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

Archive for May, 2005

Redemptive Suffering

That’s a rather misunderstood and even intimidating term, and perhaps could be more clearly expressed some other way, but certainly not as concisely. Of course, Jesus Christ is the only Redeemer, and only his sufferings can take away the sin of the world. But there is still some “redeeming value” (if you will, in a less strictly theological sense) to offering our own sufferings in union with the Lord’s.

Many souls cannot be moved or converted by word or example, usually because they have chosen a path contrary to the Gospel, or because there is some other impediment not of their own making. The Lord wishes to save them too. But they can only be touched from within by the hidden dynamism of grace working through the spiritual connections within the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus one soul can influence and positively affect another, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It seems that God expects us to pray and offer sacrifices for the salvation of our brothers and sisters, and that He even waits for this before intervening in another’s life. This is because God is love and wants to teach us to love as He does, that is, sacrificially. “Offer spiritual sacrifices…” (1Peter 2:5). “Such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). Loving is giving, offering oneself for the sake of another. Pope John Paul II said that it is only in the gift of ourselves that we discover ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Intercession, therefore, is a commitment of love, an offering of oneself for the good of others, especially for their eternal salvation.

The mystery of offering pain as loving intercession is expressed simply but powerfully by Michael O’Brien in A Cry of Stone: “She had loved him well, offering the hurting to Jesus who joined it to his own hurting and poured it like a cascade into Tchibi’s hurting so that he no longer hurt so much… Soon he would hurt only a little, and in time there would be no more hurt. Then he too would love, and the rivulets would spill into creeks, and creeks into rivers, and rivers into lakes that spilled into great rivers, and across the wide world all moving waters, all pure water, would pour into the sea which was Love. Yes.”

Another author said that Christ did not only offer Himself to the Father on behalf of mankind, but in union with mankind. The Lord does not save us without our co-operation. We make a difference. That is why St Paul could say: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and I fulfill in my own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24). How could something be lacking in Jesus’ sufferings? Christ is the Head, but the Church is his body. We are members of Christ. If we do not offer ourselves to God in union with Him, bear our cross with Him, then something is lacking, for then there is a withered branch on the Vine. Nothing can diminish the efficacy or perfection of Christ’s sacrifice, but what is lacking is the full number of the saved, or the personal application of the fruits of redemption. The more members of Christ who join themselves to Him in self-offering to the Father, the more the Church is healed, purified, sanctified, and its members saved. St Paul said his sufferings were for the sake of the Church, so obviously he believed there was some benefit to be gained by the members of the Church through the offering of his own sufferings in union with Jesus. The power of love connects us in ways that we can scarcely imagine.

Dostoyevsky wrote the following: “Every day and whenever you can, repeat within yourself: ‘Lord, have mercy upon all who come before you today.’ For every hour and every moment thousands of people leave their life on this earth, and their souls come before the Lord—and so many of them part with the earth in isolation, unknown to anyone, in sadness and sorrow that no one will mourn for them, or even know whether they had lived or not. And so, perhaps from the other end of the earth, your prayer for his repose will rise up to the Lord, though you did not know him at all, nor he you. How moving it is for his soul, coming in fear before the Lord, to feel at that moment that someone is praying for him, too, that there is still a human being on earth who loves him. And God, too, will look upon you both with more mercy, for if even you so pitied him, how much more will he, who is infinitely more merciful and loving than you are. And God will forgive him for your sake.”

Suffering in this life is inevitable. Wherever love is required, sacrifices are required. We can help others open to the grace of God and find salvation if we join our prayers, labors, and sufferings to the Lord’s, by the hidden means of love in the Spirit. If even one soul finds its way to God through your offering, it is more than worth it.

Glory Be!

Those who believe in God tend to worship Him. To know Him is to adore Him. Indeed, the word of the Lord commands it. I usually like to know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, so the other day I asked myself just what it is I’m doing when I worship God.

First of all, we should look at the terms. I was always taught by the good nuns at school that God alone is to be adored. But how times have changed our usage! Nowadays, not only is God adorable, but so are babies and puppies and anything that is really, really cute. So I don’t use that word much any more. “Worship” is better, but many people use even that term for praise of (or lust for) things that are not God. We need to recover our sacred terms and keep them in the realm of the sacred. “Awesome” used to be a magnificent word, too, but now it’s as cheap as “cool.”

Anyway, it seems to me that what we do when we worship God is, fundamentally, to acknowledge that God is the Creator and we the created, He the Infinite and we the finite, etc. We do this in many ways, with words and rituals and obedience to the divine will. To bow down, kneel, or prostrate before God expresses our acceptance of the truth of this essential relationship. This acknowledgement of who God is and who we are ought to be made (or rather, celebrated) in awe and gratitude, in faith, hope, and love.

