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

Archive for September, 2008

All Rights? All Right.

I’m reading another Elisabeth Elliot book. I find her insights helpful and quite practical in the struggle to do God’s will in daily life. This one is Keep a Quiet Heart. I came across a short passage a while back that seems like it might be what it takes to ascend from the daily quagmire of mediocrity to a higher level of conformity with God’s will and hence with more authentic and fruitful life. She writes:

“Sometimes I am asked to speak to young people who are toying with the idea of being missionaries. [She herself was a missionary in Ecuador when she was younger.] They want to know how I discovered the will of God. The first thing was to settle once and for all the supremacy of Christ in my life, I tell them. I put myself utterly and forever at His disposal, which means turning over all the rights: to myself, my body, my self-image, my notions of how I am to serve my Master. Oswald Chambers calls it ‘breaking the husk of my individual independence of God.’ Until that break comes, all the rest is ‘pious fraud.’ I tell these earnest kids that the will of God is always different from what they expect, always bigger, and, ultimately, infinitely more glorious than their wildest imaginings.

“But there will be deaths to die. Paul found that out—daily, he said. That is the price of following the way of the cross—of course… This scares people. Yet what is there to fear when Christ holds first place in our lives? Where, other than in the will of the Father, shall we expect to find significance, security, and serenity?”

I don’t suppose there’s anything radically new in what she writes, but if it seems only like standard Christian fare, perhaps it is because we are familiar with the concepts but haven’t actually taken the plunge—settling it once and for all, as she says.

The thing that grabbed my attention was “turning over all the rights.” As Christians we tend to give God a fairly substantial share of our time and attention, and usually (if we’re not utterly lax or apathetic) the Lord’s words influence our world-view and the way we live our lives in their practical details. But turning over all our rights? Aren’t we getting a little fanatical here? Modern Americans seems to be obsessed with their “rights,” and they’re not afraid to sue anyone who would dare infringe upon them. Some even demand rights to grossly immoral acts like abortion and sexual perversion, so we know that this “rights” business has gotten way out of hand. Solzhenitsyn lamented the fact that everyone is always clamoring for their rights, but they don’t demand legal protection for their duties; they don’t insist on their own obligations to society. They want to put demands on others for their own benefit, but no one may put demands on them for others’ benefit.

Anyway, let’s bring this back to our relationship to God. Are we willing to hand over the rights to our own lives to Him? Do we trust Him enough? We shouldn’t worry. It’s all right to hand over all rights. If we really are people of faith, we can only come to the same conclusion that Mrs Elliot did: “What is there to fear when Christ holds first place in our lives? Where, other than in the will of the Father, shall we expect to find significance, security, and serenity?” This is what St Paul means when he says: “I have forfeited everything… in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). He turned over all his rights—and earlier in the same chapter he listed some of these, the prerogatives and benefits he renounced—because of the “surpassing worth” of knowing the Lord Jesus and gaining eternal life.

We may in principle accept this as the best way, but we still ought to take a closer look. First, we have to make sure that Christ really does have the first place in our lives, and that we really do see that the fullness of life and blessing is only in the Father’s will. Once we manage that (and I realize it’s a huge step for most of us), we have to see how it applies in our daily lives. We’ll have something of an ongoing examination of conscience as we notice how much we really think is owed to us, what “rights” we explicitly or implicitly insist upon every day.

Mrs Elliot lists a few things, though they cover a lot of ground: the rights to ourselves (remember that Jesus said, “Deny yourself… and follow Me”—that’s handing over our rights to Him), our own bodies (abortion advocates, beware!—your rhetoric falls flat before the face of Christ), our self-image, and even the way we think we should serve the Lord. If all is gift, then we don’t have rights to anything. We are but “stewards of God’s varied grace” (1Peter 4:10). We also need to hand over to the Lord the following “rights”: the right to have things go the way we think or plan them to go; the right to a comfortable income, pleasant surroundings, obedient children, friendly in-laws, etc; the right to good health, good reputation, and even to happiness as we may conceive it; the right to a disaster-free life in general. We have a prayer in our Liturgy in which we ask for “a quiet and tranquil life in all piety and dignity.” I pray this with special fervor (it’s not usually answered in the affirmative), but now I have to give up my “right” even to that! It occurred to me today, having forgotten something else I was supposed to do, that I also need to relinquish my right to a working memory. All rights. Oh, all right.

But let me hasten to add that relinquishing our “rights” to all of the above (you can add your own) does not necessarily mean that we are going to be denied all these things, or that they will be taken away from us if we surrender all to God. Remember that you have placed your “right” to these things in the providential hands of the Father who loves you, and in the pierced hands of Jesus who died for you, bearing your sins in his own body (He relinquished the rights over that to his Father!). What we are saying is: I’m not going to decide on my own what’s best for me, when and how I am going to squeeze all the best juice out of life. I hand it over to the One who knows best what I need and when and how much, and allow Him to direct my life and circumstances—because even if my vision becomes a little too earthbound at times, God is always safeguarding my salvation, my heavenly inheritance. Therefore his arrangement of things will always work towards that end, and if we can trust Him enough to put all things in his hands, we’ll find that we’ll be eternally grateful—even though there will be those “daily deaths” in the meantime.

This will actually take some of the pressure off of us, even if we don’t get what we want all the time. We’ll actually detect a hint of serenity deep down in the soul, an abiding sense of the rightness of things when the Lord is Lord of our lives. Sure, it will cost us something in the way of delayed gratification, of choosing the way of forgiveness and charity instead of venting our spleens at everyone who irritates us, of allowing events to unfold without coming under our direct manipulation. But everything of value costs something, usually a lot. The Lord is trying to tell us: Trust Me, it’s worth it. Someday you’ll thank Me—really, you will! You’ll be so happy you gave up the right to bollix up your own life and lose your soul—which is how having your own way usually ends up. I won’t let that happen if you surrender your rights to Me…

All right. All rights. I’ll put God first. I’ll settle it once and for all, break the husk of independence from God. Somehow that feels right.

Beyond the Golden Rule

When asked to think of what Christ has done for us, most Christians would probably say that He died for our sins and rose from the dead so that we could be saved and live forever in Heaven. This is true and is the very heart of our faith. Yet Jesus had another purpose in coming to this world, and that is to teach us how to live in accord with the truth. He said that He Himself is the Truth, and so to live in truth is to live in the Spirit of Jesus, to live as Jesus lived, to live in fidelity and obedience to his words. He does not permit a conflict or contradiction between our worship or prayer and our actual behavior. That is why in one place He offers the incisive reproach: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I tell you?”

Today’s Gospel (Lk. 6:31-36) offers us a short but very important segment of Jesus’ teaching. He’s teaching us how a follower of his is supposed to live. He begins with a saying that belongs to the general deposit of human wisdom, but goes on to say things that are uniquely Christian, things that set apart his followers from just about all other people. And if we are to be his followers in truth, we must put his words into practice.

