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

Archive for February, 2008

Cross of Glory

At this point, which is about halfway through the Lenten desert, the Church plants an encouraging signpost for the weary: the Cross of cross-of-glory.jpgChrist, which reminds us of the goal of our efforts and indeed of our whole life. This Sunday’s Offices focus not on the pain or the horrors of the Crucifixion, but on the glory of Christ’s triumph and of the joy this brings to the faithful: “Shine, Cross of the Lord, shine with the light of your grace upon the hearts of those who honor you. With love inspired by God, we embrace you, O desire of all the world. Through you our tears of sorrow have been wiped away; we have been delivered from the snares of death and have passed over to unending joy… Hail, life-giving Cross, the fair Paradise of the Church, Tree of incorruption that brings us the enjoyment of eternal glory: through you the hosts of demons have been driven back and the hierarchies of angels rejoice with one accord as the congregations of the faithful keep the feast. You are an invincible weapon, an unbroken stronghold; you are the victory of kings and the glory of priests…”

I could go on and on (as the services do!), but at the mention of kings and priests I’d like to pause, for that connects us to the Epistle for the day (Heb. 4:14 – 5:6). Christ is here described as our High Priest, and our access to Him is described as approaching the Throne of Grace. If Christ were King only and not Priest as well, we might envision the Throne of Grace as a kind of heavenly version of the massive, glittering thrones we expect earthly kings to be seated upon. But Christ as High Priest reigns from the throne of the Cross, for that is the source of the grace that we seek for help in time of need, and indeed for salvation itself. This grace was won for us at the supreme cost of the Lord’s self-offering on the Cross, the Sacrifice in which He is both Priest and Victim: the One who offers and is offered to the Father, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the One who receives our worship and whose sacrificed Body and Blood we receive in Holy Communion.

Christ’s high-priesthood is inseparable from his divine sonship. In what may seem to be a curious formulation, the author of Hebrews says that Christ was appointed High Priest by the Father, who said “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” It is almost as if sonship necessarily implies priesthood, for “You are my Son” is offered as the first “proof text” for Jesus’ high priesthood. Only after this is the pertinent psalm quoted: “You are a priest forever.” Something of this mystery is preserved in the sacramental order of the Church. A man must be baptized before he can be ordained a priest. He must be an adopted son of God before he can have a share in the sacrificial priesthood of Christ.

By the grace of the Holy Spirit working through the priestly ministry in the Church, Christ’s own sacrifice is perpetuated—not repeated, not added to, but simply made present in a mystical and sacramental manner for the sake of the sanctification of the faithful. This is our most fruitful and intimate access to the Throne of Grace.

But the priesthood of Christ extends, albeit in a different way, beyond the bounds of the sacramental ministry, because all who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ and thus have become sons and daughters of God. There is also a priesthood of the faithful, and this leads us to reflect upon the Gospel for this Sunday (Mark 8:34 – 9:1). This particular share in Christ’s priesthood does not give the faithful the grace and the command to make present the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection through offering the Divine Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, but it is still intimately related to the sacrificial mystery of the Cross.

St Paul and St Peter and the author of Hebrews tell us that God expects all Christians to offer spiritual sacrifices of good works, almsgiving, etc, which are pleasing to God. Jesus puts it in the context of the Cross—carrying our own crosses as a way of sharing in the grace of his Cross. He doesn’t offer it as an option, nor does He say to do this only “if you would be perfect.” No, Jesus prefaces his teaching on bearing ones cross by saying, “If anyone would come after me,” that is, if anyone wishes to be his disciple, the basic requirement is this: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him.

Here is where we are tested to see what we are made of, if our profession of faith is just words or if it is backed up by commitment, fidelity, and sacrifice. It is easy to sing about the joy and glory and victory of the Cross on feast days, but what happens when it is actually laid upon our shoulders? What happens when we are called to share in the mystery of Jesus’ redemptive suffering, when we are called to bear one another’s burdens, to resist temptations, to endure hardships and setbacks for the sake of the Gospel? Maybe our liturgical hymns go a little flat at this point. Maybe the “yes” we say on feast days begins to waver under the pressure of the daily grind.

