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

Archive for May, 2008

Become Your Name

Peter Kreeft has made an interesting (and successful, I think) attempt at giving a basic introduction to classical philosophy while integrating it with the writings of Tolkien. The title of the book states his project: The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to review or analyze the book here, though I do recommend it if you have any interest either in philosophy or Tolkien (it helps if you have both). I just want to share something from his chapter on philosophy of language. There’s not much to do with Tolkien in this passage, however, since what follows is mainly a quote from a George MacDonald anthology edited by C.S. Lewis (you’ll also like Kreeft’s book if you like Lewis, since he quotes from him frequently).

Anyway, here’s the passage. It concerns the passage in the Book of Revelation (2:17) about the giving of the “white stone” with a new name written on it. I have written about this before, because I think it is a profound thing that God gives us a new name—not just a new form of address, but something that identifies and expresses our most intimate interior, known only to Him. It is something that we will cherish for all eternity.

“The giving of the white stone with the new name is the communication of what God thinks about the man to the man. It is the divine judgment, the solemn holy doom [i.e., destiny] of the righteous man, the ‘Come, thou blessed,’ spoken to the individual… The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it. It is the man’s own symbol—his soul’s picture, in a word—the sign which belongs to him and to no one else. Who can give a man this, his own name? God alone. For no one but God sees who the man is… It is only when the man has become his name that God gives him the stone with the name upon it, for then first can he understand what his name signifies… God’s name for a man must be the expression of His own idea of the man, that being whom He had in His thought when He began to make the child, and whom He kept in His thought through the long process of creation that went to realize the idea. To tell the name is to seal the success—to say ‘In thee also I am well pleased.’”

The mysterious white stone is given “only when the man has become his name.” I find this intriguing. How do we become our names? We see in the Scriptures that some characters are named for who they are or what their mission is. Raphael, who healed Tobit of blindness, means “medicine of God.” Peter, of course, is the Rock of the Church, a name given by Jesus Himself. Jesus was given his human name (“YHWH saves”) because, as the angel explained to St Joseph, “He will save his people from their sins.” They all became their names by completing the course of their lives, doing what God called them to do.

But we don’t know yet what our new name will be; we don’t know quite how God sees us. We don’t know what his idea was for the unique image of Himself that is you or I when He created us. We may not yet even know what our true mission in life is. So how can we “become our names,” and in this way find the eternal fulfillment that hinges on our being what we are created to be? Kreeft does not give us the answer in his book, since that is somewhat off the main subject. As for me, I can only give a general guess. We certainly will not become what we are meant to be if we simply live according to our own tastes, desires, or emotions. We can go off in many different directions that way, but ultimately all roads lead to “self” if we are just doing what seems pleasant or profitable. We can only become our divinely-given names if we “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,” if we surrender to the will of the One who called us into being, who gives concrete form to his mystical image in us, and who has prepared a unique place for us in his heavenly paradise. It may take time as the particulars of our vocation are manifest and set in place, but if our eyes are always fixed on Jesus we will always be moving in the direction of our true fulfillment. We will gradually become our names, and what delight it will be when that name is finally revealed to us! It will be so utterly perfect and marvelous that we will thank God for all eternity for thinking of us and loving us in precisely that way.

This whole issue came up in Kreeft’s book because of the question concerning “myth of an original language,” and the fact that Tolkien’s names for his characters all seem perfectly suited for them. But we are all characters in God’s magnum opus, his great work of creation and redemption, the history of man and the mysteries of eternity. How wonderful to fit precisely into that plan, and to share eternally in the beauty and music and bliss of Heaven, knowing ourselves to be an integral element in the perfect realization of divine love and creativity. But how horrible to be, as the Book of Revelation puts it, “outside” of the Heavenly Jerusalem, with all those wretched creatures who refused to submit to the will of the Lord, those who would have it their way or no way, those who said no to the perfect harmony of God’s universe and now have to live in the eternal, wrenching dissonance of their own howls of pain and despair. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the fall of Satan as the introduction of his self-willed dissonance into the wonderful harmonies of the angels who assisted God in the work of creation.