The first saying, which is not unique to the Gospel of Christ but is certainly of God, is what is known to us as the Golden Rule: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” That in itself would radically improve life in this world if everyone would follow it. We all know it and I assume we all acknowledge the wisdom of it, but it seems to be something that is easily forgotten in the course of our daily life and relationships. So perhaps we should look at a few practical examples. What does it mean to treat others as you would have them treat you?

Would you like others to be pleasant and friendly and charitable to you? Good, so be pleasant and friendly and charitable to others. Would you like others to greet you with a smile? Be the first to greet others with a smile. Would you like others to help you when you are in need or experiencing some difficulty? Make sure you offer your help to others when you see them in need. Would you like others to be attentive to you when you are speaking? Then be attentive when others are speaking. It’s wrong to require that everyone love you and serve you when you are not willing to love and serve everyone else. If you want to receive you have first to give. And experience shows (and the Gospel teaches) it is in the very giving that we find our reward, our fulfillment. If we only expect to receive, we will end up with nothing.

Does all that sound difficult? But that was the easy part! We haven’t got to the difficult part yet. Jesus now takes us to the next level. It is simple common sense and basic charity to treat others as you would have them treat you. But Jesus goes beyond the basics and calls us to a still more godly way of life. This is what makes his teaching distinctive, what makes it clear that this is not merely the word of man, however wise, but the very word of God. It’s also what stings us the most, for we are all basically self-seeking sinners.

He says: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” Now Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t love those who love us, because He wants us to love everyone as He does. He’s saying that we shouldn’t love only those who love us. We indeed ought to love those who love us, for if we didn’t even do that, we’d really be wicked. But Jesus says there’s no credit for that, since it doesn’t elevate us even above the status of sinners. The word usually translated as “credit” in the Gospel is the Greek kharis, which is the technical term for grace. So what Jesus is really saying is that if we love only those who love us in return, there’s no grace in that. And if there’s no grace in it, then it does not work towards our salvation. It’s a simple human act, performed by sinners as well as the righteous.

The grace is in loving those who don’t love us. That is because we become more like Jesus by making that effort, that sacrifice. We can rightly assume that those who crucified Jesus did not love Him. But Jesus asked his Father to forgive the very ones who were torturing Him to death, while they were doing it! He was letting them off the hook; He was proving that his love was stronger than their malice. He was loving his enemies, loving those who did not love Him. I would venture to say that when we are hurt or offended by others, our first prayer for them (if we prayed at all) would not be for their forgiveness but for their just punishment, or at least that they would stop being the way they are. But hey, even sinners do as much. There’s a little morning offering I’ve recently been praying that reads, in part: “If I meet with unkindness or ill-treatment, give me that charity which suffers long and bears all things. Make me kind and gentle towards all, loving even those who love me not.” Jesus’ words are often demanding, but they are the only ones that give grace.

Jesus goes on: “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? [that is, what grace is there in it for you?] For even sinners do the same.” This is not a mere restating of his previous saying, but rather a practical application of it. It’s easy enough to say that we love even those who do not love us, but the proof is in whether or not we do good to those who do not do good to us. For love is not manifested in words but in deeds, as St John the Apostle writes: “Let us not love [merely] in word or speech, but in deed and truth” (1Jn. 3:18).

It’s easy to be well-disposed and even generous to those who do good to us, who do us favors or buy things for us, or who somehow just make us feel good. But Jesus didn’t come to ask us to do the easy things. He already knows we’d take the easy way without any help from Him at all! He came to ask us to do the hard things, the sacrificial things, because sacrifice proves love, and love is what Jesus is all about. It’s more difficult to do good to people who are ungrateful, who are morose and bitter and self-absorbed, who return your kindness with a grunt (at best) and perhaps even hold you in contempt or denigrate you behind your back. But this kind of love is the call of the Gospel.

Jesus sums it all up when He says: “Love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” I think that in this passage “lend” need not refer only to money, but to any act of kindness or generosity. We are to do good to others, “expecting nothing in return.” Jesus said that sinners are the ones who expect something back from whatever they might do for another. But here is the delightful twist: Jesus says, expect nothing in return and your reward will be great! If you expect something, you’ll get nothing—nothing from God, anyway—as Jesus said about the Pharisees, who sought praise from others and therefore were “already repaid.”

But the great thing about loving others, by doing good to them and expecting no return, is that this sets us apart as God’s own sons and daughters. For Jesus said, probably to the raised eyebrows and indignation of many, that his Father is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (even the translators of at least one version of the Bible were scandalized by his words, so in place of “wicked” they put “selfish” so as to soften the effect). But let us not tailor Jesus’ words to suit our own tastes. He said his Father is kind even to the wicked, so if we are to be true children of this same Father we have to do the same. Now this of course does not mean to encourage or assist the wicked in their wickedness, but it does mean to pray for them, to help them if they need help, to treat them as we would have them treat us, forgive them if they hurt us, and even to suffer, if need be, for the sake of their salvation. That is being merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful.

I will conclude with a beautiful prayer of St Faustina, which brings this Gospel to practical application, and which shows what being merciful as God is merciful really means.

“Help me, Lord, so that my eyes will be merciful, so that I never suspect or judge according to appearances, but that I discern the beauty in my neighbor’s soul and that I come to his help. Help me, Lord, so that my ears will be merciful, so that I bend to the needs of my neighbor and do not remain indifferent to his pain and groaning. Help me, Lord, so that my tongue is merciful, so that I never say anything bad about my neighbor, but that I have a word of consolation and forgiveness for each person. Help me, Lord, so that my hands are merciful and filled with good works, so that I know how to do good to my neighbor and to take upon myself the heaviest and most displeasing tasks. Help me, Lord, so that my feet are merciful, so that I hasten to help my neighbor while overcoming my own fatigue and weariness. My true rest is to serve my neighbor. Help me, Lord, so that my heart is merciful, so that I feel all my neighbor’s suffering. I will not refuse to give my heart to anyone. I will sincerely frequent even those whom I know will abuse my kindness. And as for me, I will lock myself into the most merciful heart of Jesus. I will remain silent about my own suffering. May your mercy rest in me, Lord. Amen.”

Monks at Prayer (Part 2)

When God sees today all the wickedness in the land, He is still looking for someone to stand in the breach. Of course, it is God’s own Son who has sacrificed Himself for our sins and who “always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25). But Christ is the Head; where is his Body? Where are those who must suffer what still has to be suffered for the sake of his Body, the Church? (see Colossians 1:24). If Christ is the only intercessor, why did St Paul keep asking his people to pray for him? Why do we all ask others to pray for us? If no one asks, no one receives. If no one is pleading for mercy and blessing, the floodgates of grace will not open.

