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

Archive for October, 2009

Heaven

I’m always ready to hear something about Heaven, and I suppose you are, too.  I recently read a book by a 19th-century French priest, Fr Charles Arminjon, entitled, The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life.  Evidently it is a book that St Therese of Lisiuex had read with great spiritual profit.  I’m going to present some excerpts from his chapter on Heaven, which is quite welcome after his chapters on Hell and judgment.  Some people are motivated to do good by fear of Hell and some by hope of Heaven, and some by both.  I think it’s best to run the race with our eyes on the Lord and all that He has preparedLiftUpTheCross for those who love Him.

“Our destiny is an enigma, which reason alone cannot explain; but faith elevates our thoughts, strengthens our courage, and inflames our hope.  It tells us: have no fear; you are not wandering along some lost and uncertain path.  Beyond our mortal years there is a new life, of which the present one is only a representation and an image.  On this earth, we are travelers; but beyond the stars and all space, our heritage and native land is found…

“We err in our judgments on the conduct of God toward men; we see nothing more than a pointless harshness in the mystery of suffering; we bear the burden of life without courage or dignity, because we do not know how to raise our eyes and our hopes above the limited sights and perspectives of the present life, and because we do not reflect upon their destiny and end.  Our destiny is the possession of God and eternal life: to live in that abode from which all evil is absent and where we enjoy a multitude and abundance of every good, a place that is commonly called heaven.

“Heaven: this is the torch before which the vivid appeal of earthly things fades, the light that, by transforming our judgments, makes us cherish poverty, sickness, and the insignificance of our state of life as a good, and makes us regard riches, the glamour of honors, the favor and praise of the world as an evil.  The thought and expectation of heaven impelled Paul to face the most arduous labors and the most formidable perils, giving him a superabundance of joy amidst his sufferings and afflictions…

“Heaven is something that we have not seen.  We travelers, wandering in this valley of darkness and tears, are reduced, like captive Israel on the banks of the Euphrates, to hanging our harps and zithers upon the weeping willows of this wretched, human life.  No human voice, no lyre can ever succeed in producing songs and tunes in unison with the melodies and sweet harmonies with which that indescribable city resounds…

“Even the inspired word itself cannot rise to realities that extend beyond the bounds of reason and surpass all the strength and capacity of our nature.  Let us listen to the great apostle Paul, immersed in the most exalted raptures, conveyed in spirit as far as the third heaven, and into splendors more profound and ineffable than those experienced by the Eagle of Patmos, as he exclaims: Heaven is not as you tell us; it is a thousand leagues above the analogies and descriptions you are offering us. ‘Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him…’ [emphasis in the original]

“Heaven is God’s ideal, the repose of His intellect.  Let us add: it is the repose of His heart.  The heart goes further than the mind.  It has aspirations and impulses, unknown to genius, which go beyond all the bounds of inspiration and thought…  The transports that the divine vision will arouse in the elect will make their hearts superabound in the most unutterable joys; it will be a flood of delights and raptures, life in its inexhaustible richness and the very source of all good and all life.  It will be, as St Augustine goes on to say, like a gift from God of His own Heart, so that we may love and rejoice with all the energy of the love and joys of God Himself… The contemplation of God will not mean immobility but, above all, activity, an ever-ascending progression, where movement and repose will be bound together in ineffable harmony… They will go from glory to glory, from joy to joy…

“How sweet it will be to contemplate at a single glance all the marvels of the Most High God in the realm of nature as well as in the order of grace and glory… In heaven we shall see and recognize one another; and in heaven we shall love one another… All the objects and causes that captivate our hearts and arouse love in this world will act with an intensity a thousand times greater, and without encountering any obstacle, on the hearts of the elect…

“In heaven… their awareness of happiness is not distinct from their awareness of God… the effect of this multifarious delight is not to induce them, by reflection, to withdraw into excessive preoccupation with themselves and the perfection of their nature, but rather to inspire them to soar upward with inexhaustible energy and lose themselves in the ever-closer embrace of God, who imbues them with His fullness through all their senses and penetrates every pore of their being.  On their lips the cry of joy blends with the cry of adoration and gratitude… they exclaim, ‘Holy, holy, holy is God Almighty…’

“In heaven, happiness is stable, since the elect, confirmed in glory, are beyond all fear.  The ages will succeed one another without diminishing their happiness, without a single line creasing their brows.  The certainty of eternally possessing the benefits they hold dear multiplies their sweetness a hundredfold.  What a source of jubilation when, after thousands of centuries have elapsed, they reflect upon the day in the distant past when they made their triumphant ascent, and say, ‘Nothing is finished yet; I reign today, today I am in possession of my happiness, and I shall possess it as long as God remains God—forever and ever!’”

Those are just a few snippets of this long chapter, which the author himself admits is just a crude and rough sketch.  But doesn’t it make the furtive and fleeting pleasures of this life—that is, those pleasures that are not part of our life in God—pale into complete insignificance and even wretchedness?  No wonder the Lord said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?”  He came from Heaven; He knows what it is like; He has been inviting us there for millennia and warning us how grievous a loss it would be to forsake his Kingdom for the sake of selfish gains in this life.  Heaven will be the super-superlative of every good thing we can imagine or desire, and the experience of joys and wonders we can’t even begin to imagine.  The more we fix our minds on Heaven, the more free we will be in relation to things of this Earth, and we will do whatever it takes to join that blessed company who enjoy the utter fullness of life and blessing, the superabundance of love in the Light of the Face of Him who loved us first, and who awaits us in his heavenly Paradise.

