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

Archive for October, 2005

Abandonment Issues

Some people have what are commonly called today “abandonment issues,” meaning some psychological or emotional affliction or impediment stemming from the childhood experience of a parent’s death or departure, or practically any sort of rejection by a “significant other” at any stage of life. It’s not my intention here to discuss legitimate claims vs. spurious ones, but rather to look at quite a different type of abandonment issue, one we are actually called to embrace for our spiritual well-being and salvation.

This issue is called “abandonment to divine providence,” and J.P. de Caussade, SJ, has written a classic book with that very title. In this case “abandonment” is practically equivalent with “surrender,” that is, a letting go into the merciful and loving hands of God, trusting Him absolutely with everything that makes up your life, external circumstances as well as interior movements of the soul. What we abandon is our pride and deceptive sense of self-sufficiency, our fears, anxieties and doubts, and entrust the direction of our life to the Lord who never abandons us, contrary subjective impressions notwithstanding.

I’ll let Fr de Caussade speak for himself: “In reality, holiness consists in one thing alone, namely, fidelity to God’s plan… The active practice of fidelity consists in accomplishing the duties imposed upon us by the general laws of God and the Church, and by the particular state of life which we have embraced. Passive fidelity consists in the loving acceptance of all that God sends us at every moment…” Those who would abandon themselves to divine providence “have only to fulfill the simple duties of the Catholic faith and of their state of life, to accept with submission the crosses that go with those duties, and to submit with faith and love to the designs of Providence in everything that is constantly being presented to them to do and to endure, without searching for anything themselves… The whole essence of the spiritual life consists in recognizing the designs of God for us at the present moment.”

One must certainly have faith (the size of a mustard seed, anyway) to live the life of abandonment to God’s providence and will. But faith is sufficient to carry us through. “There is nothing that faith does not penetrate and surmount. It passes beyond all darkness, and no matter how deep the shadows, it passes through them to the truth which it always firmly embraces and from which it is never separated… We should abandon ourselves purely and entirely to God’s design, and thus, with a complete self-forgetfulness, be eternally busied with loving and obeying Him, without all these fears, reflections, twistings and turnings and disquietudes which sometimes result from the care of our own salvation and perfection. Since God offers to manage our affairs for us, let us once for all hand them over to his infinite wisdom… let us pass the labyrinth of our own self-love by vaulting over it and not by following it out in all its interminable details…”

For him the will of God is everything, and our abandonment to it the chief work of our lives. “Of what use are the sublimest lights or divine revelations when one does not love the will of God? That way Lucifer was lost… I thank [God] for everything in advance, desiring only and in everything his holy will, because I am convinced by faith and by many personal experiences that everything comes from God, and that He is powerful enough and a good enough Father to bring all issues to the best advantage of his dear children… Nothing happens in this world but by the order of God or at least by his divine permission, and all that He wills or permits turns infallibly to the advantage of submissive souls. Even that which most upsets our spiritual plans turns into something which is better for us… the most efficacious method of interior advance is a simple acquiescence in all that God wills… So remain in great peace and tranquility in the presence of Him who sees the depths of the heart… He needs none of the gifts you can offer Him, but He loves the heart which is prepared for all sacrifices.”

If we can hold on to this vision of life in God, we will discover its truth in practice and will be able to live in peace and trust. If a Christian cannot live with confidence in the goodness, providence, and all-wise will of God, he cannot live as a Christian. Abandonment issues? You bet!

Altars to an Unknown God

“I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” remarked St Paul to the Athenians. “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23). Paul was pleased to find people who were seekers of God, but he wasn’t content to allow them to remain in the darkness of their ignorance of the true God revealed in and by Jesus Christ. For he had personally experienced Him who is the Light of the world, and he was commissioned by Him to “be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15).

St Paul
continued his discourse to the Athenians. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth…gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (17:23-28). Paul was masterfully opening up the Mystery to them, beginning with creation and providence, and speaking of God’s transcendence and immanence. Yet he had not quite gotten to the “punch line,” for he was still speaking in more or less general terms.