To worship God is to glorify Him. Not that we can add anything to his eternal, uncreated, all-holy, magnificent splendor. But when we use, for example, our liturgical doxologies (like “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit…”) we are situating ourselves in the divine milieu of truth and love and goodness, we are preparing for our ultimate fulfillment in his heavenly kingdom. We connect with the Source of eternal life and joy as we make our way toward Him, day by day.

Job understood, after a dramatic encounter with God, what it means to worship. Oh, before that he did perform the prescribed sacrifices, but it wasn’t until a severe crisis brought him to ask the hardest questions of his life that he became truly aware of God the Creator and Job the creature–and he worshiped Him.

After Job shook his little fist at God in his frustration and pain and confusion, God gave an answer that put things in perspective (He often gives me this kind of answer when I question his ways, too): “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…Who determined its measurements–surely you know!… Have you commanded the morning and caused the dawn to know its place?” God goes on for a long time with similar answers (Job 38-41). Finally Job gets it, realizes who God is and who he is, realizes the foolishness of his small-minded complaints, repents and worships the Lord–who then rewarded him beyond his wildest dreams.

There’s much that can be said about worship, but it starts here: God is God and we are not. Accepting that and living accordingly is the beginning of all wisdom. We ought to be grateful that this mighty Creator God loves us so much that He invites us into his presence, and wants to share with us all his infinite goodness.

Well, let the language change as it will. Come, let us worship Him. Glory be to You, our God, glory be to You!

Temples of Presence

Not long ago I was driving through a small coastal town, and as I passed the tiny Catholic mission church there, I received an instantaneous flash. I will try to unpack and briefly express here what I realized in those few seconds.

It is something that probably we all know already, but it hit me with a force that made it seem quite new. It has to do with Presence. The Lord Jesus is bodily, sacramentally present in the Holy Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle. This extraordinary Presence is unique to Catholic (and Orthodox) churches. People were milling about the streets, shopping, talking, eating, totally oblivious to the astounding truth that God was dwelling right in their midst.

Of course, we rightly say in our prayer that the Spirit of God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” But this does not diminish or take away from the truth that God has chosen certain places to be temples of his Presence in a unique and extraordinary way. In the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem was the Lord’s dwelling place, a place where people could enter his presence with their worship and supplications. This was a foreshadowing of Christian temples in which God would dwell, not only through and among the media of artifacts of his mighty works in the history of his people (the ark of the covenant, the tablets of the law, etc), but in the very person of his only-begotten Son, the incarnate Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, wholly present in the Blessed Sacrament.

No one seemed aware of it in that little town, but the Lord was there, silently blessing his people, hearing the unspoken cries of their hearts, absorbing their pain into his own pierced heart–as well as patiently enduring their heedlessness, unbelief, and sinful words and behavior.

How oblivious and insensitive we are to the presence of God, who silently and lovingly reigns over the world through the temples of his Presence that He has distributed all over the face of the earth. Walk down the street and what do you see? A gift store, a coffee shop, a gallery, the dwelling place of God, a little inn, a gas station. It’s incredible when you think about it! So think about it. God has come to earth to be with us, to bless and save us, and we just walk by.

There is more. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). The Presence of God who dwells in the tabernacle, whom we worship at the Divine Liturgy or Mass, enters our souls and bodies through Holy Communion. Then what happens? We ourselves become temples of Presence! If people aren’t going to acknowledge God’s presence in the churches in their midst, then we have to personally bring his presence to others through the manifestation of our faith and love for God.

Christ is in our midst. Worship Him in his holy temple, with love and gratitude that He has chosen to sanctify the earth (and perhaps even your own neighborhood) with his Divine Presence in the tabernacle. Visit the Presence in his temple, then go and be his Presence for others, for He dwells in you too. “The temple of God is holy, and you are that temple” (1Corinthians 3:17).

Who is Truth?

Nearly 2000 years ago, Pontius Pilate immortalized himself as the Patron Sinner of all relativists. He acquired this dubious distinction by uttering his infamous question: “What is truth?” The problem was, he asked the wrong question. He should have asked instead, “Who is truth?” for the Answer was standing right before him.

Pope Benedict XVI has recently lamented the “dictatorship of relativism” in modern society. The very existence of objective truth is dismissed in many intellectual circles, and this attitude trickles down to the average person, who thus confuses truth with subjective preference or feeling. It is rather arrogant (to say the least) for people today, who are the latest of the latecomers in the history of the universe, to think they can decide for themselves what is true. “True,” in most cases, usually means what suits them at the time, or perhaps it is identified with the majority decisions of fellow relativists.