Resentment: the Enemy of Joy and Gratitude

One of the sections in Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, concerns the elder son and his attitude toward the return and repentance of his younger brother.  Chief among his various negative attitudes is that of resentment, which has a spiritually paralyzing effect and keeps him from entering his father’s joy.  His self-chosen exclusion from the banquet his father gave to celebrate the return of the “lost” son is an analogy of the dreadful power of resentment to exclude people from the Kingdom of Heaven.

Since I have some interest in philology, I like to discover the etymology of wordI resent that!s and see if that helps us understand better the language we use.  To resent literally means to “re-feel.”  When we give in to resentment we choose to “re-feel” the anger, hurt, humiliation or whatever negative experiences we have undergone, and thus we keep them alive as a reservoir of bitterness, envy, self-righteousness, or self-pity.  Holding a grudge is the same thing.  We take some cold comfort in keeping resentment toward someone who has hurt us or let us down somehow, and we continually re-feel the negative emotions to shore up our own wounded pride.  In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), we find a similar message.  The workers who came in at the last hour were rewarded by the vineyard owner exactly as those who had worked all day—so these became filled with resentment and complained to the owner, who then gently reproached them for faulting him with his generosity to others.

After retelling the part of the parable in which the elder son comes in from the field and hears the sounds of celebration in the house—and becoming angry when he finds out what is actually happening—Nouwen concludes: “Joy and resentment cannot coexist.  The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal… The experience of not being able to enter into joy is the experience of a resentful heart.  The elder son couldn’t enter into the house and share in his father’s joy.  His inner complaint paralyzed him and let the darkness engulf him.”

Perhaps it seems obvious that if one is nursing a particular resentment one cannot at the same time be rejoicing.  But one can enter into a more or less perpetual state of resentment that blocks the very possibility of joy, and hence makes one continually stand outside the Father’s house, grumbling and rehashing one’s grievances while everyone else is rejoicing in the Father’s love and bounty.

The Lord told the parable of the Prodigal Son not only to offer hope to sinners, but to warn those who consider themselves good to examine their own hearts lest they—instead of the sinners they look down upon—be found forever outside the Kingdom.  Nouwen continues: “In response to their complaint, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,’ Jesus confronted the Pharisees and scribes not only with the return of the prodigal son, but also with the resentful elder son.  It must have come as a shock to these dutiful religious people.  They finally had to face their own complaint and choose how they would respond to God’s love for the sinners… It was and still is a real challenge: for them, for me, for every human being who is caught in resentment and tempted to settle on a complaintive way of life.”

As resentment is the enemy of joy, it is also the enemy of gratitude and of trust.  “Although we are incapable of liberating ourselves from our frozen anger, we can allow ourselves to be found by God and healed by his love through the concrete and daily practice of trust and gratitude.  Trust and gratitude are the disciplines for the conversion of the elder son… Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.  My resentment tells me I don’t receive what I deserve… There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection: ‘You are with me always, and all I have is yours.’  Indeed, I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off than I, lament about the many misfortunes that have plagued me in the past, and thereby wrap myself up in my resentment.  But I don’t have to do this.  There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein all that I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude… Both trust and gratitude require the courage to take risks because distrust and resentment, in their need to keep their claim on me, keep warning me how dangerous it is to let go of my careful calculations and guarded predictions.”

If we were to examine ourselves carefully, we would likely finds areas of resentment in our lives that are preventing joy and hindering our ability to be grateful, and preventing even our ability to see the reasons for joy and gratitude that God has placed in our lives.  Sometimes I find it hard to be grateful for little things if at the same time big things are going wrong.  The bad things “fill my prospect” (as the psalmist says) and so it’s hard to see the good, or at least the good seems to pale into insignificance in comparison to the bad.  But gratitude isn’t only something that spontaneously fills us when we recognize some extraordinary blessing.  It is a discipline that must be consciously cultivated at all times (“Give thanks in all circumstances”; 1Thess. 5:18).  Nouwen writes: “The choice for gratitude [notice: choice, not spontaneous feeling] rarely comes without some real effort.  But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious.  Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.”

So the choice is set before us: resentment or joy and gratitude.  We can imprison ourselves in a dark dungeon of self-pity, feeding on “sour grapes,” taking perverse satisfaction in our negative assessment of others or even of life as such—or, we can respond to the Father’s invitation to enter his joy and thus live in humble thanksgiving for all the unmerited gifts, great and small, that He grants us in his paternal generosity.  The difference is, ultimately, on which side of the gate of Heaven we choose to stand.  The Father pleads with us, as to the elder son, to come in, but we are free to nurse our resentments and stand outside.  It’s not worth it merely to be “right” about the shortcomings of others and our own personal hurts and thus to justify our “re-feeling” of all negative experiences.  Feel them once and forgive; feel them once and let go of them.  Leave them behind and join the grateful rejoicing of all those who—through repentance, trust, and divine grace—forever enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Present Commitments and Future Destinies

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) is important for understanding certain truths about Christian life and destiny.  It is not only about the inequity of wealth and poverty, nor only about the consequences of a grievous lack of compassion or charity, though these are of course key themes of the parable.  We’ll look at these as well as another, perhaps less obvious theme, or rather a practical application, which may be of utmost importance in allowing this message to bear fruit.

Jesus begins the parable by describing the fine apparel and food of the rich man.  A key phrase in this description is “every day.”  He dressed luxuriously and feasted sumptuously every day.  No one is condemned for dressing up on occasion and enjoying some special treats on certain festive days.  Even in very poor countries, people often have one special garment to wear on holidays, and on rare occasions manage to have a festive meal.  This belongs to human culture and is a good thing.  But it’s not a good thing when one has so much wealth that one can afford to do this every day, especially when there are desperately needy people in plain sight who would greatly benefit from just a tiny share in the goods of the wealthy.  Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, hoping for a shred of charity, so the rich man had to walk by him many times and ignore him, and this was his greatest sin.

