix yer feet on de solid Rock, yer hearts on Calv’ry, an’ yer eyes on de throne uv de Lamb. Dese strifes an’ griefs’ll soon git ober; we shall see de King in His glory an’ be at ease. Go on, go on, ye ransom uv de Lord; shout His praises as yer go, an’ I shall meet yer in de city uv de New Jeruserlum, whar we shan’t need the light uv de sun, fer de Lam’ uv de Lord is de light uv de saints.”

Well, I’m sold.  How about you?  Don’t make me have to say dat de Bible is agin’ yer…

Newsletter Online

The summer issue of our monastery newsletter, which we call Gladsome Light, and which really isn’t a newsletter after all, cover-cartoon-extranewssince it mostly contains articles and reflections for your spiritual edification, and since there really isn’t much news fit to print around here anyway, is now available online.  You can just click here or, if you’re not in a great hurry, travel all the way over to the sidebar and click on the “Mt Tabor Newsletter” link in the blogroll.

I’ve written over 6000 words worth of articles for this issue, and Br Seraphim has added an article of his own as well, so that should be enough to hold you for a couple days!  Let us know if you’d like an e-mail notice whenever Gladsome Light appears online.  Directions for doing that are at the end of the newsletter itself.

I will close with my standard title for the “greeting” article: I wish you grace and peace!

On Truth and Judging (Part 2)

Before we go on about the phony brand of non-judgmentalness, which is another way of dodging the judgeissues of truth and falsehood, good and evil, let us look at what is meant when the Lord indeed warns us not to judge (Matthew 7:1ff and elsewhere).  A necessary distinction must be made between judging persons and judging behaviors.  We are forbidden to judge persons simply because we are incapable of accurately doing so, and hence do damage if we try.  Only God has the full knowledge of a person’s inner life, history, sufferings, motivations, influences, intentions, struggles, etc.  Even if we could know all these facts, they are still far too complex to rightly interpret and hence to judge the person.  Therefore God reserves judgment of persons to Himself.  At times we may be correct if we judge a person to be evil, but God does not allow us even to make that attempt.  Our task is to forgive and to invite to repentance the person who does evil.  God will judge.  Be sure of that.

There’s a major difference between saying “You are an evil person” and “You have done an evil thing,” that is, between judging persons and judging behaviors.  We may not do the former but we are actually told by Jesus to do the latter.  The One who said “Judge not” also said “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (Matthew 18:15).  St Paul says the same thing in even stronger terms when speaking of “immoral persons” (lit. “fornicators”) within the Christian community.  Not only does he encourage the faithful to pass judgment on their behavior, he urges them to drive out the wicked ones from their midst (1Corinthians 5:11-13).  Not to judge here is to fail to carry out the word of God.  (I think we may assume in such a case that the offender has refused the invitation to repent before he is cast out.)

Back to the Lord Jesus.  One of his classic sayings on the topic is: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).  Thus He teaches that there is a wrong way and a right way to judge.  The wrong way is “by appearances,” i.e., by a superficial or rash assessment, without sufficient knowledge or understanding.  In this way the Pharisees misjudged Him for healing a paralytic on the Sabbath. (This does in fact happen all too much by today’s “Pharisees,” in whatever religion they are found.)  But if they had judged the situation with “right judgment,” i.e., with wisdom, a prayerful approach, and a better understanding of who He was and hence the deeper truth of the situation, they would have met with his approval.  If we’re not supposed to judge at all, Jesus wouldn’t have told us about “right judgment” and directed us to use it.

We do know, or should know (yes, I did say “should”), right from wrong, good from evil, and so we may point out an act that is objectively evil, though we are incapable of knowing the subjective guilt or culpability that applies to the one who committed it.  We have to be vigilant, wise, and aware in this world.  If we fail (or refuse) to recognize evil as such, we will be deceived and seduced by it, and we will eventually lose all capacity for true, inspired judgment.  Here is where we need the Spirit of Truth.  Note that the Holy Spirit is never called the Spirit of Subjective Preference or the Spirit of Non-Judgmentalness.

But what is happening in the Church today?  In the all-holy name of universal tolerance and non-judgmentalness, anything that even smacks of making a judgment with an appeal to objective truth, the word of God, or the teachings of the Church, is instantly rejected as self-righteous, uncompassionate dogmatism, or as rigid fundamentalism.  (Oh, by the way, according to these champions of subjective preference, even God is not allowed to judge.  They’ve already discarded judgment and Hell from the list of “last things.”  Well, they can take it up with Him on, uh, Judgment Day.)

“Judgment” has become a dirty word because of the connotations they attach to it.  They seem to identify judgment with negative, unenlightened criticism, or even with malicious denigration. I’m sure there are people who do judge that way.  Yet too many babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. In the Bible, the term “judgment” is a translation of the Greek krisis, which refers to decision-making in a situation that requires it.  Another form of the same word (diakrisis) actually means discernment: enlightened understanding, clear vision, and wise judgment.  To judge in wisdom, that is, in the Spirit of Truth, is a precious and noble virtue.  And some, though not all, are obliged not only to judge rightly but to correct wrongs as well.

Why then the insistence on non-judgmentalness?  What’s behind this dogmatic rejection of dogmatism, this intolerance practiced by the tolerant, this judgment passed upon those by whom they “feel judged”?  Well, think about it.  If you were to remove objective truth as a criterion of acceptability for one’s acts or lifestyle, and if you were also to remove all infallible doctrines and moral absolutes, what would be left?  Just what our author in the beginning was promoting: personal opinions based on subjective preference and experience.  Which means what?  No right or wrong, good or bad, should or shouldn’t, and no use of such archaic, judgmental terms at all!  If it feels good do it, your truth, my truth, whatever works for you, live and let live, sin and let sin, I’m OK, you’re OK, all is one, all is nothing, nothing is all.  The result when this mentality is popularly adopted in the Catholic Church?  A crisis of faith and morals, of course!

