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

Archive for October, 2007

On Weeding God’s Field

Chapter 13 of the Gospel of St Matthew is a treasury of parables. Several of them have to do with seeds and plants. I’d like to reflect a bit on the parable of the weeds and the wheat (vv. 24-30 and 36-43).

wheat-and-weeds.jpgThis is a parable that has at times perplexed many (myself included). The main reason for this is, I think, the following. The weeds in the parable “are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.” Now Jesus is talking about people here, evil people, while the wheat, the “good seed” refers to good people, the “sons of the Kingdom.” The world is the field in which all these seeds have been sown, some by Christ and some by Satan.

Knowing this, we might wish to ask, along with the servants who were tending the Master’s field, if we shouldn’t just pull up the weeds so that the wheat can grow unhindered and unthreatened. The Master told the servants that if they pulled up the weeds, the wheat might be uprooted (I am reminded of Abraham’s dialogue with God over the fate of Sodom—would He destroy the good along with the evil?). So the conclusion was to let the weeds grow along with the wheat, and at harvest time they would be separated—the wheat going into the Master’s granary and the weeds into the fire.

The Master is taking a bit of a risk here. The weeds could possibly take over the whole field and choke off the majority of the wheat. Yet the Lord seems to be more patient than his servants in awaiting the final outcome. This seems to hold true even today. When we see evil we might wish to immediately uproot it (though if we find it in ourselves, we really should!). After all, did not St Paul say: “Drive out the wicked person from among you”? (1Cor. 5:13). That is rather hard to reconcile with Jesus’ “Let them grow together,” to be separated only on the Day of Judgment. Now it’s true that Jesus was presenting a general panorama of life in this world and Paul was dealing with a specific individual case. (And Jesus did say, “Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted,” though He didn’t say when. Obviously, those planted by the devil are not planted by the Father.)

We may simply have to accept that there is a “hierarchy of truth” in the Scriptures, i.e., while they are all inspired by the Holy Spirit, some are more important than others. Jesus said, for example, “Do not swear by Jerusalem” (which few people nowadays would be tempted to do anyway), and also “Do not commit adultery” (which way too many people do, to their ruin). We have to give the greater weight to the more important commandment. Likewise, the Church has always given pride of place to the Gospels, for the words of the incarnate Son of God are more profound than the words of the greatest saint, even St Paul (contra what some people seem to think!). So, acknowledging that there may be some cases in which it is truly God’s will to drive out evildoers from our midst or from positions from which they could do great harm to many (for Paul’s letters are still the word of God), we must take very seriously the Lord’s teaching on the weeds and the wheat.

When St John Chrysostom commented on this parable, he said that the Master allowed the weeds to grow along with the wheat in the hope that at least some of the weeds will become wheat. Now this doesn’t happen in nature, but we’re talking about people here. Evildoers can repent (and many have done so), and thus they are no longer children of the devil but of God’s Kingdom instead. St Peter says that God delays his coming—what Jesus calls the harvest—so that “all should reach repentance” (2Peter 3:9). This may very well be the reason that the wicked are allowed to remain on earth in the midst of the righteous.

There is also the possibility, tragically, that some of the wheat can become weeds through apostasy or perseverance in grievous sin. There are many factors involved, but our free will is one of the chief reasons why God doesn’t come in right away and apply the sickle.

But if the righteous are grieved, and even severely tried or persecuted, because the weeds are not yet uprooted, this does not mean that God is unjust. The day is coming when “The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire… Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” As Jesus remarked to some who were arguing with Him (see Jn. 8:34-47), they do the works of their father (the devil), so these will go to their father’s infernal kingdom, while those who follow Jesus will go to the Kingdom of the heavenly Father.

So this parable is a call to patience, to trust, and to perseverance in righteousness. We ought to pray patiently that the “weeds” of this world become “wheat” through repentance and faith. If God’s patience is for the sake of their salvation, ours should be too. We should also trust that no one ultimately gets away with anything before God. No one can be a “weed” all his life and escape the fires of Hell. There will be a final separation, but we have to let God take care of that. We must also do our utmost to persevere in doing God’s will, so that we, who consider ourselves “wheat,” might not end up as weeds through negligence and carelessness concerning habitual sins. Remember what St Paul said about the wild and cultivated olive branches (see Rom. 11:17-24).

Ultimately, it is a mystery, for we know that while weeds grow along with wheat, while evildoers live next door to the righteous, good people are going to get hurt, scandalized, defiled, even killed. God seems to save the majority of his rewards and punishments for the End, so that it often seems that evil prospers and righteousness suffers. So be it. He warned us that this would be the case, but that we should still rejoice, for our reward will be great in Heaven.

We still have to speak out against evil, and pray much, for this is part of the process of turning weeds into wheat. What we don’t want to do, however, is to return evil for evil, hatred for hatred, violence for violence, in the effort to weed the field. The Master is patient, yet uncompromising; merciful, but not naïve; loving, without ever backing down from the truth. Let us be like Him in this world, so that when justice is finally done, we will delight to find ourselves shining like the sun in the Kingdom of our Father.

Approved for Suffering

What is it that everyone flees from yet never succeeds in doing so, that everyone hates but ends up doing anyway, that the more one avoids the more one runs into, that becomes harder when resisted and easier when accepted, that is in some ways the worst and in other ways the best thing that could happen to us? Why, suffering, of course!