St Luke makes it a point to highlight Jesus’ love for the poor, and it is in his Gospel alone that the beatitudes are contrasted with the woes, which apply perfectly to the rich man of the parable. After pronouncing blessings upon rich_man_in_hellthe poor, the hungry, and the mourners, Jesus says: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have [already] received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you shall hunger.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Lk. 6:24-25).  The rich have already received the only consolation they’ll ever have in the ephemeral wealth of this world.  This is exactly what Abraham told the rich man who was tormented in Hell: “in your lifetime you received your good things… [but now] you are in anguish.”  He was also full of rich food in this life, but in the afterlife he was parched with thirst, begging for a single drop of water.  The rich man celebrated and laughed while Lazarus suffered and wept in misery, but now he was groaning in anguish, tormented in the flames.  Lazarus, on the other hand, was poor, hungry and miserable in this life, but all these injustices were redressed in the next, so he was satisfied and happy in the bosom of Abraham and in the presence of the holy angels, who came to receive his soul when it was at last time to leave his suffering body.

This also seems to be a fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah: “When I called, you did not answer; when I spoke, you did not listen; but you did what was evil in my eyes and chose what I did not delight in.  Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; behold, My servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; behold, My servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; behold, My servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart and shall wail for anguish of spirit” (65:12-14).

Even though we know it is more than material poverty that makes one eligible for Heaven, and more than material wealth that makes one a candidate for Hell, this particular parable contains no further nuance, which should at least tell us that these conditions still are significant.  Abraham simply made the observation that the rich man had good things in life and now he has torment, and Lazarus had poverty and sickness in this life and now he has comfort and consolation.

In many countries, especially relatively poor ones, there is often extreme inequity between rich and poor.  The few rich are fabulously, opulently rich, which the many poor are desperately destitute. I read recently about someone who had wealthy friends in India and he stayed with them on their estate, and whenever he went out of their gates he was greeted with numerous dirt-poor beggars, just like Lazarus at the gate of the rich man.  His friends did nothing for them, but he couldn’t tolerate the injustice and stayed no longer with the rich.

What are we to do, when we hear a parable such as that of today’s Gospel?  Such injustices exist all over the world today, and the ultimate consequences will be the same as those we heard about in the Gospel. It’s not enough to say, “Well, I’m not rich, so I’m not guilty of the rich man’s sins.” As Christians the first thing we need to do for the poor and suffering is to intercede for them.

Now to some this may sound like a pious cop-out, and in fact in can end up that way, if intercession is not properly understood.  A little while ago we were reading a book in the refectory called God and Man, by Archbishop Anthony Bloom.  He talked about the authentic meaning of intercession.  Intercession is not just offering a few words of petition in church or at home, thinking that thus you have fulfilled your obligation to those for whom you pray.

To intercede literally means to “go between,” that is, to step into the situation, in whatever way is possible, of the one for whom you intercede, so as to actually do something about it.  To intercede for someone is to make a commitment, to bear the burden of another, to bring them before the face of God with more than just words or a bit of good will.  In the prophet Ezekiel, the image of intercession is that of standing in the breach of the wall of a city, putting one’s own life on the line to defend it.  Thus says the Lord, who looked in vain for true intercessors: “The people of the land… have oppressed the poor and the needy and have extorted from the sojourner without [giving] redress.  And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none.  Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath…” (22:29-31).

Archbishop Anthony gave a dramatic example of literal intercession in a single woman who gave her life to spare the life of a mother with children who was being hunted by the Communists in Russia.  She chose to stand, as it were, between the killers and the other woman and her children, and this is the ultimate intercession.  Now of course such a heroic act can only be performed once, since she was killed in the process, and we have to go on interceding day by day, but the principle of radical commitment to, and self-sacrifice for, those for whom we pray still must be applied in concrete circumstances.

We haven’t discharged our duties to the poor by merely mentioning them in our prayer.  If our intercession is not to be superficial or a mere pious show, in which case it would be fruitless, we must, so to speak, put our lives where our mouths are.  If we intercede for the poor, we must be willing to experience poverty ourselves, and if we have any material resources, we should give without hesitation, and give more than we think we can afford.  Otherwise we are not stepping into their shoes or standing in the breach of the broken down wall of our corrupt and heartless world.  If we intercede for the sick, we must be willing to endure sickness ourselves, patiently and cheerfully, making it a sacrifice to God on behalf of those in much more serious straits than we are.  If we intercede for the persecuted, we must be willing to endure hostility from others, even if wholly unjustified, so that our prayer will bear fruit.  If we intercede for peace, we ourselves must be peacemakers in our own environment. If we intercede for the end of abortion, we have to be willing to make sacrifices, contribute to the cause, or personally participate in works to that end. If we intercede for the conversion of sinners, we must make a thorough and even brutally honest examination of our own lives, identifying clearly and working diligently on the areas in which we sinners need to convert, and never looking down on the weaknesses of others, but rather offering ourselves in sacrifice for their salvation.  Only in such ways will intercession be genuine and fruitful and hence pleasing to God.

For, as St Paul says in the epistle today (Gal. 2:16-20), “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  Jesus Christ is the Intercessor par excellence, who stepped into our human condition and bore its terrible weight.  He stood between the Face of God and the fires of Hell, gathering us to Himself, standing with us, identifying Himself with us, bearing our sins and taking them to the Cross.  He made a commitment to us, a covenant in his own blood.  We who believe in Him have thrown in our lot with Him; no servant is greater than his master.  That’s why just before Paul says that it is no longer himself but Christ living in him, he gives the reason and the necessary condition for this: “I have been crucified with Christ.”  He has joined the Lord in his universal act of intercession for the whole world.  Later he will say that he fills up in his own flesh the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.