But God has spoken, and when God speaks the universe must listen. It can try to turn a deaf ear, but it will not succeed forever. The Word that God spoke was incarnate in our Lord Jesus Christ, who said: “I am the Truth” (John 14:6). Truth is ultimately a Person, not a formula or an abstraction, still less an opinion or a collection of data or ideas subject to human manipulation. If a word, an idea, a teaching, can be rightly considered true, it is because it corresponds to the One who is the Truth. That is why we have to pay very close attention to the words of Christ. These are the words of God, for He is the Word of God. Here is where we find the truth. Christ is foreign to nothing that is true, and nothing that is true is foreign to Christ. But to be known as truth, everything must find its source, its resonance, its fulfillment, in the Incarnate Word of God.

Admittedly, in the words available to us in the Gospels, we do not find direct answers to all of our pressing 21st-century issues. That is why Jesus, having ascended to his Father, sent us the Spirit of Truth, “who will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit guides the Pope, and all the leaders of the Church who are in union with him, to proclaim the truth to the world. The truth that is proclaimed is not “the Pope’s truth,” as opposed to “your truth” or “my truth.” Those are the categories of today’s deceptive relativism. The truth is one, for God is one, and what the Church proclaims is what God has revealed. The Spirit of Truth guides our hearts and consciences as well, and we will know for sure that we have the Spirit if our conscience does not reject or refute divine revelation.

We ought to be grateful that we don’t have to grope in the darkness in the search for truth. Even though truth is, in a certain sense, limiting, for it draws the line beyond which is falsehood, it is at the same time liberating, because Jesus, who is the Truth, sets us free. We become free from the darkness of ignorance and of evil, and free for the abundant life of joy and blessedness that Christ came to give–here, and especially hereafter. He makes us secure in the truth of his words, the truth of his very being as the eternal Word of God.

The issue of truth is essential to our salvation. Among those who are denied entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven are “all those who love and practice falsehood” (Revelation 22:15). The words of Christ are valid forever. He does not swing with the times; He does not follow the latest trends, nor is He evolving into a more enlightened consciousness. He doesn’t have to, for “His wisdom made the heavens” (Psalm 135/136:5). Christ speaks and angels fall prostrate. It is only his stiff-necked people who refuse to hear and believe. “Lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; what wisdom can be in them?” (Jeremiah 8:9).

God’s word is all-powerful, yet He does not condescend to compete with the shrill noises of this world; He doesn’t attempt to shout down the garrulous deceivers. But listen carefully, and you will hear. The Truth will reach open hearts, those who have ears to hear. Be willing to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, continue in his word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).

Walls of Bronze

We may feel at times that we are at the mercy of the forces of falsehood and evil in the world, and even of our own stresses and fluctuating emotions. It is true that there are certain things that are beyond our control (and it’s actually healthy to recognize that), but there’s something more we should know before being carried away by the tides of the present times.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…” (Jeremiah 1:5). God knows you, He has always known you, He has always had a plan for your life: “I consecrated you, I appointed you…” (ibid.) This in itself should be enough to convince us that we are not cut adrift, not helpless to fight “the beast,” the evils that come from the demons or simply from the malice or ignorance of other people.

But there is more. God not only knows, chooses, and appoints a personal task for us, He gives us strength and protection against all that would hinder or prevent us from carrying out his will. “Do not be dismayed… Behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and walls of bronze… They will fight against you, but they will not prevail, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (Jer. 1:17-19).

Our failures often are the result of our ignorance of what God has called and equipped us to do. We look only at our limitations, and not at God’s omnipotence. Jeremiah, when he received his mission, complained that he was but a youth and thus incapable of fulfilling it. But God said, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you…” (Jer. 1:7-8).

God is with you. What is it that you fear–other people, temptations, sufferings, spiritual warfare, the vicissitudes of life? Remember, the Lord has made you a fortified city with walls of bronze. He doesn’t promise that enemies won’t fight you, only that they will not prevail (if you are faithful to Him). Your walls are strong, for they are the work of the Lord. “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord… The Lord will fight for you” (Exodus 14:13-14).

The End

“One of the seven angels…showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God” (Revelation 21:9-11). The present life, with all its pain and limitations, will not last forever. If you get discouraged or weighed down under the burdens of life, go to the last two chapters of the Bible (Revelation 21-22) and see how it all turns out in the end. There is beauty, glory, joy, peace, the face-to-face experience of the living God, “and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying or pain, for the former things have passed away” (21:4).