St Peter talks a lot about suffering in his First Epistle—oddly enough, I suppose, since he also talks a lot about the joy of salvation and life in Christ. But let’s see what he has to say about it, for suffering can be quite useful in this life, but utterly useless in the next, should we be so unfortunate as to end up in the place of eternal suffering. We want to make the best use of it now—since it is inevitable anyway—and be free for everlasting joy when this present life has run its troubled course.

As I wrote last week, St Peter says in chapter 1 that we are bound to “suffer various trials,” which are meant to test our faith, as gold is tested and purified in the fire. Sufferings generally don’t seem like mere tests, for it’s hard to be sufficiently detached from them to view them objectively, calmly, and with the spirit of faith. Usually we approach them with screaming, grumbling, weeping, or banging our heads against the wall. Yet St James says—for the same reasons as St Peter—that we ought even to “count it all joy” when we are afflicted with various trials and sufferings. (When I can do that myself, I’ll tell you how it is possible.) But we at least ought to try to temper our reactions and to summon a bit of trust in God to help carry us through.

There’s one place in agony.jpgchapter 2 of First Peter where I hit a kind of snag. It starts off hopefully enough: “One is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” The “unjustly” is the catch here, for he goes on to say: “For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently?” Most of us pretty much deserve what we suffer; we are “punished” because we do something wrong. But we seem to chafe even at our little trials, deserved though they be. But now we hear that there is no merit in taking a beating—patiently, even—if we do in fact deserve it. He goes on to say: “But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval.” The Scriptures are always calling us to the heights of virtue; never do we hear, “Blessed are the mediocre, for they will somehow get by.”

I would submit that even if there is no special grace for enduring just punishments, we ought still to take our licks patiently and without complaint. For we would only add to our debt by resisting this simple justice. But let’s see why it is such a good thing to accept undeserved sufferings patiently. “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” Well, that effectively silences all those who say that we don’t have to suffer because Christ suffered for us. Scripture says his suffering was an example that we are called to follow! St Peter goes on to explain how Christ suffered innocently “that we might die to sin and live for righteousness.” Part of our following Christ’s example is found in chapter 3: “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary, bless…” And again, “if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.”

So it is clear that even though suffering is inevitable, at least to some extent, for the whole human race, the divinely approved suffering is that which we suffer unjustly, for righteousness sake. This is “losing one’s life” for the sake of Christ and his Gospel. We shouldn’t think that if some porno shop owner, for example, trips over a display rack of smut and breaks his leg, that his suffering will be meritorious and blessed by God. The same holds true if someone breaks a few fingers punching out an enemy in a barroom brawl, or if some pervert is jilted by his promiscuous partner (the caption under the above picture was: “Not all pain is gain”). St Peter makes the clear distinction in chapter 4: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God.”

“Do not be surprised,” he says, “at the fiery ordeal that comes upon you… But rejoice in so far as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” At the risk of belaboring the point he says, yet again: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought…”

Notice, though, that suffering is not an end in itself, but rather is something we are called to endure cheerfully now, so that we will attain the place of everlasting joy in the life of the world to come. Lest he let a chapter go by without some teaching on suffering (and lest we think we are somehow being singled out for suffering) St Peter says in chapter 5: “Resist [the devil], firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.” Suffering is required, so let’s not search for loopholes or some sort of a better deal. But let’s also realize how blessed we shall be for making the effort to endure all things for the love of Christ, to follow in his footsteps—not merely taking a deserved beating, but accepting even unjust suffering for his sake. Thus “you have God’s approval.” And in the long run, isn’t that the only thing that really matters?

This My Son (part 2)

In the father’s explanation to the servants of why there should be a banquet on this occasion we come to the heart of the story, the essence of the mystery: “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Let us linger on the power and significance of these three words.

What the son had done was not the issue for the father; the issue was who he was. What he had done, however wicked, could never change the fact that he was his father’s son. The son realized his unworthiness to be intimately associated (and recognized as such) with this good, generous, long-suffering and loving man. But those three words, prodigal2.jpg“this my son,” immediately and completely overruled the son’s “no longer worthy.” All was forgiven, all was forgotten in the affirmation of the boy’s mysteriously unbreakable relationship with his father, which defined, in his father’s eyes, the son’s true self.

“This my son” means, “I know what he did, but it no longer matters.” “This my son” means, “I love him, and it is enough that he is restored to me.” “This my son” means “My joy is complete, for I could have lost him, yet he has come home.” “This my son” means, “He will always be my son, I will always love him, he will always have a place in my home and in my heart.” It means so much more than can be expressed in a few words, but in silent contemplation we can receive the beginnings of the awareness of the immensity of the Father’s love. “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ… that he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace…” (Eph. 2:4-7).

What is God trying to communicate to us through the parable of the prodigal son? First of all, I think it’s clear that we need to put ourselves in the place of the son, not primarily to reflect on our sinfulness or the extent of our wandering away from the Father (though we do need to do this), but mainly to try to understand the depths of divine love and what it means to be in a filial relationship with God. When the father says, “this my son,” it means much more than “this my servant” or “this my colleague” or even “this my friend.” There is an ineffable mystery here that defies any attempt at adequate explanation.

I remember leaving to enter the monastery (having been something of a prodigal myself) and saying good-bye to my parents at the airport. My mother embraced me with tears, saying only, “My son!” Since I was longing to look to what lay ahead and not to what lay behind, that struck me at the time as being just a tad melodramatic, but now I see that she was summing up everything that could possibly be said about her love for me. So when God the Father says, “this my son,” a whole world of everlasting love, boundless compassion, unrelenting vigilance and tenacious fidelity opens up to us.