So it behooves us to seek the Lord at all costs, to discover our place in his vision of blessedness, to become our names as we await their full and glorious revelation, which will in fact be an intimate communication between God and our souls. I will close here with a bit more from Kreeft on that “original language” which, he explains, is even beyond words: it is music.

“Music is not ornamented poetry, and poetry is not ornamented prose. Poetry is fallen music, and prose is fallen poetry. Prose is not the original language; it is poetry made practical. Even poetry is not the original language; it is music made speakable, it is the words of music separated from their music. In the beginning was music…

“In The Silmarillion… God and His angels sing the world into being: ‘In the beginning, Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Iluvatar, made the Ainur out of his thought; and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun’…”

If it Pleases Him

I spend much less time reading the Old Testament than I do the New, though I make little forays into its mysteries from time to time. (We read the Old Testament here in the refectory once a day as well, so the exposure is ongoing.) I went back to the Book of Judith a short time ago, which, along with Esther and Tobit and Ruth, are stories I like to return to, because I like the way they turn out, and the characters are attractive as well.

There’s something that struck me this time in reading Judith, and it was in her reproach to the ruler of her city when he basically gave an ultimatum to God: if He wouldn’t save them from the enemies besieging them within five days (they were already fainting from hunger and thirst), then they would surrender. She said to him, in part: “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart, nor find out what a man is thinking. How do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought? … For if he does not choose to help us within these five days, he has power to protect us within any time he pleases… Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like man, to be threatened, nor like a human being, to be won over by pleading. Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him… In spite of everything, let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who is putting us to the test as he did our forefathers… the Lord scourges those who draw near to him, in order to admonish them” (Jdt. 8:14-17, 25-27; cf. Heb. 12:6). Judith is rewarded for her faith and trust in God, who won an amazing victory by her hand over their enemies.

I had to repent a little after reading this. I cannot begin to plumb the depths of the human heart, not even my own. How can I expect to counsel the Eternal and Infinite God as to what He ought or ought not do for (or to) me? It seems that I sometimes, in effect, “try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God,” for I evidently think, or hope, that He can “be won over by pleading.” Perhaps you do that at times as well. Do you ever pray hard for something you want or need, not being quite sure if it is the Lord’s will, but pleading all the same, because the intention is important or urgent? Do you think that you may wear Him down, like the widow beseeching the judge (Lk. 18:1-8), and that you will eventually receive what you ask for? In that particular parable, Jesus seems to answer in the affirmative. But what about someone like St Paul, who repeatedly pleaded with the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh”? And what about Jesus Himself, who pleaded with his Father three times to remove the dreadful cup from Him? No amount of pleading brought them what they asked for.

There’s only one condition, evidently, that decides the matter, as Judith said: “If it pleases Him.” The will of God is always the ultimate criterion for receiving what we ask for in prayer. Scripture says many things about having our prayers answered, but it really comes down to this: “if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1Jn. 5:14). Our basic problem seems to be that we really don’t know what pleases God, at least in particular situations. It is clear enough that faith, hope, and love, and all manner of virtue please Him, but often it is hard to discern how these may work to please Him in the context of a particular petition we are offering.

I don’t really have an answer to this. Perhaps for the most part we learn what pleases God only in hindsight. We offered a prayer; it was favorably answered; therefore that request pleased Him. We offered another one; we did not receive what we asked for; therefore that request did not please Him, or perhaps the timing of it or the motivation behind it didn’t please Him. The answer to such things usually is reduced to our need to be in union with God as much as possible in this life. The more we are united to him in faith and love, the more we have “the mind of Christ.” And the more our wills are in union with his, the more we can ask according to God’s will and therefore receive what we ask for. Jesus was in constant union with his Father, so He could say: “I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn. 8:29).