Despite all its fearful beasts and obscure symbolism, the Book of Revelation is meant to be a powerful encouragement for those who “keep the faith.” The world of that time was corrupt, as is ours, though back then evil was not publicly and consistently called good in the slippery ways that it is today. The idolaters and fornicators knew they were precisely that, and they publicly “cursed the God of heaven” (16:11). Today’s idolaters and fornicators are “redefining the divine and bringing spirituality into daily life, even if daily life includes sex and bar-hopping” (from a review of Donna Freitas’ Becoming the Goddess of Inner Poise).

But maintain good courage and hope, cries the final book of the Bible! All smokescreens will one day vanish, all veils will be lifted, all deceptions unmasked, all evil and all good clearly seen for what they really are. This was also prophesied by Malachi: “Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him” (Malachi 3:18). It is more detailed in Revelation. Inside the radiant and pure dwelling place of God are those who persevered in time of trial, who kept the faith, who held fast to the truth and “washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb.” Outside are the apostates and evildoers: “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (21:8).

So where do you want to be, in or out? Bear patiently the trials of life, persevere in the truth of Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, and “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…” (Philippians 2:15-16). One day—make no mistake, the day will come—the heavenly Jerusalem will be manifested in all its irresistible divine beauty and splendor. Then the gates will open to those who were faithful in good times and bad. Hold fast till the end. You’ll be forever glad you did.

Grace: a Two-way Street

Ever wonder why you sometimes seem to get no response from God in time of temptation or trial? Ever call on the name of the Lord without results? Before you conclude that God is hard of hearing or unconcerned with your needs, reflect a little on the meaning of divine grace.

Grace, as you know, is God’s life, God’s love flowing into us. It is the divine gift of his own indwelling presence. So if God’s love (and hence his power) is flowing into us, why doesn’t much happen? Maybe it’s because nothing is flowing back.

Grace isn’t a drug, a magic potion, or an automatic solution to our problems. Our relationship with God has to be just that: a relationship. This means that Love requires a response of love from us. If God’s grace is to bear fruit in our lives, we have to love Him back. What is it that we love? In times of temptation, it may be that we secretly love whatever the temptation promises, though we half-heartedly turn to God because we know that sin is wrong. In times of trial or suffering, perhaps what we really desire is simply deliverance from the affliction and not a richer encounter with God.

What if we were to send back love to the Lord in times of trial or temptation? What if we decided that we were going to love Him in the midst of our afflictions, and trust his love to be the strength and comfort we need? Grace bears fruit when we respond to God’s love with ours. We may just discover that there’s more strength in our love than we thought, because it has given us access to the inexhaustible grace of God. It has created a place for Him to work within us.

Sure, call on the name of the Lord–but not as you would call a plumber or a mechanic, for his job is not merely to fix things. Rather, He makes all things new. Open your heart to Jesus’ love, and know that his heart is open to yours. Then you shall know the Lord. Then ask and you shall receive.

To Be in that Number

All Saints Day is a movable feast on the Byzantine liturgical calendar. In fact, this year it is celebrated today. This feast always falls on the Sunday after Pentecost. Why is that? I think it is because the desired fruit of Pentecost is: saints! The Holy Spirit was sent to sanctify those for whom Christ died, to enlighten and strengthen them and to lead them on the path of holiness. The work of the Holy Spirit is saint-making, and we are called to co-operate in the process.

I think it was Leon Bloy who said that the only real tragedy for a Christian is not to become a saint. But striving for sanctity seems not to be fashionable these days, even among Christians. People seem almost to take pride in saying, “I’m no saint!” as they justify their favorite bad habit.

Perhaps, though, we should not speak of striving for sanctity so much as simply seeking God and the knowledge of his will. Trying to be holy has pitfalls of its own, and sometimes what people really are striving for is the appearance of holiness, or the reputation of holiness, or the satisfaction of performing acts that they believe make them holy. But to become saints we have to forget ourselves altogether and simply turn to God. If God is everything to us, then self-satisfaction or affirmation from others will not be of interest to us. Holiness “happens” all by itself as we give of ourselves without counting the cost (or the “merits”). Perhaps we should rather say that God Himself sanctifies us, unbeknown to us, as we surrender ourselves consistently to his will.

On the Byzantine calendar, the Gospel reading is a selection of passages from St Matthew. They indicate that the path to holiness is that of the Cross, of loving Christ above all others, and of sacrificing everything in order to recover it a hundredfold, radiantly transformed, in the Kingdom of Heaven. What is the meaning of your life? What do you want to see when you look back on your life? What do you hope for as you cross the threshold of eternity? Now is the time to think about sanctity, to make choices that correspond to the will of God, to ensure that nothing is more important to you than to love and serve your Lord.