God’s love is passionate, unquenchable—not the benign tolerance of some distant Grandpa in the Sky. He knew that sin could spoil his plan for our eternal joy, so God threw caution to the wind as He placed the ultimate act of love. He sent his only-begotten Son Jesus to the Cross, to make sure that nothing could stand in the way of his urgent desire to pour out his torrential tenderness into every human heart.

The gift of God in Christ to each of us is divine adoption. While everyone is created in the image of God, we don’t fully become children of God until we are united to the Father’s beloved Son. There is a relationship implicit here that goes far beyond that of Creator/creature or even Master/disciple. Divine adoption is a free gift, yet it is not an intrinsic part of our human constitution. But it is never withheld from anyone who wishes to receive it. God desires that everyone be daughters and sons in his Son.

Through this parable, God wants us to realize that we can never stray so far as to be denied the possibility of return. More than that, God is actively vigilant in seeking our restoration to his fatherly embrace. He will allow us in the first place, however, to “leave home” and squander our inheritance, for He accepts to bear the often-painful results of respecting the irreplaceable gift of our free will. It is also true that we personally have to make the decision to “arise and go to the Father”—but once we do, He will run to us, even though we feel like we are “still a long way off.” The reason that God does this is that He loves us for who we are, and does not identify us with what we have done.

When we know that the Father’s love bestows upon us a “worthiness” far beyond anything we could manufacture ourselves, we can begin to live as his faithful children. Though we have the freedom to renounce his love and use his gifts for selfish or even evil purposes, He will still receive us back when we have a change of heart. The Father will have compassion on us and embrace us in our filthiness. As we stammer through our sorrowful litany of sins, He will already be calling for clean garments, a ring, and the Eucharistic banquet.

I haven’t said anything about the elder son of the parable. That could be another whole post. But there is one final point I wish to make here. The elder son wished to distance himself from his wayward brother because of his own self-righteous resentment. Breathing rage through his clenched teeth, he said to his father: “this son of yours…has devoured your living with harlots,” though his real grievance was, “and you killed for him the fatted calf.” But the father, wishing not only to bestow compassion but also to encourage it in his children, deftly countered his eldest by responding, “this your brother was dead, and is alive…”

When we have finally found our home in the heart of God; when we have walked the painful journey (perhaps over and over) from the distant, cold country of sin to the warm hearth of the Father’s house; when we have experienced his inexplicable unquestioning compassion; when we discover how good it feels to be loved for who we are in the eyes of the Lover; when we have tasted the joy of the banquet of renewed life and inner peace; when the fruits of divine mercy elicit in us spontaneous thanks for all God has done for us; then the Father will gently direct our attention to those brothers and sisters of ours, saying, “Go now and do likewise.”

This My Son (part 1)

Jesus told a story about a wealthy father who had two sons. The younger son, in an act of selfishness and impudence, insisted upon receiving his inheritance while his father was still alive. In that time and culture, such a demand would have been considered a grave insult to his father. Then, to add injury to insult, he squandered his father’s riches, living with lowbrows, ladies of the evening, and other denizens of the darker corners of the far country to which he fled.

pigs.jpgFalling on hard times, running out of money (and the pseudo-friends it can buy), and finding himself not only in a famine-stricken land, but also in the miry depths of starving degradation, Jesus says that he “came to his senses.” Well, I guess that wouldn’t be too hard, when you’re dying of hunger and you know where you can go to get regular meals. “I will arise and go to my father,” he brilliantly resolved. At this point he was still ruled by self-interest, and we can’t yet call it an experience of repentance or conversion. But, rehearsing his lines as he trudged homeward, he began to see why he got into this mess in the first place: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Included in his penitential plan was his self-demotion to the status of a servant.

We might think that it was only the growling of his belly at work here, since his first thought was that his father’s servants had more than enough to eat. But actually to go through with his plan would have been an enormous and ongoing humiliation for him. He would have to live on his father’s property with the servants, knowing that everyone knew the heights from which he had fallen, hearing the behind-his-back snickering over his lost dignity (not to mention his non-existent inheritance). No longer a son. All rights and privileges forfeit. But perhaps he had read the psalm: “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the dwellings of the wicked.” And here his conversion begins.

I’m more interested, however, in his father. The father was not calculating like his son. He wasn’t figuring out the most prudent or just response to his son’s actions, should the ungrateful rascal ever begin to see straight and decide to come home. The father of that broken boy really shines when his moment comes. In this parable we find the Bible’s finest human analogy to God the Father.

As the repentant rogue approached his father’s house, but while he was “still a long way off,” the father caught sight of him and ran toward him. How is it that the father saw him so far away? He had to be looking for him, waiting for him, probably every day since he left. The Scripture says that he “saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Before we look at these things he did, let’s notice what he didn’t do. The father didn’t see him and regard him with contempt, as he could have. He didn’t wait there with his arms folded, with “I told you so” written all over his face, as his groveling son drew near. He didn’t withhold affection or derive some self-righteous satisfaction out of the boy’s blubbering confession. Not only did he not punish him (as the little nogoodnik deserved), he didn’t even let him finish speaking before ordering a party thrown in his honor! But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here.