I suppose, if we wanted to be grumblers, we could grumble that it’s just too difficult to discern God’s will at all times, and that, since He infinitely transcends us, we can’t think as He does and so have no idea if what seems good to us is in fact pleasing to Him, so that He will grant it. Aside from saying, “Well, it can’t hurt to try, can it?” I would refer the grumbler to chapter nine of the Book of Judith, to read her powerful and eloquent prayer, in which she describes God as “the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forlorn, savior of those without hope.” It might at first seem, if we say that God answers our prayers only if it pleases Him, that He is like some capricious, if mighty, oriental potentate, whose word is law simply because he uttered it, and if he uttered the exact opposite tomorrow, then that would be law for the same reason. But when we see that God sides with the lowly, the forlorn, the weak and the helpless, we must realize that if something pleases Him it is because it is somehow good for us, and if it doesn’t, then it is not beneficial to us.

So, not to receive something from God because it simply didn’t please Him to grant it means that we were asking for a stone instead of bread, as it were. It doesn’t mean that He is being harsh with us, or toying with us. It may be, however, as Judith indicated, that He sometimes “puts us to the test,” but for her that was an occasion for thanksgiving and, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, He treats only his beloved children in this way.

First let us strive to grow into an ever-fuller union with the Lord, so that it will be easier to know his will, and thus what to ask for and receive. But even while we’re still on the way, still imperfect in doing what pleases Him, let us ask anyway, and then accept with thanksgiving whatever He answers. He will withhold from us only what is detrimental to our spiritual growth and salvation, and He will grant us whatever fosters these—for that is what pleases Him.

From Logic to Trust

I recently came across a passage from C.S. Lewis that I had read before but which spoke to me this time with greater clarity, since it applied to my own life more immediately. It’s one of those things we’re all supposed to know, but that we seem to need to be reminded of continually. It’s about giving God’s wisdom and providence the benefit of the doubt.

“There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs only if he will trust us. In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child’s finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can’t, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them…to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get it out—that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting—that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body—that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking—that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall…

“We are to God, always, as that dog or child or bather or mountain climber was to us, only very much more so… If human life is in fact ordered by a beneficent being whose knowledge of our real needs and of the way in which they can be satisfied infinitely exceeds our own, we must expect a priori that His operations will often appear to us far from being beneficent and far from wise…

“You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence… the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations” (from The World’s Last Night and Other Essays).

I felt a little sheepish after reading this because it exposed my own lack of trust and my reliance on mere logic or the evidence of my immediate experience (which, of course, I interpret in my own peculiarly limited fashion). Why is it so hard for us to accept the fact that God knows things better than we do, that He sees more than we can see, and that He is actually trying to help us even as we challenge Him with our wrongheaded resistance? We somehow think He’s missing the obvious and we can’t imagine why He just doesn’t get right to the business of making our lives more pleasant or painless or stress-free.

What we don’t realize is that God is helping us, though He is doing so according to his superior eternal wisdom and not with our own quick-fix mentality. Another example that Lewis could have used, and that I’ve seen elsewhere, is that of a child with his mother in a doctor’s office being given a shot to cure or prevent some disease. The poor kid freaks out as the big monster in the white coat inflicts pain upon him with a sharp-pointed weapon, and his mother just stands there and doesn’t protect him! She even seems to approve of it! The kid certainly will have a few choice words for her in the aftermath. But again, if he could have trusted that what was momentarily painful was actually doing him a good beyond all proportion to the pain, he would have realized that his mother was allowing this only out of love for him.

I find myself all too often like the kid in the doctor’s office, the dog in the trap, the drowning boy, etc. I’m aware of the immediate predicament or pain, and I’d like to be instantly free from it. But I really only have a dog’s-eye view of things, for I do not know what my Master is about. I can apply a certain basic logic to the situation, and I present this to God as the way He should help me. But I forget that I mostly don’t know what I’m talking about, that I am blind to long-term solutions, and even that my own brand of logic may very well be fallacious. I forget that I’m supposed to be trusting in a Person, One who really does have my best interests at heart, and One who really is able to bring about the best results from any given situation or disaster. He wants me to realize not only that He is there and is able and willing to help, but also (and perhaps especially) that He requires my confidence if his help is to be effective. I have the power to make a self-fulfilling prophecy—I refuse to trust, nothing happens, so I then feel justified in my refusal to trust. But I thus become oblivious to the fact that if I did trust, something good would have happened!