Jesus doesn’t let up, however. He drives his point home: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Some translations read “life” instead of “soul,” and the Greek psyche can be translated either way, but if we’re going to say “life” it can only mean eternal life, that is, the life of the human being that is more than mere biological or earthly life. For everyone is going to lose his life, that is, endure bodily death, whether they gain the world or not. But Jesus is making a point here concerning something about which we have a choice. We don’t have a choice about eventually losing our bodily life. But we do have a choice about whether or not we are going to lose our immortal souls.

In order to secure the salvation of our souls, Jesus says we have to sacrifice our lives. We have to understand the plays on words here. First, if we really are concerned merely with saving, that is, prolonging as much as possible our bodily lives, we must know that we will eventually lose them. But people today don’t want to think about death. There are definite benefits to having reasonable concern for bodily health, but many people turn it into an obsession, seeking out the ultimate “anti-aging” drugs or herbs, undergoing endless cosmetic surgeries, trying desperately to preserve their quickly-fading youth. Underlying all these efforts is the fear of death, plastered over with the denial of death. But sooner or later, the naked truth will have to be faced.

For others, saving their lives means not primarily preserving physical youthfulness but simply having whatever they want as long as they can enjoy it. The selfish, the greedy, the hedonists all want to “save their lives,” that is, they make pleasure and comfort and wealth their goals, their idols, and any invitation to take up their crosses and follow the Crucified Carpenter of Nazareth is not only an unwelcome intrusion, it is viewed with contempt or ridicule. But Jesus is trying to warn them: what you are enjoying today will be gone tomorrow; you are trying to save your life, which you identify with your pleasures, but you will lose it—unless you decide to follow Me.

So then, to take up our crosses is to lose our lives, it is to exercise the sacrificial priesthood of daily life. It is to lose our preoccupation with ourselves, our health, our looks, our possessions, our comforts and all our idols, whatever they may be. Look at how much time you spend in any selfish occupation or fantasy and you will know what your idols are. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Jesus Christ, the King and High Priest who reigns from the Throne of Grace—the precious and life-giving Cross—calls us to come up higher, calls us out of self-preoccupation so that we can gain the eternal perspective that should characterize our world-view. He wants us to realize the unsurpassable value of our immortal souls, which are worth even losing our very lives to save. Nothing in this world is worth so much to justify exchanging our own souls for it. For this world is passing away, but Heaven remains forever.

Let each one of us, in the particular way and measure we share in the priesthood of Christ, take up our crosses as a spiritual sacrifice offered to God in union with Jesus. Let us not fear to follow Him, whatever the cost in this passing life. Lose your life to save it: that is the word of the Cross that our Lord Jesus shares with us today. As we accept that rough and heavy wood as our daily companion, let us lift up our eyes and see the Cross of Jesus opening the gates of Paradise to us. On that day all our hymns will find their fulfillment in truth: the Cross will shine like the New Jerusalem, with all the beauty and glory of God. And the Master will invite us to lay down the burdens we faithfully carried in this life, and to come and share his everlasting joy.

Pio’s Peace

I found a helpful passage on peace in one of St Padre Pio’s letters. It’s somewhat lyrical at first but it quickly becomes quite practical as far as discernment and spiritual fruits are concerned. Peace seems to be quite an elusive blessing for many, something that is longed for but never quite attained. And it may well be that peace, as least in the way we would imagine it, might be reserved for the life to come. Yet even if we do not properly understand peace in the Christian sense, there is a “peace that surpasses all understanding,” something that goes much deeper than holding-peace.jpgthe troubled surface of the sea of our souls. It’s still possible to walk serenely in this tumultuous world as well as to maintain some equilibrium in our own interior lives. Here’s what the saint had to say:

“Peace is simplicity of heart, serenity of mind, tranquility of soul, the bond of love. Peace means order, harmony in our whole being; it means continual contentment springing from the knowledge of a good conscience; it is the holy joy of a heart in which God reigns. Peace is the way to perfection, indeed in peace is perfection to be found. The devil, who is well aware of all this, makes every effort to have us lose our peace.

“We should be on the alert for every slightest sign of agitation, and as soon as we realize we have fallen into dejection we must turn to God with filial confidence and abandon ourselves completely to him. All agitation on our part is very displeasing to Jesus, since such uneasiness is never unaccompanied by imperfection and can always be traced to egoism and self-love.