By the nature of their vocation, monks are called to “stand in the breach” for God’s people and pray for his mercy. To be able to do this fervently and consistently, the monk must have an awareness of the suffering of the world, and to lift it up to the Lord along with his own share in it, in union with the Crucified One. Adrienne von Speyr, in her commentary on the Letter to the Colossians, writes:

“If a Christian is permitted by faith to have a share of the fullness of the Lord, then for him that does not mean flight from the world and from human experience, or being closed off from everything that goes on in the world, or insensitivity toward its sinful condition; on the contrary, it means being more heavily burdened…because the disparity between God’s intention and man’s alienation is more tangible to him… When a Christian walks the way of the evangelical counsels in order to belong more exclusively to the Son, he too must always do so with a view to redemption, face to face with the sinfulness of the world, with the firm purpose of bearing consciously what the Son so sorely suffered under on earth… The person consecrated to God must suffer more deeply from the sins of the world, the more he has really commended himself to God… there is no question that it corresponds to his increasing participation in the fullness of Christ’s life, which lives in him and is made actual.”

To intercede for others, then, means to have a share in the ministry of Christ, in his love for mankind, his awareness of the sin and suffering of the world, and in his offering of it all to the Father. It is not a task that we perform and then forget about; it is an integral part of our way of life, of who we are in Christ, reaching the depths of heart and soul. Therefore it “costs” something; it is not easy, nor is it a matter of indifference to us. It is a “spiritual sacrifice” which we trust is “acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Peter 2:5). To intercede for others is part of what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. We cannot literally take upon ourselves the sufferings of others, since Christ has already borne the sins and sufferings of mankind on the Cross—and since He is the only one able to do so. But we can stand before Him on behalf of those in need (since God has given this responsibility in a particular way to monks and nuns), sharing in some way “the suffering required of your brotherhood throughout the world” (1Peter 5:9). We lift up heart and voice, crying out, as we do in our liturgy: “O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance!” (Psalm 27/28:9).

A beautiful counsel (which I’ve quoted before) has been given us by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, through the lips of the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. It expresses the love which binds the members of the Body of Christ together, and how God blesses that selfless concern for another human being:

“Every day and whenever you can, repeat within yourself: ‘Lord, have mercy upon all who come before you today.’ For every hour and every moment thousands of people leave their life on this earth, and their souls come before the Lord—and so many of them part with the earth in isolation, unknown to anyone, in sadness and sorrow that no one will mourn for them, or even know whether they had lived or not. And so, perhaps from the other end of the earth, your prayer for his repose will rise up to the Lord, though you did not know him at all, nor he you. How moving it is for his soul, coming in fear before the Lord, to feel at that moment that someone is praying for him, too, that there is still a human being on earth who loves him. And God, too, will look upon you both with more mercy, for if even you so pitied him, how much more will he, who is infinitely more merciful and loving than you are. And God will forgive him for your sake.”

Such compassionate prayer for others need not be offered only for those who are about to stand before the judgment seat of God. The mystery of the Body of Christ is such that we are always connected spiritually with one another. Thus our love and our prayer can instantly travel around the world to bring God’s blessing to those whom we know and those whom we don’t, for in the Spirit of the Lord our hearts go out to all the people of God. We are called to love those whom He loves, and to put it into practice through active intercession. Seeing our love and concern for others, the Lord will bless those who pray and those for whom the prayer is offered. Won’t it be wonderful to discover in the full light of heaven how much we have been assisted and blessed through the prayers of others? And how much we have helped others through our prayers?

There is another passage, a pious legend (recounted by Dostoyevsky in the book quoted above), which expresses a complementary truth to the one expressed there. If we love others, that love will help bring them to God, but if we live only for ourselves, not only will others not benefit, but we ourselves will be lost:

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was as wicked as wicked could be, and she died… The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: ‘Once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘Now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: ‘Here, woman,’ he said, ‘take hold of it and I’ll pull.’ And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out, and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”

What does this have to do with intercession, you ask? Some people think that monks are in monasteries merely to save their own souls, unconcerned with the needs and sufferings of others—that we are trying to get to heaven on the “onion” of our ascetical labors or devotion, caring little about so many in the world who are in desperate need of salvation. But the mystery of genuine intercession changes all that. If we love God and love our brothers and sisters enough to bring them daily (at least) before God in earnest supplication, trusting in his divine mercy, then many souls will travel joyfully with us from Earth to Heaven.

It is true that even the most fervent of prayers cannot force another’s freedom in their choice for or against God and the Gospel of salvation. But prayer does help clear obstacles out of the path, it does bind up the demons who try to lead people astray, it does please the Lord who said: ask and you shall receive. So we go on praying, not trying to measure results, nor to second-guess or manipulate the will of God. We simply approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16)—for your sake, and for the glory of Christ who told us to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.

Just thought you might want to know what we mean when we say that we pray for you.

Monks at Prayer (Part 1)

“Pray for us” (Hebrews 13:18). That request, in one form or another, occurs hundreds of times in the Bible. It occurs even more times on our answering machine and e-mail inbox! We write the intentions down and post them where all the brothers can see them; they cover an entire wall in one of our buildings. People need to know that someone is praying for them, that someone is bringing their needs before the face of God. Not only does this knowledge bring hope that God in his mercy will actually meet their needs, but it also brings, in the meantime, a sense of peace and consolation, a sense that things are going to be OK. It makes it easier for them to go on living with courage.

A long time ago, when I was just a teenager (yes, I actually was that young once), I received a solicitation in the mail from some monastic community. If I would send them a donation, they would remember me in their prayers. I summarily tossed it out. But not much later I experienced a series of unfortunate turns of events, and I thought to myself: If only I’d sent a few bucks to those darn monks, maybe things wouldn’t be going so badly now! This is not a commentary on the relation (if there is one) between sending donations to monks and avoiding disasters, but rather on the somewhat inarticulate but real awareness that many people have of the peace and blessing that come from being conscious of someone praying for them, especially someone who has been specially consecrated for this ministry. People often let us know, even without referring to specific blessings, how grateful they are that we are here doing what we do.

Prayer is the ministry of monks. All Christians are called to pray, but monks are called to pray as a way of life. We spend hours a day in prayer, in community and in solitude. Part of our prayer is offering worship and thanksgiving to God. Another part is devoted to repentance, to our personal and communal needs, and to quietly and humbly walking with our God. All the rest is for you.

Scripture says, “Pray for one another,” because “the prayer of the righteous has great power in its effects” (James 5:16). We have no time for “navel-gazing” or narcissistic spiritual thrill-seeking. Our mission is to intercede for you; this is one of the main functions of monks in the Body of Christ. Allow me give a few examples of the way we bring you and your needs to God.

