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

Archive for September, 2006

As We Forgive Those… (part 3)

To conclude these reflections, we have to ask one more question: how to forgive? The simplest way is to apply the “just do it” principle. Remember that forgiveness is not a matter of feeling but of willing and doing. We need simply to choose, to decide to forgive, to make an act of the will—or at least desire to forgive, and offer this desire to God. Even if you somehow feel not “ready” to forgive (be careful, though, that you aren’t living more by emotion than by faith), at least be willing to forgive when the grace and strength are granted. You may need to ask Jesus to forgive through you. You may also need to renew this act of forgiveness if negative emotions bubble up from time to time. Give your feelings to God and let Him worry about healing them. Only God can do this, and He will, in his own way and time. These feelings can be brought to Jesus in prayer. It’s OK to feel them—it’s not healthy to try to convince yourself you don’t have them, and then show a pious mask to God—but feel them in the presence of Jesus and allow Him to enter into them, and then to lead you out of them.

Once we forgive we have also to forget, as the expression goes, in order to make our forgiveness complete. We can’t do this literally, that is, to get our brains to actually lose their memory function (though advancing age gradually takes care of that, starting at about 45!), but we can stop reminding people of how they have hurt us (which is very common, even among Christians) and somehow using it as leverage against them. St John Climacus, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, regards “remembrance of wrongs” as one of the most odious of sins, and completely unfitting for a Christian. Still, it is not easy, but we can receive the grace through prayer and a sincere desire to please the Lord and not ourselves. Forgetting as well as forgiving helps restore the broken relationship. This is what God’s forgiveness does for us: it restores our relationship with Him which was broken by our sin (see Jer 31:34). In human relationships it may not always be possible to perfectly restore what has been damaged, because some people will refuse to offer or accept forgiveness. But we can still be reconciled with them in our own hearts, and our consciences can be clear before God.

Forgive me, I lied, there is still one more question, since life goes on: What next? In order to live with a forgiving heart, we need to heal from oversensitivity to what people say or do to us. We need to accept the “spiritual sandpaper” of living with others—let it smooth down the rough edges. We need to discover why certain of our “buttons” are so easily pushed, why we react defensively or in whatever unacceptable way to certain persons or situations. This can lead us on to our own inner healing, spiritual growth and Christian maturity. The practice of the Jesus Prayer or other forms of simple, quiet, contemplative prayer can root us in Jesus’ love and peace. We can use this prayer, or perhaps the repetition of a favorite verse of Scripture, to keep us from letting our emotional reactions take over. If there is Jesus’ peace within us, we are free to decide how to respond to a hurtful word or act, rather than being led along by undisciplined emotion. I remember praying one morning and a psalm verse impressed itself on me, so I made it part of my prayer: “God is within; it cannot be shaken.” Little did I know how much I would need it, for that same day a hysterical woman called me, with numerous urgent crises in her life, and then a certain man, who has made a lot of trouble for us, called with harassments and threats. So I just had to say to my soul: “God is within; it cannot be shaken.”

Also, as we grow in our spiritual life, we will develop a sense of compassion which is other-centered, rather than the self-centered insecurity that is self-protecting. Thus we can also overcome that sense of becoming weak or of placing ourselves at a “disadvantage” when we grant forgiveness to another. We are not in competition with each other; rather, we are members of the same Body, called to build each other up, and seek the other’s good before our own (see Philippians 2-1-11; also Jesus’ forgiving of his executioners from the Cross. Was that weakness or the greatest power in the world?)

Finally, reflect on First Corinthians, chapter 13. The bottom line is this: if we love we can forgive. Love covers a multitude of sins. In the end, says St Paul, three things endure: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

As We Forgive Those… (part 2)

Continuing with our reflections on forgiveness, we must examine another question: whom do we forgive? The obvious one whom we need to forgive is the one who has offended us. We are to make no judgments as to whether or not that person is “worthy” of our forgiveness, for then we show that we do not really know the true nature of forgiveness, and we do not love as Jesus loves. “Forgiveness is reckless. It squanders itself upon rogues who have no intention of improving themselves” (Simon Tugwell, OP, from his book on the Beatitudes). When God forgives, He is not saying, “Well all right; you’re a good chap underneath, I’ll give you one more chance.” No, He simply forgives 70 times 7 times, which means without limit. This is how Jesus told St Peter—and us—to forgive.