There’s the word, krisis! It’s time to make a decision.  It’s time to make a wise judgment about this silly form of non-judgmentalness that people use as a smokescreen for disobedience, dissent, self-indulgence, and the promotion of personal and ecclesiastical agendas.  How indignant the “non-judgers” become when we make the assertion that their subjective preference for sexual promiscuity, abortion, homosexual behavior, religious indifferentism, or whatever, is less valid than the decision to be faithful to the teachings of the Gospel and the Church!

Yet they themselves are vicious in their judgment of, say, clerical child-molesters (who do, of course, deserve punishment, but read on).  Suddenly, their non-judgmentalness is out the window!  But according to the logic of non-judgmentalness, the pedophiles’ personal preferences are no less valid than their own. Why is it in this case OK to express moral outrage?  It is partly because they will support anything that contributes to the humiliation of the institutional Church.  The situation we just described above is all part of the same agenda to dismantle and “re-invent” the Catholic Church.  See, they’re not hard on homosexual priests in general because “gay rights” fits in with their agenda, and the proliferation of such priests will help destroy the Church from within.  But raising a public outcry against the miniscule percentage of actual child-abusers will turn public opinion against the Church as such, and will therefore keep media-ingratiating bishops hurrying to implement the “new church” agenda.

Please, let’s not be non-judgmental about evil!  We must not be cowed into thinking that we have to somehow “respect” it, simply because it is someone else’s preference.  Wherever evil is found, be it among fallen priests, polished politicians, or the general mass of deceitful double-talkers, it must be dealt with decisively—though not in vigilante fashion, I hasten to add—by those with the God-given charism of wisdom and level-headed, impartial judgment.  Jesus solemnly proclaimed, “I AM the Truth” (John 14:6), and in that truth we must stand.  In his Spirit of Truth, we are called to judge with diakrisis, that is, to judge wisely, carefully—and to avoid rash, self-serving, or facile judgments.  Let’s hear it once again from the mouth of Jesus: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).

On Truth and Judging (Part 1)

[The following is an article I published a couple years ago in our monastery newsletter, which perhaps many of you did not see.  I’m re-publishing it here, since it seems still to be timely, and it makes some distinctions that Christians need to understand on this subject.]

A lie is contrary to the truth.  A lie poses as truth, in order to deceive.  But most lies can be Truth&Liesunmasked by a presentation of facts that make the truth clear.  It is then up to people with some intelligence and good will to accept the truth.  Of course, people with corrupt or self-serving agendas, even if they do recognize the truth as such, will not accept it, because they value more highly the actual or potential personal, political or economic gains that accrue from perpetuating the lie.

But what if someone says there is no truth, and hence no good or bad, no right or wrong?  He’s not just posing one particular position contrary to another.  He’s trying to pull the rug out from under the whole enterprise and thus to render impossible any kind of discussion of issues that would appeal to any authority higher than one’s own opinion or preference.  Is this just an academic hypothesis?  No, people are doing it all the time, and they are changing the way that many others think, in a mostly unnoticed but systematic attempt to discourage general acceptance of the reality of objective truth, and thus of true religion and all forms of doctrinal and moral absolutes.  You will find these people outside of and against the Church.  You will find them inside and, in effect, against the Church.  The latter are more difficult to spot and deal with, because they’re more proficient with the use of religious language to cloak their intentions.

This is a huge and complex topic, and its tentacles reach into “deconstructionist” philosophies and various trends in the social sciences, as well as to the increasing erosion of Christian faith and morals in general and, on the most base and trivial (though no less influential) level, the hackneyed mantras of today’s “political correctness.”  Yet I have space only to point out one key buzzword here, one which actually has its root in Scripture, but which has become distorted and exaggerated enough to acquire a completely different meaning, and which is proudly flown on the flagships of all opponents of objective truth and divine revelation: “non-judgmentalness.”

A friend of mine recently sent me an article on this topic.  The author began by approvingly quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  This is at the root of the author’s argument against making judgments.  Not accepting a basis of objective truth, let alone divine revelation, he urges us to reject rationally objective judgments in favor of subjective preferences, which express our personal opinion or experience.  Whatever we may identify as wrong about others’ behavior, for example, is simply a manifestation of their equally valid subjective and personal preference.  The ultimate sin is to make someone else “feel judged,” regardless of the reason.

From a philosophical perspective, this mentality reflects a kind of intellectual despair of ever really knowing truth.  In his encyclical Faith and Reason, Pope John Paul II writes: “the assumption that all positions are equally valid is one of today’s most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth… On this understanding, everything is reduced to opinion.”  From a more practical standpoint, it is at best an honest error, and at worst a self-serving and dishonest cloak for the justification of wrongdoing or turning a blind eye toward evil.

Let’s take this non-judgmental, subjective-preference approach to its logical end.  I’m being judgmental when I say that it was wrong for a suicide bomber to blow up a dozen people in a restaurant.  I’m permitted to say that I would have “strongly preferred” that he didn’t do that, but not that it was actually wrong, for it is only in my own mind that something can be right or wrong.  And after all, I shouldn’t be so self-righteous as to think the bomber’s personal preference was less valid than mine; it’s merely different.  But some will object and call me disingenuous for using that example. They will grant that we can say that is wrong, since it killed innocent human beings.  Hmm.  Then I say abortion is wrong, because it kills the most innocent of human beings.  But now they retort that I am imposing my religious beliefs on the woman who wants to kill her baby, and they will not permit that (as they fail to see that the issue is not anyone’s religion, but the basic human right to life of the unborn child). But what if I did impose my beliefs on the bomber and prevented the murders?  Then I’d be a hero.  If I prevent abortions I end up in jail.