Perhaps the reason we’re allowed to get into various jams and scrapes is so that we can practice trusting in God to get us out of them—in ways that we can’t figure out in advance, or that may even seem initially absurd or ineffectual to us. Somehow we have to finally accept that God indeed does see the big picture and is not interested in superficial solutions. Jesus came into the world to save us from sin and its eternal consequences, and everything He does for us is ordered, in one way or another, to our salvation, for that is all that ultimately matters. We know nothing more than the present moment (if that), and so we seek solutions to our problems that are usually only good for the present moment, but we have to start trusting that Someone is looking out for our eternal happiness and is working all things for the good—whether or not we understand or agree with his methods and timing.

Today is a new day. I have another chance to get out of the driver’s seat and let God be God. Maybe today I’ll trust Him to do things his way and thus discover that all manner of things shall be well.

Hear the Word–and Follow Him

Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost, but it is the first Sunday of what we might call “ordinary time.” The festive season is over and there aren’t even any major feast days in sight for a while. So the Church tells us, through the proclamation of the Gospel (Mt. 4:18-23), that it’s time to get back to basics, to start putting into practical application the graces we have received during the entire Lent-Paschal cycle. Therefore we go back to the beginning. We start with the cycle of readings from St Matthew, the first Gospel (at least according to the order we find in the Bible), and we also start with one of the first things Jesus did as He began his public ministry: the calling of his first disciples.

Our spiritual life begins when God calls us. “You did not choose me,” said Jesus, “but I chose you.” It is God’s call that establishes a relationship in the first place, that is, a conscious, personal relationship. We all have a relationship to God as creatures to Creator from the moment He made us, but He wants us to have much more than that. Yet this personal relationship is established in God’s way and time, and on his terms. St John reminds us that we can only love because God first loved us. The initiative is not ours. It’s not even possible for us to come to Christ simply because we feel like coming to Him. For Jesus Himself said: “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” So it’s all about grace, about God’s choice, about his will for our salvation.

We see Jesus at work in the Gospel calling the first four disciples, all of whom were fishermen. Note that Jesus tailors his call to what they already know, using terms that made sense to them. He said: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They knew what it meant to catch fish, so they could understand the metaphor of bringing souls to Christ, making disciples for Him. If they were carpenters, He might have said: “Follow Me, and I will show you how to build the Kingdom of God.” Or if they were farmers, He might have said: “Follow Me, and you will reap a harvest of souls.” In any case, we should realize that God deals with us as we are, and invites us to communion with Him in a way that may be mysterious but that is not wholly unintelligible to us. After all, He does want us to respond and He knows what will resonate with us. If He had invited Peter and Andrew using metaphors from, say, 21st-century computer technology, they probably would have looked at him blankly, wished Him well, and gone back to their fishing.

But as we see from the Gospel, Jesus was eminently successful in attracting these first followers. I would venture to say that it was not merely because they could identify with the metaphor He used. It was probably more the attractive power of his own person, the fire in his eyes, the love that flowed from his heart, the power of God that was suddenly yet mysteriously being revealed to them. We see later on in the case of Matthew that Jesus didn’t use any metaphors or any sort of interesting dialogue at all. He simply said, “Follow Me,” and Matthew got up, left everything behind, and followed Him.

The psalmist tells us that the voice of the Lord is full of power, that the voice of the Lord is full of splendor. The voice of the Lord can make the earth quake, can shatter mighty cedars, can overpower the raging sea. What is even greater than all that is the fact that the voice of the Lord can soften hardened hearts, can open closed ones, can reach the inner depths of the soul which are inaccessible to all else.

This is what happened when Jesus called the four fishermen. The evangelist notes that in the case of James and John, they were working with their father, continuing the family business. He makes it clear that they left the boat and their father and immediately followed Jesus. We just heard last week in the Gospel for the feast of All Saints that whoever loves father or mother, or anyone else, more than Jesus is not worthy of Him. This is no small thing in such a family-oriented culture. But Jesus wasn’t one to let cultural conditions limit the power of the word of God. This is one reason why the Gospel of Christ is valid for all times and cultures. Jesus usually did, of course, speak in the idiom of his own time and place, but the message itself is not one that necessarily relies upon a particular culture for its essential interpretation.