Some might object: why should I identify myself with poor beggars and give away my goods to them?  I earned it with my own labors. What do I owe them? To them I would say: why should the Son of God have sacrificed his life for you, who made yourself his loathsome enemy by your sins?  What did He owe you?  Why did He put his life on the line to make up for your stupidity, selfishness and malice?  He did it because He loves us, and now He calls us to love as He has loved, to forgive as He has forgiven, to give as He has given.

Let us not shrink from the high and demanding calling to be intercessors with Christ, for our loved ones and for the whole world.  There is likely a Lazarus in our lives who needs our commitment of charity and sacrifice.  There are millions of them lying at the gates of the rich and powerful of this world.  There are souls who will soon be standing before the judgment seat of God, and if they are in a state of sin, they are poorer and more miserable than the most destitute wretch on earth.

So, let us not be among those who want only the good things of this world, being more concerned with ourselves than with others, for then the woes Jesus pronounced will fall on us.  We must be willing to accept the price of fruitful intercession, not just giving lip-service in our prayers, but making of our whole life a sacrifice of praise and love to God, bearing the burdens of our brothers and sisters, even in our own flesh.  Then we shall truly be followers of Christ, and when we die the angels will come for us and take us to the place of comfort and joy, the place reserved for all those who have been willing to be crucified with Christ. These are the ones who alone can truly say: I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.

Turn and Be Turned

Jesus has said in several places in the Gospels that we need to become like children.  I’m always trying to get a jesus-children-iconlittle more understanding of this.  Surely He doesn’t want us to become narcissistic, temperamental, or stubborn, as children often are, and there’s nothing in the Gospel that suggests we embrace infantilism or immaturity.  Yet whatever He means by it, it is of decisive importance, because “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 18:3).

We know that becoming like a child has something to do with humility, for in the next verse Jesus says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  I checked to see what one of my favorite Bible commentators, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, has to say on the matter, for he has produced a rich and detailed commentary on the Gospel of Matthew entitled, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, though he hasn’t quite finished it yet (he has written two volumes, taking 1600 pages to cover just the first 18 chapters of Matthew; he has recently professed solemn vows in a Trappist monastery [and is known as Br Simeon], and he has told me that he hopes now to be free to work on the third and final volume, which I eagerly await).

What I’d like to do now is share some of his insights on this topic, which can help us gain greater understanding of Jesus’ words. (I will transliterate the words he puts in the original Greek script.)

“The call to turn and ‘become like children’ and, in a moment, the exhortation to ‘humble oneself’ make it clear that Jesus is not here praising a condition of blissful ignorance, torpor, and mere passivity.  The attainment of this spiritual state in fact calls for very long and hard work, involving the anguish of self-renunciation, as we see amply demonstrated in the life of St Therese of Lisieux.  For a headstrong, self-reliant adult to become interiorly like a child requires an exhausting labor, the demolition of perverse habits, and the healing of illusory turns of mind.  Spiritual childhood is a goal to be achieved after long journeying, a dimension to be entered into by the skin of one’s teeth, not a passiveness into which one falls by default.

“Jesus’ call of the child to himself here (proskalesamenos paidon) precisely parallels his earlier solemn call of the twelve apostles to himself at the moment of their first commissioning (proskalesamenos tous dodeka mathetas autou, 10:1).  Jesus is at present reminding them of something essential to their condition as disciples: namely, that they did not originally come to him on their own initiative, as they have just now done in order to ask their question [“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”], but that he called them to himself when their lives were moving in a quite different direction. ‘We love because he first loved us… In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins’ (1Jn. 4:19, 10).

“If the disciples are to become vibrant instruments of grace in God’s hands, they have to acquire the malleability of youth, the pliancy of disposition and the gentleness of character that will make it possible for Jesus to use them as he sees fit… The child hears Jesus’ call, comes over to Jesus at once, and allows himself to be handled, disposed of, positioned by Jesus at will.  Such alertness and spontaneous obedience and availability to God will, for the disciples, come slowly as a result of a long process of spiritual purification and sanctification…

“This specifically biblical understanding of ‘childhood’ rests on a concrete understanding of the verb straphite, ‘to turn’ (‘unless you turn and become like children’), odd-sounding as it may be in this context.  Certainly, it refers to a metaphorical ‘turn’ of attitude or change of outlook; but the word metanoia is normally used in the Gospel to convey this meaning.  In the present instance something more immediate and physical must be meant.  The ‘turning’ to which Jesus is exhorting should be read in conjunction with Jesus’ call to the child in the previous verse, so that the import of the statement would be: ‘Unless you turn away from your present path and come to me in response to my call, as you have just seen this child do, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’ [emphasis in the original]  The verb straphite is actually in the passive voice, so it should be more literally translated as ‘unless you are turned,’ namely, by Jesus, ‘away from your self-directed attitude and path, and toward himself.’  The passive voice here underscores the divine initiative and work in this process: ‘Yield to me and allow me to turn you in whichever way I choose.’  In this sense, spiritual childhood and discipleship are one and the same thing, and such childhood will also mean, paradoxically, that the person who is a ‘child’ interiorly must take up his cross in order to follow Jesus into his Kingdom.

“To come to Jesus, to follow Jesus, necessarily means treading with him the Way of the Cross, all the way to the shame of Calvary Hill (cf. 16:24-25).  That is how far spiritual childhood must be situated from a cozy sentimentality.  Whoever yields to Jesus’ embrace shall be crucified with him, in order to rise with him to eternal life.  The social marginality of the child whom Jesus calls into the midst of the disciples evokes a chief symbolic component of Jesus’ own Passion and death: his ostracism and abandonment by the rest of men…

“It is always the love practiced by the marginalized that redeems the arrogance of those at the center.  God loves the humility that positions itself at the outer edge of things.  That is where God’s scrutinizing glance instinctively goes when he searches for a just one.