So it’s wrong to kill innocent persons in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, but OK to kill them in a clinic in Los Angeles.  Gee, that subjective preference stuff comes in pretty handy, doesn’t it?   You can, if that is your preference, blatantly disregard truth, justice and even divine decrees.  You can condone evil and even do it yourself, for fun or profit.  And since no one is permitted to tell you that something is right or wrong, or how you should or shouldn’t behave, you don’t have to be accountable for your actions, either.  What a great idea!  I’m surprised they didn’t come up with it sooner.  (I’m guessing that the past few millennia of law, philosophy, theology, and common sense have exercised considerable restraint—until now.)  The only requirement is that you make sure you don’t make anyone feel judged.

This is why the Church says (returning to the scenario above) that all killing of innocents is wrong.  Your opinion is irrelevant in the matter.  Some things are always right and some things are always wrong.  Some things are true and some are false.  That’s reality.  Deal with it.  This does not mean that there are no gray areas.  There are.  But the architects of universal tolerance and “non-judgmentalness” would have us abandon all absolutes, moral or otherwise, and all claims to the primacy of objective truth.  Truth?  “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate, as he sent the Son of God to scourging and crucifixion.  An agnostic relativism leads ultimately to human degradation and even blasphemy.

The question of truth has become a non-question in many scholarly circles today, not only in social sciences and philosophy, but even in biblical studies.  One after another, scholars denounce any approach to the question of truth as unwarranted or meaningless.  I was somewhat surprised to discover that they aren’t really interested in truth at all, only in the comparative accuracy of particular data about which various hypotheses can then be advanced. According to then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, such scholarly activity has “the effect of immunizing against the truth.  The question of whether, and how far, something an author says is true is supposed to be an unscholarly question… In this way even the reading of the Bible is neutralized: we can say when, and in what conditions, some statement originated, and we have thus placed it in its historical setting, which does not ultimately concern us” (Truth and Tolerance). All we have left is a collection of interpretations and opinions, and an attitude toward reality that says it is meaningless to ask about what really is.

The intellectual enterprise thus goes on in its sterile pride, shedding no light upon the ultimate questions of human existence, origins, and destiny. Jan Ross writes that it therefore “has rendered itself indifferent and boring, has resigned its competence where the keys to life are concerned: good and evil, death and immortality.” And Pope John Paul II, again in Faith and Reason, writes, “The interpretation of the word of God cannot merely keep referring us to one interpretation after another, without ever leading us to a statement that is simply true.”  For his assertion that there is such a thing as objective truth and that it can be known, the Pope received bitter criticism from those whose “truth” arises merely from personal opinion or from majority decisions in a given time and culture.

To be continued…

Keep Your Mind in Hell…

I think I have finally discovered my vocation—or rather, a certain vocation within my vocation has been more clearly manifested to me.  To be able to share this with you, I’ll have to give some background.

St Silouan of Mt Athos, a monastic saint of the 20th century, was known for the depth of his silouanathoshumility, prayer, and love for God and all creation.  He made it a point to practice Jesus’ command to love our enemies as well.  He had several visions and mystical experiences in his life, and in one of them he received an enigmatic word from the Lord—which has always disturbed me somewhat, and still does, though less so now, since I’ve found a way to apply an adapted version of it to my own life.  I wasn’t looking for a way to do this, since I hadn’t even thought of it for a long time, but since it suddenly came to me in prayer, I thought I should pay attention.

The word is: “Keep your mind in Hell, and despair not.”  Now this would be a lot easier to accept if it read instead: “Even should your mind be in Hell, despair not,” or something like that.  But it is in the form of a command or commission from the Lord.  I won’t try to explain what it might have meant in St Silouan’s vocation, only what it seems to mean in mine.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been able to dismiss, gloss over, reinterpret, or conveniently avoid the “hard sayings” of the Scriptures.  The Old Testament is usually the place where people expect to find the strict judgments and the wrath of God, asserting that in the New Testament we find only the God of love and mercy.  But that is not an accurate assessment.  Not only will you find much love and mercy in the Old Testament, you will find, on almost every page of the Gospels (perhaps Matthew foremost among them) and the rest of the New Testament, serious warnings and even threats (with eternal consequences) directed toward those who would not do the will of God.  My point is that the love and mercy do not cancel out the wrath and judgment, just as the wrath and judgment do not override the love and mercy.  Every passage of Scripture has to be given its due weight and importance, for it is all the word of God.

In the Byzantine monastic tradition, the entire Psalter is prayed weekly, and a certain number of psalms are required to be prayed every day.  Here are a few passages from the way the Church wishes us to pray every day: “Your arrows pierce me, Your hand presses me hard; Your anger has driven away all health from my body… my wounds fester and rankle, with my own folly to blame.  Beaten down, bowed to the earth… so spent, so crushed, I groan aloud in the weariness of my heart… Heavily Your anger weighs down on me, and You overwhelm me with its full flood… Why do You reject my plea, Lord, and turn Your face away from me?… I am overwhelmed with Your anger, dismayed by Your threats…” (from Psalms 37/38 and 87/88).  Every day!  Now of course there are lighter sentiments also to be prayed daily, but as I said, that doesn’t make these others lose their force.  I realize that as a monk I’m praying as a representative of the whole Church, but I still can’t help but personally feel the weight of those words.