Jesus is still walking throughout the world today, though invisibly in the Holy Spirit, offering his invitation to follow Him to anyone who has ears to hear. It may seem that the voices of secularism and hedonism are louder than the voice of the Lord, for many evidently do not wish to take up their crosses and follow Christ. They seem to prefer the wide and easy way, the one that Jesus says leads to damnation. But it’s not that the voice of the world is more powerful than the voice of God. True, it may be more shrill, it may clamor noisily for our attention and try to divert us from the word of God. But if we don’t hear the voice of the Lord the fault is not in the word of God but in ourselves. When Jesus told the parable of the sower, it was clear that the seed was good. The only reason much of it did not bear fruit is that the environment in which it fell was unfavorable to growth. Likewise, in the parable of the weeds and the wheat, the Master sowed good seed, but an enemy tried to ruin the crop by filling the ground with worthless junk seed.

The Dominican mystic John Tauler once said that we do not hear the voice of the Lord because we have made ourselves deaf to the word of God. This spiritual deafness began way back in the Garden of Eden, when our first parents chose the way of disobedience and thus denied Paradise to the entire human race. But their sin did not create a total deafness to the word of God. We have added to it by our own sins. Tauler says that every time we sin we become a little more deaf to the word of God. We are clogging ourselves up interiorly so that more and more we hear only the voice of our own opinions, the voice of our own desires, the voice that tells us only what we would like to hear, or that confirms us in what we think we know. But the fact is, if we do not decide radically to change, to accept a thorough interior cleansing and renewal, we will continue to grow deaf to the word of God. His call may be echoing across the world yet we will not hear it, because we are only listening to ourselves.

Suppose Peter and Andrew had been living lives of sin and had made themselves deaf to the word of God. Jesus could have walked by and shouted: “Follow Me!” But they wouldn’t have heard it. “You hear something?” Peter would say to Andrew. “Nah,” he’d reply, “just the wind over the water.” And then what would have become of him whom Jesus wanted to make the rock of his Church?

We shouldn’t blame God if we do not hear his voice. (Now I don’t mean we should expect to hear it audibly. If you do start hearing voices from God, please see a doctor and a priest, in that order.) If we do not recognize the ways God is trying to communicate his will and his love to us, chances are it is because we have become deaf to the divine word, gradually perhaps—one doesn’t have to be a serial killer or a rapist or a politician in order to go deaf to God. Simply the long accumulation of many little sins is sufficient to do the job, because our habitual sins make us spiritually hard-of-hearing over time. If we are willing, however, to clean out all the spiritual junk that makes us deaf to the word of God, He will deem us worthy for the service of his Kingdom, and we will become his disciples and friends, and the good seed of his word will bear much fruit in our lives.

In the last verse of the Gospel, we see what Jesus did once He called his first few fishers of men to Himself. He went all over Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, healing every disease and every infirmity. We should note that Jesus wasn’t a kind of supernatural magician, who waved a wand and diseases disappeared. Everything He did for us He did at great personal cost. After recounting another series of healings, St Matthew comments later in the Gospel, quoting the prophet Isaiah, that Jesus “took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” The infirmities of all the suffering people that Jesus healed did not vanish into thin air. Jesus bore them mysteriously in Himself, ultimately taking them with all our sins to the Cross, painfully atoning for every single one of them. All this He did out of love for us. He did things the hard way, because the hard way is the way of love, and Jesus will only deal with us out of love.

So let us pray that we become sensitive to the whispers of the word of God, or at least not deaf to his clear and ringing call. Let us be willing to follow Him at all costs, to leave our nets and our father, as it were—make the particular application to whatever we need to let go of in order to follow the Lord more faithfully, more sacrificially. For He calls us to share in his ministry, not only of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, but of bearing the infirmities of others. This we do by patience, by forgiveness, by serving the others and forgetting ourselves.

Jesus is passing by. He has a word, a call, for each of us. Let us listen carefully, for his words are spirit and life, and to follow Him means eternal salvation.