“The soul must be saddened by one thing alone, offending God, and even in this we must be very cautious. We must be sorry, it is true, for our failings, but with a calm sorrow while we continue to trust in the divine mercy.

“We should also guard against certain reproaches and remorseful feelings in our own regard, for more often than not these come from the devil with a view to disturbing the peace we enjoy in God. If similar reproaches and remorseful feelings serve to humble us and make us careful to act well, without depriving us of our trust in God, we may be sure they come from God. But if they cause us confusion and make us fearful, diffident, slothful and remiss in doing good, we may be certain they come from the devil and as such we must drive them away and take refuge in confidence in God.

“If we keep our souls calm and peaceful in every difficult situation, we will gain much ground in the ways of God; on the other hand, if we lose this peace everything we do with a view to eternal life will yield little or no fruit…

“An afflicting thought, if it comes from God, though afflictive is at the same time comforting and fills the soul with heavenly trust; a thought which afflicts and does not comfort you, which causes you to fall into despondency, comes from Satan.”

Thus we see that peace is not merely the absence of struggle, but it is the fruit of struggle—the right kind of struggle, anyway, the struggle for fidelity to God. Peace is something that comes from God, something that contradicts and casts out the counterfeits of the devil.

Let us then go forth in peace, in the name of the Lord, at the same time fighting the good fight and finding some solace in the grace and mercy of God. We can’t expect to be free of strife in this life, but we can pray to “know what makes for peace” (Lk 19:42), so that we can walk in confidence, trusting that someday we will enjoy—uninterrupted, undiminished—“the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11) in God’s Paradise.

Lent & Repentance

Since the death and resurrection of Christ is the foundational mystery of our whole lives, it seems that we ought each year to try to go deeper into our own spiritual process of dying and rising. If we don’t grow we stagnate. If we aren’t better than last year, we are worse. We ask often in the liturgical litanies that we may spend the rest of our lives in peace and repentance. If our repentance is genuine, then peace will be its first fruit.

We have probably already heard a lot about repentance, yet reminders can always be helpful, since we tend to forget in short order what we hear. But hearing about it is not enough; neither is praying about it in church. repent.gifDoing it is enough, but that’s where most of us falter. The word has to sink into the heart if it is to endure and bear fruit in actual practice. As the Coptic monk Matthew the Poor says, “What the ear hears, the mind forgets; but what the heart hears, time cannot erase.”

There’s a certain ambivalence about the season of Lent. Some people look forward to it as a time in which they receive some encouragement to “clean up their act” in ways that they never get around to during the rest of the year. Others dread it as a time of imposed and often meaningless self-denial, the cultivation of a self-condemning and generally gloomy outlook that has to be tolerated until at length the light of Pascha shines. Still others recognize its value but get hung up on liturgical exaggerations, and they wonder why one day we sing about being freed from all sin and sorrow and condemnation, and the next day we liturgically lament and groan once again. Then there are those who heartily embrace all the penitential prayers and rituals of the season, but who evidently don’t see the connection between these and actually changing their lives.

Where do you fit in? That is perhaps the first thing to discover during this time of preparation for spiritually entering the paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: repentance is about change. It is about changing attitudes and behaviors, ways of thinking, speaking, and treating others—doing all these things more according to the mind of Christ than your own. You can go to church and say, “Woe is me! I am a sinner!” all you want, but if you don’t do something about it, you are just making yourself look foolish.

Understood as the effort exerted to make the necessary changes in our “unredeemed” habits of thought and behavior—for the sake of being better able to respond wholeheartedly to the grace of God—the work of repentance is a kind of asceticism. Now before that word begins to conjure up in your mind images of emaciated, sleep-deprived, woebegone flagellants, see the definition given by Matthew the Poor: “Asceticism is the positive activity of the soul by which it counteracts negative activity. It is an exercise in practicing virtues to root out vices and evil habits.” If repentance is the process of change, then ascetical acts are the means by which the process achieves its goal. The goal of repentance is the same as the goal of Christian life as such. Just in case inadequate catechesis or too many years of “conventional Christianity” have dimmed your vision or awareness of the goal, it is this: deification (or divinization, theosis), i.e., the full transfiguration of your life in all its dimensions, through grace and faith, and especially through love—both God’s and yours. “God became man so that man might become God,” as the Fathers liked to say, meaning that by grace God’s own life becomes ours. It is a bold way of expressing what it really means to be fully a member of the Body of Christ.