Sometimes it is harder to forgive ourselves for some sin than it is to forgive someone else, so we ourselves are next on the list of whom we must forgive. It may be that we have confessed our sin, and even that whomever we offended has forgiven us. But we still feel guilty or miserable or discouraged because we haven’t forgiven ourselves. This can actually be a sin of pride: a kind of inverted pride—not a pride that boasts, but one that sees our sin as being somehow beyond mercy because we ourselves can’t stand to fail. Some people can’t bear failure because pride brings down the verdict of “guilty.” Then they have to punish themselves for not measuring up to their idealized images of themselves. If we say, “How could I have done such a thing?” pride is at work. Then it is time to humble ourselves before God—to accept forgiveness and to forgive ourselves.

Accepting forgiveness means we know we are sinners and therefore need forgiveness. This is living in the truth, which is what humility is all about, and this brings us to inner peace. “We must not try to pretend that somehow we are forgivable and that that is why we are forgiven. We are no more and no less forgivable than anyone else. If we try to privilege our claim to forgiveness, it is not really forgiveness we are looking for, but some other kind of recognition… we must be prepared to accept the company that forgiveness places us in [i.e., sinners]. It is no good wanting to be forgiven and then reserving the right to look round disapprovingly on all the others. This is why forgiving is so inseparable from being forgiven” (Tugwell).

The next Person we may need to forgive is—God. Why forgive God? He is incapable of evil and is by nature Love. How could He possibly sin against us or offend us? When we speak of forgiving God it has to be in a qualified sense, but it still is something we have to deal with. We need to release God from any blame we lay on Him when things go wrong in our lives: “Why did You let this happen to me?” “Where were You when I needed You?” “Why didn’t You answer my prayer?” etc. When we “forgive” God, we begin to acknowledge that his wisdom is superior to ours, that his vision of the future is clearer than ours, that his understanding of our own needs is better than ours, and that his desire for our inner integrity and eternal salvation is also greater than ours. Then we can accept in peace whatever God does—or doesn’t do—in our lives. This presupposes, of course, faith and trust in the Lord, and love for Him, too.

Next we have to ask: what do we forgive? The basic answer to this is simple: everything. But that is not so easy. We cannot withhold mercy if we are to be truly Christian in our relationships with others. We cannot draw the line at a certain point and refuse to forgive beyond a certain measure of pain we experience from others. Forgiveness has to keep flowing like a river—from the Heart of Jesus through our hearts to others. But this readiness to forgive all things does not mean that in order to be Christian we have to throw ourselves to the lions. We are allowed to avoid (to a reasonable extent, anyway) certain persons and situations if we have repeatedly experienced them to be occasions of sin and hurt. Jesus said, “if you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next,” so flight can be a legitimate and even necessary response to a hurtful situation. But we have to be in the Holy Spirit to discern this. We cannot run away from problems or responsibilities if we have been called to face and deal with them in a mature, compassionate, self-effacing, and self-sacrificing manner. We must be willing to suffer for the Gospel’s sake, if that is what forgiveness requires, but we must do this according to God’s will, and not out of a feeling that we have to carry every cross, even those not intended for us. Sometimes we carry crosses of our own making and not what God desires.

Continuing with our questions: when to forgive? The obvious answer here is: immediately. It is not good to let hurts fester inside of us, not good to nurse self-pity, not good to imagine taking revenge. We must simply accept what has happened and forgive the offender. Then we ourselves are freed from the grip of unforgiveness and all the bad effects in our body and soul. Then we also free the other from the grip of our unforgiveness, giving them the opportunity to repent and be forgiven and healed, as we would like the same opportunity after we have sinned.