The priest-monks pray for you in the Liturgy of Preparation that precedes the Divine Liturgy, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. After cutting and lifting out, with prayers, the center portion of the altar bread (called the “Lamb”), commemorations are made for the Mother of God and various orders of saints. Commemorations are also made for the living and the dead. Here is where we cut a particle of bread in your name to be offered to God as we consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

We also light candles for you and place them before the icons of Christ and the Mother of God. Christ Himself is the Light of the world, and St John reminds us that “the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5). So a candle is a sign of hope, a symbol of Christ the Light, and we stand in fervent prayer like candles burning in the presence of God. In the Book of Revelation, the Son of Man stood and walked amidst the golden lampstands, which symbolize the praying churches (1:12-13).

During the Divine Office, after the prescribed intentions of the litanies (for peace, for the sick, the imprisoned, the travelers, etc), it is our custom to add our own petitions for current specific needs. Thus we include you and your intentions in the official prayer of the Church. We also bring you into our individual intercessory prayer, in our monastic cells or wherever we may be, offered silently on the altar of our hearts. We are here to bring you and your loved ones into the healing and loving presence of the merciful and all-powerful God. And even if personal limitations or time constraints sometimes prevent us from praying as much (or in as detailed a manner) as we would like, we still can offer prayers like this (from the Liturgy of St Basil):

“…and those we have omitted through ignorance or forgetfulness or because of the multitude of their names, You Yourself remember, O God, who know the name and age of each, who have known each one from his mother’s womb. For You, O Lord, are the Helper of the helpless, the Hope of the desperate, the Savior of the tempest-tossed, the Harbor of voyagers, the Physician of the sick: become all things to all, O You who know each one and his need, each house and its necessity…”

One of the great moments of imploring the Lord’s mercy for the whole world occurs during the liturgical elevation of the cross on the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross on September 14. (See my post a few days back.) We bless the four directions of the earth and pray “Lord, have mercy” 500 times! As our Fr Bartholomew (of blessed memory) used to say: if the Lord doesn’t have mercy, it won’t be because we didn’t ask!

When one enters a monastery, he does not (or should not) do so as a means of fleeing the world and its responsibilities. For he soon discovers that he has been given a much heavier responsibility, one that embraces all the anguished cries and silent supplications of a world torn by sin and suffering. The monk, as intercessor, finds that he has not simply left a family behind (along with the possibility of creating a new one of his own), but has gained a whole world of brothers and sisters—to whom he is now responsible!

It goes something like this: a monk may not have among his relatives or friends someone who is suffering from, say, cancer. But he must pray for all such sufferers as if they were his loved ones—because in Christ they are. He may not personally know anyone who is starving or homeless or displaced by war, but he must intercede for them all as his own. He may not be unemployed, injured, or bereaved, but he takes all such persons lovingly into his prayer. There is always someone who needs our prayer.

Pastor Wurmbrand, who suffered many years for Christ in communist prisons in Romania, and who worked tirelessly for others in similar situations after his release, was told some years later that since the fall of the iron curtain, there were much fewer people imprisoned and tortured for their faith. He said, “I don’t know if there are in prison two million or two. It doesn’t matter. If there is even one, it’s me!” Such was his identification with those who were suffering. This is the kind of identification an intercessor is called to make.

Intercession has a prophetic character as well, not in the sense of foreknowing the outcome of the prayer, but in being a means that God has chosen to manifest and accomplish his will. In the Old Testament, from Moses to Ezekiel, the Lord has called his chosen ones to be a sign to the people, to manifest his power and his merciful, steadfast love. Moses stood on the mountain, arms outstretched in prayer, as the Israelites fought in the valley below (Exodus 17:8-13). As long as he kept his arms up, the battle went favorably, but if he let them down, the battle turned against his people. (My sister once wrote me, encouraging me to continue praying for my family, noting that “we can tell when you’re slacking off.” With renewed fervor I raised my arms in prayer!) Moses also pleaded—more than once—on behalf of his people when they sinned, that God would not destroy them in his righteous anger.

The mystery of intercession seems to be built into God’s will for the way He wishes to deal with his people. When the Lord God saw extortion, robbery, and oppression in the land, He “sought for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the breach before Me, for the land, that I should not destroy it” (Ezekiel 22:29-31). He was looking for someone to intercede for the people, so they would not be destroyed as their sins deserved. God would have relented and forgiven them if He had found someone who would stand in prayer for them. But He found no one, so He let loose his wrath.

To be continued…

I Forgot

[You’re probably thinking that I forgot that I had posted this reflection nearly three years ago. I’m sure you remember it yourself. I just decided to recycle it because my brain is morphing into something akin to moldy cheese and just doesn’t function very well any more, at least as far as remembering things goes. I didn’t want to forget to post my reflections on forgetfulness, so I’m doing it now. I’ve taken buckets full of the natural supplements that are supposed to help restart the short-circuiting neurons, but the only thing they’ve helped me remember is the colossal waste of money they are. As it is said, of all the things I’ve ever lost, I miss my mind the most. On the other hand… well, I forgot what was on the other hand. Anyway, pray for me. If you see my grocery list or a letter to my mother posted here someday, you’ll know I’ve gone past the point of no return…]

I tried to access a certain account the other day on the internet. I couldn’t because I evidently forgot my password. I didn’t think I had forgotten it, but I guess I forgot that I had forgotten it. I have forgotten appointments, forgotten something I was supposed to do on a certain day, forgotten something that had popped into my mind about what had to be done right away—it popped back out of my mind too quickly. I have nutritional supplements that are supposed to help with brain function and memory, but sometimes I forget to take them. I put phone messages in my pocket and forget them there. I write reminders on a pocket note pad, on little post-it notes, and even on my hand, but sometimes I still forget. I have even written books, but I’ve already forgotten much of what is in them.

Why all this talk about forgetfulness? ….oh, yes! I almost forgot—it’s because it has an application to the spiritual life. We may not always be forgetful about our daily responsibilities, but many seem to be quite forgetful about spiritual matters and what the Lord has been trying to teach us all these years.

It seems to me that most of the sins of people who are actually trying to be good Christians don’t stem from raw malice or premeditated evil. More often than not they are the fruit of a kind of spiritual forgetfulness, an inattention or lack of vigilance, or perhaps a rather thoughtless self-centeredness. I wrote a while back (based on Psalm 136/137) that to sin is to forget that Heaven is the source of our joy. Remember?

In the parable of the sower of seeds, Jesus speaks about those from whom the devil snatches the word of God before it can take root. This can be understood as an image of spiritual forgetfulness. If the seed doesn’t find rich, moist, fertile soil in which to quickly sink and germinate, it lies exposed on the hard ground where it is easy prey for anything that comes by. Likewise, when we hear the word of God and don’t provide a place in our souls wherein it can help deepen our spiritual understanding, other concerns will seem more compelling (or interesting) and we will end up forgetting what we heard, and it does us no good. It is as if the devil has come by and snatched it out of our consciousness.