The gifts of grace we have already received, which begin even now to fulfill God’s “precious and very great promises” (2Peter 1:4), are so far beyond our conscious grasp that many don’t even try to go deeper. They think that these promises are literally too good to be true, and they end up setting their sights way too low, settling for a more intelligible and comfortable mediocrity. But this is not genuine life in Christ. People shop for other religions because the Church seems inadequate, but for anyone to have that thought he must know very little about what Christianity really is, means, and promises.

So where is repentance in all this? To repent is first of all to recognize how much God loves us and to become aware of how little we love God and the persons created in his image. If you’ve ever had one of those “moments of truth” in which you simultaneously recognized the profound gravity of your sin and the merciful love of God, no one has to tell you that repentance requires change and that gratitude is the driving force behind it. Coming to this awareness, we choose to make a firm commitment, expressed in practical actions: to return love for Love, to break sinful habits and acquire virtuous ones, and to learn to forgive, because the Father forgives.

These practical actions will vary from person to person, from situation to situation. Each of us has to examine the areas in which our failures to love are the most grievous, and begin the changes there. If you look within yourself with prayer and honesty, real honesty—all flimsy pious veneers peeled away—you will know what needs to be changed, i.e., how you have to repent. If fasting facilitates the necessary changes, then fast; if praying, then pray; if going out of your way to do good to others, then do it. The changes will have to be serious and thoroughgoing, and this will take discipline and effort. The basic point is our need to change for the better, in grateful response to the overflowing love of God. The goal of our spiritual life is to “be like Him,” to “see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (1John 3:2-3). The purification that is growth in love does not end when Lent does. It’s useless to come to the end of Lent and say, with relief, “There, I did it, I performed everything that was prescribed. Now pass the ham and cheese, and don’t trouble me about penance until next year.”

Lent is not about self-condemnation, and Easter is not about self-indulgence. Neither is Lent merely about penance nor Easter merely about singing “Christ is risen!” Both are fundamentally about deification: interiorly, expressed in all the dimensions of the mystical/sacramental life—and exteriorly: moving from self-centeredness to other-centeredness, from self-absorption (even in the guise of monitoring “spiritual progress”) to the self-forgetful building up of the body of Christ in the world. The change that is repentance is meant to build continuously on the Rock that is Christ. Understand repentance as change, change as learning to love, learning to love as transformation, transformation as becoming like God, becoming like God as deification, deification as being immersed the mystery of divine life and joy, which reaches into eternity. Thus repentance sets us on the path to the fullness of life in God.

Repent! Rejoice! Don’t look so gloomy; God loves you! Start living your faith as a meaningful and intimate relationship with the God who is Love, and your repentance will flow as easily as your rejoicing. You will want to change, for you will want to please Him who loved you unto death, and whose love shall be your everlasting life.

The Voice of the Martyrs

Many years ago, when I was still a novice (I can hardly remember back that far!), I was moved by the testimonies concerning the Christians who were being persecuted throughout the world, at that time primarily by communists. They were often imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered simply because they were Christians. Pastor Richard Wurmbrand wrote a couple of books (Tortured for Christ and In God’s Underground) detailing his experiences during 14 years of imprisonment and torture for his Christian faith. When he was finally released, he started an organization called the Voice of the Martyrs (they used to publish a periodical which was called, I think, “Jesus to the Communist World,” but this was changed when the threat expanded far beyond the communist world). In any case, this organization exists both to inform the world about the plight of persecuted Christians (the worst persecutors today are found in the predominantly Muslim countries), and to help them by smuggling Bibles and other Christian literature, giving aid to families who have had members killed, etc.