I have mentioned the bad effects of withholding forgiveness. Now I should say something about the good effects of releasing ourselves and others from unforgiveness. There’s a true story to illustrate this. A certain woman was responsible for serious failures in raising her daughter. The daughter wouldn’t forgive her, but the woman eventually repented and began to serve the Lord and the Church. After some years the daughter herself had a conversion experience, and she had a vision: she saw herself dressed in a dirty bridal gown; then a hand appeared, with drops of blood falling from it, and the gown was made clean—she knew then that all her sins were forgiven. Then she heard a voice: “Now forgive your mother.” Meanwhile, her mother had long been grieved that her daughter refused to forgive her. After her encounter with Christ, the daughter finally did forgive her. At that very hour, it was later realized, the mother suddenly felt euphoric and free, not knowing why. Then her daughter called her to tell her the good news, and she realized that the burden of her daughter’s grudge was lifted, and the lightness and joy resulted from her daughter forgiving her. There is a real spiritual power at work here, for the lifting of the burden was experienced by the mother before she knew of her daughter’s conversion and forgiveness of her.

Even though there may be a burden placed on another from our unforgiveness, we are the ones who mainly suffer from it. Many people aren’t spiritually sensitive enough to be wounded by another’s lack of forgiveness. We may think we are hurting othrers by withholding forgiveness, but for the most part we are only hurting ourselves, hardening ourselves in bitterness and spite, which will take a mighty act of God to overcome.

Stay tuned for part 3…

As We Forgive Those… (part 1)

I’m starting today a three-part series on forgiveness, since it is such an important element of the Christian life, but one perhaps not practiced often or fully enough. These reflections are an edited version of a talk I gave some years ago. The emphasis here is not God’s forgiveness of us, but our forgiveness of each other. My method is to ask and then answer a few basic questions concerning forgiveness. It is not a complete treatment of the subject, but you’ll at least know how to get started. I have to get started by forgiving–yet again, 70 x 7–for its malfunctions, preventing me from publishing this post much earlier…

First: what is forgiveness? Let’s see what Mr Webster has to say. There are three basic definitions: 1) to cease to feel resentment toward an offender; 2) to give up resentment or claim to requital; 3) to grant relief from payment of a debt. When I ask people which is the best one, they invariably say #1, and they are invariably wrong. Why is that? (This will tell you a lot about the modern approach to such issues.) They all think that to forgive is to cease to feel resentment towards the offender, but that’s a very subjective and unhelpful approach, and it doesn’t quite correspond with Christian morality. The second definition is the best, and the third is good, too, though its application is more limited. So forgiveness is not about ceasing to feel resentment (or any other negative emotion), it is about giving up resentment or claim to requital. That is a crucial distinction, because it places forgiveness in the will instead of the emotions. Forgiveness is doing something, not necessarily feeling something. It is a choice, a decision.

All morality, and hence all judgment thereof, is a matter of willing and of doing. On judgment day, God is not going to ask us how we felt about so-and-so, but what we did or did not do for so-and-so, what our choices were—how we chose to think, speak, and act. It is good if our emotions are in accord with our decision to forgive, but even if they aren’t, we can make that decision with an act of the will and it stands as such before God, so we are free of the sin of withholding forgiveness. We can pray for God to heal our emotions so that we also have more warm regard for the one we forgive, but that may take time, and we leave it to God—without, however, falling away from our original decision to forgive.

Forgiveness is letting the offenders off the hook, giving them another chance—as we would wish to receive another chance when we offend God or another person. This is not something that is easy to do, or that comes naturally to us fallen people, who may be too strong on pride and the instinct of self-preservation—and too weak on a sense of security and inner freedom. So forgiveness has to be a work of grace; it is something that restores God’s image in us more clearly, for He Himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (as the Gospel says: Lk 6:35; Mt 5:44-48). We are created in the image of God, and if we are to live according to that image, we must “be merciful, as our heavenly Father is merciful.”

The next question is: why forgive? One reason, though not the primary one, is that it is good for our physical, mental, and especially spiritual health. The bitterness, anger, tension and stress that come from holding grudges and refusing to forgive can produce depression, anxiety, irritability and other psychological symptoms, which in turn can produce psychosomatic problems which harm our bodily health as well. It is obvious that spiritual health suffers from not forgiving as well, since it keeps us in a state of sin—more or less serious, depending on the case—which is an obstacle to grace, healing, and our deeper relationship of faith and love with our Lord Jesus Christ. Hell is the abode of those who eternally nurse their bitterness and grudges, blaming and cursing others, expressing but never satisfying their hatred. Part of their torment is knowing that if they had only humbled themselves and forgiven those who brought pain or injustice to them—and who, ironically, may very well have later repented and are at that very moment enjoying Heaven—they would have had happiness instead of horror as their everlasting recompense.