Try to imagine how the father felt. He loved his son, even though his grievous and repeated sin made the boy “no longer worthy” to hold that filial place of honor. Day after day he would watch, thinking, “Will today be the day he returns?” When the father saw him approaching in the distance, all his paternal tenderness welled up within him, and he could not think of him any more (if he ever did) as the unworthy one, the rebellious one. He had compassion. He ran to him, disregarding his own dignified stature. He ran—huffing and puffing, robes flying in the wind, tears escaping the corners of his eyes. All that mattered to him was that his son had come home. The father embraced and kissed him, even though he was probably pig-sty filthy and in desperate need of a bath.

There’s something mysteriously tenacious about love, something that pierces hearts and drops anchor within, forging a bond that even betrayal cannot break. The heart of the father was always connected to the heart of the son, even when the latter went to a far country, even when he seemed to have passed the point of no return. Love lived within the father, and he lavished it upon the unlovable son, who had finally ceased to seek it among the bittersweet fruits of the ersatz Eden in which he had vainly hoped to realize his reckless dreams.

So the son fell into his father’s embrace and confessed. By this time the servants were gathering around. When he said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” the servants were probably nodding and saying to the father with their eyes, “He’s right, you know.” But the father would have none of it. Not only did he not question him about his immoral escapades, he didn’t even let him finish his rehearsed confession.

“Quick!” he cried. “Bring the best robe and put it on him, put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet…” The father was not merely concerned with protecting the boy’s bruised feet or sprucing up his appearance. These acts were highly significant. Servants went barefoot; the children of the householder wore shoes. The father would not allow his son to be regarded as a servant. Putting the ring on his hand was like giving him the king’s signet. In the words of his father to the elder brother: “all I have is yours.” So he also received back his inheritance. The festal robe was a sign of gladness and of favor (and on another level has baptismal significance). And so the celebration began.

To be continued…

Kept in Heaven

There’s some good news and bad news in the first chapter of the First Letter of Peter. In addition, there’s more good news and bad news and good news and bad news. We’ll take a brief look at it here, and hopefully discover that the bad news isn’t really bad after all, and that the good news is really good!

The first bit of good news is that we are “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit.” The purpose of this is “for obedience to Jesus Christ.” Now for some this may be the beginning of the bad news, simply because “obedience” has such a negative connotation in our “I gotta be me” age and society. But let’s see what we are destinedheaven.jpg for in virtue of our baptism, that is, our being “born anew”: “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” The next phrase, which “locates” that inheritance, can be taken as either (or both) good news and bad news: it is “kept in Heaven.” The bad part would be that if it is kept in Heaven, we can’t fully access it from Earth. But the good news is that if there is an inheritance in Heaven with our name on it, then nothing can take it away; it can’t be lost or stolen or damaged or recalled. The only catch here is that there are certain indispensable requirements for actually and personally receiving that inheritance and hence enjoying its eternal benefits.

More good news: this inheritance, kept in Heaven, is “for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” So we have the divine power of faith on our side, which is one of the main requirements for receiving that heavenly inheritance. Now our salvation, says the Apostle, will be “revealed in the last time”—which means, if words mean what they say, that it’s not revealed just yet. This means we live in faith and trust, not with a presumption of salvation which disregards how we actually live our lives. So don’t run around saying, “I’m saved! I’m saved!” It’s better, as we do in our liturgical prayers, to run around saying (to God): “Save me! Save me!” The ongoing dialogue and relationship with God gives much more assurance of that revealed-in-the-last-time salvation than does a (supposed) once-for-all profession of faith.

In this end-time salvation and kept-in-Heaven inheritance we rejoice, says St Peter. But this is priming us for a bit of bad news: “though now…you may have to suffer various trials.” The joy of what awaits us carries us through present sufferings, as it was even for Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). Now if we survive the test of faith, which is essentially what trials and sufferings are, this faith—“more precious than fire-tried gold”—will (more good news) “redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Not only that, “as the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.”

Could there be any bad news after that? Well, let’s see. “As obedient children [there’s the o-word again] do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but…be holy in all your conduct.” Some people might consider this bad news, if they are still rather fondly conformed to the passions of their former ignorance. After all, it’s much more difficult to “be holy in all your conduct” than to go with the flow of self-serving desires and inordinate indulgences. Yet if we have any sense at all, we know that we “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [our] fathers…with the precious blood of Christ… through him [we] have confidence in God.” But confidence is based on reality, not self-deception. If we say we believe in Christ but live like pagans, then our confidence is illusory.

Now, “having purified your souls through obedience [why does he keep saying that?]… love one another earnestly from the heart.” This should be good news, but for some it is bad, or at least bad concerning those whom they do not wish to love, or find hard to love, or are too lazy to make the effort to love. But if we want to claim that inheritance kept in Heaven for us, we had better remember that Jesus said what we do to others we do to Him. We don’t want to step up to claim our inheritance on Judgment Day only to discover that we had repeatedly ignored, condemned, ridiculed, hurt, despised, or gossiped about Jesus all through our lives. No heavenly inheritance for such! (see Mt 25:31-46).

Finally, the Apostle reiterates that true believers have been “born anew” of “imperishable seed, through the living and abiding Word of God.” We may think it bad news that “all flesh [i.e., you and I] is grass,” which withers and dies, but “the word of the Lord”—which, remember, lives within our immortal souls—“abides forever.” So let us do whatever the Lord requires of us in order to receive the imperishable inheritance kept in Heaven for us, the salvation ready to be revealed in the end, the reward of fire-tried faith. I’ll close here with some good news, as St Peter closes his first chapter: “The word of the Lord abides forever. That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

The Heart’s Abundance

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). This seems to be, for many, one of the favorites among the Beatitudes. Perhaps it is because it begins to rouse the innate longing to see God that lies (even if dormant) pure-heart.jpgin every human heart. It may also be because most of us are aware of some measure of impurity in our hearts, and we long to “be made clean” (to echo the prayer of the leper, Mark 1:40).