Back in my fervent novitiate days, I took it upon myself to pray and do penance for our persecuted brothers and sisters. I would, for example, get up at night and do vigils for them. Once when I read that some prisoners were tortured by thirst—being forced to swallow much salt and then being denied water for a long time—I thought I would see what that was like, and offer up something to strengthen my prayer for them. So I swallowed a spoonful of salt and didn’t drink anything for several hours afterward—not pleasant at all, but still nothing like the real tortures of girlacid.jpgthirst. And of course, I was in control; if it got too bad, I’d just go get a glass of water. They didn’t have that option.

What is happening today though, is that Christians are beaten and raped (the girl in the picture was attacked with acid by a Muslim in Pakistan); they are denied justice in the courts or protection of the government; their property or homes are confiscated, and some are imprisoned, tortured, and killed. This is happening right now in many places throughout the world. But their witness is powerful. They are willing to suffer anything for Christ, for they love Him so much and want to share Him with the world. One man, who was severely beaten and whose home was set on fire, readily forgave those who beat him, saying: “Christ shed his blood to forgive my sins, so I can forgive those who shed my blood.” They are fearlessly living the Gospel in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances. So my ancient fervor is beginning to be rekindled, and I am taking their plight to heart and doing what I can to help.

The Voice of the Martyrs is largely a Protestant organization, but they are the ones doing the work to get Bibles to Christians and to support them in their needs. If there were more Catholic missionaries, there would be priests to administer the sacraments and to take care of their needs. But there are so few, and in recent decades many Catholic “missionaries” have bought into the relativistic doctrine of indifferentism, thinking that nothing more has to be done than to help Hindus be good Hindus, Buddhists be good Buddhists, Muslims be good Muslims, etc, instead of preaching the Gospel of Jesus without compromise and without counting the cost. The Holy Spirit will work with those who are willing to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ, and it is to the shame of the Church that Catholics are not leading the efforts to bring Christ to the dangerous places of the world where people are starving for the word of God.

Well, at least we can support those who are risking their necks to help their persecuted or imprisoned brothers and sisters in Christ. Please pray and sacrifice for them. You can support their efforts by contributions as well. Click here to access their main website. You have to register to navigate the site, but it’s free and without obligation. (You can donate without registering, though.) Buy a couple of their books and learn what Christians suffer in other parts of the world. In my blogroll column there’s another link to their blog which offers daily updates on persecuted Christians throughout the world, and you can pray for them by name in many cases, or write to them. The Voice of the Martyrs has been successful in some cases in putting pressure on governments to release prisoners arrested and tortured for their faith, by bringing their cases to international attention.

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). Pastor Wurmbrand was once asked whether he knew how many were actually imprisoned for their faith. He answered that it didn’t matter if there were two million or two; if there were but one, he was his brother, and he would not rest until he could help set him free.

The Voice of the Martyrs is quite resourceful in the ways they manage to get the word of God to places where it is outlawed. In North Korea, for example, which has one of the most repressive and anti-Christian governments in the world, Christian tracts are sent over the border in balloons with timed charges that release their sacred cargo over their destinations.

We should not—in our affluence and in our “safe” Christianity that demands relatively little of us—forget those for whom Christian faith is a daily matter of life or death. The world is still full of martyrs, and we must become aware of our relationship to them in the Body of Christ. Pray and help in whatever way you can. For whatever we do for our suffering brethren, we do for Jesus. And He will remember that.

Endurance, Patience, Joy, Thanksgiving, Deliverance, Redemption, Reconciliation, and Steadfastness

When I get some insight into a passage of Scripture or get some idea that I’d like to write about, I make a little note on a list of potential blog posts, if I can’t get to it right away. The problem is that if it stays on the list too long, I completely forget why I put it there in the first place. Such is the case with today’s post. All my note said was “Col. 1:11-14, 21-23.” I suppose that means I once had some insight into that passage that I wanted to share with you. I notice that this passage entirely omits the magnificent Christological hymn that made this epistle famous, though I have written on that before and probably will again.

So I looked again at the passage, wondering why I had chosen it. A few key words and themes are evident: Endurance, Patience, Joy, Thanksgiving, Deliverance, Redemption, Reconciliation, and Steadfastness, among others. So I guess I’ll try to say something about those, though I’m sure large books could be written on each of them.