He went on. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (17:30-31). Now he has made his point. The God whom the Athenians sought but did not know was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! They were not exactly overjoyed to hear this, being loath to accept the teaching on the resurrection of the dead (far too coarse a notion for their Platonic idealism!). But some did believe and began to follow the path to salvation that Paul preached.

It is easy to perceive today that many people are indeed very religious (though the preferred term is “spiritual,” which lacks the unwanted dogmatic or institutional connotations). It is also not difficult to find altars to an unknown god in the souls of many who may be sincerely seeking God but have not accepted the revelation of which St Paul speaks.

In a rather popular spiritual book I came to the following passage: “I still find something mysterious in such occasions, as if something unknown, finding us worthy, has used us just as we are to be an instrument of healing.” Such passages are not rare. Must it be “something unknown” that finds us worthy to be instruments of healing? Why not the God who has publicly revealed His everlasting love for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Because of the revelation of Christ, the power and wisdom and reality of God should no longer be regarded as “something unknown.”

Some people tend to seek spiritual experiences but may be too impatient or immature to live by faith. The long haul of daily faithfulness in spiritual life lacks excitement and stimulation, so they are on the lookout for loopholes and shortcuts. There are plenty of offers of spiritual experience out there, but they may not lead to the true God. It is convenient then to erect an altar to an unknown god. At least they keep their options open! Others like to be perpetual seekers, but they would prefer not to actually find the Truth, because then they might have to make a commitment or accept something that may be contrary to their own current beliefs or preferences. Up goes another altar. Dealing with an unknown divinity (or at least one that can be manipulated or does not make them accountable) tends not to cramp their style so much.

Still others would like the resurrection without the cross, seeking the rewards of spiritual life but avoiding its demands, perhaps employing the “a la carte approach” to belief and practice. If it suits their spiritual taste, fine; if not, forget it. They tend to conceive of and relate to God on their own terms without acknowledging His absolute rights on their lives, without accepting any authority outside of their own intelligence or intuition. Subjective experience often wins out over objective revelation. The true and manifest God is still not attained, but the unknown one will do fine for now.

It is inevitable then that altars to unknown gods will be going up everywhere, because people need to transcend themselves, to connect with a reality greater than themselves, to encounter God (or, as the case may be, something which they will end up calling God).

By word and example we need to proclaim as did St Paul that we know the God whom many are seeking without the knowledge which comes from the true faith. While it is true that God is beyond the concept of any human mind and cannot be wholly confined in any human institution, no one should have to build altars to an unknown god. For “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known” (Jn. 1:18).

Mad Parsons

There is a character in C.S. Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength who was sometimes referred to as the “Mad Parson.” He was an insider in the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), which was a kind of Orwellian organization whose new-speak propaganda presented the organization as the great friend of mankind that would take human society into a utopian future, but which in fact was doing nothing other than delivering man to the devil and an irrevocable destruction.

The Mad Parson spoke like a parson. He talked of Jesus and the Kingdom and resurrection. But he twisted things around enough—made them fit his particular cultural and intellectual milieu, as is fashionable today—so that his words were actually nothing more than N.I.C.E. propaganda. “The Kingdom of God is to be realized here—in this world. And it will be… The powers of science are an instrument. An irresistible instrument, as all of us in the N.I.C.E. know… That is what I couldn’t get any of the Churches to see… I knew that He was coming in power. And therefore where we see power, we see the sign of His coming. And that is why I find myself joining with communists and materialists and anyone else who is ready to expedite this coming… The real resurrection is even now taking place. The real life everlasting. Here in this world. You will see it… Get rid of false spirituality. It is all going to happen, here in this world, the only world there is… The Son of Man—that is, Man himself, full grown—has power to judge the world… You shall see. Here and now.”

Mad indeed. But the world (and even the Church, to some extent) is full of mad parsons, preaching a “gospel” with familiar words yet with altered meaning. They are not hard to find, those who would reinterpret the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Holy Eucharist, emptying the rich (and divinely revealed) content and replacing it with vapid samplings from psychology, sociology, and the philosophies or politics of the day. They use the words of Jesus to support their own crooked agendas. But they are leading people astray and ultimately to destruction.