But the most fundamental reason why we should forgive is simply that this is the word of God. (Read these to get a feel for that: Mt 6:14-15; 18:21-22 and 23-35; Mk 11:25; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; Sir 28:1-7, 10.) We forgive because forgiveness belongs to our discipleship of Christ, our being like Him. To refuse to forgive is to have the mind of the devil and not the mind of Christ. It is a matter not only of the “Golden Rule,” but Jesus makes it clear that the kindness and love we show to others we show to Him. Forgiveness is not an option to be chosen only by the saints. The Greek word for forgiveness occurs 142 times in the New Testament, so it is clearly an essential part of the Gospel message for all, both for our individual relationships with God and for the whole life and spiritual health of the Church. Are those enough reasons to be forgiving?

To be continued…

On Fishing and Following

St Paul says in the epistle reading for this Sunday (2Cor. 6:1-10) that now is the acceptable time and the day of salvation. It certainly was so for Peter, James, and John, as they heard the voice of Christ and left everything to follow them (Gospel: Luke 5:1-11). It was the beginning of a marvelous and sometimes harrowing adventure which radically changed their lives and secured for them a high place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul gives a sort of sneak preview of what a disciple of Christ can expect: afflictions, hardships, calamities, labors, hunger, vigils, poverty, etc. Yet he says in the midst of all that we can expect purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, genuine love and truth, the power of the Holy Spirit—and the grace to rejoice even in sorrows, to be spiritually rich even in poverty, to be honorable even when dishonored by others.

The first disciples could not have known all that in advance, but that’s OK. It isn’t the weighing of pros and cons, of advantages and disadvantages, that should be the criterion for the decision about following Christ. The apostles followed Christ because of the grace and wisdom that flowed from Him, because of the irresistible attraction to his very person, and because of the signs that accompanied his words.

Let us see what happened at that first meeting of Jesus with Peter and the others. Jesus wanted to preach from a boat, because the crowds were pressing in on him. Simon Peter was elected for this even though he was very tired. Fishermen usually work the night shift, for that is when the most fish are easily caught. So, after a long night’s work, he was cleaning his nets and getting ready to go home to bed. But Jesus had other ideas. He got into Simon’s boat and taught the people at length. Perhaps then Simon thought, “Now that He’s finished, maybe I can go home and get some rest.” But Jesus wasn’t finished—not with Simon, anyway. If there was one thing Simon didn’t want to hear, it was precisely what Jesus said next: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon gave a two-part answer: the first out of his own human weakness, fatigue, and irritable resistance, and the second out of an admirable respect for, and obedience to, Jesus. “Master, we worked all night and took nothing!” he initially exclaimed. (He may have thought, “Hey, I’m the fisherman, you’re the preacher. I know the sea, and there aren’t any fish around now!”) But then he immediately added, and this is the saving grace, the decision which opened the door to divine blessing: “But at your word, I will let down the net.” At your word, I will do it: this is Peter’s first response to the call of the Lord. There will be more, even one more in this same Gospel, but this first one is indispensable, because he shows that he knows how to hear and obey. If You say so, I will do it. It is an echo of the response of the Israelites after the Lord manifested his power and his law on Sinai: “All that the Lord has said, we will do.”

Jesus knew Peter was tired, but He also knew that if Peter would overcome his fatigue for the sake of obedience, then he would be his chosen and faithful disciple. After his resurrection Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and then told him to feed his sheep. Here Jesus is saying, in effect, if you love Me, do what I say and go out and catch some fish. So he did, and the result was miraculous—which is a lesson for us that the fruits of hearing the word of the Lord and obeying are always good, always abundant.

Peter then entered into the first stage of a true revelation, a true encounter with God. He fell down before Him in repentance and confessed his sinfulness. Peter must have seen something of the glory of God in the face of Christ, and it filled him with fear—as happened to Isaiah, after his vision of God: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the Lord!” This is an indispensable stage in our relation with God, for He is a God of truth. We cannot approach Him with sins on our soul, for in that case, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But if we repent and confess, as Peter did, then it is not fearful at all but blessed and consoling. Peter, conscious of his sins, as least had the integrity to want to be removed from the presence of the All-Holy. (People who refuse to confess their sins ought at least to have the integrity to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they have the good sense to go to confession.) Jesus accepted Peter’s repentance but did not depart, for unworthiness is made worthy through repentance. We can assume that Jesus forgave his sins at that very moment: Peter fell down in fear, confessing his sinfulness and asking Jesus to depart, but since Jesus did not depart, and since Jesus said, “Do not be afraid,” we conclude that there was no longer anything left to alienate Peter from Christ.