“The disciples were ardently concerned a moment ago about rank within the Kingdom of Heaven.  Now Jesus is telling them that, as long as they persist in their present mentality, they will not even enter the Kingdom, much less contend for rank within it!  For this Kingdom is a kingdom of children where no one can enter who does not suspend all private projects of self-promotion… we must first unlearn all those encumbering adult habits that fill us with slavish fear and chain us to the earth, all those corrupting tendencies that inhibit the heart from recognizing that God alone is great and that before him we are all children.  We must work at making ourselves very small, until the greatest joy of our hearts will be to exclaim to God with boundless trust: ‘Abba!  Father!’ (cf. Rom. 8:14-15).  Only this password, in the Child Jesus’ mother tongue, will gain us admittance to the Kingdom.”

We now have greater understanding of Jesus’ words.  So let us turn and allow ourselves to be turned, so that we can return from our detours and run to God with the joyful abandon of a child who trusts absolutely in his father and finds peace and blessing in his embrace.

A. A.

A friend lent me a copy of the “Big Book.”  You know what that is, right?  It’s the standard text for Alcoholics Anonymous and it bears the same title.  It was first published in 1939 and since then has been published in several boozeeditions and, as of the year 2000, seventy printings.  I’m glad it’s so popular, because of all that good that has come from it, though I wish the reason for its popularity didn’t exist.  Anyway, before you start praying for my deliverance from the demon rum, let me assure you that I’m not an alcoholic (I probably have two or three beers a month, a small glass of wine on feast days, and liquor never).  But the book was lent to me simply so I could gain some understanding into the biological and psychological dynamics of alcoholism, but most importantly the spiritual dynamics of recovery.  The first part of the book gives a bit of history of the organization and an explanation of its principles.  The rest of it is a collection of stories from various alcoholics who found lasting sobriety through AA.

Most people have some familiarity with the 12 steps of AA (which have subsequently be successfully applied to other types of addictions), or at least have heard of them.  Some of it is basic morality and practical good sense, like taking “moral inventory” of one’s life and making amends to those one has harmed or offended.  But the most important element of the whole process of deliverance from alcoholism is the handing over of one’s life to a “Power greater than oneself,” which is much more often than not explicitly identified with God.  Now it is not just I who am saying that this is the most important part.  The founders of AA said so, and it has been that way for decades.  The book is not shy about quoting the Bible, encouraging use of the Lord’s Prayer, and using Christian terms for God.

Perhaps AA is unique among secular organizations in insisting that the solution to a problem that is a combination of a biological predisposition and a psychological obsession is primarily a spiritual one.  Time and time again, as the various testimonies are given, it is the “spiritual experience” of giving oneself over to the “Higher Power” that is decisive in stopping drinking and in maintaining sobriety.  It is also crucial that the recovery process includes sharing one’s experience with other alcoholics and inviting them to the same sobriety one is already achieving.  So the “spirituality” of AA is quite other-centered and not simply focused on dealing with one’s own problems.

I found it interesting that most of the testimonies in the Big Book come from people who hadn’t the slightest interest in God, and who mostly thought religion to be little more than pious hogwash.  One man put it this way: “The Third Step said: ‘Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.’  Now they asked us to make a decision!  We’ve got to turn the whole business over to some joker we can’t even see! … And so one gets thinking to oneself, ‘Who is this God? Who is this fellow we are supposed to turn everything over to? What can He do for us that we can’t do for ourselves?”  But invariably, in one way or another, they turn to God and find that God can in fact do much for them that they are powerless to do for themselves—like ridding them of the scourge of compulsive drinking!  In fact, the stated purpose of the 12 steps is not only deliverance from alcohol, but having a “spiritual awakening” that makes this deliverance possible.

There’s another excerpt that can be helpful to anyone struggling in the spiritual life, trying to understand the ways of God and to accept Him.  Here’s a section written by a man who had not believed in God, but came to AA and was confronted with this step of the program: “Then comes a thought that is like a Voice: ‘Who are you to say there is no God?’  It rings in my head; I can’t get rid of it.  I get out of bed and go to the man’s room… ‘How does prayer fit into this thing?’  ‘Well,’ he answers, ‘you’ve probably tried praying like I have.  When you’ve been in a jam you’ve said, “God, please do this or that,” and if it turned out your way that was the last of it, and if it didn’t you’ve said, “There isn’t any God” or “He doesn’t do anything for me.”  Is that right?  ‘Yes,’ I reply.  ‘That isn’t the way,’ he continued.  The thing I do is to say, “God, here I am and here are all my troubles.  I’ve made a mess of things and can’t do anything about it.  You take me, and all my troubles, and do anything you want with me.”’ … I return to bed.  It doesn’t make sense.  Suddenly I feel a wave of utter hopelessness sweep over me.  I am in the bottom of hell.  And there a tremendous hope is born.  It might be true.  I tumble out of bed onto my knees.  I know not what I say.  But slowly a great peace comes to me.  I feel lifted up.  I believe in God.  I crawl back into bed and sleep like a child.”

They know they need God and each other to remain sober.  The 12-step program is a serious and uncompromising one, though there is always mercy and encouragement for the fallen and the re-fallen.  They know they have to absolutely avoid that next drink, for even after years of sobriety, one single drink could (and this has been repeatedly proven in the lives of those who tried to quit without the benefit of AA) make them revert completely to their former state of obsession with drink and inability to do without it, and thus lose whatever they had gained.