So, a little while back I was reading some words from the Son of God, who is love: “Many will seek to enter and will not be able… You will stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us!’  He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’… you will weep and gnash your teeth when you see [all the righteous in the Kingdom of God] and you yourself thrust out…” (Lk. 13:23-28).  I reached a kind of saturation point here and complained to the Lord as I went to prayer that I just couldn’t keep reading these grim prophecies and threats every single day.  Immediately, out of nowhere (or rather, out of Somewhere), the words came to me: “Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.”  What?  I wasn’t expecting that.  I thought something along the line of “don’t worry, I didn’t mean all that; you just relax and don’t let My words trouble you” would have been more apropos.  But He can’t say that, because his words are spirit and life (see Jn. 6:63).  They are “the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire” (Rev. 2:18).

Now it is true that there are many passages of Scripture that are intended to console us, but the word of God is not a mere lullaby meant to make us drowsily comfortable.  “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29).  Sometimes I feel like poor Jeremiah, who had to feel the hammer of the word of God, when he would rather not have felt it, and then had to speak the burning word, though he would rather not have to speak it.  Or perhaps like Jonah, who fled his vocation only to be pursued by the Lord until he fulfilled it.

The word of God is the Hammer that breaks our stony hearts, the Fire that burns the chaff of our frivolous thoughts and disordered desires.  It has the power to reduce us to rubble and ashes, yet another word immediately comes from the Lord: “Despair not.”

This is what I was referring to about my interior vocation: I believe I am to bear the hard and heavy words of the Lord—for the sake of those who won’t, for the sake of the heedless who refuse to listen, and even for the sake of the superficial Christians who want the joy without the sorrow, the blessing without the pain, the peace without the struggle.  It’s all about souls and their salvation.  That’s why I also do the “Save a Soul” thing and the “Mop-up Ministry” (see the links in the Pages sidebar).  Perhaps this is simply the vocation of all monks and I’m just beginning to get it now.  In the Byzantine tradition, a consecrated monk is called a stavrophore, that is, a cross-bearer.  This refers not only to the self-denial and cross-bearing required by all who would be disciples of Christ, but bearing crosses for others, hearing the hard words, struggling with the unrelenting demands and the fierce power of the irrepressible love of Christ which impels us to live only for Him who for our sakes died and rose for us (see 2Cor. 5:14-15).

I have also noticed that in the Divine Liturgy we really approach God in fear and trembling.  No less than seven times (mostly in reference to the Holy Mysteries) the priest and/or the faithful (usually the priest) begs not to experience “blame or condemnation” or “judgment or condemnation” (or a similar formulation) as we come into contact with the Holy.  In another case, the priest begs God: “Turn not Your face from me nor reject me from among Your children…”  It seems to me that if the Church did not think it likely that we might indeed incur judgment or condemnation, we wouldn’t be required repeatedly to beg for protection from it!  Our liturgical texts thus give the impression that we are terrified of God, yet evidently we are called to bear the weight of those heavy words, to come to Him anyway, without despairing of his mercy and generosity as we approach, even though we are “sinful and useless servants.”

Accepting the hard sayings of the Lord for the sake of others (as well as for myself, who also need to hear them), cannot be some sort of pious fiction if it is to bear fruit.  I really have to feel, to experience the weight, the fire, the terror of the divine words—and yet despair not.  Didn’t Jesus Himself have to do the same thing, to carry the burden of the Father’s will and word, feel that heavy hammer (literally: driving nails through his hands and feet)?  This was part of his vocation: “My soul is sorrowful unto death… Take this cup away from Me!… My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me”?  That was the real thing. He really felt it, and He did so for our sake, since only thus could we have any hope for salvation.  As for me, a servant is not greater than his Master.  If He couldn’t escape the demands of the Father’s decree, feeling the ancient prophecies in his own flesh, then neither can I.

To say “God is love” is not to divest Him of the force of command or of his jealous safeguarding of the truth that sets us free.  It is unquestionably true that his love is everlasting, his forgiveness is free for the asking, and his peace and joy flow like the River of Life in the New Jerusalem.  But his word will not return to Him empty; it must fulfill the purpose for which it is sent (see Isaiah 55:10-11).  In order to bring salvation, when it meets resistance it will become a hammer; when it finds a frozen heart it will become a fire beneath it; when it finds a sleeping soul, it will shake it awake.

And it will press its weight on the cross-bearers.  I don’t know if you who read this have felt anything of what I have here described, but if you have borne the anguish and terror, and are perhaps wearing out under the strain, I say to you: despair not.  Keep your mind in the whole of the word of God, the blessing and the curse, the promise and the threat, the ecstasy and the agony, and if it sometimes “hurts like Hell”—despair not.  For it has pleased the Father to give the Kingdom to those who follow in the footsteps of his Son, who do not shrink from the demands of the Gospel or soften its words, and who are willing to be a cross-bearer for others, so that they may finally hear those words for themselves—for the sake of their salvation.

For one who knows what it is like to sink beneath the waves of a tumultuous inner life, the simple command, “despair not,” is life-preserver.  The Lord is saying that it is OK to hear the difficult words of his, to bear the brunt of them, to be forcibly seized by them—in fact we must, if we are not to live in some fantasy land of a safe and risk-free life.  But in assuring us that we need not despair, God is saying that He gives us the grace to stand before that One whose eyes are a flame of fire, and who immerses us in that fire of love and truth so that his image is perfected in us.

So, feel the two-edged sword of the word of God, “piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow” (Heb. 4:12), but despair not.  Be aware of the evil, madness, and pain of the world, but despair not.  Face the sorrows, disappointments and absurdities of life, but despair not.  Yea, walk though you may in the darkness and the shadow of death, despair not.