Jesus also gave him a mission at that moment, saying that he would henceforth be a fisher of men. This is a development of the initial call, and Peter gives a further response, along with James and John: they left everything and followed Him. They discovered the one thing necessary, the fulfillment of the deepest, inarticulate desire of their hearts, and it would be madness to do anything else but cling to Him henceforth.

We have constantly to be listening for the voice, the call of the Lord, for it is not a once in a lifetime thing, but is meant to be an ongoing dialogue, call and response. If we hear and obey, abundant blessings will be ours, even if accompanied by the trials St Paul wrote about. We can hear his voice in many ways, especially through Scripture and prayer, but I’d like to focus here on prayer, especially contemplative prayer, for to pray in silence and solitude and with an open heart is to put out into the deep. That is, we go to our inner depths where Christ dwells—not to “get in touch with ourselves,” for that usually leads to self-absorption and sterile isolation, but rather to encounter the indwelling God. We put out into the deep and let down our nets, that is, drop our defenses and make ourselves radically open and surrendered to the presence of Christ. Many people do not want to do this. They are terrified that they might actually meet Christ, that He might actually speak to them, might require something of them. So they close their hearts and their ears and say, in effect: depart from me. Maybe they will say their prayers even louder and more vigorously, so as not to hear the voice of God. This is the prayer of the Pharisee. But if we merely say prayers without going deep enough to listen to God, then we are not praying at all—we are merely deluding ourselves that we are devout, creating a pious self-image, which has nothing to do with reality. We are keeping God away from us by means of the very prayers that should be drawing Him near!

So let us be willing to hear the voice of the Lord, for it is, as the psalmist says, “a voice that speaks of peace,” and it is a voice of love and holiness. It is a voice that calls and exhorts as well, but obedience to Him bears fruit unto salvation. Peter at first didn’t want to do what the Lord asked of Him, but now he is thanking God for all eternity that he in fact did what Jesus said. We have to leave everything and follow Him—everything that promotes selfishness or attachments, that hinders us from a free embrace of Christ and the fullness of his Gospel. Let us go to Him, for when He speaks, it is the acceptable time; when He calls, it is the day of salvation.

Not Impossible With Faith

For the following reflection I rely on Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus and his chosen three disciples had just come down from Mt Tabor where Jesus was transfigured. Down from the mountain of glory into the valley of suffering and confusion. The text says that Jesus went toward the gathered crowd, and at the same time a man came toward Jesus. These two uses of the word “toward” express the search for one another and for a face-to-face encounter between man and God.

The man came up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him. The man instinctually knows that, in dealing with Jesus, the heart’s adoration is the necessary context for a prayer of petition. It is the best way of putting oneself in the position of deep and true relationship with God—the interior attitude of total self-surrender and the resulting receptivity. The man’s first words are: Lord, have mercy! It is the most fundamental of all Christian prayers. It includes an act of faith that sees the personal presence of God abiding and acting in the person of Jesus and it acknowledges man’s extreme and continual need to cling to the mercy of God, and to God’s power and willingness to heal.

Then the father of the boy explained to Jesus his condition: he often falls in fire or in water. These elements form a biblical symbol for the totality of all dangers, precisely those most dire threats from which the Lord has promised to deliver his faithful ones. God said through the prophet Isaiah: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters I will be with you…they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…” (43:1-2).

So far this story reads like many other miracle accounts. But after presenting the problem and asking for help, the father drops this bombshell, to the great consternation of Jesus’ disciples: “I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” Perhaps they were hoping that their bungled attempt at healing would go unnoticed. But now the Master knows. This pushes Jesus’ patience to the limit (if it were possible) and He exclaimed—not to the nameless crowd but directly to his own disciples: “O faithless and perverse generation; how long am I to be with you? How long can I endure you?” What if Jesus stood before us today, saying: How long can I endure you? His disciples were his specially chosen ones. He rebuked his own disciples before He rebuked the demon. Jesus denounces most woundingly those He loves most, those He has been painstakingly and intimately molding with the secret touch of his hands. But they still didn’t get it. Later He would say to Philip: “You have been with me all this time and still you do not know Me?” Jesus’ disciples had not yet internalized the truth of who He was to the point that this reality could transform them interiorly. Thus they could not heal the boy.