If you’re no saint, then it’s high time to do something about it! Why be content with mediocrity? Let grace be grace, and decide to let it change you, to lift you to a higher level of thought, action, and prayer. You may at length discover that you are marching in with the saints.

Strength in Weakness

I’ve always found it somewhat difficult to understand the concept of strength in weakness. This was Jesus’ answer to St Paul’s pleadings for deliverance from his thorn in the flesh: “My power is perfected in weakness”—so the conclusion was, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2Cor. 12:9).

It is a paradox, a mystery, as we often find in divine revelation. I think that if we’re even going to begin to understand it, we have to know what weakness is not. It is not moral weakness, as if God’s power could be perfected in, say, a man’s weakness for frequenting prostitutes. (Though God’s power can certainly be manifest in one’s valiant struggle against the moral weakness.)

It seems to me that the human weakness that divine power works through is simply our physical, psychological, and emotional inadequacies, afflictions, and limitations. Our weakness makes us unable to rise to the occasions for which greatness is required, unable to bear the burden and heat of the day, unable to be what we think we ought to be if we wish to live as faithful servants of God.

Our weakness, though real, is not absolute. What, then, is the strength God requires of us in our weakness? One author puts it this way: “The strength [God] asks of us is the decision to trust him in all things, especially in the moments of greatest abandonment…knowing our weakness and trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness” (Michael O’Brien, A Cry of Stone).

That’s it, I believe: the decision to trust Him. It doesn’t take a lot of strength, but it does take a significant measure of faith. God can exercise his strength in our weakness only and insofar as we trust Him to do so. We don’t know the particular form his power will take when it is manifest through our weakness. But we trust that his grace is sufficient, and so we live another day. St Paul didn’t say precisely how he experienced God’s power in his weakness, but look at the result: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2Cor. 12:10).

It is a sublime power indeed that can make one “content” with weakness, hardship, and calamity. Decide to trust, then. There’s nothing to lose, and sufficient grace to gain.

Tongues of Fire

The post-feast or octave of Pentecost is almost over. (I think they don’t celebrate this any more in the Roman Rite, but we do in the Byzantine. The last day of the post-feast is the “leave-taking,” on which we celebrate a kind of reprise of the feast.) So I’d like to say something about the Holy Spirit.

The visible form that the Spirit took on Pentecost was that of fire. I’d like to share a few texts from the Byzantine Office for the feast. Fire and light (which is a property of fire) along with the gifts of tongues for preaching to the nations are the major themes.

“The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Unbegotten Light: the imperishable Resplendence who shines as a thousand lights, whose flaming word revealed…the consubstantial splendor inherited from the Father through the Son.” Here we have all three images: the light, the fire, and the word that goes out to all the world. The manifestations of God are not for mere display or to prove that He is almighty. They are always “for our salvation,” as we often pray in our Offices. They are for bringing people to the knowledge of the truth and to the way of life that leads to eternal blessedness in heaven. “The Lord has made eloquent the unlearned men of the sea, who by their words confounded the wise ones in their errors; and they brought countless people out of the deepest night, by the illumination of the Spirit.”

The light and the fire of the Spirit are for us as well. We don’t merely admire or celebrate something that happened 2000 years ago. The Fire of the Spirit is sent to purify us of sin and to ignite our cold hearts with the love of God: “the burning fire of the Spirit purifies our hearts and spirits from defilement.” The Spirit will then give us “tongues of fire” to speak the truth with love to all those who need to hear the word of the Lord: “the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles this day, and shining with the brightness of this fire, they make the Trinity known to all.”

The Holy Spirit is not just brought out and dusted off for the feast of Pentecost once a year, and then returned to some dark closet of our consciousness till the feast rolls around again. The Spirit of God is our life. The Holy Spirit is intimately connected with the Holy Eucharist, so the “communion in the Holy Spirit”–listed by our Liturgy as one of the chief fruits of the Eucharist–is also our daily bread. After the consecration (during which we entreat the Father over the gifts of bread and wine: “change them by your Holy Spirit”) we pray “that our loving God, who has received [the consecrated Gifts] as a spiritual fragrance upon his holy, heavenly, and mystical altar, may send down on us in return his divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Finally, after Communion we sing: “We have seen the true light and received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshiping the Undivided Trinity for having saved us.”

Every day can be a little Pentecost. We ought to accept the Fire of purification, open our hearts to the Fire of divine love, and welcome the enlightenment so generously offered to all denizens of the darkness of the present age. Then go forth with tongues of fire and, like the heavens, speak of the glory of God (see Psalm 18/19).

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