A Testimony to Divine Grace

I recently came across a beautiful testimony to the working of divine grace in a soul. In this case it is the soul of a Jewish rabbi who converted to Christianity. I think I needn’t comment, for it speaks for itself. It is quoted from His Life is Mine, by Archimandrite Sophrony (all ellipses are in the original).

“Why did I, a former rabbi, become a Christian? The question sounds strange in my ears. Did I, of myself, become a Christian, following a plan, a purpose, after due consideration? No, the grace of God made me Christian. My conversion is a mystery to me before which I bow my head in awe. It was the Holy Spirit, He alone transfigured me. When I accepted Christ, the laws of Deuteronomy ceased to be a means of drawing near to God…

“I feel myself all the time filled through and through with Divine love. Of a sudden, unexpectedly, independently of any effort of mine, light shone upon me—the light that in the old days when I was a devout Jew was only a far-off glimmer. All at once I beheld in myself the Holy One, the Mystery of Mysteries and yet the clearest of all that is clear…

“As for religious ethics, they are much the same in Judaism as in Christianity: the commandments concerning morals are often expressed in identical terms. In practice, however, they differ vitally. The Christian ethic is given from on High, by the Holy Spirit, Who came to us only after Christ’s resurrection. It is the same Spirit that pious Jews dream of to this day: they feel Him, see Him, but only from afar. But the true Christian lives in the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ.

“The Holy Spirit captivates even our body with the sweetest love, liberating it from thralldom from the passions until the body itself longs to dissolve in the Spirit. And so it was not I of myself who became Christian—it was God Who sent down the grace of the Holy Spirit and made me so… The Spirit reposes within the true Christian and encircles him round about. And all this happens through faith in Christ.

“This is the process: faith attracts the Holy Spirit, while the Holy Spirit strengthens faith, cares for you, sustains you, encourages your ardent desire for the Kingdom of God… To those who have not yet savoured true grace, my words will be unintelligible. The process of true conversion cannot be described or explained: it is something that the eye cannot see, that the ear cannot hear. Filled with Christian sentiments, I heard my soul speaking within me, telling me of my new birth in Christ; but she spoke in the language of silence which I cannot find words for.

“I do know, though, that my soul sang a new song, a sweet song of love which lifted the power of the past from me. And this song transfigured me and gave birth in me to a new will, to new yearnings. Now I am as it were in love with Christ, and, you know, a man in love with Christ has no desire to philosophise. He only wants one thing—to love for all eternity.

“Do you want to understand? Would you like to experience the grace of Christ? Then seek this grace from Him Who can bestow it. If it seems that it is not for you, since you cannot believe, my advice is to set your heart on believing and you will be able to believe. Through faith you arrive at faith. Persist in wishing for faith and it will be granted to you.

“When I was a Jew, I too had God and knew it. But it was a God Whose attitude changed according to man’s conduct. But through Christ, through the Holy Messiah and Son of God, I was led to the sphere of unconditional, steadfast Divine love. This can only be understood if you already live in grace. Christianity is the richest of treasures equal to satisfying each and every soul. In Christ is Truth, to which the Holy Spirit bears witness. And all who believe heed His testimony.”

Help My Unbelief!

It’s always refreshing to meet an honest man. I met one recently in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. He’s the fellow who had a son possessed by a demon that would throw the poor lad into fire and water and convulsions. I think we can sympathize with the man’s frustrating and painful predicament. He had heard of Jesus, evidently, and of his Godlike powers. He also was aware that Jesus’ disciples had been given a share in this power. The man must have heard the reports (as we can read in chapter 6) that the disciples were going around healing the sick and casting out demons.

Jesus wasn’t there at the moment, since He was busy being transfigured on Mt Tabor with three of his disciples, but the rest of them were down below, so the man asked them to cast the demon out of his son. But to his great disappointment and the exacerbation of his anxiety, they could not! At length Jesus came down from the mountain and entered the melée. It says that scribes were arguing with the disciples on top of all the other commotion caused by the possessed boy and his father. The man immediately ran to Jesus, bringing his son and crying out that the boy was possessed and the disciples could not deliver him. At this point the man was at the end of his rope. Jesus was his last chance, his only hope.