Jesus was trying to teach them that they can communicate only the life that they have come to possess within themselves, and that not even the invocation of the name of Jesus will be efficacious in the absence of faith in the soul and love in the heart. This is the structure of the Christian experience. No one can give what he doesn’t have. To startle us out of our lethargy and pious accommodations, Jesus is likely to turn the tables on us at any moment, compelling us to see things from his perspective.

So Jesus commanded his embarrassed disciples to bring the boy to Him, and He immediately cast out the demon that was causing the boy’s illness. Jesus’ compassion toward the suffering boy has as its goal not only the deliverance and healing of the boy, but also the awakening of the faith of his disciples by their vision of the greatness of God’s power presently working both in Jesus and in those who believe. This is the anticipated power of the Resurrection, casting back its healing rays upon the earthly life and deeds of Jesus, seeking out the lost and wounded so as to embrace them and heal them and bring them home to the Father.

The disciples, still stung by their failure, asked Jesus—out of earshot of the crowd, lest they be humiliated again—why they were not able to heal the boy. Jesus said it was because of their lack of faith. If they had even a tiny bit of faith nothing would have been impossible for them, He said. The evangelist uses a little play on words, for “not able” and “impossible” are forms of the same word. Why were we not able? they said. Nothing is impossible, said Jesus, if you only have faith. The presence of lively faith effects a conversion of human incapacity into the power to accomplish all that God wills.

In the end, it is the power of Christ that is the only real power, one that we must access by faith. Only the presence and will of Christ can dispel the power of darkness from our souls. In all our distress, we must go to Jesus, invoke his name ardently, cast ourselves at his feet, hear our own sin condemned by his anger, and finally allow Jesus’ commanding rebuke to resonate in every ailing fiber of our being. Only then shall we be healed. That will be the hour of our liberation. We must not be afraid to confront and accept even the most frightful diagnosis concerning our interior state, so long as that prophetic insight is coming from the lips of the One who has the will and power to remedy it. As we see in this Gospel account, Jesus is always ready to do it, provided we bravely grant Him access to our diseased interior.

We can have confidence in the Lord, for He came to enter into the condition of our suffering, to share it with us, to give it meaning, and finally to raise us out of it for an eternity of life and joy in his heavenly paradise. If He has to rebuke us along the way, let us simply accept it and learn from it. He does not stand above us but is with us in our stumbling inadequacy. Even though Jesus manifested his omnipotence by casting out the demon and healing the boy, this Gospel passage ends with Jesus saying that He Himself will soon be suffering, bearing all our sins and sorrows in Himself. And who would deliver Him? Only his Father, but not until He would pass through agony and death in order to be exalted unto the glory of the resurrection. Resurrection will be our glory too, if we only believe in Him and live our faith with devotion and diligence, accepting the Cross as the way to resurrection.

Finally, to live by faith is to cease relying on ourselves, our own ideas or ways of doing things. The disciples had to learn that. They were still without faith when they asked: Why couldn’t we cast it out ourselves? Faith doesn’t mean seeing what Jesus does and then trying to imitate Him. It means allowing Jesus to act in and through us by his own power, and according to his own will—which means we have to renounce our own will if faith is to bear fruit in our lives. So let us deeply and joyfully receive the mustard seed of the grace of Christ into the soil of our souls, where it can grow into a fruitful Tree of Life, and all things will be possible with Him who comes to heal and save us.

Wart Hogs from Hell

There, now that I have your attention, I’d like to say something about a Flannery O’Connor story called Revelation. It’s basically about the pharisaism of “decent” and even “religious” people, a theme that has been coming up in my reading here and there lately. I won’t try to analyze the story or give all its details, just the general impression.