Sometimes, in our prayer or meditation, we do actually open ourselves to receive the word of the Lord and gain some precious insight or awareness. Then, at a later time, some opportunity arises in which that insight has some practical application, but we act in our ordinary, unenlightened way. Why? We forgot what we had learned in the quiet moments of prayer. I must confess that such things happen to me more often than I care to admit (or remember).

St James says that we must become “doers of the word.” Certainly we have to begin by hearing the word, but that is not enough. He says: “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his face in a mirror… and goes away and at once forgets what he looked like” (1:22-24). So how do we remember not to forget? If I had the answer to that one, I’d be much farther along the path to sanctity. But it seems to me that the answer must somehow lie in creating good habits of “doing the word.” It’s easier to remember to do things that we do habitually. We ordinarily don’t forget to put some clothes on before we go out somewhere, nor do we forget the way to a place we go to every day. Perhaps this is at least partly because if we didn’t we’d soon be forced to realize that something has gone terribly wrong. But our spiritual senses may not be as alert as our bodily ones. We may go on for way too long before we realize that we’re overdue for confession, or that we’ve been missing our daily prayers, or that we’re supposed to be fasting during Lent, or whatever.

We have to start training ourselves and forming good, healthy, holy habits, so that we won’t forget that human life is supposed to be about loving and serving the Lord wholeheartedly. Pray that you will retain whatever the Lord gives you in your meditation or spiritual reading, and that you learn the lessons that He teaches through the events of your life.

We cannot afford to forget, for life is demanding, the stakes are high, and judgment cannot be forestalled forever. Where our treasure is, there will our hearts (and minds) be. If it’s really important to us, chances are we’ll remember. Just don’t forget to pray for that enlightenment by which you will be able to see things clearly, in their proper relations and priorities, so that God’s will is always primary. “I will never forget your precepts, for with them You give me life” (Ps. 118/119:93).

The Shack

Some time ago two different friends sent me a copy of the relatively new (and evidently quite popular) evangelical novel, The Shack. Another friend has recently urged me to critique it on this blog. So I guess I’ll give you my take on it. If something can simultaneously be full of errors and spiritually helpful, this may be it. But let’s try to sort things out a bit.

Without giving away the plot or the ending, I’ll just say that it’s mainly about a man’s spiritual experience of God some time after a tragedy in his life. The first few chapters read like an ordinary novel—then the main character, Mack, meets God. Here is where the theological problems begin. He meets all three persons of the Holy Trinity. Jesus is a swarthy, more or less happy-go-lucky carpenter type, the Holy Spirit is manifested as a “small, distinctively Asian woman” who “seemed almost to shimmer in the light and her hair blew in all directions.” She was, understandably I suppose, rather ethereal, hard to focus on directly, and full of bright colors and sweet scents. I can see how one would be hard pressed to depict the Holy Spirit in a visible form that could be engaged in conversation, while retaining something of the wind-like mystery of this invisible God. But probably the greatest difficulty is in the presentation of the Father.

“Papa” was depicted as “a large beaming African-American woman”—in my friend’s words, Papa is “big, warm, bosomy (tell me she’s not)… all floury and cozy and wise.” She also cooks delicious food and calls Mack “honey.” Aside from the constant and rather annoying references to the Father with the pronouns “she” and “her,” there are several theological problems. One is the rather little-known heresy of Patripassianism, which claims that not only Christ but the Father suffered the Passion. Hence “Papa” bears the stigmata of the Passion on, uh, her hands. Then there are the several times that the Trinity says that they all became incarnate in Jesus, instead of only the Son becoming incarnate. Obviously the book is not meant to be a theological treatise, and we shouldn’t expect it to be such, but the fuzzy theology can only serve to confuse or mislead the reader if he/she otherwise finds the story appealing.

The Aunt Jemima Father, the good ol’ boy Jesus, and the swirling oriental Holy Spirit certainly do not do justice to or reflect the image of God found in the Scriptures and in the experiences of the saints. But the book’s stated purpose is to make God more accessible “in a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant.” The author is evidently trying to bring God into the modern, jaded, alienated, turned-off-to-religion world by reducing God to a trio of affectionate and engaging friends. Mack has lost a child in a terrible tragedy and has had a painful childhood with a violent and alcoholic father. The book is meant to show how God is present in the midst of our sufferings and brings good out of them, and that He can heal the wounds of our past and bring us to a peaceful and fruitful life through faith and love for Him. Therefore we have the big, happy, wise, and utterly down-to-earth family of the Trinity, which puts Mack at ease and helps him relate to God and open himself up to healing and wisdom.

After reading the above rather odd and inadequate depiction of God (but I wouldn’t call it blasphemous, since the author is obviously well-intentioned and is trying to make God appealing and accessible to those who may have given up on an image of God distorted in the opposite direction), you might wonder why I’m taking time even to mention it. It’s because I think there still can be some spiritual value to it.

If you approach it as a kind of spiritual fantasy that doesn’t really intend to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity but that simply offers a few helpful insights to the spiritually or emotionally wounded, then there can be some value to it. Many people do have “father issues,” and many people are hurt and confused over tragedies in their lives. Such may actually be started on a path to healing by discovering that God is loving, understanding, and willing to help. (But don’t stop here; you need a lot more than this book.) The question remains, however: Couldn’t this same discovery have been facilitated by rooting it in a more orthodox understanding and presentation of the Trinity?

I get the point that the image of a man for God the Father was not exactly what would have given peace and security to Mack, whose only experience of a father was one of harshness and violent abuse and rejection. It is not uncommon for people to project upon God the Father the image of their own inadequate fathers and hence want nothing to do with Him. So the author is saying that God reveals Himself in a way that we can somehow relate to or that meets our needs. One might question, though, whether God’s self-revelation is really about meeting our needs. The Scriptures would say that it is rather about showing us how to be saved, even to the point of insisting that we deny ourselves (set our needs aside), take up our crosses and follow Jesus—and thus find the true fulfillment that we didn’t even know how to seek when all we sought was our own satisfaction, in one way or another.

Eventually, when Mack is up to the challenge, “Papa” does manifest in the form of a wise and gentle African-American man (was the author watching those movies in which Morgan Freeman plays God?). My friend who asked me to critique it said it was too “Oprah-y” for her tastes and felt somewhat manipulated by it. The reader does have to remember that anything that “Papa,” Jesus, or “Sarayu” (the Holy Spirit) says reflects the thoughts and opinions of the author and is not really the voice of God. For example, since Jesus built his Church on the rock of Peter (Mt. 16:18), it is unlikely that God would have the manifest distaste for organized religion that the author puts into the words of the divine persons. (“Religion must use law to empower itself and control the people who they need in order to survive.”)