This passage begins with a prayer: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Well, that takes care of the first four key words, and makes me notice a couple more: inheritance and light. But let’s get back to the others. The Apostle prays that God will strengthen us “for all endurance and patience with joy.” This tells me that life in Christ is going to demand both endurance and patience (this is a no-brainer for anyone who has actually tried to live as a Christian). The “joy” is the distinctive note here. Almost anyone can summon at least a bit of brute endurance when necessary, and some people can even endure with patience, but only those who are filled with the Holy Spirit can joyfully as well as patiently endure.

But what is the point of it, and why do we make the effort and pray for the grace to joyfully endure? According to St Paul, the joy is a fruit of our thanksgiving. Usually if we are grateful for something, there’s at least a hint of joy in the gratitude. It seems contradictory to be miserable and grateful at the same time. Well, we’re joyfully and patiently enduring the trials of life because we are grateful to God the Father, “who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Evidently we were previously unqualified (or, more likely, disqualified because of our sins) to share in this bright inheritance. So what has happened that suddenly qualified us? What is the cause of our joyful gratitude? (Let us note that our thanksgiving and rejoicing ought to be boundless, because if we were not qualified for the inheritance of the saints in light, we would be stuck forever with the inheritance of the damned in the dark.)

Here’s where two more key words come in: deliverance and redemption (let’s throw in forgiveness as well). Here’s what the light_and_darkness-1.jpgFather has done: “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.” So it becomes clear now that we had in fact disqualified ourselves through sin, for we were living under the dominion of darkness, that is, in the domain of the devil and of sin. But something happened to us, something we couldn’t have pulled off on our own strength: we received a transfer! We were transferred (which means literally, “brought across”) from darkness to light, from the devil’s domain to the Kingdom of the Son of God. Such a deal! We got into the Kingdom not only because the Father willed it, but because, in obedience to the Father’s will, the Son redeemed us. He did the painful, sacrificial work of bearing our sins in Himself, so that we could be forgiven and hence could accept and experience the marvelous transfer into his Kingdom of Light.

Jumping over the description of who the Son is, we continue with what He has done, and we come to another key word: reconciliation. “He has now reconciled [us] in his body of flesh by his death…” In English translation (as well as in the original Greek) there is an interesting order of clauses in verses 21-22, which gives us a kind of visual illustration in the text itself of what Jesus has done for us. The whole section reads: “And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…” Suddenly there is a marvelous transformation. We are described in two different ways. On one hand, we “once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,” yet now we are “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.” How the heck did that happen? Well, look at the sentence: between our being estranged, hostile, and evil, and our being holy and blameless is this: “he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.” So the transfer—from our original evil that disqualified us from entering the Kingdom to the holiness that qualifies us for the heavenly and luminous inheritance—is actually the result of a reconciliation. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2Cor. 5:19). On one side of the reconciliation is man as sinner, and on the other side is man as redeemed unto righteousness.

Now before you start planning how to spend your heavenly inheritance, there’s just one more little verse we have to read, for it contains a crucial proviso. Jesus reconciled us by his death, “in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast [the final key word], not shifting from the hope of the gospel…” We are not magically, automatically, permanently established in righteousness without our own free co-operation, and this not merely as a one-time profession of faith, but as an ongoing process, a way of life—continuing in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope (and not shrinking from the demands) of the Gospel. Our transfer is only finally validated as we pass through the Pearly Gates, for it will be checked to see if we continued in the faith, in the grace of the reconciliation, in the fruits of the deliverance and redemption (for we have the freedom to throw it all away, should we choose to be so tragically stupid). In the meantime, let us give joyful thanks to God the Father for all that He has done through his Son to qualify us for the inheritance of Heaven.

Reflection on the key words and themes of these few verses can produce a whole theology, a basis for faith and morals. Perhaps there’s something here for Lenten reflection as well, a personal examination as to the extent we are continuing in the faith, stable and steadfast. Note that it says (in both English and the original Greek) the faith, not just faith. There’s a nuance here. He’s not merely saying: continue to believe. He’s rather saying: continue to live The Faith, which has a definite content and requirements. Keep the faith, endure to the end, patiently and joyfully, and be saved!

I don’t think that’s what I originally intended to say about that passage, but it’s what I want to say now.