A woman who had prided herself on being a decent, churchgoing person, who did right by other people, who tried to be helpful and unselfish—Lord knows!—and who lived a respectable life, was sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. She noticed there was some “white trash” there, a snot-nosed kid, an unattractive college student reading a big book, and other people whom she found reason to judge or look down upon. They were certainly beneath her standards and, oh, it wouldn’t take them so much effort to be a decent person like her, would it? But why was that homely college kid with the acne staring at her, and looking angrier by the minute?

Suddenly the girl got up and hurled her book at the woman, hitting her near the eye (perhaps trying to open it?), and loudly calling her a “wart hog from Hell.” The girl was quickly subdued, given an injection of something and taken out of the room—the usual protocol for prophets. Meanwhile, the woman got her new injury treated and left, thinking. Why did she call me that? Me! But I’m the decent one, I do good to others, I don’t think of myself, I go to church. Why call me such a horrible thing? Hell is for devils, and hogs are dirty animals. The woman didn’t get it.

When she felt a little better, she went out to her farm to hose down the hogs, still thinking. While she was contemplating hogs and cleansing them, she had a vision. She looked into the sky and it opened up, and she saw a procession of people entering the Kingdom of Heaven. She other decent people like herself, but they were at the end of the line. At the front were white trash, black slaves, and all the other types she had grown accustomed to looking down upon. She began to realize the truth of Jesus’ words: “the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31). She realized also that even her supposed virtues had to be burned out of her before she could enter, because she had lived by her own righteousness and not by the Lord’s. But now the hellish wart hog was washed by a vision of truth, and we’re left to hope that she would see things quite differently henceforth.

Alexander Schmemann remarks (in a different context): “The Gospel is quite clear: both saints and sinners love God. ‘Religious’ people do not love Him and, whenever they can, they crucify Him.” He laments repeatedly in his journals about the superficiality, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy of church people, people who are “religious” and who thus are supposed to know the Lord, but they don’t. They only know their own narrow vision of things and are quick to judge and condemn—not manifest evildoers but their own neighbors and fellow church people, or anyone who is “not us”—wholly unaware that the entire drama of the Gospel is being played without them, in the arena of repentance and sanctification, of love and mercy, of humility and of suffering for the sake of Christ.

There may be more “wart hogs from Hell” in our churches than we’d like to admit, or perhaps we are already painfully aware of it. Or worse, perhaps we’d see one if we honestly looked in the mirror. We ought to pray that everyone in the Church would receive the kind of cleansing vision that will open them up to the deep truths of the Gospel. No one gets to Heaven by being decent, respectable, or even religious, especially if they think that qualifies them to look down on others (see Lk. 18:9-14). The Lord looks kindly on the poor in spirit, the strugglers, the despised, those who don’t “have it all together,” who know they aren’t worthy but who put all their hope in his mercy. They head the line marching to the Kingdom, while the Pharisees must hurry, flinging away their collection of masks and baggage, if they’re even to allowed to bring up the rear. For whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

Sacrament Most Holy

Many reasons can be given for the crises in which the Catholic Church (especially Roman Catholic) finds herself today: the influence of secularism, politics, and modern psychology, the disdain for tradition and the uncritical embrace of unauthorized innovations, the corruption of some priests and the lack of courage and wisdom among the hierarchy, faulty catechism and poor preaching, irreverent or trite liturgical celebrations, and an apparent general desire to follow every popular trend at the expense of the Cross and the Gospel, etc. There is truth in all of the above (and you could probably add some more), but I think there is a fundamental solution to them all: recover faith and devotion to Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Saints and popes (including our present pope) and the official teachings of the Church have for many centuries insisted that the Holy Eucharist is at the heart of our faith, as the Source of grace and the summit of our life of faith and worship. The Church stands or falls according to her faith and love for Christ in the Eucharist. Yet polls have shown (not that I put much stock in polls, but these all have consistently agreed for decades) that only a minority of Catholics believe that the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not entirely the fault of the people, but primarily of the priests, liturgical and theological “experts” who have lost their faith and have communicated their malaise to the people by word and example—or by simple neglect to teach and live the truth. No wonder the Church is limping so badly: so many of her members have exchanged their precious faith for the findings of conferences and committees dedicated to the dilution of doctrine!