The situation is not so different in the spiritual life when dealing with sinful habits or other moral failings.  For Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn. 8:34).  That is why the Church always urges us to reject temptation the moment it arises and not try some sort of compromise or halfway measure, or to embrace a lesser evil as a substitute.  Giving in will be like taking that one forbidden drink.  A single indulgence in a particular sin that has been habitual but that one is trying to be free from, can start the whole addictive cycle over again, and it will be suddenly impossible to resist, and one will be overwhelmed and confused by the power of something thought to have been overcome.

It might be a good idea to look at the 12 steps and apply them to whatever besetting sin one might have, and put them into practice.  This program is profoundly Christian in principle, without being directly associated with any specific religion.  The Gospel is obviously its foundation.  I believe that AA is a way God has chosen to “come in the back door,” as it were, of the lives of people who might not ordinarily have turned to Him, and to give them something real and life-changing, so that some are perhaps living the Gospel more fully than others who explicitly profess Christian faith but are mediocre in living it.  I’ll close with the list of the steps.  You and God must do the rest.

First: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or, name your own vice or besetting problem]—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Second: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Third: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Fourth: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Fifth: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs [sounds a lot like confession, doesn’t it?]

Sixth: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Seventh: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Eighth: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Ninth: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Tenth: Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Eleventh: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Twelfth: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Sons and Daughters

I have been lately re-reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son, and it seems that the moment for this is rembrandt-the-return-of-the-prodigal-sonright at last.  I read it once about ten years ago, and though I was edified by it, I think I was not in an interior spiritual “place” wherein I could fully benefit from its insights.  Through my present reading (which so far is only the first few chapters) and prayer, a little more of the light of Heaven has shone upon me, and I’d like to share some of that with you.  Perhaps much of what I say is not news to you, and you’ve been living it for years, but for someone who often wrestles with God as I do, it is something through which the Lord “gives me rest” (see my previous post).

I’m not sure even how to begin this, but perhaps I’ll just say that if you have ever been a sinner you ought to read this book.  It is not an exegetical commentary on the Gospel parable, though it does offer insights into the text itself.  It is more a glimpse into the Heart of the Father and the tragedy/salvation of the son, and as such it is the story of our own life and relation to God.  The return of prodigal sons and daughters, and the compassionate embrace of their loving Father, can perhaps be summed up in this line from the prologue of the book: “I have to kneel before the Father, put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God.”

As Nouwen describes his own struggles and failures and gradual awareness of the Father’s love for him, I see reflections of my own life.  As he describes the Prodigal Son’s rehearsal of his repentance, he shows us what we may be like in our inadequate understanding of God: “[He] tells himself that he has lost the dignity to be called ‘son,’ and he prepares himself to accept the status of a ‘hired man’ so that he will at least survive.  There is repentance, but not a repentance in the light of the immense love of a forgiving God.  It is a self-serving repentance that offers the possibility of survival… It is like saying: ‘Well, I couldn’t make it on my own, I have to acknowledge that God is the only resource left to me.  I will go to God and ask forgiveness in the hope that I will receive a minimal punishment and be allowed to survive’ … One of the greatest challenges in the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.  There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a completely new beginning.  Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to overcome.  While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant.”

After bringing all this into prayer, it seemed as if the Father opened to my awareness something of his own heart, something that I’ve always longed for but which I’ve been afraid to hear, or even more afraid might not be true after all.  But I finally discovered in a personal way something that is basic to Christianity: The Father loves me because I am his son.  The Father doesn’t love me because I have done good, and He doesn’t hate me because I have done evil.  I have done both good and evil in my life, but the Father loves me because I am his son.  This may seem standard fare to you, but for me it had the force of revelation.

This bond can never be broken and will last for all eternity.  God has made a commitment to me that He will not break.  It may be that I strain this relationship and render it unfruitful because of my sins, and I may need purification or even punishment to correct my waywardness and pave the way for my return.  But I will always be a son of the Father, and as such will always be loved by Him, and our eternal communion in love and joy will always be sought and willed by Him.  He revealed this to us even before the advent of his only-begotten Son in this world, as we read in Psalm 88(89): “My truth and love shall be with him… he will say to Me: ‘You are my Father, my God’ … I will keep my love for him always; with him my covenant shall last… If his sons forsake my law and refuse to walk as I decree… I will punish their offenses with the rod, I will scourge them on account of their guilt.  But I will never take back my love… I will never violate my covenant or go back on the word I have spoken” (vv. 25-35).

In the midst of the comforting assurance of the Father’s love for me—not conditioned by my good or bad actions, but based solely on the fact of my sonship—I found myself rather unexpectedly thanking Him for my baptism.  It didn’t take much reflection for me to realize that this was because baptism is the source of my sonship.  Immersion in the grace of baptism made me a “son in the Son”; it was pure gift, given before I could even think to have merited it, before even being able to choose one way or another.  It was a loving act of the Father’s initiative that forever constituted me as his son.  Nothing and no one can ever take this away from me.  I have a Father and a heavenly home to which I belong.  Perhaps many people do not realize what a tremendous gift baptism really is.

(Additionally, because I am a son in the Son, not only is his Father my Father, but his Mother is my Mother too.  Her maternal task is to pray for us and protect us and to lead us along the path to our true home, to know who our Father is, and who our Lord and Savior is, so that we can live as sons and daughters of God.)

All this got me to reflect on the (often) tragic foolishness of delaying the baptism of children.  The tired old argument goes that when they are old enough to make their own decisions about their lives, they can choose whether or not they want to be baptized, and so baptism shouldn’t be imposed on them before they can make an act of faith—as if it were a mere rite of passage or some optional ceremony.  A theological misunderstanding held by many is that baptism is merely an external rite of ratification of one’s faith.  Some Christian denominations don’t even require it, but only recommend it, more or less like icing on the cake.  In the case of infant or child baptism the opposite is true.  It is a conscious decision of faith that ratifies what has already happened in baptism.