What We Don’t See

As we continue the period of penance that precedes the time of triumph at Pascha, we may be tempted to look around and see if any of our sacred liturgy and spirituality matters to the rest of the world. Life goes on as usual in most places: the restaurants, the bars, the clubs, the theaters, the porn sites, as well as “behind closed doors.” We don’t see crowds of people flocking to churches and falling on their knees in heartfelt repentance. We don’t see (or rarely see) public figures turn from evil and embrace righteousness. The name of Jesus Christ is heard much more often as a curse than as a prayer on people’s lips. In short, we don’t see much true Christianity around us.

closed-eyes.jpgPerhaps that is precisely the point we should reflect on—we don’t see it. That doesn’t mean it is not there. When it appears that evil has the upper hand in the world; when it looks like sin, sorrow, and suffering are the last words on the human condition, it is then that what we don’t see assumes its true significance and importance in our lives.

We don’t see the inner struggles or hear the silent cries to God of our family members, friends, or colleagues who don’t appear to be on the road to sanctity. We don’t see the quiet acts of charity, self-denial, and sacrifice, offered by those who wish to be known to God alone. We are unaware of the hidden heroism of mothers and fathers who struggle to raise their families in a largely unchristian society. We don’t see the pain behind the courageous smiles of those whose private lives are crashing down around them. We don’t see the vigils, fasts, and prayers of the unknown saints of God, whether within or without cloister walls. But God sees all these, and that’s what matters.

Our faith must be strong enough to believe that God is using the prayers and sacrifices that we don’t see as a means of saving the corrupt world we do see. “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him. But we do see Jesus…crowned with glory and honor because of (his) suffering and death…” (Heb. 2: 8-9). During Lent we are brought closer to the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and death, which to all eyes (except those of faith) manifested a tragic failure. When we at length celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, we enter more fully into the mystery of his being crowned with glory and honor.

What we celebrate in the Liturgy and what we offer to God in the prayer of our hearts bears fruit in the unseen mystery of God at work in the world. He is busy claiming souls for Himself. He is working to establish his Kingdom in the lives of those who have eyes to perceive his presence and ears to hear Him knocking, and thus will let Him in.

The enemies of Christ did not see Him after his resurrection, only his friends. Only those who loved Him and believed and hoped in Him (despite their faults and even grievous failures) were granted the vision of his risen body, and their lives were totally transformed forever. The rest looked around and said, “Someone must have stolen his body,” and they went on in their blindness, falsely confident of their own faulty perceptions. But they had not the Life within them.

On which side shall we place ourselves when the evidence around us taunts, “Where is your God?” We need not be in denial about what we do see, because the evil in the world is real and “in your face.” But let us not be in the dark about what we don’t see, the hidden working of the all-powerful and all-loving God. “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2Cor. 4: 18).

In one of our Sunday paschal texts, a personified Hades cries out: “I see the Unseen fighting me secretly!” This is happening throughout the world even as you read this. The Unseen God is secretly fighting all the powers of darkness that wreak their manifest havoc everywhere. But let us hear the word of God given to Moses, to encourage his terrified people who were hemmed in by the Egyptian army on one side and the Red Sea on the other: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today… The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Ex. 14:13-14). Be still and know that He is God. We walk by faith, not by sight.

Padre Pio’s Pen

As Lent progresses, and as it progressively drains the strength out of me, I find myself singularly uninspired. I had asked for a word from the Lord through the Scriptures at the beginning of Lent, and I received one of the predictions of his Passion, followed by: “The cup I drink, you shall drink…” Now I don’t suppose that I will be literally scourged and killed in the next few weeks, but it may be that the cup will be a small share of the apparent closing of Heaven that Christ seemed to experience in the garden and on the Cross (I guess on the level of writing this would mean utter blankness where there used to be insight), as Padre Pio once said, “it seemed to me thpadre-pio.jpgat heaven had turned to stone.”

Speaking of Padre Pio (still can’t get used to saying “St Pio”), I’ve been reading some of his letters lately. I’ve just begun; I’m only on page 600 of the first volume! He wrote thousands of letters, the majority of which have been preserved. So I thought I’d turn to him for some help in getting a post out for you today.