It’s not a book that I could recommend without a lot of qualifications, but neither is it one that I would counsel you to avoid at all costs. You might actually benefit from parts of it. I confess that I almost didn’t even finish it because of all the theological inaccuracies and highly improbable divine demeanor and dialogue. But there were moments of light, moments of an opening of my soul to God that the book facilitated, despite its faults. The greatest danger would be for those who are not already grounded in orthodox Christianity and true Trinitarian theology. No one should go away from reading this book thinking, “Wow, I never knew that God was really like that!” That’s because God really isn’t like that, except in the general sense that God is loving, wise, compassionate, understanding, and with us in our sufferings.

So go ahead, if you want a little “Oprah-y” spiritual diversion. If your head is already on straight, it can’t hurt. And, since God can work all things for the good, it might even help a little. But go to the Scriptures and the Tradition for your images of God; go to prayer and the sacraments for your healing. Don’t try to bring God down to your level, though, for He’d rather raise you up to his.

Abortion is Murder, but…

A recent (Sept. 11) headline on caught my attention: Prominent Feminist Admits “Abortion is Murder” but “I Am a Firm Supporter.” The prominent feminist referred to here is University of the Arts (Philadelphia) professor Camille Paglia, who is described as a “lesbian social critic.” One would naturally expect that someone with those credentials would be pro-abortion, but not that such a one would publicly admit that abortion is murder.

Her position starts out as the usual pro-abortion line: “As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice. Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body.” It becomes manifestly more evil with her further admission, which the article describes as follows: “Unlike her fellow pro-abortion colleagues, however, Paglia continued on to—as she termed it—‘face the ethical consequences’ of embracing abortion. ‘I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful,’ she said. Paglia then admitted that in order to rationalize and accept abortion, one would have to not only accept, but logically condone other atrocities against life—that is, one would have to accept murder for the sake of protecting a particular, more important ‘right’, as she does.”

Here is where it gets interesting. It is utterly heartless and wicked to both believe abortion is murder and yet wholly embrace the “right” to do it. But at least she is honest, unlike the prevaricating liberals who refuse to admit the obvious fact that abortion is the willful killing of a human being, yet who inundate the media with the rhetoric of “choice,” trying to enshrine abortion as a basic human and civil right that reflects the welcome evolution of humanity.

But Ms Paglia would like all the Democrats to be as brutally honest as she is in her wickedness, and thus she unmasks their flawed logic and dishonest rhetoric. I will quote more from the article to make this clear. She actually realizes that the pro-life position on the humanity of the fetus is completely true; she simply thinks that murder is OK. “[Pagilia] criticizes those on the social left who parrot the scientifically untenable position that the fetus is just a ‘lump of tissue’, saying that those who do so are simply afraid to face the consequences of their pro-abortion position. [emphasis added] ‘Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue,’ explained Paglia. ‘The gigantic, instantaneous coast-to-coast rage directed at Sarah Palin when she was identified as pro-life was, I submit, a psychological response by loyal liberals who on some level do not want to open themselves to deep questioning about abortion and its human consequences.’

“Paglia also criticized some on the social left for their logical inconsistency in condoning the killing of the innocent, but not of the guilty. ‘I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty. Surely it is the guilty rather than the innocent who deserve execution?’ she said.”

She is absolutely against pro-life legislation, yet in her desire to get the rest of the Democrats to be as radically pro-murder as she is, she exposes their lies, their two-faced presentation of their platform to the public. She is telling them to get off the fence: if they’re going to promote abortion, they had better call a spade a spade and quit trying to make abortion look like some compassionate or ethical choice, which it isn’t, and she knows it. She just wants everyone to have the right to kill unborn babies.

So, on the one hand, we see the depth of cold, calculating human degradation, but on the other, we see how this position actually forces the liberals to come clean, to admit what they are advocating is murder, not a morally acceptable choice. Everyone who promotes abortion should be made to publicly speak on these issues that Paglia raises—grilled by interviewers who will not allow them to dodge the issue and retreat into vague evasions—and tell the American public that their goal is the right to murder. They should finally admit that they have been deceiving the public (and perhaps themselves) all along, and now there will be no more lying. Killing human beings is the price they are more than willing to pay for convenience, economic well-being, and their own social agenda. Then see how many votes they get. (I would also like the Republicans to be less ambiguous about their own pro-life platform, so that they can be shown to be principled men and women–if in fact they really are–and not mere political opportunists. But to be honest, I don’t have much faith in politicians in any party.)

I hope that Ms Paglia’s opinions get wide coverage: both for the exposure of the evil of her position, and the exposure of the evil of the position of those who hide behind the innocuous slogans of “choice” and “reproductive health” (whose health? the baby dies). Let it all come out into the light. Let people see what abortion promoters’ intentions really are. Let everyone know the facts. Let’s call things what they are, and then see if the Democrats really want to run on the “murder platform.”

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed” (John 3:19-20).

Filling up What is Lacking

I think I have commented, once or twice, on that very difficult passage from Colossians in which St Paul says that in his flesh, that is, in his own sufferings, he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (1:24). It’s difficult, I think, for two main reasons: it seems he is saying that somehow Christ’s own sufferings for us were not complete, and that there’s something about our sufferings that can complete them! The first reason might seem to imply a lack of faith on our part, and the second a lack of humility. In any case, the foundations of Christianity seem to tremble at the very suggestion that the redemption wrought for us by the Passion of Christ is lacking in anything.

I received an insight into this mystery from a passage in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Salvifici Doloris, which was quoted in Fr Jonathan Morris’ book, The Promise. I’ll reproduce the passage here and then let you know how it helped me see things more clearly.

“Does this [i.e., St Paul’s words cited above] mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension—the dimension of love—the Redemption, which has already been completely accomplished, is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits, but at the same time he did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so.”

Now I must confess that at first glance it seemed like the Pope was merely engaging in a bit of semantic play. The Redemption is complete, but not brought to a close; it has been accomplished, but it is still being accomplished. It was the last sentence, though, that brought it into greater clarity. We can understand the Redemption as being “complete but not brought to a close” or “having been accomplished but still being accomplished” if that open-endedness which our own sufferings can “fill up” is itself an essential element of the Redemption.

That would mean that it was the will of Christ that one element of his “finished work” on the Cross would be the possibility or capacity of this work to be “always open to all love expressed in human suffering.” Thus in the actual doing of the thing, in accomplishing the work of redemption, the Lord was establishing a perpetual openness to the members of his Body, the Church, who could actually unite themselves (not merely as a wish or pious fiction) to his sufferings by means of their own, in faith and in love.