Scripture has much to say about the heart, and we will look at a couple examples here, though we can’t hope to get below the tip of the iceberg (hopefully that metaphor does not reflect the actual “temperature” of our hearts!). The first one is the source of this post’s title, and though I think it has a lovely “ring” to it, the passage is actually one of the more stern in the New Testament—yet it comes from the mouth of Love Himself. He was at the time speaking to the hypocrites for whom He reserved his most penetrating critiques:

“Either declare the tree good and its fruit is good, or declare the tree rotten and its fruit is rotten, for a tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you say good things when you are evil? For from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37).

Permit me to digress slightly for the purpose of meeting a possible objection. One might say that a person may speak beautiful words but still have rotten heart, being a liar and deceiver who uses good and even holy words for selfish or evil purposes. Thus from an evil heart someone speaks good things. But the Lord’s word still stands. A person’s lying speech proves he is a liar, and from his evil store he produces deception, even though cloaked in eloquent or pious language. His deceit, however, may simply not be detected by his hearers, who will think his words come from a pure heart. But as Jesus said, a rotten tree will produce rotten fruit and a good tree good fruit, and in the end, the truth will be known.

Back to the pure heart. I really don’t know how to describe adequately the pure heart. “It takes one to know one,” as they say, so I find myself at a loss for words (though it somehow doesn’t stop me from writing!). We could perhaps consider it as purity from certain things, like lust, avarice, anger, bitterness, selfishness, etc, or as purity for something, like a bride’s virginal gift to her husband. Taking the “bottom line” approach, Kierkegaard spoke of purity of heart as “to will one thing,” i.e., to will God’s will. One can hardly say anything more to the point. The fathers sometimes speak of the purification of the heart as the restoration of the image of God within us that has been obscured or disfigured by sin and by insensitivity to spiritual realities.

Perhaps we could even understand the pure heart as the pearl of great price, much sought-after and highly prized. Here we come a little closer to an image that has impressed itself upon me. Since purity of heart is a many-splendored thing, I would liken the pure heart to a crystal prism that discerns and manifests the secret colors and deep mysteries concealed in the blinding white light of the Grace of God. Such a heart knows God and is known by Him. The pure heart is nothing less than a sanctuary for God in the soul of man. It is the “enclosed garden” in which the Beloved delights. The Body and Blood of Christ constitute the ultimate prescription for purification of the heart. A pure heart is a jeweled chalice for the Holy Mysteries, and a heart-being-purified is the grateful recipient of a soothing Balm for its wounds, of an invigorating Tonic for renewed vitality.

The one with a pure heart “sees” the Invisible: not looking upon the form of God, but humbly (and not without astonishment) recognizing the loving humility of God, which the proud will never see. We can only learn purity of heart from knowing and entering a relationship with the pure Heart of God who, in a humility that can only be divine, opens this treasure to us. In The Humility and Suffering of God, Francois Varillon writes:

“If God is invisible, it is certainly because he is Spirit and immanent to us… But it is also…because he is more intimate than the most intimate of ourselves. ‘Intimate’ means—as ‘immanent’ cannot do—that God embraces the soul in love. He is the Other, but not remote. He is hidden. Humbly hidden, for we could not see him and remain free. The invisibility of God is his humble respect for our freedom… God is Love. But in love there is something we do not perceive right away: humility. To bow before the greatness of another is not, properly speaking, humility… When a smaller being pays homage to a greater one, this is not the proof of an exceptionally noble soul. When the greater one, however, bows respectfully before the smaller one, this points to love in the fullness of its freedom and riches… His gesture is not condescending; his look is not overbearing. There is no constraint: spontaneity is absolute, it expresses love just as breathing signifies life. One must be immensely great to breathe in such a manner. One must be God.”

Lest waxing eloquent draw us from the practical immediacy of Our Lord’s words quoted above, we must decide to take unflinching inventory of our hearts’ abundance. (One cannot expect to experience the divine joys and wonders with a sullied heart.) You can start by paying more attention to your words: do they hurt, do they ridicule, do they criticize, do they judge, do they manipulate, are they irreverent or profane, are they sarcastic or slanderous, are they merely useless, mindless chatter? These will give some indication as whether your heart is a “store of goodness” or a “store of evil.”

We’re not done yet. Words are only the beginning. “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person…” (Matthew 15:19-20). The heart is the wellspring of all that expresses who we are. If the source is tainted, then what flows from it will be impure as well. That is why the healing and purification of the heart itself is more important than restraining one vice or another—get rid of them all by purifying the source!

The abundance of the purified heart will be manifested in love: love for God and love for neighbor. It is not sufficient—though it is necessary—to correct our idle or harmful words, to uproot defiling thoughts, emotions, and acts, and even to attend to developing a “spiritual life.” We are called not only to heal our faults and re-direct our energies, but simply and completely to give our lives away out of love. This is what the Pure Heart in the breast of Jesus was beating for. This is what He calls us to, whether by “wake-up” warnings or by gentle invitations. A pure heart can do nothing other than love, and thus it will beat in unison with the Master’s. It will not count the cost of loving as Jesus loves, for it knows intuitively that joy and suffering are the two sides of the coin of love, which is sacrificial by nature. So those deemed “blessed” for their inner purity will embrace the Cross now as willingly as they will welcome the first dawn of the New Heavens and New Earth.