My image of this great saint usually comes from pictures I’ve seen: mature, graying, something of eternity in his eyes. Yet the letters I’m reading at the moment date from about 1910-14, when he was only in his twenties! If I didn’t know it, I would have thought they came from a later period. (He received a special dispensation to be ordained to the priesthood at the age of 23.) Even at this tender age, he experienced frequent mystical experiences, both delightful ecstasies and terribly painful shares in Christ’s Passion—along with continual harassments and even physical beatings from the demons.

One thing that strikes me about his descriptions of his experiences, and his relationship with Jesus and the Mother of God, is his candor and his lack of complacency about his salvation, even though he was so obviously favored. He was often afraid that he might lose his soul because of his sins and unworthiness. This sure puts the fear of God in me! If a man who is virtually sinless is worried about his salvation, what hope is there for the likes of me? Yet on the whole, it seems that his love for Jesus, and especially Jesus’ love for him, is so strong that it burns away all that could come between them. Indeed, he often writes of God’s love as a penetrating fire that brings pain as well as delight.

For Padre Pio, the Mother of God and other heavenly persons are not mere “plaster saints” but relate to him quite personally. He relates to Our Lady as a child to his mother. He had asked a certain grace of her once and she refused, and when he keeps asking, “her heavenly countenance contracts, she becomes sad and then solemnly renews her prohibition.” One might think that a saint on earth enjoys the unremitting good pleasure of God and the holy ones in Heaven, but it seems that the Lord is strictest with the ones He loves most. That is why Jesus did not relieve his servant from relentless sufferings. “Jesus has given me to understand that the sure proof of love is only to be found in suffering… I would like to suffer much more for the ideal I am pursuing.”

He was already suffering much more than any of us ever will, but he thought it was insufficient to express what he wanted to offer to Jesus for all He did for him, and to console Him for the grievous sins which constantly wound the Heart of Jesus. There is much we will never know about the profound depths of his mystical experiences. Once he wrote: “Jesus continued to speak, but what he said I could never reveal to any creature in this world [what could that possibly have been?]. This apparition caused me such bodily pain and even greater pain of soul that I was prostrate for the entire day and believed I should die of this suffering, had our most sweet Jesus not revealed to me… [here, of all places, a lacuna!].”

He explains the effects of his heavenly visions in his soul: “I am increasingly filled with a sense of my own unworthiness and realize in this light that I am the most miserable creature ever born. I feel a greater detachment from this lowly world. I am aware of being in exile along with many other souls but suffer immensely to see how few of these aspire like myself to the Promised Land. I am increasingly penetrated by God’s goodness, and distressed to see how few people love him with an unselfish love. I also suffer to see how poor I am, for the simple reason I have nothing to offer…”

I think I’ve yet to make a point in this post, but I guess I’m just interiorly trying to make sense of an utterly extraordinary life, yet one which only brings into sharper relief the basic elements of every Christian life: love for Jesus, willingness to suffer for Him out of love, the delight of knowing God’s love and the longing to be united to Him ceaselessly and forever. We receive some great insights from the Padre’s pen, as well as a glimpse into his everyday world. He was not always in ecstasy; he could write about his need for a new habit or reimbursements for medicines, or simply of some very human and prosaic needs, desires, or aspirations. So he is not a totally inaccessible figure, but he did manifest to a high degree the self-offering that is required of anyone who would love God with his whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

I tend to get somewhat discouraged at times when reading the mystics, since I can’t even begin to see what they see, feel what they feel, know what they know. They consider themselves the most wretched, but that is only because they never met me! Yet at the same time, I receive a certain measure of encouragement because of what I learn from them of the love and mercy of God. But I still tremble at the saints’ trembling before the terrifying majesty of the holy God. So, all in all, I’m a total wreck, and I can’t do much more than blubber my repentance before the awesome Cross, and trust in Jesus’ boundless mercy.

Someday I hope to be sitting on the shores of Paradise with a cool drink in my hand, getting the perfect tan while listening to angel-songs and having a bit of good conversation with other insanely happy souls, but until then I guess I have to prove my love by drinking from that bitter cup offered by a pierced hand, and forcing out those words that always stick in my throat: “Not my will…” Padre Pio, pray to God for us!

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