I read recently about an Easter homily given by a Catholic priest. He explained the resurrection as a “spiritual” thing that helps “lift our spirits.” Lift our spirits? If our religion is that bland, cheap, and vacuous, then we are fools to remain in it a moment longer. You can “lift your spirits” with any new-age self-help book, but only Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, can raise you from the dead!

We have to be spiritually and intellectually well-grounded in the Faith, in the teachings of the Church, if we are not to be misled by spurious propagandizing parsons who are trying to insinuate “another gospel” (see Galatians 1:6-9) into the beliefs and practices of the people of God. We must not hesitate to exclaim with the Apostle: Let their false teachings be condemned!—but at the same time being concerned enough to pray for their enlightenment and salvation, and to try charitably to correct them if it is possible.

I believe that we are going to see more and more of the Orwellian new-speak among theologians and teachers in the Church. We’re already seeing much of it in the media, politics, and the educational system (not only about religion, but about morality and truth itself). They are only trying to be N.I.C.E., of course, but there will be Hell to pay for distorting the word of God and turning the message of Christ into something it was never meant to be. The official Magisterium of the Church is our safeguard for the truth about Christian faith and morals. There’s no mad parson sitting in St Peter’s chair.

Serpents and Scorpions

A few days ago I was rather rudely reminded of my lack of splendid isolation when I perceived on the floor of my cabin, shortly after awakening in the early morning hours, a scorpion positioned perilously close to my bare foot. I did manage—thank God—to carefully remove myself from harm’s way and to send the little monster to its forefathers via the impact of a suitably sturdy implement.

I thought of the words of Jesus: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:19). Being unshod at the time, I deemed it imprudent literally to tread upon the beast, which would undoubtedly have envenomed me with its dying reflex, but the divine dictum lost none of it force thereby—I still had authority over its power, and it did not harm me.

We will probably never be without some intrusion or another of adverse elements in our lives, be they minor natural irritations or actual onslaughts of evil. But the Lord has promised his protection in the midst of it, even if our ultimate deliverance is not quite at hand. “I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Since He hasn’t decided to take us out of the world, He has granted us protection from and authority over the spiritual serpents and scorpions that would seek to harm or destroy us.

We have to remember that this is the arena of our warfare: “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Eph. 6:12). We have not been given authority to tread on each other, though we seem to feel obliged to entertain those same hosts of wickedness by engaging in that very folly. We are called by God to be united with each other in order to present a strong and invincible front against the principalities and powers, the serpents and scorpions, who attempt to divide and conquer, to sow fear and suspicion and anger and lust. If we try to go it alone, we walk in the dark and get stung when we least expect it.

The Lord told his disciples to rejoice, not so much over their newfound authority over adverse powers, but in the fact that their names were written in Heaven. That is the chief cause of joy; all other gifts and victories are benefits deriving from our citizenship in Heaven. It’s great to see the devil fall from the sky like lightning, but the goal is to end up in that place where you’ll never see him again! We’re not there yet, but the Lord has given us the means to navigate the treacherous waters of this life and so arrive at Heaven’s safe harbor.

So keep your eyes open. Authority to tread on scorpions will not do you much good if your lack of vigilance enables its stealthy approach, and you end up noticing its presence only by the feel of its plunging stinger. How pitiful is the overcoming of an armed man in his sleep! The Lord has not taken us out of the world, but if we’re spiritually awake, we will be safe from the evil one. Tread on!

More Blessed to Give

When you want to find something that Jesus said during his public ministry, you go to the four Gospels, right? Right. But there’s something He said that isn’t found in the four Gospels. You will find it in the Acts of the Apostles (and I don’t mean Jesus’ short pre-Ascension speech in the beginning). It was something St Paul remembered, which was obviously already part of the tradition, since he himself did not hear Jesus speak, except in post-Ascension visions. “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).

Jesus was in the habit of bestowing blessings, and of telling us what makes for the blessed life. He gave us the beatitudes. He told St Thomas that those who believe without seeing are more blessed than those who want to see first. Now He tells us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. That may sound like Christian common sense, and it is, but how often do we really manifest our blessed generosity, and how often are we the ones hoping (or demanding!) to receive?