Everyone wants to see God and no one wants to be condemned for unseemly speech. An abundance of grace flowing from a pure heart will bring realization to these desires. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to speak and act out of a “store of goodness,” bringing blessing wherever we go, living a life that expresses divine love and humility? This is true nobility of soul. But is it really possible to attain to purity of heart while living in the mud puddle of daily life in the world? It is, and for one reason alone: “The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Hell for the Haughty and Heaven for the Humble

This Sunday the Lord gives us a striking lesson in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). But the lesson is not primarily about riches and poverty—it’s more about Heaven and Hell, and about what we need to do to enter the former and avoid the latter.

Even though we might get this impression from what Abraham says to the rich man in Hell, the simple fact of having riches does not infallibly send one to Hell, nor does the simple fact of being materially destitute guarantee one’s entrance into Heaven. But we see, from this Gospel passage and others, that wealth tends to breed the bad qualities that dispose one to damnation, and poverty often provides the opportunities for one to turn wholly to God.

rich-man-lazarus.JPGSo let’s see what’s going on in the Gospel. The rich man is described as being decked out in the finest clothing and eating the richest food—every day! Already there is something of a problem here, and not only for his waistline. For his lifestyle serves to enforce the inequity between rich and poor, and there’s no indication that he ever shared any of his excess wealth with the needy—rather, the presence of Lazarus at his gate makes it clear that the very opposite is the case.

The basis for the rich man’s condemnation to Hell was not his riches but his pride, and the rotten fruit of his pride: his self-centered lack of compassion and generosity. The rich man simply didn’t care that others—whom he could easily have helped—were in dire need of food and medical care. How many times must he have walked right by poor Lazarus as he went in and out of the gate of his mansion! He did not even have the excuse of being merely oblivious to someone else’s need, bad as that is—he knew Lazarus, and knew him by name! “Send Lazarus,” he cried to Abraham from the flames of Hell.

Now Lazarus was not only poor but sick. The Gospel says he was “full of sores.” Yet we can infer that he was a humble man. There’s no evidence that he was angry or bitter about his poverty or illness, nor was he making a violent protest about the social inequities of his day. He would have been content, the Scripture says, with eating the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. After spending his life in humiliation and suffering, he died and was carried by angels to Heaven—here poetically referred to as “Abraham’s bosom.” Abraham was known as the “friend of God,” so to find a place close to him in the hereafter is also to be counted among the friends of God. The rich man also died, and, according to some manuscripts, was “buried in Hell.” Others punctuate it differently, saying “he was buried; and in Hell, being in torment,” etc. I think the impact and the contrast are stronger if we read, “the poor man died and was carried by the angels… the rich man also died and was buried in Hell…” Notice here the contrast, and the reduction of the two to general categories (Lazarus’ name is not used here): the poor man, the humble man, goes to heaven; the rich man, the proud man, goes to Hell.

There’s an important passage of Scripture that finds its application here. It’s so important that it occurs in three different places in the Bible: first is it found in Proverbs, but then it is quoted in the New Testament, in the First Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of James. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Another version is “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Here we can see why the rich man went to Hell and Lazarus went to Heaven. We are saved by grace; without divine grace we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This text says that grace is given to the humble. Therefore humility is necessary for salvation. On the other hand, not only is grace not given to the proud, God positively opposes and resists them! That is why the rich man went to Hell—not merely because he was rich, but because his haughty selfishness closed his heart to compassion and charity; therefore what he failed to do for Lazarus he failed to do for Christ. And to such, as we read in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ will say on Judgment Day: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire…” (25:41).

Let us reflect upon this for a moment, for it is a serious issue. Most, if not all of us, are guilty of sins of pride, to a greater or lesser extent. Pride is, in a sense, at the root of all sin, for pride is at the root of all disobedience. Sin is fundamentally disobedience to the commandments of God. “Sin is lawlessness,” says St John (1Jn. 3:4). That is, sin is the breaking of the divine commandments. Well, Scripture says—repeatedly—that to the extent we bear pride within us, God opposes us, God resists us! Is there a worse possible predicament in which to find ourselves? St Paul says: if God is for us, who can be against us? But if we are proud, Scripture says that God Himself is against us! Who then can be for us, if we make ourselves God’s enemies by thinking and acting out of pride? No one can save us if we remain in that state, just as no one could save the proud rich man who was buried in Hell.

Pride is the most demonic of sins; it is the chief sin of satan himself. Pride cuts us off from grace, and hence separates us from God. Hell is the ultimate separation from God, so pride is a kind of foretaste of Hell. Abraham said to the rich man, who was begging for some relief from his torments: “no one can pass over from your side to ours or from our side to yours.” Pride is self-insulating. God cannot enter a proud heart, and a proud person will not be able to connect with God—though he might, if he is “piously” proud, delude himself into thinking that he is in union with God.

Pride is at work in two of the major sins that keep people out of Heaven: despair and presumption. You may think that hope is the opposite of despair, but it is not; presumption is. Hope is the virtuous middle ground between the extremes of despair and presumption. One who sins through despair believes his sins are too great to be forgiven—thus in his pride he sins against the mercy of God. One who sins through presumption is heedless of his sins and thinks he will be forgiven even if he doesn’t repent or confess his sins—thus in his pride he sins against the justice of God. This is one of the great post-Vatican II sins: “God is merciful, so why repent? God is merciful, so why confess? God understands, so He looks the other way at our sins, which we’ve decided aren’t really sins after all; what the Bible says is just not up to date.” But to think that we will be magically saved without repentance and confession is the most fatal of delusions.