He had realized (to his dismay), that because of the apostles’ inability to cast the demon out, miraculous powers could be at times subject to failure. Maybe he was dreading the horrible possibility that even Jesus might fail to heal his son. So he said, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us!” The Lord immediately focused on the man’s hesitation: “If you can,” He quoted back to him, and then declared: “All things are possible to him who believes.” Here’s where the man’s humble honesty is made manifest, as he utters one of the most famous sayings in the Gospel: “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

The very fact that He came to Jesus meant that he had some faith. But his faith had been shaken by the failure of Jesus’ disciples to help his son. So he wavered, yet was spurred on by the desperation of love. Whatever it took to heal his son, he would make his best effort to do. But he had to acknowledge frankly that he was so distraught he could not simply come to the Lord with the cool confidence of an unshakable faith. He was teetering on a precipice. Notice, however, that this was enough for the Lord, and He immediately cast the demon out, and the boy was restored to his grateful and teary father, who would not soon forget the lesson about faith he just learned.

The disciples, nursing their bruised egos, asked Jesus (privately, Mark tells us; I guess they weren’t ready for a public rebuke to be added to their failure) why they couldn’t cast it out. He responded that such demons can only come out by prayer and fasting. Jesus is not offering a mere technique here. The disciples didn’t slap themselves on the forehead saying, “Oh, if only we’d skipped breakfast we could have blasted the darn thing out!” Jesus is talking here about something more profound and more consistent. We too cannot expect to cast out demons in Jesus’ name just because we pray about it and fast for a while. “Prayer and fasting” denotes a way of life, a relationship to God that is indispensable for doing his will. Accomplishing the works of God in this world is not a matter of formulae or techniques. It’s a matter of always being in the presence of God and living a sacrificial style of life. Chances are even Jesus didn’t fast before casting out that demon—in fact, He was often criticized by the Pharisees because He fasted so little! But Jesus’ whole life was lived in communion with his Father; his whole life was a living sacrifice, and He never counted the cost of what his Father asked Him to do.

So it has to be with us. If we want to be instruments in the hand of God for the accomplishment of his will, it will take more than saying prayers and occasionally giving up food. We have to be “prayer-and-fasting”; this has to be a kind of code name for a sacrificial, surrendered life—which will of course include actual prayer and actual fasting. But the main point is that we have to be in explicit and conscious communion with God if the grace of his Spirit is to flow through us to help others. This is perhaps what the apostles were lacking when they couldn’t cast out the demon. They received a gift, and perhaps thought it was now a permanent possession that they could exercise with or without explicit reliance on God’s presence and power in that very moment, in that very situation. So the whole thing blew up in their faces. But I think they learned their lesson, because we don’t hear about that happening again.

Back to belief and unbelief. Let us be honest with the Lord and with ourselves when we approach Him in our needs and struggles. We know He requires faith; we know He said that all things are possible to him who believes—and his word is truth. But sometimes we just don’t make the grade. (If you’re in the right kind of weird mood you might find some of the posters at rather humorous. The one that applies here is “Failure: when your best just isn’t good enough.”) We want to believe, we try to believe, we will to believe—but we realize that there is still some shadow of unbelief darkening the dusty crevices of our souls. We just haven’t quite made it to the point of total surrender. So we cry out: “I do believe; help my unbelief!” God does not ask us for something we cannot give, though He does require everything we do in fact have. He can work with honest inadequacy; He cannot work with phony assertions of sufficiency.

So let us turn to God, no matter what—even if everything has failed up to now and we have become jaded, worn out, exasperated, disillusioned, or are even on the point of despair. Take whatever faith you have and offer it to God, and beg Him to help your unbelief, if that is where you are right now. He will hear the cry of your heart (since He knows it even better than you do), and He may just remind you that no one who comes to Him will He ever cast away (John 6:37).

Who Then is This?