Let’s put it this way. Here are some things we would not see if all the churches manifested vibrant faith and devotion to Christ in the Eucharist, if the sense of the sacredness of the Divine Mysteries were restored. We would not see “Eucharistic ministers” in t-shirts and jeans sauntering up to the tabernacle and removing the ciborium as if it were some leftover pizza in the fridge. (It is my guess that Communion in the hand would gradually disappear also, not by law but by devout consensus.) We would not see priests sitting down while the lay people distribute Communion, consume the remainder and perform the ritual ablutions. We would not find consecrated Hosts on the floor or in the pews after the Mass—this happens more often than you may be prepared to believe. We would not have all sorts of liturgical abuses or priests acting like game-show hosts. In general, the whole liturgical life of the Church would be renewed.

We would also not have to witness the lamentable phenomenon of priests leading sordid double lives or merely living as wealthy bon vivants when they have been consecrated to follow the Crucified—for they would know Him whom they take into their trembling and unworthy hands. Their teaching and preaching would therefore be orthodox and alive. We would not see Holy Communion given to public evildoers like pro-abortion politicians or others who manifestly disregard the teachings of the Church. The Church has every right to refuse Communion to such, despite the rhetoric of cowardly hierarchs who instruct us that we have to assume that the killers of innocents are approaching in good conscience. No one has a “right” to Holy Communion, and there are clear norms for properly disposing oneself to receive the Gift.

We also would not see churches designed so that people face each other, while the celebrant drones on about building up the worshiping community. After reading what some hierarchs say about liturgy and Eucharist (which, I noticed in a recent missalette, is now “eucharist”), I’m afraid that what the worshiping community is worshiping is the worshiping community instead of God. Traditionally—and this is still true in the Eastern Churches—the church is supposed to face eastward, and everybody in it is supposed to be facing the same way. The priest stands at the head of the people, leading them toward Christ. The tired old complaint has been, “I don’t like the priest turning his back to me.” Get yourself out of the center of the world! It’s not about you, or the priest’s position in relation to you! The priest isn’t turning his back to you; he’s turning his face to Christ—and you should be too! But why should everyone be facing east? Because, symbolically, since it is the direction of the rising sun, it is the place from which He is expected to return—see also Mt. 24:27, “As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”—and it has always been an essential mark of the Christian that he is one who awaits the return of his Savior. But I would shudder to see the results of a poll asking how many really believe in the Second Coming of Christ! Restoration of the Eucharist will bring a restoration of proper Christian eschatology—uniting “I am with you always” to “I am coming back for you.”

This is just a brief reflection, but take some time to think about it yourself. I don’t say that recovery of true faith and reverence for the Eucharist will solve every particular difficulty in the Church, but it will positively affect the whole life of the Church. For the Eucharist is not one issue among many but is intimately and necessarily related to all that is truly Christian, so it can’t help but renew the Church. Restore the Eucharist and the priesthood is renewed, the laity are enkindled, the fruit of the Spirit flourishes, liturgical art and music are beautiful once more—for they are once again the fruit of adoration instead of narcissism—the joy and the depth of the life of the Gospel of Christ are manifest everywhere. When the Eucharist is really at the center of faith and life, true humility and selfless service replace intellectual pride and power struggles—and all the evils that flow from irreverence, loss of faith, compromises with the “world,” and cheap, feel-good religion are cast out.

What can you do? Try to find like-minded people in your parish and petition for Eucharistic adoration, for one thing (this applies only in the Latin rite, but that’s mainly what this is about). Make it known to your priests (respectfully, humbly) that you are spiritually hungry, that you want to learn about the mystery of God in Christ, the sacraments, and the word of God. Ask them how you can increase your reverence for the Eucharist and bear more fruit from Holy Communion. I try to give a little food for thought on this blog, but it will take many priests all over the country to spread the fire of the Holy Spirit. Every individual effort helps, though, so be yourself a window through which the light of Christ can shine. If no one else in your parish believes anymore, then you believe and be the first spark of true life. God will work with that in his own way.

Pray that Christ will once again be the center of his Church in the Holy Eucharist, and we will soon see the end of all the havoc wreaked by those who have lost their faith but still cling to positions of authority. And pray that the faithless will be enlightened and will fall facedown before the Holy God, who lives and reigns in his Holy Church—if only we would recognize Him!—and who calls us to holiness by abiding in us, and we in Him, through the divine Mystery of the Bread from Heaven.

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