Behold, love lies even behind the threat, the ultimatum.  For Jesus Himself descends into every hell, even our self-made ones, proclaiming the Gospel of redemption and resurrection.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  So despair not.

The Way of the Most High has Changed

At first glance, today’s Gospel (Mt 9:27-35) seems to be just another account of something we often see in the Gospels: physical healings and casting out of demons.  Perhaps after reading or hearing the Gospels so many times we get desensitized to the miraculous.  But wait a minute: those two men were blind, yet now they can see! And that other fellow had a demon who made him mute, but now the demon is gone and he can speak! And last week, if you remember, the man who was crippled got up and walked!  If we saw this with our own eyes we’d be utterly astounded, but we tend to take it for granted when we hear about Jesus performing miracles. So even though we’re used to hearing about healing_of_the_blind_manblind men seeing and possessed men set free, let us look a little more closely at the Gospel and try to discover what the Lord is doing even now.

The main point about the healing of the blind men is that it comes down to the power of faith.  Jesus had one question for them: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”  When they replied in the affirmative, Jesus said: “According to your faith be it done to you.” All they had to do was believe that Jesus had the power to give them their sight.  The actual power was in Jesus, but their faith was needed to tap into that power; it was the necessary condition for that divine power to be personally applied to them.  Jesus attributes an extraordinary power to faith.  He worked a great miracle for the blind men “according to [their] faith.”  He didn’t say, “according to My power,” but “according to your faith.”  His divine power is always present and undiminished.  It is faith that is crucial in determining what is actually going to happen, if God has willed that it be so.

The question never even came up as to whether or not Jesus was actually going to heal them once they professed their faith that He was able to do so.  But as we’ll see later, for us it would be a legitimate question.  After reading the Gospels, we’re quite sure Jesus is able to heal, but perhaps we have reason to wonder if He is willing to heal in any given case, at least in the way we desire or expect Him to.  Jesus said, “With God all things are possible,” but I sometimes dare to add, “but not all things are likely.”

Let’s move on for the moment and then return to that point.  The blind men had faith, but they were evidently lacking in obedience.  As soon as He healed them, Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about it.  So the first thing they did was to tell everyone about it!  I suppose they can be forgiven for that.  It’s kind of like telling a kid who just got some fabulous gift for his birthday not to show it to anyone.  Jesus surely had good reason for saying what He did, but the formerly blind men couldn’t see what it was, so they just trumpeted their good fortune to all.  We probably ought to note that no matter how much good Jesus does for us, we still disobey Him when He gives us commandments.  Let us pray that we too may be forgiven for that, but at the same time give Him the benefit of the doubt that He has very good reasons for telling us what He tells us.

Immediately another person was brought before the Lord to be healed.  This one had a demon that made him mute.  As soon as Jesus cast out the demon, the man began to speak, which caused the crowd to marvel at the extraordinary things happening before their very eyes.  The Pharisees, however, were not impressed.  Since they had already made themselves Jesus’ adversaries, and since they could not deny the evident expulsion of the demon, they indulged in a bit of sour grapes: “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”

Jesus’ response to this is not given here, but it does appear in other places, and I think we ought to try to get some understanding of it.  Jesus said, “How can satan cast out satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself that kingdom cannot stand.”  I used to think that the devil probably could have staged the whole thing if he wanted to.  He could tell one of his demons to enter a man and then exit on cue, while some charlatan in the devil’s service could thus start being known as a wonderworker for “casting out” demons, and then lead people astray.

But there are a couple things to consider.  One is that all the demons hate each other and are unlikely to cooperate in some joint effort.  What could be the reward?  They’re already in Hell.  Another reason is that once a demon has the opportunity to enter a person, he will never leave for any reason, unless he is forced out against his will.  We saw in the account of the possessed men of Gadara that not only did they beg Jesus not to send them back to Hell, they preferred even to live in pigs.  So it must be that if a demon is inhabiting some earthly creature, his pains are for that time less than they are in the depths of the inferno, so they aren’t going to be cooperating with anyone who says they should leave their temporary haven. Jesus also said that if a strong man guards his house (that is, if a demon is entrenched in some miserable soul), he can only be removed if a stronger man binds him first.  Christ Himself is the only Stronger Man who can cast out the devil, so the Pharisees were wrong in thinking that the devil was behind Jesus’ works.

Let’s get back to the healings and to faith.  The Gospel passage closes with a simple summary statement about Jesus’ ministry: He was “preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity.”  What caught my attention was the “every”: every disease and every infirmity.  This is not an isolated statement, for similar ones appear in several places in the Gospels.  When Jesus walked the earth, before his death and resurrection, He healed everyone who came to Him with faith.

Now that He has full authority in Heaven and on Earth and has ascended into the glory of his Father in the full strength of his definitive victory over sin and death—why does He not heal every disease and infirmity?  It is true that throughout the ages since the Resurrection, Ascension, and Descent of the Holy Spirit, many miracles have been worked in the world by the power of both divine grace and human faith.  Many people have been healed, and this goes on even today.  But not all are healed; in fact, probably the majority of them are not.

When I have prayed long, even for years, for the healing of some physical or mental illness suffered by others or myself, and still it is not granted, I begin to lament as the psalmist once did: “This is what causes my grief: the way of the Most High has changed” (76/77).  He had been reflecting on the wonders the Lord had worked in the past for his people, but now, in a time of distress, there was only silence from Heaven.  So we have to ask: has the way of the Most High changed?  Why doesn’t the Lord heal every illness and every infirmity as He did 2000 years ago?  I think we have to answer that in fact the way of the Most High has changed, but not arbitrarily, and in fact it has changed for the better, at least as far as our ultimate good is concerned.