Fairly early in the public ministry of Jesus, when the disciples still had not much of a chance to know Him very well, He calmed a storm at sea (Mk 4:35-41). One indication that they did not know Him well was their panicked reproach: “Master, do you not care if we perish?” Of course He cared if they perished! The very reason that He came from the Father was so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

So Jesus showed them how much He cared: He rebuked the wind and stilled the sea. But then He offered a little reproach of his own: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” It’s interesting to note that the disciples were quite dumbfounded after He had calmed the storm. But what then were their expectations when they woke Him and asked if He didn’t care if they perished? Just what did they expect Him to do? If they thought He really did have power to still the sea, why were they amazed when He actually did it? And if they didn’t think He had such power, what were they asking Him to do?

I guess one doesn’t reason carefully through such things when one is in a terrifying and life-threatening situation. One just shouts and waves one’s arms about. In any case, their final response is what I’m interested in here: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” Similar questions are asked throughout the Gospels. Everyone wants to know who Jesus is, for “we never saw anything like this!” (Mk 2:12). Is He the Messiah? Is He the Prophet? Probably no one dared to guess that He was the eternal and divine Son of God, even though some of the things He did were things God alone could do.

Even with the hindsight of 2000 years of dogmatic definition and theological reflection and mystical experience to draw from, sometimes I still find myself asking the same question the disciples asked: “Who then is this?” As valuable as all the dogma and theology and testimony of the saints are, I still want to know for myself in a way that goes deeper than the mere reading of other people’s insight or experience.

I have my own “storm at sea” episodes (more often than I’d care to admit), when I’m shouting at Him with clear implications that I think He’s not exactly paying careful attention to my current state of misery or affliction. His answer is usually along the lines of that which He gave his disciples: “Have you no faith?” In a similar situation, another storm, this time with Jesus walking on the water, another response appears, which is perhaps even more telling. When I read the Scriptures in the wee hours of the morning, I try to note something that I think speaks to me or is meant to guide my day (or my life!). So, the essence of the story from Mark 6:45-52, as I applied it to myself, is this: “They were terrified… Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear’… But their hearts were hardened.”

The terror is a given; life simply brings that (again, more often than I prefer!). Jesus then enters with words of encouragement; his presence alone ought to be enough to bring peace. Yet I don’t get it somehow. Maybe I don’t recognize Him; maybe my idea of deliverance and rescue is different from his; and maybe all this is so because—my heart is hardened. St Mark was not one to sugar-coat the faults of the disciples or to couch things in terms designed to smooth over the rough edges. He wouldn’t settle for saying they just didn’t understand; he had to dig deeper for the real reason: their hearts were hardened. Frankly, I appreciate that. Rather than have someone tell me, “There, there, it’s not your fault; you’re just a little slow on the uptake,” I’d like to hear the unvarnished truth: “your heart is hardened; repent, lest something worse befall you.” At least then I know where I stand and what is expected of me. I’d rather have my unpleasant surprises now than on Judgment Day.

But I think I’m getting off the point. I’m trying to find out who Jesus is. I think we all are, really. If we’ve stopped longing to make this discovery, then we may actually be on the point of despair. And if we think we already know Him, then we are, at least to some extent, self-deceived. For whatever we have thus far come to know and experience of the Lord is necessarily inadequate, partial, incomplete. It will take all eternity to know Him fully, and even that won’t be enough, for God as such is inexhaustible, infinite, unfathomable. We’ll never get to the “end” of Him! Yet it behooves us to seek and find, to search and discover, a little more each day.

Who then is this? I can’t even say for sure, though I could tell you what the Scriptures and the Church teach, and I could say something about my own tiny shreds of experience. I don’t know if this is true, but I read once that St Francis, on at least one of his all-night vigils, would keep saying to God: “Who are You? Who are You?” I find myself in a similar position, though surely with less fervor and more inner pollution. Still, I want to know who He is and how to relate most genuinely to the One who comes to calm my storms and who walks to me over my troubled waters, the One who forgives my sins and intercedes with the Father on my behalf, the One who tells me that He is near, and not to fear.

I can’t give you the answer, and you can’t give me the answer. We all have to ask the same question, yet his response will be different for each of us. He is who He is in Himself, but He is also the perfect “fit” for our own uniquely jagged edges, just the right word to calm our individual storms. Even if our hearts are hardened, let us at least ask, let us try to listen and learn—and maybe at last our inner winds and waves will obey Him and be still.

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