So what can we do? How do we avoid the fate of the man who was buried in Hell and receive the reward of the man who was carried by angels to Heaven? Do we have to lie starving at the gates of the rich? No, but we have to start with the same humility of Lazarus. God gives grace to the humble and withholds it from the haughty. Humility isn’t merely walking around with one’s head bowed or refraining from loud-mouthed boasting. Our humility is basically measured by our degree of selflessness, of self-forgetfulness in quietly serving others, in sacrificing our own desires or preferences for those of others, out of love of God. The proud will think: We are called to love; people should love me more. We are called to be merciful; people should be more merciful to me. We are supposed to serve; so why don’t they serve me? But the humble person does not reflect on how little he is loved or served; rather he reflects and repents over how little he loves, how little he serves. The center of gravity is the other, not the self.

St Paul has the ultimate answer for us in the epistle (Gal. 2:16-20)—“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” “No longer I”—that should be our motto; we should post it somewhere so that we can see it every day. “No longer I, but Christ”—this is the eradication of pride; this is the foundation of humility. If I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me, then I needn’t fear the fate of the rich man, and I also needn’t fear the humiliations and temporal sufferings of the poor man. For Christ is my wealth and my hope, my food and my strength, my life and my destiny.

Let us, then, spare no effort in freeing ourselves from the pride that clings so tightly, and in pursuing the humility that may seem elusive but which is available to all who sincerely desire it. For God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble; He buries the proud in Hell, but sends angels to carry the humble to Heaven.

Hidden Benefits

storm-at-sea-2.jpgWe may think sometimes that the Lord is asleep in the boat as the storms rage around us, but we tend not to realize that there are things going on “behind the scenes” that we really don’t and can’t know. The Lord may have to ask us as He asked his terrified disciples: “Where is your faith?”

One of the things that is a reminder for me that the Lord is at work on our behalf even when we seem to have no evidence or experience of it is a text from the Byzantine Liturgy. There’s a prayer that the priest prays before the “Holy, holy, holy” which reads, in part: “…we give thanks to You, and to your only-begotten Son, and to your Holy Spirit: for all that we know and do not know, the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed upon us. We thank you also for this Sacrifice, which you have willed to accept from our hands…”

Having faith implies giving thanks to God, even when we don’t at the moment feel particularly grateful—or when we have reason to feel angry, anxious, depressed, etc. So in faith we give thanks, “for all that we know and do not know.” Many things we already know: God’s love for us manifested in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the many blessings we can hardly count: these are the “manifest benefits.” Chief among them is what the prayer goes on to say: we thank Him for the liturgical sacrifice of his precious Body and Blood. This is a known blessing, a manifest benefit, which we can hardly overestimate. The Eucharist alone ought to be sufficient for us to go on thanking the Lord, whatever else may be going wrong in our lives.

Yet we are also thanking Him for what we do not know, and these are the “hidden benefits.” We don’t know what his plans are for us, the graces He is preparing for us, the spiritual gifts that we may even have already received but of which we are as yet unaware. We don’t know what the future, even the near future, holds for us and what his saving and loving plans are working out silently and secretly. So we thank the Lord for his hidden benefits. It takes a lot of trust to thank God for what is unknown and hidden, but that’s what He asks of us.

We really ought to learn how to give God the benefit of the doubt. The greatness of the known and manifest benefits ought to give us confidence that there indeed unknown and hidden benefits kept for us in the treasury of Divine Love. R.W. Emerson once said: “All that I have ever seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all that I have not seen.”

One of the reasons we ought to trust God is simply because of what He has entrusted to us. The above prayer goes on: “We thank you also for this Sacrifice, which you have willed to accept from our hands—even though there stand before You thousands of archangels, and tens of thousands of angels, cherubim and seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed, soaring aloft on their wings: Singing, crying, exclaiming, and proclaiming the triumphal hymn: ‘Holy, holy, holy…’” Even though there are millions of holy and sinless angels at the service of God, He entrusts this all-holy ministry to the hands of sinful men. If He loves us that much, how could there not be many more unknown blessings awaiting us, many more hidden benefits already prepared?

So we go on to join the angels (who see, even though we don’t; whose benefits are all manifest, while ours are often hidden): “With these blessed Powers, O Master, who love mankind, we too cry out and say: Holy are You—truly all-holy—You and your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit. Holy are You—truly all-holy—and magnificent is your glory. You so loved your world as to give your only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life…” Give thanks, then, to the Lord, for what you know and for what you don’t, for the manifest and hidden benefits, for there is always more to his loving providence than meets the myopic eye.

A Testimony to Divine Mercy

I recently received a little testimony from a friend of mine who is devoted to the Divine Mercy. She read my post “Save a Soul Today!” and responded with a beautiful example from her own experience in this regard. If you’ve already forgotten about it, go back and read it again, and start praying the chaplet for the dying—the Lord will save them! This is a great contribution we can make to the salvation of souls, and it’s not difficult, either. Here’s the story:

“When I first learned the chaplet, a woman at St. Benedict’s after the 5:30pm Mass one day asked me to go pray for her next-door neighbor, who was in a coma, dying in the hospital, and had never even been baptized. She said he was a good man, but didn’t believe in God, and she was worried for his soul. I told her I felt kind of funny going to the hospital room of someone I didn’t know—what if the nurse thought I was doing something weird, or the family was there and didn’t like it? She just said to think about it, and if I wanted to go, it was such and such a hospital and room number.