This is because it is precisely the Trinitarian grace active in the sacrament of baptism that constitutes one as a child of God—it effects a profound change in the very being of the one baptized, creating an identity and a relationship to God that the person did not have before.  Contrary to popular sentiment, we are not children of God merely because we happen to exist.  Scripture tells us that we must become children of God.  Jesus Himself made it clear that we are not all automatically children of God.  “If God were your Father, you would love me… You are of your father the devil…” (Jn. 8:42-44).  In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus speaks of “the sons of the evil one” (Mt. 13:38), so there are those who are children of God and those who are not.

This means if you deny your babies baptism, you are depriving them of a Father and hence of a homeland.  We are born into a foreign land, the progeny of those who were cast out of Paradise.  We enter this world in desperate need of being claimed by Someone who can give us an imperishable name and inheritance.  Do parents wait until their children decide whether or not they want them to be their parents, and then withhold food, clothing, and shelter from them until they can make that informed decision?  Of course not; they give their children whatever is good for them before they can provide for themselves.  If they do so with material things, why not all the more with spiritual? Should parents wait until their children are sufficiently exposed to the poison and corruption of the world so as to preclude any decision for baptism—withholding divine grace from them, which could have enabled them to choose the Lord?  This is the worst form of child abuse there is!  Should not children be granted the free gift of God’s grace and divine adoption from the earliest moments of their lives?  A parent can to nothing more eternally beneficial for a child than to immerse it in the saving waters of baptism (“baptism saves you”—1Peter 3:21) and make it a son or daughter of God.

As I said above, the bond between God and his son or daughter (adopted through baptism) cannot be broken.  God makes a covenant with the child from the moment of baptism, and He will always honor his commitment.  God is henceforth that child’s Father and will always recognize the child as his son or daughter, and therefore there will always be a place for them in the Father’s house, and He will welcome them home even if they stray far from Him.

Jesus said that when they finally enter Heaven, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father” (Mt. 13:43).  Their Father, not just “the” Father.  He is their Father because of the specific and personal relationship He established with them from the moment of their baptism, and which they then lived out in the course of their lives.  He is not some generic universal spirit of paternity.  He is the Father of those who have become his children.

I hope I haven’t belabored the point, but having discovered in a deeper way the liberating and consoling truth that God loves me precisely because I am his son and therefore has a special commitment to me (and I to Him), it behooves us to make as many sons and daughters of God as we can.  Parents, baptize those babies!  Don’t leave them spiritual orphans.  Despite your best efforts, you cannot wholly protect them from the world, the flesh, and the devil until they are “old enough” to seek baptism, and you are exposing them to spiritual dangers you can’t even see when you refuse to make them members of God’s household.  Hand them over to the Father now, and He will make them his own.  Even if later in life they would repudiate their faith or baptism, they cannot sever the filial bond, and it is precisely that unbreakable bond which provides the best possibility for their eventual return.

I’m setting aside the theological casuistry that inevitably arises from such a topic, concerning the fate of the unbaptized and all that.  What we know for sure is that God wants all of us to be saved; He wants his house filled with his adopted sons and daughters.  Jesus commanded that all nations be “baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).  “Now they were bringing even infants to Him… and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called to them saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them…’” (Lk. 18:15-16).  Yes, do bring the infants to Him and do not hinder them, for they were created to be children of God.

Let us settle for nothing less than full divine sonship, and let us deprive no one of this indispensable baptismal grace.  The Father will always be waiting with open arms for the souls that are thus indelibly marked with that which makes them heirs of the Kingdom.  He will never withhold his love and mercy from his own sons and daughters.

Gentle and Humble

The following is one of the most consoling passages in the Gospels, even though the last verse may leave some souls perplexed: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and Jesuslearn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt: 11:28-30).

The first thing we find is an invitation that almost makes it unnecessary to say anything else: “Come to Me.”  Our whole life can be hidden and secured in those three words.  It speaks volumes about who Jesus is and what we mean to Him.  It should also tell us something about ourselves, not only of our intrinsic value in his eyes but also the fact that there should be nothing—nothing—that should hinder us from responding wholeheartedly (though it be contrite-heartedly) to this gentle invitation.

He almost didn’t need to specify which group of persons He is addressing his invitation to (“all who labor and are heavy laden”).  Are there any among us who are trying to live at least a decent life in our stress-inducing and even corrupt world, who are not laboring and laden with heavy burdens (or at least feel like we are)?  I’ve noticed that other bloggers (and I’m no exception) sometimes make little jokes about our stress levels and all that, but this is just a little steam vent for the very real pressures that build up daily.  I for one am very glad to hear that the Lord invites the heavy laden to come to Him.

Once we come (the common biblical expression is: “Here I am, Lord!”), what can we expect?  He says to us: “I will give you rest.”  This is most welcome to me, since I often think that for the first hundred years or so that I’m in Heaven (God willing), I’m just going to have to sleep in order to recover from this life.  Once someone asked me what I thought Heaven would be like, and I immediately answered: “Rest, eternal rest!”  But I digress.  Let us see just what Jesus is talking about, for it isn’t sleep.

The word in the Greek text for “rest” is anapauo.  There, it’s all clear now, right?  Don’t feel bad, I had to look it up, too.  Anyway, this does mean to give rest, to soothe, to refresh.  Literally, it means to cause to rest.  So the Lord isn’t just giving us permission to rest, He wants to cause us to rest, to give us rest, to make restfulness and refreshment happen within us.  Rather than give us a day off, as it were, to do whatever we feel like, He wants to be a part of our rest, the source of it, personally engaged in it.