It is true that we cannot give what we do not have, but maybe we’re not sufficiently aware of how much we have. We are already much better off (at least materially) than most of the world. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We have received the Holy Spirit and many gifts, so now what is our calling? “Freely have you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Jesus, the “Man for others,” has given us the example through his life, and especially the sacrifice thereof. He shows us how it is more blessed to give.

Because of original sin, we are all basically selfish. We want to know: what’s in it for me, how I can benefit or get some advantage in any given situation, how does every circumstance or relationship affect me, I’m taking care of my interests, needs, desires before those of others. It is said that the theme song of Hell is “I Did it My Way,” and such is only the ultimate and logical conclusion to a life of selfishness.

Jesus says that the blessing is in the giving. Sometimes we do experience that blessing since, if we are at least trying to follow Christ, we will do good for others from time to time, even at some personal cost. But we are called to a blessed life, not merely to a few piecemeal acts of charity by which we reassure ourselves that we are still Christians.

The paradox in all this is that if we seek only to receive, we will never be satisfied, and we will end up destroying our souls, even depriving them ultimately of the very capacity for happiness. But if we seek to give, seek first the Kingdom of God with all that entails, Jesus promises that we will in fact receive all we need from the providential hand of the heavenly Father.

The life of a blessed giver (and a cheerful one, adds St Paul in 2Cor. 9:7) is a rewarding life, a life that knows the peace and blessing promised in the beatitudes. It is not easy, for we are always at war with our inveterate selfishness, but in time our hearts, our minds, will change, will adapt to the rhythms of the Gospel (this is metanoia, conversion, repentance). We will have acquired the heart of a servant; we will have put on the mind of Christ. Then giving will be the most natural thing to do. (You can start enjoying the blessedness of giving even now by clicking the link on the column to the right: Help the hungry and poor.)

No one gives what he does not have? True enough, but in the end no one will have if he does not give. The Greek makarios is translated as both “blessed” and “happy.” You will be both by following the word and example of your Lord Jesus.

Prodigal Confession

Sitting in a muddy and stinking pig-sty, wasted with hunger, bowed down with shame, humiliated by the quick exit of his fair-weather friends, the prodigal son decided to make an examination of conscience. What were the events that led to this disastrous state of affairs, and how could he make things right again? He used to be rather well-off, but his youthful arrogance and urges toward forbidden horizons landed him in the mire of shame and the shame of mire. Time for a decision.

The Scripture says that he finally came to his senses. He must have really lost them, because even a child could have come to the same conclusion: at his father’s house the very servants had more than enough food, yet he, the son, had allowed himself to become the cell-mate of swine. Next step: arise and return to his father, confessing his sin, acknowledging his unworthiness, choosing the lowest place.

It was quite the wise choice, not only because it corresponded to the reality of the situation and the justice that should be done, but also because the actual outcome was far more glorious than he could ever have imagined. For he received not a just punishment and demotion but a merciful, loving, and joyful welcome fit for a king’s son!

Confession is an oft-neglected sacrament, but senselessly so. I have heard many confessions over the years, from people who have refused to repent and return to the Father’s house for two, four, ten, fifteen, twenty, or even forty years! What is the point of our pervicacious refusal to repent when the happy result is the open arms of the Father and the infilling of grace? Some have lost the sense of sin, some are too proud, some think that the disallowed “general absolution” suffices, others are too ashamed to confess the sins they weren’t too ashamed to commit, and some simply see it as a drudgery they’d just as soon forego. But none of these excuses hold up—either now or on judgment day. We ought to let the Lord be merciful to us while we still live in the time of mercy.

Fr. Jean d’Elbée, in I Believe in Love, writes: “Each time you pick yourself up after a fall, the feast of the prodigal son is renewed. Your Father in Heaven clothes you again in His most beautiful cloak, puts a ring on your finger, and tells you to dance with joy. In a living faith, you will not approach the confessional with dragging feet, but as if you were going to a feast, even if you have to make a great effort each time to humble yourself and to conquer the monotony of the routine. After the absolution, you should dance like the prodigal son did at the request and for the joy of his father. We do not dance enough in the spiritual life.”