To look at it that way helps, I think, to explain the difficulty of something “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings that we can “fill up.” The “lack” does not imply something defective or inadequate in Jesus’ sufferings, but rather a latency or potentiality that can be actualized by the offerings of the members of his Body—for our sake, not for his. Jesus doesn’t have to do anything more to redeem us; it is done. But through our own freely offered sufferings, we can actively share in what He has done, because part of what He has done was to create this very openness to our participation! This doesn’t mean Jesus needed our participation in order to do his saving work in the first place. It only means that the actual doing of his saving work made it possible for the members of his Body to share in the power and grace and fruitfulness of it—in all times and places, until He returns in glory. In this way the Lord imparts a meaning and a value to human suffering that it would never have if He Himself had not endured the Cross for our salvation. It shows how much He understands and even honors what we have to endure in this land of exile and of pain. Having suffered Himself, He knows what it costs. His making it possible for us to “fill up what is lacking” shows how much He wants to be one with us in our sufferings—if only we would seek to be one with Him in his sufferings! It should be a great consolation to us that “Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so.”

It is not, then, a useless act or a mere spiritual anodyne to “offer up” what we suffer, and to “unite” our sufferings to those of Christ. There’s something real there, something that can be powerful and fruitful both for ourselves and “for the sake of his body, the church.” St Paul knew that. Pope John Paul knew that. Perhaps it’s time for us to know it as well, in the depths of our own suffering souls and bodies. “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1Peter 4:13). There’s an opening for our contribution, our participation, in the redemptive suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He has willed it so. As Fr Morris notes: “God loves to involve us in his divine work. He turns spectators into players. This is his idea of Church.”

Exalt the Lord our God

“You have redeemed us from the curse of the law by your precious blood. Nailed to the Cross and pierced with a lance, you have gushed forth immortality unto mankind: glory be to You, our Savior!” That is the proper tropar for Matins on Great and Holy Friday (called Good Friday in the R.C. world), and it is prayed in the Rite of Preparation for every Divine Liturgy. It is a concise summary of our redemption and hence can also help us enter the mystery of today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross.

The Gospel for today is a substantial selection from the passion narrative according to St John, comprising most of chapter 19. Unlike the preceding and following Sundays of the Cross, which give us some of the theology and practical applications of the mystery of the Cross, here we simply have the account of what happened on that most dreadful, most blessed day of Jesus’ crucifixion. The evangelist concludes his testimony by asserting that this is an eyewitness account, and for 2000 years we have been proclaiming it—for his testimony, we know, is true.

It is perhaps curious that after he describes the crucifixion of Jesus, he tells us that he has recounted all this “that you also may believe.” At this point, he does not yet tell us what he expects us to believe. It is true that we have heard an extraordinary account of the condemnation and execution of a righteous man, but what are we supposed to make of it? He tells us at the end of his Gospel: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

We see from the passion account that Jesus is the Christ, that is, the Messiah, because several times we are told how the Scriptures are fulfilled in his suffering and death. We also hear explicitly—in the testimonies against Him—that He had called Himself the Son of God. This put fear into Pontius Pilate, who then asked Him: “Where do you come from?” He was afraid he might hear Him say, “from the throne of Jupiter” or something like that. After all, Pilate didn’t want to be found guilty of putting to death the son of one of the gods. He may not have been a pious pagan, but he was probably a superstitious one, as most people tended to be who lived in such a polytheistic milieu as the ancient Roman and Greek cultures.

In any case, we have evidence right in the passion narrative that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. This is why St John invites us to believe in Him, for it is the simple truth. But he adds an immense benefit to this faith, more that just the rightness of believing the truth. If we believe in Christ, the Son of God, we will “have life in his name.” The Lord said that the reason He came in the first place was that we should have life, and have it abundantly. The liturgical text I began with makes it explicit that this life is eternal life: “Nailed to the Cross and pierced with a lance, you have gushed forth immortality unto mankind.” It is precisely because Jesus died for us that we can live. It is because He took our mortality upon Himself that we can take his immortality upon ourselves and live forever in Heaven.

Another text—and there is no shortage of them: every Wednesday and Friday of the whole year there are Offices of the Holy Cross—goes into more detail: “The water and blood which flowed from your side, O Savior, have renewed the whole world and filled it with immortality… You bore the crown of thorns on your head; You tasted the gall and the vinegar; You were covered with spittle and blows. Sent to the Cross, You endured the nails. Saved by all of this, I cry aloud: “Praise the Lord, all you his works, and exalt Him above all forever!” And one more text, directed to the Mother of God, who stood at the Cross of her Son—for her love was such that she could never leave Him in his hour of agony, as did the apostles who either slept or fled when He needed them most. We, who are like the cowardly disciples, sing to her thus: “Break the chains of my shame by the divine lance of your Son, who broke the chains of Hades. Clothe me with the radiant garment of immortality, O Virgin full of grace, that I may sing: “Praise the Lord, all you his works, and exalt Him above all forever!”

Exalting Christ above all forever: that is what this feast is about. We call it the exaltation (or elevation) of the Cross because—along with the derived meaning of “exaltation,” that is, glorification—we literally exalt, that is, raise up, the holy cross at the end of Matins for the feast. As we raise the cross and bless the four directions of the world (beginning and ending with the east, so the east gets a double blessing!), we sing “Lord have mercy” 500 times! That is the ancient practice, anyway, which we still do at our monastery, though in parishes nowadays they reduce the number. But if anything, the world needs divine mercy now more than ever! So we don’t mind the repetitions in this case. We implore God to cover the earth with his mercy as the waves of the ocean ceaselessly flow over the shores, one after another, grace upon grace, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy!

The Church invites us today, not only to implore God’s mercy—which finds its purest expression in the mystery of Cross—but also to contemplate the Crucified One, Him whom we have pierced, and to discover more of the infinite riches of Him who loved us first. We are invited in the Gospel to behold our King, condemned, humiliated, scourged and crowned with thorns, to hear the deafening roar of the insane mob shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”—and to realize that our own hearts are carried along by this same vile flood every time we choose to sin against our Lord, every time we choose the way of selfishness over the way of sacrifice, the way of disobedience over the way of obedience, the way of anger or vindictiveness over the way of charity.

Behold! This is a word that occurs often in Scripture. It calls our attention to what is happening; it invites us to look with love upon Him whom came into this world to take away our sins by taking them upon Himself. The priest reminds the faithful of the incredible mystery of which they have just partaken when, immediately after distributing Holy Communion, he says: “Behold! This has touched your lips and shall take away your iniquity and cleanse you of your guilt”—then, the benediction with the chalice: “O God, save your people and bless your inheritance!”