The way of the Most High changed when He died.

Not the Most High God as such or as eternal Trinity, but God the Son made flesh.  That’s what happened when He took all our infirmities and all our illnesses and all our sins upon Himself all at once.  “The Lord laid upon him the iniquity of us all,” said the prophet, and it crushed and killed Him.  He was “stricken and afflicted, smitten by God, wounded for our transgressions… upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:4-6).

So God has taken healing to a new level.  Jesus is not walking the earth now, healing us piecemeal—and healing only those who are able to come into physical proximity of Him.  He is proclaiming to the whole world that the primary, fundamental healing has already taken place, and its salutary effects are available to all.  And He has a question for us: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”  And if we really do believe, He will say: “According to your faith be it done to you.”

Now this doesn’t mean that we can expect every physical or mental ailment to disappear because we make an act of faith.  But the changed way of the Most High means, in this context, two main things.  First, the most important work has been done through the death and resurrection of Christ.  He has borne the worst of our infirmities, that is, He has borne our sins.  Complete freedom from all past sin is just a confession away, and thus your faith plus God’s grace will make you well.  Now you are eligible for eternal freedom from all effects of the disease of sin and will be healthy and happy forever in Paradise.

Second, the physical or mental illnesses that God in his wisdom allows to remain with us have been invested with a value and power they never had before.  In the days when Jesus was on earth, diseases and other infirmities were nothing but hardships or diminishments of life or even curses and causes for ritual defilement.  They had no redemptive value, no meaning beyond themselves.  So Jesus healed them all.  Every one.  Because at that point the power that could turn them into blessings was not yet activated, so to speak, by the Cross and the Resurrection.

But now that universal healing from the eternal consequences of sin is available, and now that physical or mental suffering can be fruitfully united to the sufferings of Him who bore all our infirmities—Him by whose wounds we are healed—it is simply a matter of God’s providence and wisdom and his intentions for our lives whether or not any particular illness is healed.  Sickness does not carry the curse it used to; it is not solely a diminishment of life.  So if the Lord sees a greater good to be obtained by a faith-filled and loving acceptance of such a cross, He may allow it to remain with us on Earth, but our reward will be great in Heaven.

So yes, Mr Psalmist, the way of the Most High has changed.  His wonders are no longer limited to material prosperity, physical health, or even the blessings of freedom and peace.  The Son of the Most High has taken all our infirmities upon Himself and has given us in return a cross-shaped key to the Gate of Heaven, that we might enjoy everlasting happiness.

Let us believe that He who liberated the possessed man is able even to transform suffering into a means of communion with God and a path to deeper wisdom.  Let us pray that He who opened the eyes of the blind will enable us to see the new thing He is doing and accept that whatever He wills for our lives bears within it the potential for the fullness of healing and joy.  And according to our faith, it will be done for us.

You Shall Laugh

[I was thinking about a passage from St Luke, the one that tells us that Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.”  I don’t know precisely what that would have been like for the Lord, but it made me think of the experience described in the following post, which I published almost four years ago, so you are likely to have forgotten or never read it.  This may not exactly have been rejoicing in the Spirit (though maybe it was), but it certainly was something extraordinary that I can only attribute both to God’s intervention and his sense of humor.  So I thought I’d run it again, slightly edited.]

In the beatitudes found in Luke’s Gospel, the promise Jesus gives to those who are weeping is: You shall laugh. This doesn’t mean He’s about to tell them a good joke, nor is He speaking about some ephemeral or superficial happiness, but rather that a deep and lasting joy will be theirs if they continue to carry their crosses with patience and with trust in the Lord. The poor, the hungry, the persecuted and maltreated are all invited to rejoice—for their reward will be great in Heaven. And that is the only reward that ultimately matters. But that doesn’t mean He wants us to be morose or lugubrious until we get there.

The Lord’s promise of laughter to those who weep was once manifested to me in quite a striking and extraordinary way. It was a long time ago, maybe 25 years. I was here in the monastery; I think I may still have been a novice. I was going through a period of a rather tenacious depression. The fact that I had given my life to God—who promises everlasting joy—and was still depressed was even more depressing! Anyway, a good friend of ours, a priest who lived about 100 miles away, came for a retreat. I had always liked and respected him, and I would eagerly listen to his accounts of how the Lord was working in his life and in those of his parishioners. He almost always had a “miracle story” when he came to visit.

So I asked him if we could talk, because I was hoping he could help me out of my depression. After a while he said he’d like to pray over me, so I said, “OK, it can’t hurt,” though I wasn’t really expecting much more than a few pious but useless words (when one is depressed, everything looks extremely bleak and hopeless, and one becomes proficient at pessimism). We were sitting outside the main house on a bench. He began to pray a more or less standard healing prayer, and I just sort of slouched and listened. After a minute or two, the strangest thing began to happen. The words of his prayer started sounding funny. Not weird-funny or suspect-funny, but ha-ha funny! I couldn’t suppress the grin that was rapidly spreading across my face, though I hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening and why in the world his prayer sounded so darn funny.  At the nadir of a depression, there isn’t even a desire to rejoice or laugh anymore, and one can even get angry with someone who tries to encourage it.  But something irresistible was happening and I couldn’t have made myself miserable at that moment even if I tried!