So if you are still stuck in the mud of sin and haven’t yet decided to arise and return to the Father, now is the moment. Come to your senses and go to Him who sees you from afar and runs to meet and embrace you, welcoming you to the banquet He has prepared: the sacrificed Body and Blood of his only-begotten Son, who has loved you and given Himself for you. Examine your conscience, understand the decisions and choices that led you away from home, and make a new decision, a new choice: I shall arise and return. What’s wrong with—that you would delay it—the healing of your soul, the removal of your spiritual burdens, the liberation from sin, the restoration of grace and peace, and the joy of the angels over one more repentant prodigal?

Filthy sties are for pigs, and bright banquet halls for the children of kings. Let us neglect the confessional no longer, for it is the anteroom of blessed peace.

The Eyes Have It

Much has been written about praying with icons and the way they can help draw one into a place of inner peace and awareness of the mystery of God. There’s something about the hieratic style, the light shining from within the figures, and the sense of sacred serenity that exudes from these blessed images. For me, along with all of the above, the eyes are very important, for they are the locus of personal contact with Christ or the saint depicted on the icon, at least from the standpoint of our subjective perception.

That is why I’m a little disappointed with some icons in which the eyes are not looking back at the one who is praying before it, but rather looking in some other direction. I understand that the figures in the icons are rapt in a contemplative gaze upon eternal mysteries, and that perhaps we are meant to simply contemplate their contemplation, being unobserved observers, as it were, in the holy place. Yet there are times (and these may be the majority of times) in which we come before the Lord or his Mother in distress or need, times in which personal contact is essential, times in which we don’t want them to be (even only apparently) looking the other way.

There are two reasons for this (that I can think of at the moment). One has to do with the generally personalistic approach the Byzantine Church has to the mysteries of the faith. We are known and called by name. Going to confession without the anonymity of the confessional-box is not an innovation in the Byzantine tradition. We’ve always done it that way (often standing in church before an icon of Christ). Why? Because in the formula of absolution, the person’s name has to be mentioned! The forgiveness of sins is not an anonymous ritual but a personal act of divine mercy, and you get to hear Christ (using the voice of the priest) telling you—not just some generic penitent—that your sins are forgiven. The same goes for the Holy Eucharist. When the priest gives Communion he says: “The servant (or handmaid) of God, [your name goes here], receives the precious, holy, and most pure Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of his (or her) sins and for life everlasting. Amen.”

I don’t think it’s particularly selfish to want Jesus or Mary to look at me when I’m praying to them. The icon depicted here is called Paramythia, literally: “she who comes to your side to console you.” I would hope that if she’s coming to my side she’s looking at me as well! It’s important for our relationship to Christ to know that He died not just for “all” but also for me qua me! He knew me when He made his sacrifice, and He knows me now. St Paul, for all of his brilliant theology on what Christ has done for us all, does not hesitate, in one of his more intimate passages, to say: “I have been crucified with Christ… Christ lives in me… I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

The other reason has to do with the inner experience that accompanies “eye contact” in prayer. Once when praying before an icon of the Mother of God—one in which her eyes were looking directly at me—I suddenly became aware that she herself actually was looking at me, or rather through me, as if a window to my soul had just opened. She could see—and I knew she could see, and I wanted her to see, and I let her see—all that was within me: the good, the bad, and the ugly of my whole life. It was not an entirely pleasant experience, for there were things I wished never were a part of my history but that had left their mark on me. For a while I felt exposed and ashamed, yet it wasn’t like a judgment but rather a moment of cleansing and healing. I realized since then that even though God is fully able to see within us, if we really want to be transformed within, we have to choose to let Him see, let Him come in. That’s when the real spiritual work begins. The icons can facilitate this experience. Would I have “connected” with Our Lady in that way if her image were looking off somewhere else? It’s possible, but less likely. Eyes have a riveting power unlike almost anything else.

I’m guessing that if we were to take a vote on whether or not we want our icons looking at us, the result would be: The eyes have it!

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