“Well, I decided to go, for Jesus, and right away, even before dinner, so He would be inside me and could direct my ways more easily. When I got there, the nurses were all at the other end of the hall doing something together, and the room was dark except for the light over his bed, where he was sleeping (in a coma). So I didn’t go in, but just knelt down in the doorway and began praying the chaplet. As soon as I did, the tears started flowing down my face in profusion! I wondered, ‘What is going on? Do I perhaps know this guy but not his name?’ So I kept praying the chaplet, but at the end decided to tiptoe in and just have a look at his face. Well, he was a stranger, but the amazing thing is that tears were flowing down his face, too!

“I hadn’t been home 15 minutesjesus_heaven.jpg before that lady at church called me and said not to bother to go, because the man had just died! So, I am a true believer in the words Jesus told St. Faustina—she said [that the Lord told her] if you prayed the chaplet at the bedside of someone who was dying He would no longer be their just judge but only their merciful savior! And when [St Faustina] prayed it at the bedside of someone who was dying she could see the demons flee screaming, with their hands over their ears, as God’s mercy enveloped the dying person. I love the way Jesus works!”

So do I!

Is it Really a Holy Communion?

I’m not questioning the reality of the Holy Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ. But after reading something by the Coptic monk Matthew the Poor in The Communion of Love, I have to wonder if what happens when we receive the Eucharist is always a real union. The fault for this lies, of course, not in our Lord but in ourselves.

First of all, we must understand what we are receiving in Holy Communion and what it means. The Eucharist is not some sort of spiritual “treat” by which we automatically become filled with grace. As with just about everything in the spiritual life, everything hinges on the reality of our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ—and what we are willing to do out of love for Him.

Matthew the Poor explains something about the mystery of the first Holy Thursday: “When He offered His mystical-supper.jpgbody to His disciples at the Last Supper, He offered it crucified by an act of His will before it was crucified by the hands of sinners, and sacrificed in intention before it was sacrificed by the rulers… The mystical body that was offered at the Last Supper in the form of bread and wine is the deepest example man has known of the invisible being seen in the invisible and the future being actualized in the present… He saw the cross standing and on it the body being slain and the blood being shed; He saw Himself content with it all. And so He took bread and filled it with the mystery of the broken body, and [He took] wine, and filled it with the mystery of the shed blood, and He fed His disciples. They ate from His hands the mystery of His will and drank the mystery of His love, the mystery of His sufferings, the mystery of salvation.

“Therefore, when we share in the mystery of the body and the blood in the Eucharist, we share not only in the cross, but also in a mystical life poured out and a body that has struggled with severe fasting, deprivation, want, and pain… the communion in the flesh and blood is an expression that means communion in the whole life of Christ that is fraught with tribulations, fasts, and suffering… We fast and offer our bodies as a sacrifice; the outward form of this is bearing fatigue, but its essence is the intentional acceptance of death, that we may be counted fit to be mystically united in the flesh and blood of Christ… How could those who do not sacrifice themselves be worthy of Him who sacrificed His life? If we eat of a sacrificed body and do not sacrifice our own selves, how can we claim that a union takes place? The Mystical Supper on Thursday, which is the intentional acceptance of a life of sacrifice, is but a preparation for accepting sufferings… Whenever we eat of the body and drink of the blood, we are mystically prepared for preaching the death of the Lord and confessing His resurrection…” (emphasis added).

I think that perhaps many people do not take Holy Communion seriously enough, do not examine themselves, as St Paul enjoins (1Cor. 11:27-30). This examination is not only to discover if our sins are sufficiently grievous to exclude us from the Holy Mysteries, but also to discover if we are on the “same page” as Jesus—if we are willing to offer the sacrifice of our lives to Him as He offered his for our sake. Of course, his sacrifice alone has power to forgive sin and to save the world, but we are not therefore saved by default, by accident, automatically. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, He requires us to abandon a self-centered life and to live a life that meets his own in the mystery of self-sacrifice. How can we come to receive the fruits of Jesus’ sacrificed life, his precious Body and Blood, if we are self-absorbed, indifferent, or lukewarm? Indeed, the Gift is given, but we have lost our capacity to receive it. It is like the seed of the Word sown along the footpath or among rocks or weeds—no fruit comes from it, because no true union was effected.

We also have to realize, as Matthew the Poor stated, that we received not only the risen Lord but the crucified Lord. True, He died once and is forever risen and in glory, but in the Holy Eucharist we receive Christ in all his mysteries, especially those of his passion and death. We eat a broken body, we drink shed blood. We eat and drink the Mystery of self-emptying love, of sacrificial suffering. We receive into ourselves the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice, and we offer own lives to Him in return, in faith and love, in thanksgiving and adoration. Only thus it is truly a Holy Communion.

The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is a testimony of Jesus’ everlasting love for us, an expression of his “thirst” for the salvation of souls, for whom He so painfully suffered and died. This thirst of Christ is what compelled Mother Teresa to live such a sacrificial life, spending herself completely to serve Him in the poor, and to bring souls to Him. I’ll conclude with a brief passage from the new book of her private writings, which opens to us the soul of a saint who stayed with Jesus on the Cross, and hence whose Holy Communions were real unions: “Why does Jesus say ‘I thirst’? … ‘I thirst’ is something much deeper than just Jesus saying ‘I love you.’ Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you—you can’t begin to know who He wants to be for you. Or who He wants you to be for Him.”

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