Suddenly, I just burst out laughing. Now he had seen a lot in his years as a priest, but I don’t think he ever saw that, because he got this startled look on his face. He was quite taken aback (and laugh 1probably was trying to recall what he’d just said and why I would think his prayer was hilarious). But soon enough he realized that the Lord had in fact immediately answered his prayer. As for me, I couldn’t stop laughing! I thanked him for his prayer and walked away laughing, powerless to contain it. I went over to the shrine of Our Lady and sat on a bench and laughed—nonstop, for about 20 minutes. After that, my depression was gone. (By the way, it wasn’t a “manic” episode. I’ve never had that counterpart to depression, and I hadn’t had any such previous experience, nor have I ever had anything like it since.) The Lord was simply telling me in the midst of my inner darkness and depression: You shall laugh!  And his word accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent.

I had recently read in the Acts of the Apostles: “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52). This is an important part of what it means to be a Christian. Now there was nothing slapstick about the disciples’ joy: they had just been forcibly thrown out of Antioch for preaching the Gospel there. But they had that joy of the beatitude: “Blessed are you when people…exclude and insult you and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day, for your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:22-23). Their joy came from the Holy Spirit. The disciples rejoiced because they expected their reward from God, and even because they were happy just to serve Him—they loved Him so much and they knew his love for them. Jesus Himself “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21), so we know whence true joy comes.

So if you are sorrowful or depressed now, fear not, for you shall laugh. You shall overcome, by the grace of Christ, all the death-dealing, downward-thrusting forces of the prince of darkness. Embrace the beatitudes, for they are a key to accepting the hardships of life with faith and hope—and even with joy. Believe me, if a depressed monk can burst into laughter at the word of the Lord, so can you.

Of Roses and Condoms

Quite a few years ago, when I was guestmaster of the monastery, I used to tend the rose garden at Natural_Red_Beautiesthe retreat house.  I had learned how to plant and prune them, to water and fertilize them, and to (attempt to) keep away the bugs and the blackspot.   When I became the abbot, I just couldn’t come up with the time anymore, so I handed the job on to another monk.  He left the monastery last year, and so the poor roses were left orphaned, though I at least pruned them in the winter.  I still don’t have a replacement gardener, so I’ve done a little work on them this year, mostly just occasionally cutting off the suckers and the dead flowers before they go to seed, so they can keep blooming all summer (and fall, if we’re lucky).

The first time I went out to do some cutting I forgot to wear gloves, and so I had to be very careful not to get cut or punctured by thorns—which I didn’t, thank God.  The second time, I remembered to wear gloves, and so of course I ended up with the point of a thorn stuck in my (not too green) thumb, which I later had to dig out with a needle (I’m not too good at first aid, either!).  The irony of not getting stuck when not wearing gloves, and getting stuck when wearing them, naturally got me to thinking about Africa and AIDS and the current condom controversrose-thornsy.  (I’m sure that’s the first thing you would have thought of, too!)

I guess when I had put on the gloves I thought I was invincible, or at least well-protected from thorns, which I didn’t expect to be poking through my protection.  I remember that I was less careful when I had the gloves on, just grabbing the barbed canes without a thought.  One tends to take more risks when one assumes there’s no possible harm to result from it.

There’s an article in a recent issue of Catholic World Report entitled, “The Pope Was Right.”  A huge media feeding frenzy ensued when the Pope dared to suggest, on his way to Africa, that condoms were not the solution to the AIDS crisis there, and that they might even aggravate the problem.  Entire governments (like that of Belgium) became apoplectic at the Pope’s calm and reasoned remarks to the effect that continence was more effective than condoms.

Aside from the fact that “it’s impossible to get people to use condoms, no matter what we do or what we try” (Dr Edward Green, director of Harvard’s AIDS Prevention Research Project), and that there is a statistically significant percentage of condom failure even when they are used, there’s another factor involved, which proves that the Pope was right.  It’s called “risk compensation.”  I’ll let Dr George Mulcaire-Jones, president of Maternal Life International, explain it:

“It is a more technical public health term which reflects a reality about human behavior in which, once a ‘primary risk’ is lessened by a technological intervention and is perceived as less dangerous, then the behavior may actually increase.  One well-documented example is what has occurred in the homosexual community with the widespread use and availability of antiretroviral medications.  Because the perceived risk of HIV transmission is lessened because of reduced viral loads, the fundamental behavior—promiscuity and increased number of sexual partners—has increased… Condoms and the ideology behind them have operated on a superficial level of consciousness, proposing a mechanical solution to a value-based moral and behavioral problem.  We should not be surprised they have failed; they never penetrated the level of consciousness necessary for changing behavior and social norms.  The beauty and wisdom of the Church is it penetrates the deepest levels of consciousness and therefore offers a solution which is authentic.  As it does, it reveals the sophistry of other supposed solutions.  Deceit leads to death—in this very sad epoch of human history, death by condom.”

See, I was engaging in “risk compensation” once I had put on the gloves, and so I ended up increasing my carelessness and haste in dealing with the thorn-covered roses, and the resulting puncture of my skin was precisely the thing I thought the gloves would protect me from.  As the doctor explained above, when trying to resolve the thorny issue of the African AIDS epidemic, the use of condoms as AIDS-prevention devices often has a similar result.  It offers a false confidence which ends up actually increasing the behavior that is the cause of the disease in the first place.

The deeper issue (and solution to the problem) has to do, of course, with the morality of sexual relations.  The Pope said that the solution must be found in “a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual and human renewal, that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another…”  The Church has always maintained that chastity and marital fidelity are what will stop the spread of AIDS.  Archbishop John Onaiyekan, of Abuja, Nigeria, made the following comments:

“As an archbishop dealing on a daily basis with people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, I know that the Pope is speaking the truth.  I suspect that those who were so vociferous in condemning the Pope have never touched an HIV-infected person, let alone rendered any care and attention.  It is so much easier to distribute gadgets, especially at other people’s expense.   What reduces infections is less casual sex, not more condoms.  That is the truth.  Those who accuse the Pope of being ‘unrealistic,’ that young people will have sex anyway, have no respect for the young people.  When they are given true orientation, they freely respond with far greater sexual responsibility than the armchair social experts can ever imagine.”