It is no coincidence that these same words of the psalmist begin the proper hymn for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The mystery of the Cross and the mystery of the Holy Eucharist are inseparable. St John the Forerunner pointed to Jesus, calling Him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The main Host is called the Lamb in the Byzantine tradition, and during the Rite of Preparation, as it is being cut, the prophecies of Isaiah concerning the Suffering Servant are recited, beginning with: “Like a lamb He was led to the slaughter…” The side of the Host is cut as the priest recites the passage from today’s Gospel: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came forth blood and water…” At the mention of blood and water, wine is poured into the chalice, and a little water. The bread, and the wine with the water, will be taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit into the ineffable divine mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, and will be given back to the faithful as the Bread from Heaven, as the New Wine of the Kingdom of God—the very Body and Blood of the Lord, sacrificed for our salvation and given to us now so that He may abide in us and we in Him, that we may have the abundant life He came to give.

All these biblical and liturgical texts come together as we celebrate the Exaltation of the Life-giving Cross. There is a moment shortly before Holy Communion in which the consecrated Lamb is elevated, exalted by the priest in profound adoration as the grace of our redemption is made present anew in this world, as the power of the Cross is extended in time and space, as the risen Lord Jesus reigns in mystical glory amidst the loving worship of his faithful people. Then He gives Himself to us out of his ineffable love: the love that would not leave us in our sins, the love that compelled Him to enter this fallen world and bear the whole burden of it, the love that descends into our own personal hells and delivers us from the power of sin and death, and elevates us to a wholly undeserved place in the bright glory of his heavenly Kingdom.

So let us not be like the unbelievers St Paul mentions in the epistle (1Cor. 1:18-24), for whom the Cross of Jesus is a stumbling block, or folly or madness. Many people today look upon the crucified Christ with incomprehension or revulsion or ridicule, and perhaps we ourselves tend to flee the Cross because of the sacrifice it demands. The Cross demands sacrifice because love demands sacrifice. Let us see the love of our heavenly Father in the broken body of his divine Son on the Cross, offered lovingly for our sakes. We are members of his Body, and as we offer our own brokenness back to him in faith and love, and as we exalt and worship this mystery of divine love and compassion, He will exalt us as well. Jesus has said that He wants us to be where He is; He has said He will not leave us desolate but will come back for us and take us to Himself—and his testimony, we know, is true.

Away from the Lord

Here’s a passage from St Paul that perhaps does not resonate with many who are presently enjoying life on earth, but it sure does with me: “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee… We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2Cor. 5:1-8).

I am acutely aware that while I am in the body I am away from the Lord. I know that this claim is not absolute, because the Lord still dwells in us by grace through faith. But faith is not sight, as the Apostle says. That is, it is somewhat obscure, like trying to follow a voice along an unfamiliar path, in the dark. I am not a mystic; I have not received heavenly visions; I am not even gifted with the kind of spiritual perception that enables some people readily to experience the presence of God. I walk by faith; I have nothing but hope to carry me through. So here indeed I groan and long to put on my heavenly dwelling; I sigh with anxiety while I still live in this “tent.” I’m impatiently waiting for what is mortal to be swallowed up by life. Why? Because it is God who has prepared me for this very thing, though I don’t understand the delay. I would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

My life is different than most. It’s not the life of backyard barbecues, evenings out, football games, family get-togethers, or even quality time spent with friends. It is rather a lonely life of relentless spiritual warfare, self-denial, laborious and anguished prayer, daily indications of my own inadequacy for my vocation, and the opening of my heart to a constant stream of human pain and sorrow that flows in daily through mail, e-mail, phone calls, and that comes even to our doorstep. I’m not complaining about it, for this is part of my calling, for which I receive sufficient grace.  I’m just not always aware that it is sufficient! In the Byzantine tradition, a consecrated monk is called a stavrophore, a cross-bearer. My only satisfaction in this life is that perhaps I’m helping a few souls to Heaven. This may prove, in the end, to be the greatest of all satisfactions, but still, I don’t know that I’m doing anyone any lasting good; I have to walk by faith.

Now I know that life in middle-class America is not all barbecues and football games, that sufferings and heavy burdens are practically everyone’s lot, especially Christians. But this only makes me wonder why we’re not all groaning and longing to put on our heavenly dwellings. It seems even that the grace we receive, and the virtue it engenders, is meant mainly for disaster-control: strength to endure sufferings, courage to face hardships and setbacks, compassion for others’ sufferings, etc. But this life remains disaster-ridden. The best we can do, it seems, is try to mop up the mess, or keep our finger in the dike. One of St Paul’s famous sayings about overcoming obstacles through grace is this: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2Cor. 4:8-10). So, by grace we can avoid being crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. But the fact remains that we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down—pretty much all the time, at least in my experience.

This is all because we are “away from the Lord.” We are in exile, and we will not know lasting and unassailable peace until we are “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” To be away from the Lord is an unnatural, abnormal state. Don’t you feel it? Isn’t your soul reaching for something beyond this world, something more akin to its spiritual nature, something that can fulfill it in a way that nothing in this world can? We weren’t created for this world but for Heaven, for unhindered communion with God in everlasting joy. Our being “in the body” is not in itself unnatural, since our bodies are destined to share in our eternal life; we are not fully human without them. But our bodily existence in this passing world can admit only an imperfect, partial communion with God—walking by faith, not by sight. In Heaven we will walk by sight, for we will at last be at home with the Lord.

The Apostle says that whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please the Lord, since whatever we do in the body while on earth will be judged when we appear before Him at our death—“so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2Cor. 5:9-10). So we have our work cut out for us, as long as we are still here.

It seems to me that most people are still a little afraid to be “away from the body,” because that’s pretty much all we know in this world. Maybe some people are actually quite satisfied with living “in this tent,” and their anxiety comes not from having to remain but having to go! I don’t know; I can only speak for myself. I would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

So, I sigh. My life is not one in which I can convince myself, by indulgence in all the good things of this world, that I am or ought to be at home here. In fact, the monastic life is designed to prevent one from getting comfortable in this world. I am not at home here; I am away from the Lord, at least from the fullness of life in Him. But God is preparing my mortal flesh to be “swallowed up by life”—for this He gives his Spirit. And the Spirit also sighs, within me, with his own groanings too deep for words, interceding according to the will of God, testifying with my spirit that I am a son of God (see Rom. 8:26-27, 15-17).

It might be good once in a while to ask yourself if you are at home here or not; if you experience yourself in exile, away from the Lord, or not. Ask yourself where your treasure is and where your heart is. We may yet live long on this earth, but if we’re not longing for our heavenly dwelling, we should ask ourselves what it is that we are longing for, if anything. Let us be of good courage; we should not fear being away from the body, for that makes us at home with the Lord. And the Lord has created us precisely so that we could be at home with Him—forever.

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