But there is more.  The root of the word, without the prefix, is pauo.  This does not mean quite the same thing.  It’s a little more forceful.  It means to cause to pause or cease, even to restrain. (For all you philologists: pauo, future pauso, whence the English “pause”.)  So by giving us rest, Jesus is causing us to cease and desist from unrestful things, things that have nothing to do with the spiritual refreshment to which He invites us, things that would cause spiritual agitation or inner dis-ease.  The Lord is inviting us to pause, to be still and know that He is God.

The next thing He invites us to do may not seem all that restful and refreshing: “Take my yoke upon you.”  This sounds like he is calling the heavy-laden to assume yet another burden, yet in fact it is, paradoxically, the means to true spiritual rest and refreshment.  How shall we know that?  “Learn from Me” is his next counsel, and this is followed by an extraordinary revelation.  Often Jesus reveals who He is (the Way, Truth, and Life, the Resurrection, the Good Shepherd, etc), but He rarely reveals how He is.  We learn in this passage the precious truth that the eternal Son of the Living God, through whom the universe was made and is held in existence, is “gentle and humble of heart.”

Really, this revelation all by itself should remove huge burdens from the heavy-laden.  For there are many threats in the Scriptures concerning the terrifying consequences of sin and the stubborn refusal to repent.  But if we truly come to Jesus as He invites us to, our hearts will hear Him say: “I am gentle.”  To me, this gentle revelation is like a ray of pure light from Heaven; it removes the angry (or at least disappointed) mask we may have placed upon the face of God. “I am gentle.” We have to know this if we are going to come to Him and lay the secrets of our hearts before Him, both the good and the bad.  We have to know that He loves us and will treat us gently (even if firmly and without compromise whenever necessary).

Most icons of Jesus are rather stern of visage and hence somewhat difficult to pray before, especially if one happens to be particularly conscious of one’s sins.  But the one pictured here is the one I pray before the most, for in that Bridegroom detail resizeholy face I see One who is gentle and humble of heart.  He is pictured in the midst of his passion, wearing the crown of thorns, bound and holding the reed, wearing the scarlet cloak of mockery.  This icon is entitled “The Bridegroom,” for the altar of his nuptial covenant with mankind is the Cross, and this blood-red robe is his wedding garment.  In the Byzantine tradition the bride and groom are crowned in the wedding rite with crowns of gold or of flowers, crowned “for” each other as a seal of their love and a foreshadowing of their heavenly coronations.  But He who is gentle and humble of heart wears a crown of thorns, for his bride is a harlot and He must expiate her sins before she can enter into his joy.

So He says “learn from Me” precisely insofar as He is gentle and humble.  The Lord is many things: almighty, all-knowing, omnipresent, eternal, etc.  But He never said, “Learn from Me, for I am almighty.”  What He wants us to learn is gentleness and humility.  For those of us without a naturally gentle disposition (and we are legion), this is a hard lesson to learn.  But it must be a very important one, for He has asked us little else in the way of imitating Him.  While He does give general counsels about following Him, and certain prophecies about our being like Him (“if they persecuted Me, they will persecute you,” etc), if I’m not mistaken there is only one other place in the Gospels where Jesus explicitly asks us to be like Him.  And it is the same message of humility, for He tells us to follow his example right after He washed the feet of his disciples (Jn. 13:14-15).  St Peter also tells us that Jesus gave us an example to follow, and this takes us back to the Bridegroom icon: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1Peter 2:21).

Again, once we learn from Him who is gentle and humble, He says that in this we will find rest for our souls.  And so we come to the last line, which many find hard to believe: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”  One might be tempted to question whether anything in the Christian life is easy and light.  Isn’t the Cross really what is meant by his yoke that we have to shoulder?  And isn’t the Cross all about self-denial and suffering?

There are a couple things I can say about this.  First of all, let’s just get it out of the way and accept that life, any life, Christian or not, is going to meet with suffering and trouble and burdens and sorrows.  So accepting the yoke of Christ is not going to give anyone a pain-free or trouble-free life.  That much should be common sense.  But if we learn from Him gentleness and humility, we’re already well on the way to finding that soul-rest, which is inner peace that springs from hope, and which is secure in the gentleness of Him who loved us unto death.  Our putting on the yoke of Christ is the way Jesus makes us pause, makes us cease our ceaseless pursuit of pleasure or possessions, and restrains us from accepting yokes that are truly heavy and burdensome.  In one of our long Lenten Offices, we say that we have pursued material things and pleasures, and now we wear a heavy yoke, and so we cry out, “Take from me the heavy yoke of sin!”

Finally, I wonder if it is not the yoke of Christ itself that is the heavy thing, but rather the fear of the yoke of Christ that is our burden.  We think it will involve all sorts of deprivations and disagreeable things, so we never get around to humbly accepting it, or we positively flee from it.  I’m still too chicken-hearted to ask for sufferings as some of the saints did, but Jesus doesn’t ask us to ask for sufferings, only to accept and do the Father’s will.  In the final analysis, to learn from Jesus by accepting his “easy” yoke and “light” burden is simply to say yes to the Father’s will.  The verse before this passage gives us an insight into the intimacy of Father and Son: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  We can infer from this that Jesus is just like his Father, that is, the Father is gentle, too, and not the distant, fire-breathing Avenger of transgressions that much art and literature has made Him out to be.  He is just, to be sure, but his justice does not diminish his gentleness.  Much has to do with us.  If we learn gentleness and humility from Jesus, we will discover that the Father is gentle.  If we reject Jesus and choose malice, violence, and a life of sin, we will meet Father’s justice, and it will be none too gentle.  But even the most hardened sinner will still meet with gentleness if he repents, for God is the Father of prodigal sons and daughters, and his heart is rent as He anxiously waits for all to return.

Come to Jesus, then.  Don’t fear his yoke, but willingly accept it.  Learn gentleness and humility from Him.  He will give rest—both now and forever—to your soul.

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