So, the next time I find a few minutes to tend the roses, I’ll remember that it is not just throwing on a pair of gloves that will keep me from getting stuck by thorns—primarily it is responsible behavior.

The Pope was right.

You Hypocrite!

Some have said that the Scriptures, especially the Gospels in which Jesus Himself speaks, are God’s “love letter” to us, and we should read them as if He is speaking directly to us.  I opened chapter six of the Gospel of Luke the other day and received this loving sentiment: “You hypocrite!”  Uh, thank You, Lord, but…  Actually, there was more to it, though the more didn’t really soften the blow.  The love letter went like this: “To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also… do good, expecting nothing in return… you hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye… Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”  So, that was my “mail” from on high for that day.

I didn’t really object to it, since I know I am a hypocrite and don’t do what the Lord tells me.  But it does feel like something of a slap in the face coming from Another (I guess I should have just turned the other cheek!).  If I do something stupid and then say to myself, “you idiot!” it just seems perfectly natural.  But if someone else said the same thing to me, I probably would take it harder.  See, even here I’m a hypocrite!  If the thing is true, it shouldn’t matter who says it to me, and I shouldn’t react differently.

But enough about my hypocrisy; let’s talk about yours!  Just kidding; you’re not a hypocrite—are you?  Well, maybe you know someone who is, so let’s look at the issue, because it is evidently quite an important one to the Lord.  It seems that Jesus directed only compassion toward prostitutes and other sinners—still calling them to repentance, of course—but his wrath was reserved for hypocrites, who in most cases are identified with the Pharisees or otherPharisee religious authorities.  His most scathing denunciation of them occurs in Matthew 23 (and the parallel at the end of Luke 11), but there are quite a few places in which He lets loose on them.  What can we make of this?

It seems to me that there are several reasons why Jesus found hypocrites so odious.  Perhaps the main one has to do with scandal and the loss of souls that could result from their not being what they are supposed to be: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  You shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in… you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Mt 23:13-15).  The principle “to whom much is given, much is required” would apply here.  They are expected to give both the good teaching and the good example which God requires of men in his service, but if they “preach, but do not practice” (v. 3), they come under condemnation.

As hypocrites, they also cheapen or even defile the holy things of God.  For them to pride themselves in tithing herbs while neglecting “justice and mercy and faith” (v. 23) subjects their holy office to ridicule.  Jesus sums up the whole issue by saying: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (vv.27-28).  They are supposed to be the means by which God’s righteousness is made known, but if people are turned away from God by the example of such puffed-up phonies, the hypocrites will have a lot to answer for on Judgment Day.

Pride seems to be at the root of hypocrisy, for they cover their inner nothingness with ostentatious piety, calling attention to their high positions in public ways.  Another summary statement: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled” (v. 12).  What it seems to come down to is that instead of making it easy for people to come to God, they make it difficult; they are closed doors to God instead of open windows.  The Lord cannot tolerate it when someone He has chosen to bring others to Him does just the opposite.

Evidently humble honesty and genuineness are more important to the Lord than religiosity, especially if that is only a veneer for hiding wickedness.  The tax-collectors didn’t say, “We are pious.”  And the hookers didn’t say, “We are chaste.”  So Jesus could work with them.  They still had to change their ways, but simply by honestly admitting what they were, they were way ahead of the hypocrites on the path to the Kingdom: “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into to Kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31).

What about us?  It’s easy to point the finger at other hypocrites because they’re easy to spot.  One of the characteristics of hypocrisy is that it is to some extent self-blinding, so we don’t notice it as readily in ourselves.  (Remember what you should say to someone who won’t enter the Church because it’s full of hypocrites: “There’s always room for one more!”)  It’s actually kind of hard to avoid hypocrisy in any absolute sense.  The standards set by the Gospel are high, and we fail to meet them, though we’d like to be manifestly faithful Christians.  This is all the more difficult for someone like me, because I still have to preach the whole truth, and it stings if I know I’m not practicing quite what I preach.  For all that, I can’t simply stop preaching, for I have a commission from God.  I just have to hurry up and get my act together, quickly closing the gap between my words and my actions.  But it is an ongoing work, and the results vary, yet the effort can never be relaxed, and I have to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, being ready to do whatever He tells me.

I suppose Jesus would have had mercy even on the hypocrites if they would just say: “I know I am a hypocrite.  Please help me.”  It’s the arrogant posturing that the Lord cannot tolerate.  It’s saying we are something that we are not, or saying we are not something that we are—this is what hinders the work of grace in us.

So maybe it really is a love letter if Jesus sometimes calls us hypocrites.  It’s at least a “truth letter,” and the Lord only speaks the truth in love.  He wants to work with us, to show us how to realize more and more the ideals of a holy life, while honestly humbling ourselves—instead of arrogantly or self-righteously defending ourselves—when we fall short.  Jesus said our righteousness has to exceed that of the hypocrites if we are to enter the Kingdom.  But that doesn’t mean to be still more outwardly pious. He also said that all we have to do is humble ourselves, like a child.  Children are generally not hypocrites: what you see is what you get, for better or worse.  But at least it’s the truth.

Let’s begin with honesty, with transparency, with humility.  It’s not our faults that will keep us out of the Kingdom so much as our refusal to acknowledge them—or our trying to make it appear to others that we don’t have them.  Let’s not deserve to get a letter from Heaven addressed to “Whitewashed Tomb.”

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